Serving Up Some Portion Tips

When you talk to a dietitian, one of the first helpful concepts you will most likely learn is to be mindful of portion size. But what does it really mean to consider portion size?

  • What is the difference between a serving and a portion, anyway?
  • When you make a snack or meal for yourself, what guidelines do you use for portion size?
  • Do you know how many servings are in the portion you chose? In the package you chose?

Let’s answer those questions.

A portion is how much of a food you consume, while a serving is the word often used in dietary recommendations to indicate how many calories or nutrients are included in the food.

Here’s an example: A 1 oz. serving of potato chips might have 160 calories. But a bag of potato chips might be 10 oz., or 10 servings. If you eat half the bag, your portion would be 5 oz.

Knowing the size of a serving and how many servings you should consume can help you choose the most healthful portion for your dietary needs and nutrition goals. A “handy” (yes, that is a portion pun; see below) tip is to use common household gadgets, office items and body parts to help with determining portion sizes.

Use these everyday objects to estimate healthy portions:

  • 1 oz. poultry or meat: a matchbook
  • 1 oz. meatball: a golf ball
  • 3 oz. cooked meat or poultry: a deck of cards
  • 4 oz. cooked fish: a checkbook (that goes for thickness as well as width and length)
  • 1 oz. cheese: 4 dice
  • 1 teaspoon. nut butter: the tip of your thumb
  • 1 medium piece of fruit: a baseball
  • 1 medium bagel: a hockey puck (OK, maybe this one isn’t quite an everyday object)
  • 1 cup dry cereal: a mounded handful
  • 1 small baked potato (about 3 oz.): a computer mouse
  • 1 serving raw vegetables or sliced fruit: a tennis ball

portion 5portion 4

Here are some general size equivalents:

  • 1 teaspoon (tsp.): about a fingertip
  • 1 tablespoon (Tbsp.): about your thumb (Bonus tip: there are 3 tsp. in 1 Tbsp.)
  • ¼ cup: a large egg
  • ½ cup: one handful
  • 1 cup: a tennis ball

At home, use measuring cups or measuring spoons to serve yourself appropriate portions of cereals, grains and vegetables, and use smaller size plates, bowls and glasses for your meals and snacks.

What about pre-packaged foods? Look at how many servings are in snack foods, such as pretzels and popcorn, before putting them away after grocery shopping. Even better, divide big bags of these types of foods into smaller sandwich bags with measured portion size to make your own “snack packs” without the higher cost that usually comes with these individually packaged items.

As an alternative guide to portion sizes, you can use the plate method:

  1. Start with your plate: Keep the size of your plate to 9 inches or less in diameter. You may have noticed that our plates have grown in size over the years—along with our waistlines. If you have some vintage family china sitting in a cabinet, now is the time to use it, as those antique dinner plates are closer to that recommended size. If not, try using a salad plate as your primary plate.
  2. Fill half of your plate with vegetables. Focus on color: dark green, orange and red—but try to choose smaller amounts of starchy vegetables like potatoes and corn. For example: those needing 2,000 calories per day require only 3 cups per week of these starchy vegetables.
  3. Save a quarter of your plate for grains or pastas, and make them whole grains half the time.
  4. Use the rest of your plate for lean protein such as sirloin, skinless poultry, pork tenderloin, eggs, or beans and lentils.

This basic formula—mostly veggies, smaller amounts of whole grains and meat—can be used in combo dishes as well such as stews, pasta or casseroles.

For help in determining the ideal number of servings you should have in a day, consider scheduling a free nutrition consult or become an EatWell member. We will work with you to create a personalized meal pattern that is customizable to your preferences, reflects your needs and gets you closer to your health goals.

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