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May 28, 2017, 20:51
Basic Portion Control is the Bottom Line
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Basic Portion Control is the Bottom Line

01 November 2016

Serving sizes, individual tastes and other menu items served all contribute to portion control. Teach menu planning that doesn’t waste food, environmental resources and money. 

By Adam Weiner, CFSE

Last month’s article was about preventing food waste at home. I promised this month would be how to teach your students how many servings of an item to cook. This is apropos all year, but especially important at Thanksgiving and the holiday season. Our curriculum must include teaching students not only what to cook but how much to cook with rampant obesity, environmental issues and the economic issues of food wastage. I am not going to get into serving sizes set by dieticians, nutritionists, the USDA or any other branch of the government. I am going to get practical on how much students or their families should make. Basic portion control is the bottom line.

We’ve all been to dinners or barbecues where the amount of food prepared is obscene. For example, I recently attended a barbecue for 40 people. The host had purchased four, dozen packages of hamburger patties, hot dogs, brats, and Polish sausage. (This didn’t even include the chicken and the ribs.) When I asked why so much food was out the host said he wanted to make sure everyone would have the option of having one of everything and that since he couldn’t buy 40 he bought four dozen of each just to be extra sure he was okay.

I asked my class what they thought about this, and their response was a fairly uniform, “Well, that makes sense.” I then went to the board and did a little culinary math:

Protein # of Items
Hamburgers 48
Hot Dogs 48
Polish 48
Ribs and Chicken (conservative 48 total) 48
Total 240 pieces
Divided by 40 people 6 items each

I then asked my class how many people could eat six items in addition to cole slaw, potato salad, beans, cornbread, macaroni salad, corn, chips, cake, watermelon, cookies, etc. A few of my younger males said yes but the rest of the class got the point. Several literally started groaning, holding onto their stomachs as they imagined eating so much.

I asked my students how many pieces of proteins there should have been. After some debate, they concluded there should be two per person or about 80 pieces. We then went and did the above math again and came to the conclusion that he would have needed about 15 pieces of each protein.

I then posed the issue that the items came in packages of a dozen pieces each. At first the students chimed in he should purchase two packages of each. I pointed out that would yield 120 pieces, which is 50 percent more than needed. They were flummoxed.

Then one of my students said, “Well, not everything is as popular as everything else. My friends and family would devour the ribs and leave the hot dogs and chicken alone. They would poke at the burgers but would wolf down the brats.” This started a very avid debate in the class on whose friends and family would eat what. After a few minutes, I couldn’t help laughing. They were so intense in defining and defending their position on whether more ribs or chicken or brats or burgers should be bought. The more they argued the louder I laughed.

I stopped the debate when I couldn’t stop laughing. They had learned several valuable lessons:

  1.  They learned portion control, including that you didn’t have to have full-size servings of every item and certainly didn’t have to overstock each item.
  2. That not every group or person eats the same.
  3. That to minimize waste, make people happy and lower food costs at home it is important to understand overall who eats what. You don’t have to know specific details for everyone, but it really helps to have a good generalization.

A side note: For nearly 10 years I have taught one day a week in the local jail. The issue of portion control in jail, particularly about desserts, is extreme. For example, several weeks back I had three groups of four men. They were told to make only what they could consume. I was trying to encourage communication within the groups and between the groups. It wasn’t a great success.

One group made two cheesecakes and two batches of cookies. When I asked why they said each cheesecake was eight servings and they wanted everyone to have one serving. The batches of cookies yielded only 12 each and they wanted everyone to have two. That was 40 servings for 12 people which would have been bad enough except the other groups did basically the same thing with cakes and pies. Recall that desserts were only part of each team’s menu.

The next week I required each team present a menu with quantities. They were not able to cook until I signed off on the menu. Two groups tried to be cute and prepared extra items that were off menu. The excuses were not relevant. What was relevant was that I took those off menu items and gave them to the deputies to enjoy. The next week—week three—I told everyone they had to make the right amount of s dessert servings with each group making no more than one serving or less per person. They came up with a 13 x 9 pan of brownies, a caramelized apple cheesecake, and a batch of white chocolate chip macadamia cookies. Still a lot of desserts for most gatherings of only 12 people but those men finished about 90 percent. The following week I didn’t have to say anything, they just got the quantities right again.

Now, I am sure you are wondering about my reference at the top of this article to Thanksgiving and other holidays. Several years back I wrote an article on How to Teach Thanksgiving Side Dishes in 50 Minutes  which went viral. The last time I checked there were nearly 11,000 hits on this article.

The traditional American feast includes—but is certainly not limited to—one or more proteins, mashed potatoes, stuffing or dressing, sweet potatoes, gravy, bread or rolls, cranberry sauce, at least one vegetable, salad (be it green or Jell-O or something in between) and a couple different desserts served with ice cream or whipped cream or both. All of these are consumed after hours of appetizers. This is the barbecue problem from above all over again.

Unless conscious thought is given before shopping as to how much of everything the group will eat, the amount of excessive calories consumed, food wasted, and unneeded money spent will be extreme. The most obvious consideration is that very few, if anyone, could eat a full serving of all of the items together. For example, if a regular meal was chicken, mashed potatoes and green beans then I would recommend one potato per person for the mashed potatoes. But for the above Thanksgiving menu, most households are only going to eat a full serving of gravy and one serving of the proteins and desserts. (Actually, I would hazard an unscientific guess of two dessert servings per person.) Most people will also not consume a full serving the other menu items.

I suggest you go over some sample Thanksgiving menus with your students a week or so before the holiday. Ask them what is served in their houses and work from there to show on the board (just like the barbecue example) how full servings of each item just aren’t needed.

Don’t think your students are going to change in one day. More importantly, we have to be realistic that what we teach our high school students will almost assuredly not be adopted right away by their families. However, it is our social obligation to our students’ health, to the planet to prevent food waste, and to our students’ families not to waste money, to begin teaching these subjects. We need to plant the seeds into our students’ minds and within years it will happen. Remember, it wasn’t that long ago that no one recycled beverage containers!


Chef Adam Weiner, CFSE, teaches a 20-week Introduction to Cooking program for JobTrain on the San Francisco Peninsula, and is a frequent presenter at CAFÉ events throughout the nation.

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