Serves one (ha ha): Is there enough on our plate with 'complete' meals? Hester Lacey finds consumers hungry for change

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Indy Lifestyle Online
PAUL, an estate agent of average size, always eats two 'one-portion' frozen lasagnes at a time because 'one just isn't enough'. Does this make him a gluttonous human dustbin? If so, he is not alone.

'I can easily shovel down two Lean Cuisines at one go, and frequently do. With extra garlic bread on the side,' confesses Amanda, a solicitor. 'Mean Cuisine, more like,' she added crossly.

Such flagrant disregard of manufacturers' suggested portion sizes is rife. 'My rule of thumb is to double what they say on the packet - so 'feeds one' means a half-portion,' explains Charles, a journalist. 'I have never had a ready meal I couldn't eat on my own, including ones for four,' he added, with a certain quiet pride.

A swift trawl through any supermarket finds some amazingly tiny packages masquerading as meals. 'Serves one what?' asked industrial designer Max, confronted with Birds Eye's Healthy Options Chicken Tikka Masala 'Complete Balanced Meal on a Plate.' 'It would need to be at least one- and-a-half or two times the size to fill me up,' he said.

Half an hour later Max was spotted emerging from the kitchen with a plate full of toast and butter, and a chocolate chip muffin.

'My Safeway microwave Shepherd's Pie was minuscule,' complained Helen, a student. 'It took about five seconds to eat. I had to fill up with nearly a whole packet of biscuits.'

A Marks & Spencer Chinese Meal for Two was greeted with derision by my husband, who devoured an entire course in one mouthful - the prawn toast. An extensive search of the packaging confirmed that there really was only one each. They looked cute in the tiny Chinesey bowl in the 'serving suggestion' photo, but ridiculous sitting in the middle of a dinner plate. 'Let's get the chopsticks out, it will take longer to eat,' he suggested. There was nearly a nasty scrimmage over the mini (very mini) spare ribs. We topped off this dainty repast with slabs of farmhouse cheddar and pickled onions.

The Menu Master Chicken and Mushroom Casserole (Birds Eye) fits snugly in a cardboard box about the size of a double music cassette. The 'serving suggestion' (perhaps to stop hunger-crazed consumers from eating the packet as well) shows it sitting alone on a plate, garnished with a sprig of parsley (not supplied). 'Had I eaten it straight, as per the packet lid, I would have fainted from hunger within an hour,' complained secretary Diane. 'It sat in a sad little pool on top of my mountain of rice, and was gone within two seconds.'

So how do manufacturers arrive at these sparrow-like portions? Who decides that 170g of Chicken and Mushroom Casserole is enough for a normal appetite? Birds Eye doesn't know. 'I'm getting no joy on this one at all,' said a spokeswoman. 'Everyone is reluctant to comment. I'm getting a total blank.'

Marks & Spencer also cops out. 'We've changed our policy, and now have very few lines where we put the number of people served,' explained a spokesman. It seems that bemused customers were unable to cope with the former 'Serves One', 'Serves Two' and 'Serves 3-4' labelling system.

'It caused confusion,' the spokesman said. 'For example, we'd put 'Serves Two' on chicken stew and dumplings and expect the customer to add vegetables, but some expected a complete meal. It was all enormously complicated. A recipe dish with two chicken breasts - for a lot of people that would feed two, but some people might eat it all themselves.'

So don't complain if your pack doesn't stretch far enough - you've bought the wrong size. The furthest M&S will commit itself is in labelling large packs as 'family sized'. 'But we don't say what the family is,' it explains.

Safeway relies on 'rigorous panelling processes, coupled with what one would expect to see on the plate - what's satisfying,' explained a spokeswoman. 'If portions were bigger, they would cost the consumer more. People often don't want so much. Restaurants get lots of complaints because portions are too big.'

Findus, which makes the Lean Cuisine and Red Box ranges, bases its portions on calorie values - both aim to provide 25-30 per cent of the average energy intake, and Lean Cuisine does it for under 300 calories.

In 1991 the company introduced new and bigger Lean Cuisines - at first called the Healthy Appetite range - the Chicken Tikka Masala is now the largest portion in the frozen cabinet, at a whopping 410g.

All scoff at the notion that their portions are too weeny, citing good sales as proof. 'Our lasagne is the best selling recipe dish in the country. We believe we have got the portion size right,' boasts Findus. Safeway says: 'If people said it wasn't enough, we would reformulate.' Birds Eye packs state: 'If you are in any way disappointed with this product, we will refund the pack price and postage.' So, if skinny servings leave you starving, make rumblings to the manufacturers.

In the meantime, an interim measure is to change your partner for one who eats less. 'My girlfriend has a tiny appetite,' explained Ben, a designer. 'She only eats a few spoonfuls. So between us a serving for two is fine. Though I still tend to cook extra rice or whatever.'

However, according to Sarah Jane Evans of the BBC Good Food Magazine the answer is to out-psych your own appetite. 'When you see the picture you always expect the portion to be bigger. And a lot of people nibble when they're cooking, which you can't do with portions. But the main thing is psychological - you know you can't have a second helping so you feel that you want one. The technique is to cut it up. Eat two-thirds for the first helping. And keep the remaining third for after.'

(Photograph omitted)

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