Little and large

As waistlines expand, miniature food grows in popularity

In recent years a trend has developed that can be described (albeit somewhat grandly) as "the miniaturisation of food". Where once food came in portions roughly commensurate with a person's appetite - the meat-and-two-veg principle - it tends these days to be chopped up or otherwise divided into an ever-increasing number of constituents. Not surprisingly, this trend has accompanied two others: the demise of the square meal and the rise of the snack. Unsurprisingly, too, it has accompanied the increased prevalence of obesity.

Miniaturisation, it should be stressed, is something that applies to food at all levels. At the most elevated, "molecular gastronomists" such as Heston Blumenthal have become known for creating exquisite concoctions using dollops and morsels. Less esteemed chefs have followed suit. Many restaurants have abandoned the traditional three-course menu in favour of a tapas-inspired, multi-course approach - even if the food that they serve bears little resemblance to tapas. Canapés of impressive intricacy have become de rigueur at parties. There has been an explosion of interest in cuisines whose portions are already micro - sushi being the obvious example.

But the popularity of smallness is most evident in supermarkets. As is generally the case when it comes to pushing the boundaries of convenience, Marks & Spencer has led the way. The company has brought out a cornucopia of micro-products. There's the "Mini Bites" range: flapjacks, mini rings, chocolate cornflake cakes. There's the craze for chopped-up fruit sold in uniquely wasteful individual packages. You can buy packets of nuts and dried fruits, chocolate-coated or otherwise. There are all those rows of crisps and tortillas - as well as newfangled inventions such as mini-poppadoms.

The principle behind all this seems to be to remove foods from their original contexts - where they functioned as elements within meals - and reconstitute them as snacks that can be eaten at any time, either separately or with other snacks. Practically anything can be reformulated this way. Soon, no doubt, shoppers will be able to tuck into mini-steak tartares or micro-boeuf Wellingtons as they trudge along the high street.

It is already possible to subsist without ever eating a normal meal. Soon, everyone will subsist like this. The concept of the mealtime will have become no more than a memory, its trace surviving in crisp flavours such as "oven-roasted chicken with lemon and thyme".

Obesity follows from miniaturisation because this kind of eating has no cut-off point. If food items are reasonably sized, you are likely to think twice before eating more than one of them. If they are tiny, then one will never be enough. The smaller you go, the harder it is to tell how many is too many. You have no way of knowing if you're full. In this way, human beings are becoming a bit like cows, endlessly chewing the cud.