MARQUETTE - Huge plates and enough food to serve two or three people in one entree American restaurant portions grew in the last half of the 20th century, making dining out seemingly contradictory to a healthy diet.
Luckily for those who want the fun and enjoyment of eating out without sacrificing healthy food choices, restaurants both locally and across the country have begun to take notice, offering healthier choices and smaller portions.
"What people are wanting to know are what are the healthier options," said Dan Torres, owner of the Border Grill restaurants in Marquette and Negaunee.
Although restaurant eating might once have been synonymous with gigantic portions, the trend these days is to give diners the choice of a smaller meal. The Border Grill restaurants in Marquette and Negaunee offer “Just Right” sizes of a majority of their menu options, allowing people to still be healthy when they eat out. (Journal photo by Johanna Boyle)
Although the restaurant, focusing on fresh and grilled options, has always served healthier options than what you might find at a typical fast food restaurant, in 2008 Torres made the decision to offer "Just Right" sized menu options, meals that are about 75 percent of the size of a full-size meal.
"If you look at them all these are pretty substantial portions," Torres said of the just right sizes.
For example, a regular size burrito might be made on a 12-inch tortilla while a just right size of the same burrito would be made on a 10-inch burrito.
The idea came while Torres was traveling, and ate at a national chain restaurant that offered smaller portion sizes.
"I liked the concept for it," Torres said. "The biggest resistance they had (from franchise owners) was from the assumption... that they were going to realize less money."
From research Torres did on the switch the chain made, restaurants initially saw a dip in their profits after offering the smaller portions, but profits eventually returned to their normal levels.
"I was anticipating a dip in sales and didn't see it at all," Torres said of the result when the Border Grill restaurants began offering smaller portions.
Restaurant goers were looking for ways to enjoy restaurant food while still eating healthy. Currently most of the burritos, salads and quesadillas served at the Border Grill restaurants have just right size options. In one week, Torres said as many as 30 or 40 percent of orders for particular menu items might be for just right size options.
"I really believe that our food lends itself to people who are more discerning about what they're eating," Torres said.
Along with smaller portions, it is increasingly possibly to find healthy restaurant food, which is often associated with lots of fat and sodium.
"If think there's this perception that if it's healthy it doesn't taste good," Torres said. "I think we've proven you can serve nutritious food."
Torres said his restaurants have reworked recipes to cut down on how much salt is used and have also begun offering a Healthy Dining Guide on the restaurant's website letting customers know the nutrition content of a selection of menu items that are under 650 calories.
"The majority of them are the just right size," he said.
In the future, Torres said he expected the trend toward healthier eating to continue, having seen the trend begin in states like California and then move to smaller communities like Marquette.
"We were sort of a real anomaly here," Torres said of the first Border Grill restaurant which opened 14 years ago. "One of the things I'm really happy about is we're even more relevant today to people's eating habits than we were 14 years ago.
"I think it's here to stay."
Johanna Boyle can be reached at 906-486-4401.