Portions at restaurants – and in homes – have slowly increased over the years as our society became wealthier, busier and more industrialized. Bagels, muffins, burgers, and burritos have doubled in size over the years, distorting our perception of portions and adding to our nation’s obesity epidemic. Unlimited soup, salad and breadsticks – or free refills on drinks – mean mindless eating that squelches the brain signals that tell us we’ve eaten enough.


At salad bars and in bottomless bowls of salad lurks high-fat dressings, cheese, meats, nuts and croutons. And as much as you want. Vegetarian restaurants load us up with carbs, and “all you can eat” steak places can provide diners with enough fat for a week, at just one sitting. When you build your own burrito, you could be building one with enough calories for an entire family. Minding your portions is a simple and smart way to take control of your health and your weight. And you can do it at every meal and with every snack.


No matter your age, you tend to eat what’s on your plate. Sure, we also tend to turn our noses up at what we don’t like, and gobble down what we enjoy. And that’s OK. It’s the amount and quality of the foods that you put on the plate that matters in either case.

That’s where food labels come into play. Check the serving size listed on packaged goods you prepare. You’ll soon see that the serving size isn’t always what you’re serving. This is a huge problem if you’re over-serving high fat and high calorie foods, but not quite as critical for nutritionally dense, lower-cal items. For example, the serving size for most frozen vegetables is one cup. If you serve 1½ cups, it’s fine, as long as the veggies aren’t slathered in cheese, butter, cream and salt. But when you exceed the serving size for frozen chicken tenders, you’ll be adding more fat, cholesterol, sugar and sodium than anyone needs in one sitting. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s My Plate is an easy-to-use tool that helps you stay in touch with recommended healthy portions, especially when you’re NOT serving prepared or frozen foods. Based on the government’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines, it provides portion sizes based on age, gender, and activity level.

My Plate is a simple way to see portion control in a real-life setting. In short, you’ll divide each plate into quarters. One quarter should contain protein, one quarter whole grains, and the other half of the plate should be filled with veggies or veggies and fruit. On the side, a 1-cup portion of dairy, such as low-fat milk, yogurt or cheese. Bear in mind the sections should not overlap or be piled high, and none of the sections should be topped with fatty or sugary condiments.

Yes, everything can be enjoyed in moderation. By reducing the frequency and quantity of your family’s indulgences of high-cal, fatty, sugary, or salty snacks, you can encourage a mentality of indulging in frequent “treats.” On a regular basis, serve snacks that are 100 calories or fewer, including:
  • 1 medium-size apple – or half of a large apple
  • 1 medium-size banana – or half of a large banana
  • 1 cup blueberries or strawberries
  • 1 cup grapes
  • 1 cup carrots, broccoli, or bell peppers and 2 tablespoons of hummus

  • Buy a food scale and measure meat, cheese and nut portions by weight.
  • Serve food on smaller plates so meals look larger.
  • Separate leftovers into portion sizes before freezing them. Then when you grab some frozen turkey for a sandwich, you’ll know you’re serving a sensible portion.  
  • Show kids the My Plate plan and use it at home. Encourage them to think about it when they eat at school or in a restaurant.
  • Stop serving family style meals at the table. Serve portioned plates until everyone is fully skilled with portion control. Even then, only place veggies or salads on the table for seconds.
  • Serve salad or fruit as a first course to control hunger and reduce the urge to overeat.
  • Keep portion sizes realistic for kids, and don’t expect them to clean their plates. Studies show that preschoolers do a better job controlling portion size when they’re allowed to serve themselves and monitor their own intake.
  • Look for single-serving size snacks to control portions. Don’t let kids, or adults, eat from a large bag of chips, nuts or carton of ice cream. Also consider switching to single-serve low-cal ice pops, cones and bars.
  • Plan for everyone in the family to eat three scheduled healthy meals and one or two healthy snacks during the day. Most people who skip meals overeat at the next meal.
  • Control portion sizes at restaurants by sharing meals, ordering from the appetizer menu for your entrée, or asking that half the meal be packed up before it arrives to the table.
  • That “super sized” meal is no deal, even at just a few pennies more. It’s an invitation to overeat – often three times the required calories.
  • Be a role model and control your portions too.
  • Slow down and enjoy your family meals, giving everyone an opportunity to feel full and enjoy the mindful act of nourishment.


Take a long look at the next plate of food you eat and figure out if it’s doing you any good. That scoop of rice should be about the size of your fist. That chicken should be about equivalent to the dimensions of a deck of cards – or about as big as your palm – and that pile of broccoli should fit into a one-cup measure. The mayo? No more than the size of your thumb. And that cereal for breakfast? Don’t fill your bowl.

As you grow, and grow hungrier, staying focused on the amount and quality of the food you eat will reduce your risk of obesity and add years to your life. 


We are surrounded by food in large portions, although our society wasn’t always this way. Twenty years ago the average bagel weighed in at 140 calories and had a 3-inch diameter. Now, most bagels contain 350 calories and are double the size – and contain half of the grains recommended for the entire day.

You may already be someone who reads nutrition labels. Have you noticed that the serving size that’s listed is rarely just for one? Let’s say you’ve been trying to eat healthy, so you grab a single-serve package of peanuts. When all you need for a snack is 100 calories, the package in your hand is 170 calories – almost twice what nutritionists recommend. And that cute little bag of chips that comes with your deli sandwich? It may be portioned out for one person, but it’s adding 160 calories and 15% of the fat you should take in for a day to your diet. On top of that sandwich.  

These little incremental overages add up to impressive incremental weight gain. Eating an extra 100 calories per day can add an extra 10 pounds to your weight in one year.

At the website Choose My Plate there’s a graphic illustration of what a healthy plate of food should look like. There are guidelines, too, on how much of each type of food you should eat, based on your gender, age, and activity level. The site will help you envision a healthy meal. After that, you’ll be able to gauge what to eat when it arrives to your table, whether that’s in the cafeteria, at home, or at a restaurant. And you’ll be in control.

While the “divided plate” that’s recommended can help you avoid overeating during “normal” meals, it can also make it hard when you’re facing something like a sandwich, drinking a smoothie, or eating pizza with friends. One way to control those calories is to deconstruct the item. For example, view a slice of pizza as 1 ounce of cheese, two slices of bread, more than enough oil/fat, and a touch of veggies in the sauce. That means one slice is enough, and you could split an individual pizza with a friend and each still have a relatively nutritious meal.


  • Read the labels. Just three Oreos make up a serving. Half a package of ramen noodle soup is one serving. Eat just two tablespoons of guacamole with just 11 Doritos, not an entire bag. And always measure cereal servings according the package’s recommended serving size (usually ¾ to 1 cup).
  • If your body is telling you that you’re hungry (not bored or emotional), then drink a glass of water and have a healthy snack like crunchy celery with hummus, or a medium sized apple.
  • If you know you are already in the habit of eating too much, put your meals on a smaller plate. That will make the servings look bigger and limit the amount you can fit on a plate.
  • Don’t skip meals. Try to eat three balanced meals filled with vegetables, fruit, proteins and a starch, plus a healthy snack mid-morning and mid-afternoon. When you skip meals you almost always pig out on the next thing you eat.
  • Reach for single serving, 100-calorie snack portions. But eat just one!
  • Never eat from a big bag or container of anything. Read the label and portion out your serving.
  • Try starting each meal with a salad or serving of fruit. It will help you feel fuller and control your initial hunger.
  • When you want seconds, reach for the salad, veggies or fruit. It’s healthy to double up on these items, as long as they’re not topped with butter and cheese.
  • Try one new vegetable or fruit every week. Try new recipes that sound healthy and learn to cook nutritious food for yourself.
  • Slow down and relax over your meal, noticing the flavors and textures of everything you eat. Appreciate your opportunity to eat well.
  • If you eat at a restaurant, share your entrée, order an appetizer as an entrée, or ask them to pack up half of what you order before it gets to the table.



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