Easy Ways to Keep Your Portions Healthy

Practical tips to make portion control simple.

3 min read

Many Americans need a portion-size intervention. Somehow, over the past decade or so, we seem to have lost our ability to judge what a reasonable serving size is.

It doesn't help that the servings at restaurants and fast-food chains tend to be on steroids. Everywhere we go, it seems, we're being given larger portions. And research suggests that the more food people have in front of them, the more they will eat.

So how do we wean ourselves from supersized servings and train ourselves to eat reasonable amounts? Sure, you could weigh and measure everything. But a more convenient way is to use familiar objects to help yourself gauge how much you're eating, and to buy products that do the portion control for you.

Let's start with an object you always have with you -- your hand. Lisa Young, PhD, RD, author of The Portion Teller, loves to use the "handy" method. According to Young, 3 ounces of meat is about the size of your open palm, and a cup of rice the size of your fist. A shot glass is another convenient portioning tool. Since we often overdo salad dressing, Young suggests thinking of a shot glass to estimate what 2 tablespoons of dressing looks like.

Young has more practical portioning tips for eating in restaurants, one of the most dangerous environments for portion control. In fact, she says, it's as easy as 1-2-3:

1. Don't go to the restaurant starving.
2. Share your meal or entrée with a companion, and order extra salads so both of you get something green.
3. Or, take home a doggie bag and enjoy the rest of the meal the next day.

When you're cooking at home, there are several portioning tools you can use, many of which you probably already have in your kitchen. And there are certain food products and packages that lend themselves to portion control.

These items will help you portion your food into 1/2-cup to 3/4-cup servings:

  • Snack-size baggies hold about 1 cup fully packed, and about 3/4 cup loosely packed. This is a good size for portioning crackers, nuts, pretzels, baked chips, dried fruit, turkey jerky, and cereal.
  • Foil cupcake liners hold about 1/3 cup -- perfect for portioning baked goods and snack items.
  • Mini foil pie pans are perfect for portioning side dishes and entrees.
  • Large muffin cups (those that have about 6 cups per pan) will hold about 3/4 cup. That's just the right size for baking individual portions of entrees like quiche, shepherd's pie, chili cornbread casserole, etc.
  • A ladle holds about 1/2 cup of liquid, great for portioning things like stew, chili, pasta and pasta sauce, and steamed rice.

Here are some items that come in reasonable portions:

  • Small cereal boxes (they usually come in a variety pack) hold about 3/4 cup of cereal.
  • Snack or power bars are individually wrapped portions -- usually about 2 1/2 ounces. Look for higher-fiber, lower-sugar varieties.
  • Pita bread (preferably the whole-grain variety) is a great way to portion your sandwiches. If you fill half of each pocket with raw vegetables (lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers) you can't get into too much trouble with the fillers, such as chicken salad, roasted turkey, avocado and cheese, and lean ham.
  • A small can of water-packed tuna (6 ounces) will keep your fish serving to about 3/4 cup (drained), totaling only 180 calories.
  • A 14.5-ounce can of ready-to-heat-and-serve soup makes 2 servings (1 cup each). If you choose a soup that is broth- or tomato-based and has no more than 5 grams of fat per cup, you'll consume only about 250 calories -- even if you eat the entire can yourself.
  • Individually wrapped light ice-cream bars keep your dessert serving to around 1/2 cup, depending on the brand.
  • Individual portions of light entrees can be found in the frozen food section of your supermarket. You can even find higher-fiber vegetarian options these days. At Whole Foods Markets, for example, you'll find things like Bean & Cheese Taquitos (Whole Foods brand) and Tofu Lasagna (Amy's brand).
  • Individual microwave popcorn bags (look for the "light" version) keep your popcorn serving moderate.
  • 100% juice in individual bottles, boxes or pouches will keep your juice serving to 8 ounces.