Why are we paying more for smaller restaurant meals?

Jul 31, 2023
Hash browns are not the only food and beverage items that are shrinking while the prices remain the same or, in reality, go up. Source: Getty

Have you seen the size of the hash browns at McDonald’s lately?

They are half as big as I remember.

I usually only frequent this fast-food giant on road trips. Just putting it out there, I’m not a regular customer.

But on road trips, McDonald’s can be relied upon to deliver the traveller’s essentials – highway-side locations, quick food and clean toilets.

The other day I was driving from the Gold Coast to Kiama – a trip that takes about 12 hours. For me, that equates to two McDonald’s stops and one fuel stop.

I arrived in Coffs Harbour just after the breakfast rush and ordered, via a stand-up screen because it didn’t look like there was an option to be actually served by a person, a bacon-and-egg McMuffin, a large flat white and a hash brown.

The hash brown was gone in two bites. Two small bites.

It was not much bigger than a chocolate Monte.

So much for McDonald’s “super sizing” me! I was still hungry after breakfast.

My mate Sandro is a McDonald’s connoisseur. He visits at least twice a week. When I told him about my hash brown disappointment, he agreed.

“Crispy, you’re right. I used to order two for breakfast, but now I order four. I complain to the management every time I place an order. No one listens.’’

Hash browns are not the only food and beverage items that are shrinking while the prices remain the same or, in reality, go up.

The phenomenon of food servings becoming smaller while the price remains the same even has a name. It’s been dubbed Shrinkflation.

According to physiologists, this is the most palatable way for businesses to save costs while maintaining profit margins. In other words, customers complain less about smaller serving sizes, than they do about rising costs.

It appears to be the lesser of two evils.

Restaurants and eateries argue that they are simply trying to make ends meet and because of rising fuel prices and soaring food costs they have no option but to reduce serving sizes, and even at times reduce the number of ingredients they use in preparing meals.

It’s not just restaurants. You are getting hit every time you go to the supermarket.

Grocery comparison app Frugl recently revealed some well-known brands that were getting smaller. According to Frugl, Masterfoods garlic granules had shrunk from 50 grams to 45; Ritz original crackers no longer come in a 300-gram serve, it is now 227 grams; Cottee’s stopped making their 500-gram jars of jams which sold for about $3 and replaced them with a 375-gram jar that retails for $2.75; and Woolworths macro organic tomato chutney went from $4.20 for 275 grams, to $5 for 250 grams.

It may not appear like much, but it has a much wider impact than you might think.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics considers shrinkflation when it works out the Consumer Price Index. The CPI is used to calculate inflation which, of course, is one of the triggers the RBA uses when putting interest rates up or down.

Drinks are not immune to shrinkflation.

In January, James Squire caused a social media outrage when it reduced the size of its popular One Fifty Lashes Pale Ale from 345 ml to 330 ml. That equates to three teaspoons less beer in every bottle, probably not even a mouthful. I know that doesn’t sound like much but in reality – when you buy a box of 24 beers – that’s one beer fewer that you get every carton you buy.

Coca-Cola led the way years ago when it reduced its cans from 375 ml to 330 ml.

In Australia, we all know and love Tim Tams. They are a food icon which we have been devouring for 60 years.

A derivative of the Penguin biscuit from the UK, Arnott’s introduced them to the Australian market in 1963. By the turn of the century, we were eating 30 million packets of them annually, and exporting them to America and Asia.

Tim Tams come in many varieties – original, double chocolate, caramel, white chocolate etc. The list is almost endless. But did you realise that not all Tim Tam packets are the same?

There are 11 biscuits in an original pack now. I’m sure there used to be 12, perhaps even 13. But next time you buy a packet of the Tim Tam Deluxe Dark Choc Mint biscuits take a moment to count them as you will find there are only eight. The outside packaging is exactly the same. When you buy these sweet treats, you would have no idea you are getting three fewer biscuits.

Woolworths currently has the 200g original pack on sale for $3.50. The Deluxe pack, which weighs 175g, is selling for $4.75.

I suspect that this is a clever marketing ploy. Once we become comfortable with eight biscuits in a packet, Arnott’s will start to reduce the number of Tim Tams in the original pack – and the public won’t even blink an eyelid.

So, with all of this food shrinkage, how are we managing to get bigger and bigger each year? It doesn’t make sense.

In Australia, almost 64 per cent of our adult population is considered to be overweight or obese. Almost 25 per cent of our children also fit this category.

During Covid-19 lockdowns, one in three of us ballooned and piled on the kilos.

Australia is now in the top five countries in the OECD when it comes to the percentage of adults considered to be obese.
In a few years, 10 per cent of the country’s total healthcare spending will go toward treating diseases that are a direct result of Australia’s obesity levels.

Perhaps, rather than complaining, I should be thanking McDonald’s for shrinking my hash browns and taking some of the pressure off my waistline.

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