If you feel confused by terms like “serving size” and “portion” you’re not alone. Yet choosing the proper serving size portions can help you and your family avoid overeating.
The terms “serving” and “portion” are often interchanged, yet they don’t share the same meaning. A “portion” is the amount of food you choose to eat, such as a bowl of spaghetti or a handful of grapes. A “serving” on the other hand, is a specified amount of a given food that experts recommend you eat, like 1 cup of milk or 1 ounce of bread. Servings are listed on nutrition labels too. When choosing your portion, try to make it as close as possible to these recommended serving sizes. For a visual reminder, see our portion size graphic at
As a parent, you have the greatest power to shape your family’s habits. Not only can you personally model healthy behaviors, but you can still control what groceries and meals are served in your home. Take advantage of this limited opportunity to impact your kids’ habits before they leave the nest.
Here are some pointers I’ve shared with families trying to watch their waistlines. Realistically pick and choose two or three habits you can envision taking root. As always, it’s better to set small achievable goals than to take on the whole list and set yourself up for disappointment.
- Cook! Preparing meals at home is a great way to control ingredients, cooking methods and most importantly, portions. You are probably won’t use a huge platter as a single person’s plate nor continue filling a basket of fried chips or bread throughout the meal. Yet this is what we have grown accustomed to at restaurants. Cook at home and avoid those temptations.
- Anticipate snack attacks. If you have growing kids in the house, you may feel like you can never have enough snacks. Just be aware that a fully stocked fridge and pantry also mean more food availability. Buy wisely and leave the junk out of your cart. Wash, chop and prep your kids’ favorite fruits and veggies into single size portions – and keep them at eye level in clear containers. Remember, kids are often so hungry they grab the first item they see!
- Think portion control over value. As I write this, the snacks in my own house are not all fresh cut fruits and vegetables. I am a working mom with four kids, so I need to pick up non-perishable items too. When you shop for convenience snacks don’t supersize to save a couple of dollars, especially if you have trouble controlling yourself. Single serving sizes of many foods are now available including chips, cookies, ice cream and cereal, as well as sugary beverages. Keep these items out of the daily rotation and offer them only as an occasional treat.
- Hydrate before you eat. Next time you feel the urge to eat, try drinking a glass or two of water first. Dehydration may sometimes be mistaken for hunger. More water is a good thing, and if you really were in need of food, then you will feel a little less ravenous before sitting down for your snack or meal.
- Multitask elsewhere. Your family may rival The Incredibles in terms of getting it all done, but eating should be the only activity you practice at the table. Despite wild school schedules and extracurricular commitments, make it a family rule not to eat in front of a screen of any type (TV, phone, tablet, etc.), in the car, nor at a desk. This will help avoid mindless eating and create awareness around mealtimes, not to mention a chance to have a family conversation.
- This isn’t the Clean Plate Club. Once you’ve successfully gotten everyone to sit down, avoid conditioning kids to finish everything on their plate. Instead of using dinnertime to teach kids not to be wasteful, use it to help them learn to listen to internal hunger cues. Choose a non-food arena such as water or electricity usage to drive the conservation point home.
It’s hard to break the mindset of getting the best value for every purchase, but getting more food for the money doesn’t do us any good unless we split the meal. Think of feeding two for the price of one, not doubling the amount of food for one person at the low price of a single meal! One other strategy is to have your server box up half of the meal ahead of time and serve you only the other half. Take the to-go box for lunch the next day or pack it up for school. Although you may feel like you’re bugging your waiter, remember it’s the restaurant’s job to serve you.
- Change the cooking method: If your dish is fried or high in oil, ask for steamed or stir-fry options.
- Take something unhealthy off: Ask for “easy” cheese, sour cream, gravy, special sauces or light mayo. Better yet, get high-fat items on the side to control how much you eat.
- Add more healthy items: Ask for extra veggies in your salad, or add vegetables to a pizza or pasta dish that normally comes without them.
- Switcharoo: Request a baked potato instead of fries; grilled chicken vs. deep-fried tenders on a salad; an extra vegetable side instead of potatoes.
Let your server know this when you first arrive, or at least let them know you don’t need another round. Think of all the room you’ll have for the supersize meal you’re going to split with a friend. Being satisfied, saving money and not overeating is the best deal in any restaurant meal.
Just remember, to keep weight in check, calories out must be the same or equal to calories in. Consistently taking in more calories than your body needs eventually adds up on the scale. We can still enjoy a celebratory treat or weekend meal splurge, but not on a regular basis! Be mindful of what goes into your mouth: You will enjoy it more and eat less overall.
I have worked with many teens who overeat. Some are bored, others are depressed , others are simply not being mindful about what they eat.
If you have a problem with overeating, here’s the first question to ask yourself: Is this something that happens occasionally or every day?
We all overindulge on special occasions. Whether it’s a party treat or weekend restaurant splurge, our body can usually deal with the extra calories over some time, without significant weight gain. But if you’re overeating consistently, you may need to take a closer look at your daily habits and try to incorporate a few of these strategies to avoid going overboard:
- Don’t eat while you watch TV, surf the Web, or talk on the phone.
- When you’re not hungry, find eating alternatives to keep yourself busy: Call a friend or take a walk outside.
- Make an effort to sit down at the table to eat meals with your family or friends.
- Stay away from extreme diets. You know, the ones that restrict eating beyond what it healthful or cut out necessary food groups.
- These schemes commonly cause people to crave what they are missing and then overeat.
- Graze throughout the day, or keep healthy between-meal snacks on hand such as fruit, low-fat cheese or nuts.
- Rather than snacking right out of bags or boxes, portion out a reasonable amount of food and stop eating when it is gone.
- Visualize serving sizes with everyday objects:
- A golf ball is the size of a serving of nuts or cheese.
- A deck of playing cards represents 3 ounces of meat or chicken.
- One medium-sized marble is the proper serving of oils and fats.
- Imagine a tennis ball as a serving of fruits/vegetables.
- A computer mouse is about the size of one serving of cooked rice, pasta or potatoes.
- Think fractions on your plate: At least ½ should be filled with fruits and vegetables, ¼ with protein-rich foods (meat or beans) and the last ¼ with grains, potatoes, rice or bread.
- Fill your “divided plate” only once. If you’re still hungry, limit yourself to another half-plate of vegetables. It’s that simple.
- Drink water before, during, and after meals to slow yourself down while eating and curb hunger. Cut back on high-calorie, nutrient-poor drinks like soda, sports and other sugary drinks,
- Refuel with fiber. Reach for fruits, vegetables and whole, unprocessed grains. More fiber may help you feel fuller longer, so you may eat less throughout the day.
- Surround yourself with like-minded people who can help you reach your goals, not those who bring you down or who act jealous of your improved health.
The Portion Distortion Guide
By Nicole Nichols, Fitness Instructor & Health Educator
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The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite
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