The Power of Portion Control

The Power of Portion Control
Lori Skurbe, RD


What makes our diet healthy? The answer is multifaceted – it is a combination of the foods we eat, how we prepare those foods, and how much and how often we eat them. We can make healthy food choices, but if the portion sizes are larger than they need to be, it can lead to weight gain and a higher intake of added sugars, unhealthy fats and other ingredients.

What is a Portion Size?
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) a portion size is the amount of a food or beverage we choose to eat at one time. A serving size is the amount of food listed on the product’s Nutrition Facts Label.  Serving sizes are set up to closely match how much we might typically eat of a certain food. This is an important distinction because the portion size we eat could be more than one serving.   

What Affects My Portion Sizes?

Food Packaging
How a food is packaged affects how much we consume. Over the past few decades portion sizes have increased for many of the foods we eat. Years ago, we may have purchased bottles or cans of soda that were 12 ounces, now bottles are 20 or more ounces. When portions are larger, we consume more. 

Eating Directly Out of the Package
For example, if I buy a bag of popcorn and eat right out of the bag, how do I know how much I ate?  A bag of popcorn (or any food) could contain multiple servings, which can lead to overeating.  You can take 1 serving from the bag and put it in a bowl to manage the portion size. You can also buy a single serving bag of popcorn (100 calorie bag). Being mindful of the packaging of the foods you eat (single serving vs multiple servings) can help keep your portions under control. 

Mindless Eating
When you are distracted when you eat (watching TV, driving, working, etc.) you are not paying attention to the amount you eat and can easily over eat without realizing it.  Make a point of avoiding distractions when eating. When you eat, focus on what you are eating and the amounts. 

Plates and Utensils
The bigger the plate, cup or bowl the more we fill it leading to larger portions. Using smaller plates (salad plates instead of dinner plates), smaller spoons, forks, cups and bowls encourages smaller portion sizes. 

Purchase Single Servings
When you can, purchase individual servings of foods such as 100 calorie packs of nuts, peanut butter, hummus, popcorn and other foods.  This makes it easier to manage your portion sizes.

Eating Slowly
It can take more than 20 minutes for your stomach to “tell” your brain you are full.  If you eat quickly, it is very easy to overeat before your body has had a chance to figure out how full you are.  Eating slowly can lead to smaller portions. Also, pay attention to the flavor, texture, aroma and appearance of your food. This makes the eating experience more satisfying. 

Weigh and Measure Foods

We are not very good at “guesstimating” the amounts we eat. It can be helpful to weigh and measure our foods to have a better understanding of what our portion sizes actually are.  Meats, poultry, fish, seafood and hard cheeses are usually weighed on a food scale. Most other foods we use measuring cups and measuring spoons. 

Avoid Family Style Dining
Family style is when we put all the food on the table and everyone takes what they want.  It is harder to control portions when large platters of food are right in front of you. It may be better to leave all the serving platters, pots and pans on the stove or counter, and plate your food from there.  Only leave salad, non-starchy vegetables and a pitcher of water on the table.

Purchasing Bulk Items
If you purchase bulk items, it may be helpful to divide them up into smaller servings.  Large containers of food can lead to larger portions and over-eating. 

How To Manage Portions When Dining Out
The above strategies may work when you eat at home, but how can you manage portions when eating at a restaurant?  

Restaurants have also increased the portions of the foods they serve over the past few decades.  The typical portion we get at most restaurants is a lot more than what most should eat at one meal. Not to mention we often are eating appetizers, desserts and alcohol, adding to even larger portions. Here are some tips to help manage portions when dining out:

Minimize Portions at the Start of the Meal.
Split an entrée with another person, get a ½ portion (if available) or ask for a take home box at the beginning of the meal and take at least half of the food off your plate before you start eating and place it in the take home box.  By minimizing the portions before you eat, it is easier to control the amount.  

Skip the Bread (tortilla chips, chow mein noodles, etc.)
Often when we first sit down at our table, a basket of bread is placed right in front of us.  This can lead to larger portions because we are usually hungry and start to mindlessly munch as we look at the menu and socialize.  You can ask that the bread not be brought to your table or place the bread out of arm’s reach to minimize how much you eat.

Watch the Free Refills
Free refills on soda or other high calorie beverages can increase your consumption of these foods. Try to drink calorie free beverages such as water, club soda, seltzer or unsweetened iced tea.

Be Mindful of Alcohol
All alcoholic beverages carry a high calorie count and when we dine out, we may be more inclined to drink more under these social conditions.  Try to limit the amount of alcohol you consume by sipping water or another calorie free beverage in between alcoholic beverages to decrease the portion of alcohol.

Pay Attention to Appetizers
Appetizers can be larger than an entrée. Try to choose smaller appetizers such as a cup of a broth based soup, side salad or a shrimp cocktail. You can also skip the appetizers altogether. 

Dessert Decisions
Dessert portions can be very large at some well-known eating establishments. To minimize the portions, we can share a dessert order, choose fresh fruit or a small scoop of sorbet or skip the dessert.

Measure Your Portions without a Scale or Measuring Cups
In addition to the tips above, there are ways you can more accurately visualize your portions when not at home. Obviously, you are not going to be carrying around a food scale or measuring cups to a restaurant. There are simple, accurate ways to know how much you are eating by comparing food portions to everyday household items. This allows you to more accurately estimate your portions and keep them under control at every meal, whether at home, work, at a restaurant, or while traveling. 

Here are some common examples:

  •  A medium potato = computer mouse 
  • An average bagel = hockey puck 
  • 1 cup of fruit or medium sized fruit = baseball 
  • 1 cup cooked rice, pasta, cereal, etc. = baseball
  • ½ cup cooked rice, pasta, cereal = light bulb
  • 3 oz. of cooked meat/poultry = deck of playing cards 
  • 3 oz. of cooked fish = checkbook 
  • 2 Tablespoons of peanut butter, hummus, etc. = 1 golf ball
  • 1 Tablespoon of butter, salad dressing, mayonnaise, oil, etc. = poker chip
  • 1 ounce of cheese = 4 dice 
  • 1 teaspoon peanut butter, butter, mayonnaise, margarine = tip of your thumb 
  • 1 cup ice cream/yogurt/veggies = tennis ball 4” diameter 
  • 1 ounce of nuts = 1 small handful or enough to fill a shot glass
  • Waffle or Pancake = compact disc


Using these portion control strategies can help you better understand not just what you eat, but how much you are eating, making it easier to stay on track and achieve your health goals.  If you are not sure how much you should be eating, consult a Registered Dietitian (RD) for guidance. 


Portion Control Meal Makeover
Portion control techniques can be used when meal planning and prepping. First step is to examine recipes and decide which ingredients can be swapped, decreased or eliminated.  For example, you can swap lower fat ingredients for higher fat, such as reduced fat milk or cheese in place of full fat. You can decrease the amount of fat/oil and sugar you use in certain recipes without affecting the outcome. You can eliminate ingredients such as salt in soups or stews. Once you’ve modified your recipe – you want to focus on portion control.

It can be helpful to meal prep by plating your foods ahead of time into meal sized storage containers to take to work, school or to freeze for a later date.  You can measure your protein, vegetable and carbohydrate to make sure each meal has the amount that is right for you.  

A helpful hint is to use reusable containers with compartments for each food. This can help with portion control because you are using the same size containers each time.  There are portion control containers you can purchase online to make minding your portions even easier.