It seems that eight inches isn’t enough any more. When did dinner plates get so absurdly, gigantically… enormous?
When you’re trying, as I am, to eat more healthily, it’s not just about what you eat; it’s also about how much you eat. And it got me thinking about the size of the plates and dishes in my kitchen.
When I was growing up, dinner plates were around eight inches in diameter, and that included the rim. Take this out of the equation, and it meant there was a circle of around five inches in circumference, which had to accommodate your entire dinner. And it did, always. Not only that, but the food wasn’t piled up, one thing on top of another like you so often see these days. Each element of the meal occupied its own segment of the plate. The only thing that would fall outside that modest five-inch circle would be a sprinkle of salt or a blob of tomato ketchup.
My dinner plates today (Jamie Oliver – Pukka), are eleven inches wide. With no rim and only the smallest of lips, that’s around a 10½ inch circle available to be loaded – overloaded – with food. That’s over twice the size of the dinner plates of yesteryear.
I think I know when it happened. With the excesses of the eighties, came the minimalist culinary trend of nouvelle cuisine. An expression of luxury in the exquisite presentation of essentially modest quantities of very pretty ingredients. Nouvelle cuisine demanded an expanse of pure white porcelain to display posh food artfully, to best effect. And the twelve-inch dinner plate was born.
The trouble with big plates – unless you’re staring appreciatively at a tiny arrangement of pretty food in a trendy eaterie – is that there’s a huge temptation to fill a plate with food, whatever size it is. Not including nouvelle cuisine, a big plate with a modest arrangement of food upon it looks… sparse. If you’re serving guests, friends or customers, it looks positively ungenerous. And if you’re out, and tucking in at the ‘all you can eat’ counter, your calorie overload from filling that super-sized platter to the rim will be in the stratosphere.
So as plates got bigger so did portion sizes. As we gradually lost touch with what constitutes a perfectly adequately proportioned meal, normal began to feel like a child’s portion and extra-size became the adult normal.
Our personal perceptions were distorted further – and clearly in their own interests – by the food industry. From fast food to supermarket ready meals, portion sizes have exploded. A normal MacDonald’s meal used to be a hamburger (not a quarter-pounder), a little paper bag of chips (not an extended cardboard cone), and a cup (not a bucket) of cola. A normal meal from KFC would be two pieces of chicken and a handful of chips in a box you could hold in one hand, not buckets piled with four or five crumbed and fried variants, mountains of fries and a cornucopia of ‘sides’. But don’t get me started on the concept of food in buckets.
Ready meals are no different and in 2013 British Heart Foundation (BHF) warned that Britain’s supermarkets are ‘out of control’ when it comes to portion sizes. Standard meals like pies, chilli and lasagne have expanded by anything from 20% to 70% over the last twenty years. Just one example, an average chicken curry and rice ready meal is now over twice the size it was twenty years ago. And our eyes have adjusted accordingly. No surprises, a ready meal from the early days of meals-in-a-box and poke-and-ping would look positively minuscule today.
So without much ado, we happily fill our enormous plates with piles of food that look quite… normal – and in doing so, we are in danger of consuming food in quantities that would astonish – and probably disgust – the 1960’s family.
In my kitchen, it’s time for smaller plates.
The next size down from those Jamie Oliver Pukka plates (27 cms) is a size he calls Munchies (23cms). The name suggests it’s a plate for snacks, salads or sides, but it’s actually still larger than those traditional dinner plates of old. So Munchies has become my new dinner plate – but even that’s not quite enough, and I’m working on eating more from the next size down from that. It’s a side plate which Jamie fondly calls Side Kick (19cms). That’s not a bad size for a light meal. It’s more than enough for something dense, like a chilli or moussaka. I’ve downsized in bowls too. At 17cms there’s nothing little about Jamie’s Little Tinker bowl. If you filled it with breakfast cereal you would surely explode before lunchtime. More appropriate then is his 14cm Nibbles bowl, which is more or less the same size as my childhood cereal bowls. The name Jamie chose might suggest that this one is for hungry snacking moments, but when I get a snack attack, I’m using the next one down – the 11cm Cutie, which Jamie describes as a ramekin.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not having a go at Jamie Oliver; I’m just using him as an example of the recent trend, as my cupboards are full of his stuff. I love his beautiful white-on-white crockery and tableware. I love how he has made a shift towards healthier recipes at just the time when I’m looking at the same, and I wholeheartedly support his campaign for a sugar tax.
But size does matter. I may not have ignorantly pigged-out on piles of crap, like ‘the obese’ are often presented as doing on TV; but I know I’ve let myself eat progressively more of all sorts of things over the years. So I’m trying to get used to eating less, without feeling deprived.
When it comes to mealtimes, eating off smaller plates and bowls is a great way to recalibrate your sense of proportion – and portion.