Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Serving Sizes and Portion Control: A Primer

Sweet readers! Just a reminder that the Re-name the Husband-Elect Contest is going on until tomorrow at 6pm. Submit your idea, and you could win a cookbook!

The exact number varies, but the general consensus is that the average American’s calorie intake has shot up about 20 percent since the 1970s. How did that happen? Did we get taller? Did we start running marathons? Did we suddenly get really, really hungry (for 40 years)?

Nope. Serving sizes increased. And it happened so gradually, we barely even noticed.

Well, some people noticed. And while the embiggening of portions may not be news to foodies, newshounds, and concerned parents, the numbers themselves might be. According to a great piece at Divine Caroline, few decades ago:
  • A slice of pizza clocked in at a mere 250 calories. Today, it comes in at 425.
  • Bagels were half the size they are now.
  • A standard tub of movie popcorn was 360 calories less than it is in 2010.
It doesn’t stop there, either. Soda, donuts, muffins, nearly all packaged foods (especially convenience items), you name it – nowadays, they come in containers significantly larger than our parents were used to.

What does this cost us, in terms of health and straight-up cash? Well, in the long term, out-of-control serving sizes contribute to obesity, metabolic syndrome, and many more exciting health problems associated with the Western diet. We may not sacrifice part of our paychecks for them now, but medication and hospital bills add up years down the line.

In the short term, we’re simply paying more money for bigger food. Super-sizing is only another quarter? Sure, why not? We can get a movie soda AND popcorn for only two dollars more than buying either alone? Let’s do it. Pop Tarts are 20% larger? I mean, I don’t know how I’m gonna cram that into my toaster, but nonetheless: Woo hoo!

So, how do we know how much to eat? How can we tell what reasonable servings look like? And how can we prevent consistent overindulging as time marches on?

Good questions, all. And here are some answers:


There are a plethora of online articles, slideshows, and graphics dealing with standard serving sizes and moderate portions. This Web MD tool is just one fabulous, easy-to-use example. One quick word of caution: While it’s improved, the USDA food pyramid is pretty heavily influenced by industry, and isn’t necessarily a reliable guide. Better to consult nutritionists and science-related websites.

Know your daily caloric needs.
This will give you a good idea of how many calories, and subsequently how much food, you can consume in a day without going overboard. It’s different for men and women, adults and children, active and non-active people, etc., so find a reliable calculator to get specifics.


Measure your food.
Initially, it’s a pain in the butt. But once you know what a tablespoon of oil or a half-cup of oatmeal really looks like, you’ll be more conscious of those quantities in the future. For extra credit, re-measure every few months, to prevent unconscious inflation.

Use visual cues.
If you don’t have measuring cups handy, there are other ways of estimating portions. For example, this guide from Prevention Magazine shows you how to use your hands when calculating amounts. Diabetic Living has a slideshow comparing serving sizes to everyday objects, like CDs, computer mice (mouses?), and shotglasses.

Read labels.
When it comes to packaged edibles, the amount of food in a single serving is always printed on the ingredient label. Just remember to pay attention to the number of servings within a container. For example, a pint of Ben & Jerry’s isn’t one serving. It’s four.


Portion your plate.
Your largest serving over every meal should consist of fruits and/or vegetables. Your smallest should be meat or cheese-soaked anything. Fit starch in where you can, don’t forget to include nuts and legumes, and use sweets and bad fats sparingly.

Use smaller plates.
Not only does this automatically control your portions, but it makes food look bigger. Place a medium-sized baked potato on a 13-inch buffet plate, and it’s dwarfed by the negative space surrounding it. Move the same spud to a six-inch appetizer plate, and it’s suddenly a full-on feast.

Don’t eat food from its container.
Mindless eating is the enemy of portion control. Give yourself a few potato chips, and put the rest of the bag away.

Cook at home.
Restaurants and fast food joints are notorious for their huge portion sizes, frequently packing a full day’s worth of calories into a single sit-down meal. Prepping your own repast in your own kitchen allows you to monitor exactly how much you eat, and store what’s leftover.

Beware of seconds and thirds.
Let your meal sit for a few minutes before going back for another helping. You may be full and not even know it. Related to this, don’t keep serving vessels on the table. Out of sight, out of mind, you know?

When it comes to recipes, use your judgment.
Cook’s Illustrated and Everyday Food are two of my favorite recipe sources, and I find both tend to portion meals into large servings. If you feel a favorite dish makes enough for six people instead of two, go ahead and plate it as such.


This all doesn’t mean we shouldn’t treat ourselves. Oh, heck no. As food lovers and Americans, it’s our prerogative to occasionally eat burgers the size of bowling balls. Sporadically, I’ll polish off a box of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese without assistance, thinking, or blinking. And in those instances, it’s usually pretty merited. But my point is: overindulging shouldn’t be an everyday kind of thing. At least, not if we want to make it to our seventies.

And that’s that. Readers, what do you think? Are the points made here any good? Do you have any solid strategies for combating super-sized portions? The comment section, she is open.


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MS said...

All great points, and ones I've picked up over the years. I particularly like the hand guidelines.

Regarding restaurant portions and leftovers, I used to have such trouble not nibbling past the halfway point when dining in restaurants, and getting the to-go box up front just didn't cut it for me (unless I was in a hurry). Plus, the Hubs and I never want the same things at restaurants, so we don't split our meals. But then I realized that my FUTURE SELF would love to partake in that delicious meal tomorrow or the next day, so I should split my meal with my future self. Makes it easier for me to stop eating when I'm full and there's still half the entree on my plate.

Katie Gregg said...

I always thought I was a fairly healthy eater, until I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes and had to follow a special diet. During that time I learned that, while my food choices were usually pretty healthy, my portion sizes were OUT OF CONTROL.

I became used to eating smaller portions fairly quickly. It was amazing to feel satisfied after consuming significantly less food, but after a few days of diabetic dieting, I really did feel like I needed less to eat. Even better, because I drastically reduced my intake of sweets, when I did indulge in a treat, it tasted amazing. A half-cup of ice cream was suddenly more satisfying than a large brownie sundae had been, just weeks earlier, when I was eating anything I wanted. I guess absence really does make the heart grow fonder.

Of course, now that the baby is out of my belly, my motivation to eat smaller portions seems to have disappeared. It's so much easier to excuse an "indulgence" (every day!) when I'm not harming child. I feel like, if I could just get back on track, I would have no trouble readjusting to smaller portion sizes. I just need to get on with it, already!

Wendy Starr said...

I definitely have to agree with measuring your food. You would be surprised at how far off people can be when they eyeball stuff. I have a kitchen scale on my counter and sets of measuring cups & spoons hanging from magnets on the side of my fridge for easy access. Even if you only measure for a week you will be amazed with how much you falsely estimate!


You know, what is interesting to me is that I'm almost 70 years old and have never had a problem at being over-weight.

I did have a 'financial problem' in my early years, so I knew if I was going to stay healthy and have money to afford a decent meal, I had to learn about nutrition, etc. I found that nutrition and low calories seem to complement each other.

I also found that fattening foods also required more ingredients if you were cooking at home, and more $$ if you were eating out.

I learned to be an excellent cook so I had/have no desire to eat out.

I also use ramekins as my 'portion control dishware'. I use them for fruits and vegetables; I don't put cheese and other fattening 'stuff' on either - I eat fruit and vegetables fresh and plain (no salt) - getting their freshest and best taste.

I use a shot-glass for an ice-cream bowl when I want a 'sweet tiny treat' (and it tastes very good when you limit yourself to a small size - you savor every little bit).

I eat meat about once a month; chicken about twice a month, and fish about 4 times a month - focusing on fruit and vegetables as the mainstay, will keep your calories down; your nutrition and energy up.

Lots of filtered water with lemon juice will keep you hydrated and refreshed - no calories.

Think eating as if you're having to balance your check-book. Money comes in; money goes out - you focus on your finances and too often don't apply the same type of control over your eating habits.

In finance you want a surplus in your savings account; in diet, you want to have either a deficit amount if you need to lose some pounds, or to 'balance out', if you want to maintain.

Not to be tempted by anything is the best 'slogan', one can have when keeping healthy.

I like being slim; having energy and being healthy much more than I like having an ice cream sundae and pie..........

wosnes said...

I measure some things when cooking, but not all. When I do "measure" is when I plate food. 1/2 the plate is vegetables, 1/4 starch and 1/4 protein. My plates aren't extremely large and there's a 2" rim. I generally keep all the food within the rim.

When eating out, I generally eat half or less of what is served. One recent trip to a popular chain restaurant yielded 3 meals -- and that was just the main dish!

queen of string said...

I think the biggest destructive change is the increase in normal plate size. A normal 1960s plate was 9 or 10 inches and now 12 inches is the norm, so we face that dwarfing effect on our food every day. Purchasing and using a 9 inch plate has made a big difference for me.

Anonymous said...

Great read and helpful links. It really is sad how easy it is to become obese in this country yet try to fit into the "supermodel" ideal. It is kinda incongruent. But anyway, portion sizes are always a great reminder that we don't have to upgrade to the next biggest size because it costs only a quarter extra. Thanks CHG!!

Betsy said...

The stop and let it sit point works for me: if I even think I *might* be satisfied (i.e. not hungry anymore--not to the overfull stage yet), then I stop, take a sip of my drink, talk to someone, whatever. Giving my body a chance to "catch up" usually does the trick and I realize that I'm not really still hungry. Put the fork down! Take a breath!

sararah said...

Wow, that slide show is TERRIBLE! They show a serving of orange juice is 1/2 cup/4 oz, but the glass she is holding must be at least 8 oz if not 12 oz!! Same goes for the "teaspoon" of olive oil. It looks to me like she's holding a tablespoon!!

If you're really watching calories, when cooking at home a food scale is really the way to go!

merchako said...

I really disagree with you about smaller plates making meals feel bigger. At the least, it depends on an individuals past experiences with plate sizes. Because on one hand, you're right: the standard American sit-down restaurant finds it necessary to completely cover its plates with food so that the customer doesn't feel gipped. And that sentiment transfers trivially to home cooking; we continue to feel like our plates need to be covered.

But go have some fancy, Euro-style dining, and you'll see much the opposite. They'll use a very large plate for a relatively small amount of food, and yet, when you're done with it, you're full. And it comes with the bonus of looking even better—people go to schools to learn those kinds of plating techniques.

In my own experience, I've come to desire more and more whitespace on my plates than I did when I was less traveled and less exposed to European cuisine. It's not that one style of plating is intrinsically better than another, but that had so many good dining experiences with European plating that I associate European plating with satisfying food.