The beginner's guide to portion sizes


Portion control

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Do you ever go out to eat or grab a quick snack at the store only to find out that the snack bag or chicken salad was actually three servings not one? It’s so frustrating. What is a legit recommended portion size when it comes to a meal or a food group? It can be confusing, right? Unfortunately, our food industry likes to double, triple or even supersize servings, leaving the consumer over served. Yes, I said over served, meaning we are served way over the recommended portion needed for a balanced meal or snack. And unfortunately, many consumers have visually adjusted to this serving size and are unaware of what an accurate portion size really looks like. There’s no doubt it can be tricky!


Serving vs. portion

A serving size is a measured amount of food — 1 cup, 1 slice, 1 bag, etc. — intended to be eaten at one time. It’s the amount you’ll see on a food label, and it’s what the USDA uses in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

A portion size is the amount of food or drink you actually consume at once or in one sitting. Large or small, like a plate of food at dinner or a small cup of yogurt. Yes, both are portions.

But here’s the thing. If we can reprogram our brains to visualize true portion sizes, then maybe, just maybe, we won’t be fooled when it comes to being over served.

In order not to overwhelm us, let’s pick one or two common things that can relate when it comes to food sizes and portions. Your hand being one. And either a tennis ball or dice for the other. Sound good?

Now let’s get that brain up and running. Ready to make sense of proper portion sizes? I promise it will be as easy as cake! (A normal-size, healthy piece of cake.)

Here are some of the most common food portions that many struggle with today.


Cereal and grains

Rice, quinoa, pasta | 1 cup (cooked) | Calories: 180–220

1 cup is about the size of a tennis ball and provides approximately 200 calories and 50 grams of carbohydrates.



Granola | 1/4 cup | Calories: 110–130

Granola is best used as a topping or mixed in with cereal. A little goes a long way for one portion. Be careful of the serving sizes on the granola box. It could say 2/3 cup, which is nearly three times the portion needed (unless you can space that portion throughout the day). Measure out 1/4 cup to fit in a snack size zip-close bag or the bottom of a cereal bowl, to see what a serving can “fill.”



Focus on whole fruit to really fill you up. It packs in more water and fiber. Dried fruit is great but is calorie-dense –– which is perfect for when you need a small, energy-boosting snack but not when you plan on eating a whole bag. Aim for 3–5 servings of fruit per day –– and put fresh first when you can!


Dried fruit | 1/4 cup | Calories = 90–130

1 serving of dried fruit is 1/4 cup (40 grams), which will fill your palm. Similar to the granola situation, it’s best to spread dried fruit throughout the day or add it to a flaky cereal or a healthy trail mix. Also, watch out for dried fruit that contains added sugar –– it’s best to save those calories for a real dessert.



Fresh fruit | 1 medium piece | Calories: 80-105

One medium piece of fresh fruit is about the size of a small fist, or about 3-4 inches in diameter. (Not the Hulk’s fist –– just remember that.)




When it comes to veggies, more really is more. Of course, this is assuming you don’t bathe them in creamy dressings, butter or cheese sauce. At a minimum, we should all be aiming to get at least 4–5 servings of vegetables per day. It sounds like a lot, but really, it’s totally doable. Here’s what 1 serving of veggies looks like:


Leafy Greens | 2–3 cups | Calories: 15-20

1 cup is very small as you can see. This is one time where doubling or tripling the portion is just fine!



Nonstarchy Vegetables | 1 cup chopped | Calories: 20-40

Nonstarchy vegetables include broccoli, cauliflower, cucumbers, asparagus, peppers, mushrooms, tomatoes and onions.



Starchy vegetables | 1 cup chopped or 1 medium (4” diameter) potato | Calories: 100–180

Starchy vegetables like corn, peas, parsnips, potatoes, pumpkin, squash, zucchini and yams are higher in carbohydrates and therefore more calorie-dense –– all the more reason why knowing the portion size is important.




Meat, poultry and fish | 3 ounces | Calories: 120–250

A 3-ounce piece of fish, poultry or meat is about the size of a deck of cards or the whole palm of your hand. Focus on power protein! Lean proteins such as chicken, turkey, fish, seafood or lean cuts of beef and pork will fall in the lower end of the calorie range.




Cheese | 1 1/2 ounces (45 g) | Calories:150–165

This is about the size of 4 dice or your index finger. Most 1 1/2-ounce servings are around 150–165 calories, so a little goes a long way. Adding just a slice or nibble of real cheese to your diet is a great source of calcium. Cut into slices or shred and add to a salad!



Milk | 1 serving = 1 cup (8 fluid ounces) | Calories: 90–145

Depending on what variety you buy — such as skim, reduced-fat or whole — 1 cup of milk will provide anywhere from 90–145 calories. In an average-size glass (not a tall and skinny one), 1 cup measures about the size of a small fist.



What does a balanced, portioned meal look like?

One serving of each — fruit, nonstarchy vegetable, protein, healthy fats (such as 1 tablespoon olive oil), dairy and either a serving of whole grains or starchy vegetables.


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