Size really does matter

The case for a 9-inch plate

Last year I wrote an article for Parenting New Hampshire about using portion plates – plates that show visual representations of how much food you should eat. On each, 1/2 of the plate had a graphic of vegetables, 1/4 of carbs, and 1/4 of meat or protein. The intent of these eating tools was to teach you how to balance your meal. You matched up the graphics to what you were eating and voila, you had yourself a balanced meal.

I used these plates with my family for a month. I found that after I took the plates away, my kids still retained the knowledge and put a balanced meal on their “non-visual” plates. I was pleased that my family had learned to eat well, but when I looked at their plates, sometimes heaped and overflowing with food, I knew a piece to the healthy eating puzzle was missing.

Even if you are eating healthy, if you are eating too much, you are eating too much.

I saw this in action when my sons left for college. Many schools to save money and time in the cafeterias don’t even use plates anymore. They simple pile the food on a segmented tray. Any sense of quantity feedback gets lost. Although my kids told me that they were “balancing” their meals, both had gained more than 25 pounds when they came home for their first college break.

I had to go back to the drawing board to try to figure out a way to teach my kids better eating habits. I’d taught my kids about portions and about balancing. What was I missing? Then it hit me; our dinner plates were huge. The average American dinner plate is 12 inches across, which is up from the standard 9-inch plates that were used in the 1950s.

Everything with regard to food in the United States has gotten larger. Meals are super-sized, drinks come in buckets, and desserts, once considered a special treat, are now included in the price of a meal.

Alex Bogusky, and Chuck Porter, authors of the book “The 9-Inch 'Diet': Exposing the Big Conspiracy in America” state in their bookconsidering that, on average, we’re now consuming more than 300 excess calories per day, switching to a smaller plate can make a big difference. It’s hard to dispute the facts: by using a 9-inch plate at every meal, we can decrease our caloric intake by 30 to 35 percent!

I decided to move our entire family over to 9-inch plates. I wasn’t necessarily trying to make my family lose weight, I was trying instead to teach them habits that would serve them well as they started to leave the house and live on their own.

If my sons had known about 9-inch plates when they went to college, they might not have put on so much weight. If my other children know about using 9-inch plates as a diet and health tool, perhaps they can avoid being overweight as adults. (The Centers for Disease Control report that more than one-third of U.S. adults are obese.)

Not having any 9-inch plates in our house (I measured ours and sure enough we were using 12-inch plates), I went to a thrift store and picked up 12 plates for $4.99. An easy way to gauge a 9-inch plate when shopping is to spread your hand wide, the distance from the top of your thumb to the tip of your pinkie is roughly 9 inches.

The first night I put the new plates on the table, I have to admit they did look small.

“You’re kidding, right?” said my teen son who has never seen a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that he wouldn’t eat.

“Nope, this is what we’re going to use from now on.”

My son ate the food on his plate and then made a show about getting up for more food. I assured him that that was OK. “If you’re hungry by all means get more food, just use these plates.”

I heard some grumbling, even from my husband who thought we were using “doll” plates, but we went on with the meal. The next night I still heard some complaining, but then a funny thing happened, the complaining stopped and we all started to see the plates as being “normal.”

Each night, we set the table with the smaller plates and, while I never restricted food on the plates, I started to notice the kids were eating a little less than they normally did. The scoop of potatoes wasn’t nearly as large. One slice of bread, which had to be balanced on the side of the plate, seemed to be enough for the meal. With less room on the plate, even if they filled it up, they were still eating less than with a larger plate.

Our transition to using the smaller plates was completed within a matter of weeks, after which no one complained or even noticed the plates any more for that matter.

The result of this life change was clearly demonstrated a few months later when as a treat we decided to get take-out Chinese food for the kids. We all lined up with our plates for our turn to serve ourselves from the cartons. When we returned to the table, one of the kids looked over at my daughter’s plate and scoffed at her.

“Why did you use a platter for your food?” he asked her, genuinely perplexed.

I looked over at her plate. She wasn’t using a platter. It was one of our 12-inch plates from before that hadn’t made it into storage yet.

What a difference a new 9-inch perspective on healthy eating had made in our family.

Wendy Thomas lives in Merrimack with her husband and six children, and has been published in various regional magazines and newspapers. Check out her blog Lessons Learned from the Flock, at http://simplethrift.wordpress.com. Contact her at wethomas@gmail.com.

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