7 Expert Tricks for Calorie and Portion Control

Serving sizes and calories just keep increasing. Here's how to stop calorie inflation.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on April 06, 2009
6 min read

Gone are the days when french fries came in 3-ounce bags, bagels were no bigger than hockey pucks, and soft drinks topped out at 12 ounces. And it's not just restaurants that are supersizing food portion sizes and boosting calories. Home cooks are following suit.

In a letter published recently in the Annals of Internal Medicine, two researchers described their review of 18 classic recipes (for things like baked macaroni and cheese and brownies) published in editions of The Joy of Cooking from 1936 to 2006. They found that average calories per serving had increased for 17 of those 18 recipes since the popular cookbook's 1936 edition.

Two-thirds of those recipes were more caloric either because they included more fattening ingredients like meats, cheese, or rich sauces, or because they used less of lower-calorie ingredients like vegetables. The remaining recipes had larger serving sizes.

"In these lean times, with more people saving their food dollars and eating at home, we need to start changing the way we eat by downsizing serving sizes and calories in our favorite recipes," says letter author Brian Wansink, PhD, a Cornell University researcher and author of Mindful Eating.

One of the problems, he says, is that recipes have increased in calories and portion sizes while families are smaller than they were 10-20 years ago. "The recipe was originally designed to feed a family of 6-8, but today a family of four is finishing the entire dish," says Wansink

A few extra calories here and there might not seem like a lot, but they can really add up over time, says Cheryl Forberg, RD, dietitian for The Biggest Loser reality show. "If we don’t start eating healthier," she warns, "more people are going to end up like the contestants on the show without the benefit of an intensive intervention."

WebMD consulted the experts for tips to help you control portions and avoid calorie inflation of your favorite foods, whether you're eating at home or at a restaurant.

When you boost the proportion of low-fat fruits, vegetables, and herbs in your dishes, you naturally cut calories while adding nutrition. "When you increase vegetables, you add more fiber and water, and therefore you can eat a larger, more filling portion without lots of calories," says Ellie Krieger, RD, host of the Food Network’s Healthy Appetite show.

Jackie Newgent, RD, chef and author of the Big Green Cookbook, takes it a step further. "Try to incorporate a fruit or vegetable into every recipe you make," she says. "When you add spinach into lasagna, you are adding flavorful ingredients which allow you to reduce some of the richer ingredients which make the dish more filling and satisfying."

Another trick to cut calories without compromising flavor is to use herbs liberally. “Most herbs, except more potent ones like rosemary, can easily be doubled in recipes and really perk up a dish with color, appeal, and flavor so you can use less of the richer ingredients." says Newgent.

"We eat with our eyes, so the food has to be not only taste delicious but look beautiful on the plate," says Newgent. One way to do this: Use a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, she says.

A plate of food that is colorful and has a variety of textures will add to the satisfaction of the meal, says Krieger, author of The Food You Crave. “You don’t want all soft or crunchy food on a plate," she says. "Instead, strive for a nice balance and keep in mind that the richer the color of produce, the more nutrients and healthy antioxidants.”

Krieger also recommends using the visual "plate" method to control portion sizes and boost nutrition: Fill half your plate with vegetables, one quarter with lean protein, and the last quarter with whole grains (even macaroni and cheese). "You can still enjoy your favorite foods that are higher in calories if you scale back the portions," Krieger says.

Using nonstick pans, vegetable oil sprays, and lower-fat ingredients are just a few of the tricks to lower the calories in your favorite recipes.

"You can saute a large onion in 2 teaspoons of olive oil in a nonstick pan, or substitute nonfat Greek style yogurt instead of sour cream, or use a stronger-flavored cheese and use less of it," says Krieger. "There are so many ways to safely trim calories without compromising flavor."

She suggests experimenting with your favorite recipes by making small changes that aren't likely to be noticeable in the finished dish.

If the recipe says it serves 6, increase the number of servings to 8 and add healthy side dishes.

"Modern cookbooks have huge portions that can easily be stretched to feed more people as long as you add a salad and make the plate look full with the addition of a colorful vegetable," says Krieger.

This kind of portion control also save time, says Wansink. "Cook once, save half for another meal, or freeze it so your time in the kitchen is more efficient and your family won’t be tempted to overeat," he says.

One of the best ways to prevent overeating is to start out with smaller portions, says Wansink.

"Plate the food and leave the serving bowls off the table because, typically, when food is within reach, we eat more and it has nothing to do with hunger but because it tastes good," he says.

To make smaller portions seem more satisfying, try eating the French way and serve a small salad after the main dish.

Marketers have created jumbo-sized pans and dishes to match the portions we are accustomed to seeing in restaurants. "Dinner plates have increased in size from a standard 10-inch to 12-inch and larger, so today normal portions look sad on a larger plate," Wansink says

Instead, use the old-fashioned sizes of plates and cooking equipment, Krieger suggests.

"Deep-dish pie plates, extra-large muffin tins and oversized plates encourage us to eat more," Krieger says. "One of the easiest ways to control calories is to control portion size by scaling back to traditional-size plates and pans."

Wansink and fellow researchers found that diners who ate large fast-food meals underestimated their caloric intake by an average of 513 calories. "There is a tendency to inhale big meals and when you have no idea about the calories in the food you eat or how many calories you need, it is easy to overindulge," Wansink says.

So consult nutrition information about restaurant dishes, if available, to help guide your choices. If no nutrition information is available, keep in mind that your best bet is always to order simply prepared foods.

"Stay away from fried or saucy foods and stick with steamed, grilled, and foods that are less likely to have hidden calories -- and pile those vegetables on your plate," says Forberg, who recommends that Biggest Loser contestants eat 4 cups of vegetables daily.

Show Sources


Brian Wansink, PhD, professor and director, Cornell Food and Brand Lab, Cornell University; author, Mindful Eating.

Jackie Newgent, RD, chef; nutrition communicator; author, The Big Green Cookbook.

Ellie Krieger, MS, RD, host, the Food Network's Healthy Appetite; author, The Food You Crave.

Cheryl Forberg, RD, nutritionist for The Biggest Loser; author, Positively Ageless.

Annals of Internal Medicine, Feb. 17, 2009; vol 150: p 291.

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