A growing appetite for smaller portions

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For decaded, the comic-strip character Dagwood Bumstead was a man ahead of his time, at least when the subject turned to food.

Whenever he wanted a midnight snack, Dagwood would tiptoe into the kitchen and make a huge sandwich, piling it high with meats, cheeses, lettuce, and anything else he might find in the refrigerator. His towering creations in "Blondie" became famous in real life, a novelty that thrust the phrase "Dagwood sandwich" into popular usage.

The restaurant industry took a cue. Now Dagwood-style servings are typical everywhere. In the past decade or so, sandwiches and other items on menus have ballooned in size. Restaurant plates are larger, too, to accommodate the added food.

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From heaping mounds of pasta to giant steaks and all-you-can-eat buffets, the prevailing philosophy appears to be: Load up the platters. The more food the better. Customers will pay more, but they'll think they're getting good value for their money.

Paul Bunyan lives - or at least Paul Bunyan-size appetites supposedly do. But do they? For many restaurant patrons, large portions are a source of irritation, a symbol of wasted food and money.

Yet the common restaurant attitude seems to be: Never mind if you can't clean your plate. Wasting food is the American way - there's more where that came from. "Waste not, want not" is meant for people in other, less fortunate cultures.

"Small" has become a word on the culinary endangered-species list. From McDonald's "supersize" menu to Starbucks' extra-large venti cups, oversized portions have become a point of pride. One Greek restaurant outside Boston describes its Strawberry Ice Cream Pie this way: "Huge ice cream cake topped with strawberries and whipped cream."

In the brash, puffed-up, wasteful 1990s, heaping plates might have suited the mood of the times. Today, in the leaner, more somber 21st century, those large servings seem out of place. Recent studies on obesity point an accusing finger at large portions in restaurants as one of the culprits responsible for the nation's expanding waistlines.

Customers may complain privately about portion sizes, but most shrug helplessly and assume that nothing can be done. Yet what would happen if more restaurant patrons made their views known - politely, of course? I recently scored two victories in the smaller-portion department. The first took place at an Italian restaurant in Wisconsin. The waitress admitted that the spaghetti serving was huge. "Most people can't finish it," she added. I asked about ordering a child's portion, which she described as "good sized." Her first response was "No." Then, perhaps because it was early evening and the restaurant wasn't full, she relented. Even that smaller portion must have been intended for a very large, very hungry child.

A few weeks later, when I stopped at a brick-oven restaurant in suburban Boston for a takeout supper, I lightheartedly said, "I wish you served a small pizza for solo customers." (Their smallest is medium.) The man at the counter paused, and then replied, "Would you like a kids' pizza?" Perfect!

A new year is a good time to consider the possibility of change. If people would speak up like this, perhaps the message will get through: Why serve more food than most patrons want or need? And why contribute to obesity?

All the Dagwoods everywhere who relish the prospect of big portions can still order towering platters. But the rest of us would appreciate more normal servings. Chefs could follow the lead of a restaurant near Milwaukee that offers two sizes of pasta: regular and large.

A request for smaller portions? This could be the start of something big.

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