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Large Portion Sizes Add New Meaning to Food Waste, Overconsumption, and Politics at the Dinner Table

Jan 28, 2022
New research from Vanderbilt Business discusses the tradeoffs and decisions involved with large portions, why it matters, and who should care

By Lacie Blankenship

As restaurant portion sizes continue to grow, the choice of whether or not to “clean your plate” becomes increasingly relevant – consumers are frequently facing the unsavory choice of overconsuming or wasting food. New research explores how we handle an overflowing plate at the dinner table, the politics behind this, and why these behaviors matter.

Bringing Our Values to the Table: Political Ideology, Food Waste, and Overconsumption, a new study co-authored by professors at Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management and Indiana University, finds that political ideology can affect an individual’s consumption patterns in certain situations. 

The study found that conservatives and liberals responded differently to large portions when informed that leftovers would be “wasted,” (i.e., disposed of without reuse) – conservatives tended to eat less, while liberals ate more.

The co-authors – Kelly L. Haws and Kelly Goldsmith of Vanderbilt, and Erick M. Mas of Indiana University (and a former Vanderbilt Postdoctoral Fellow) – posit that, in this particular scenario, conservatives assume a responsibility not to overconsume when faced with an oversized portion, while liberals overconsume to avoid wasting food out of concerns for the environment. 

No matter how one may interpret the findings or prefer a particular course of consumption, the authors stress that neither outcome – to waste food or to overconsume – is ideal. 

Kelly Goldsmith

“Not overeating is a good thing; the obesity epidemic is a very real issue, and not wasting food is also a good thing,” says Goldsmith. “It’s interesting to understand how waste reminders play out differently depending on your political orientation, but the noteworthy point is that the real bad guy here is the restaurants that are serving too much food.” 

The manuscript references The Contribution of Expanding Portion Sizes to the US Obesity Epidemic, noting that “standard portion sizes in U.S. restaurants have been steadily increasing,” and that it isn’t uncommon for Americans to encounter large food servings regardless of where they eat. This trend of bigger portions has made “the tradeoff between wasting food and overconsumption” especially relevant to the concept of the “greater good.” Yet efforts to “right-size” food portions are met with mixed results in the marketplace as well. 

Kelly L. Haws

Haws notes that “efforts to provide smaller serving sizes are not always successful as consumers are quick to use the often more advantageous price per unit to justify purchasing larger sizes,” as she and her colleague, Peggy Liu of the University of Pittsburgh, have shown in other studies.  

 So while the solutions to these issues are not simple, people working toward post-partisan solutions to food waste or obesity should consider the findings of this study when developing messaging strategies. Goldsmith notes that “it’s important for policymakers to be aware that there are consequences to reminding people about food waste on their behavior, both personal and environmental.” 

This applies to retailers that are serving large portions too. Companies specializing in these large servings should be cognizant that their service has environmental and personal implications for their consumers.

This study’s exploration on the greater good connects with another study, ​​The Dirty Underbelly of Prosocial Behavior: Reconceptualizing Greater Good as an Ecosystem with Unintended Consequences, from the Journal of Consumer Psychology, co-written by Goldsmith and Aparna Labroo of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. 

“Research questions like this one, where we explore various consequences and really think through behavior, not just in the moment, but the downstream consequences, is a next-generation approach to consumer research,” says Goldsmith.

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