Everything You Need To Know About Food Portion Control

Whether you’re aiming to lose weight or feel healthier, portion control is crucial to your daily diet. Adhering to reasonable portion sizes keeps your meals balanced and nutritious. However, in 2016, a study recorded in the American Journal of Health Promotion found that most people overestimate their portion sizes: the calories, serving size, and healthy recommended amount.

If you want to learn how to eyeball a serving size based on your hand, or how underestimating dressings and cooking oils can destroy a diet, keep reading. You’ll uncover every necessary portion control tip you need to know.

First off, let’s clarify the difference between serving size and portion size.

Defining Serving Size And Portion Size

Nutrition labels are seen on food packaging
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Put simply, portion size is what you should eat to remain healthy, depending on your weight, age, gender, and physical activity. Every day, you choose your portion sizes by dishing out how much salad or yogurt you want to eat. The serving size is the standardized amount of food that people typically consume.

Your portion size may be more or less than the serving size. You can find the serving size on the product’s Nutrition Facts label. This will help you determine how many servings you want to eat based on your diet.

Eyeballing Portion Sizes

measuring portion sizes with your hand
Pinterest/Busy Creating Memories
Pinterest/Busy Creating Memories

If you can’t whip out your measuring cups every time you eat, you can use some eyeballing techniques. These can help you estimate how much of a dish you should consume while at a restaurant or potluck.

The size of your thumb equates to about a tablespoon. A postage stamp or tip of the pointer finger adds up to a teaspoon. A baseball measures about one cup of food, while a tennis ball or scooped handful is 1/2 cup. The palm or your hand or deck of playing cards rounds out to 3 oz. Once you learn the serving sizes of your favorite foods, you can use these techniques to estimate your portions.

Eyeballing Portion Sizes 2: Using The Plate

Top view of a group of people at a dinner table
Igor Golovniov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Igor Golovniov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Another benefit of using a plate is that you can organize each serving easily. To lower your serving sizes, use a smaller plate since the average plate size in the U.S. measures 11 to 12 inches in diameter.

The technique goes like this: veggies and salads take up half the plate; proteins such as meat or beans take up one quarter; complex carbs such as whole grains and starchy veggies take up one quarter. High-fat foods, such as cheese and butter, should only measure half a tablespoon (about the size of a thumbnail).

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Dine From A Plate, Not A Package

Students eat their school dinner from trays and plates during lunch in the canteen
Ben Birchall/PA Images via Getty Images
Ben Birchall/PA Images via Getty Images

While to-go packages can be efficient, they make it harder to calculate the serving sizes of your meal. Before digging in, scoop your portions onto a plate. This will level out your meal size, and you can save the rest in the fridge.

Small plates and bowls can make your portion sizes look larger, which will leave you feeling more satisfied. A 2012 study from Cornell University revealed that bigger plates trick our brains into believing that we’re eating less, so you’ll feel fuller while eating from a smaller bowl or dish.

Coffee Creamer Quickly Adds Up

drinking a cup of coffee
Michael Dodge/Getty Images
Michael Dodge/Getty Images

Do you measure how much creamer you put in your coffee? I single serving is only one tablespoon–much less than most people add to their morning espresso. Even “fat-free” creamer can have a lot of calories, especially if it’s flavored. Original coffee creamer has 20 calories per tablespoon, while vanilla flavored has 35.

If you drink more than one cup of coffee a day, these calories will add up. To lower calories, you may want to switch to unsweetened almond milk. This dairy-free option has only 30 to 60 calories per cup, which will keep your coffee tasting great.

Cooking Spray Contributes Calories In Less Than A Second

pouring melted butter into a spray bottle
Whitney Hayward/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images
Whitney Hayward/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

While dieting, most people know to skip butter and oil when cooking at home. But few understand how many calories come in a cooking spray like PAM. For most brands, one serving of cooking spray equates to 1/4 a second.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest reports that the average person sprays for five seconds, which results in 50 extra calories and six grams of fat. Although olive oil has more calories (119 cal per tablespoon), a study published in the Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology Journal found that the oil promotes weight loss.

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Salad Dressing Counts Too

Hands pouring dressing to Classic Caesar salad
Natasha Breen/REDA&CO/UIG via Getty Images
Natasha Breen/REDA&CO/UIG via Getty Images

Have you ever seen a restaurant salad contain an egregious amount of calories? That’s likely due to the fatty dressings some restaurants use. One serving of salad dressing amounts to two tablespoons, which is less than some people pour.

Unhealthy salad dressings usually consist of sour cream, mayonnaise, and egg yolks. Caesar and ranch dressings often contain around 100 calories per serving. If you aim for healthy salad dressings comprised of balsamic vinaigrette and olive oil, the calorie intake could remain low.

Double-Check How Much Fruit You Eat

mangoes at a wholesale fruit market
Nitin Kanotra/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Nitin Kanotra/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

If you’re aiming to limit your sugar intake, fruit can serve as an excellent snack or dessert substitute. For most people, however, a single serving is smaller than what they usually eat. The American Heart Association reports that one fresh or frozen fruit serving equates to 1/2 cup. Dried fruits only add up to 1/4 cup per serving.

For strawberries, this comes out to four large berries; for grapes, this ends up being fourteen. A medium apple, banana, pear, kiwi, or orange is one serving. For melons and avocado, one serving is only half of the medium melon.

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Remember To Portion Your Rice (And Other Grains)

Thai fried rice with seafood
Daniel Fung/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Daniel Fung/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Brown rice can make a filling companion to a healthy meal, as long as you’re scooping out the right amount. A single serving of rice comes out to 1/2 cup and contains 100 calories. The same amount of white rice increases the calorie intake to 120 calories.

Pasta serving sizes depend on the shape, but it usually rounds out to about 1/2 cup per person. The same applies to gluten-free alternatives. Quinoa provides 110 calories in a 1/2 cup serving. One cup of cooked couscous adds up to 174 calories.

Don’t Drink Stealth Calories

reaching for a soda can add calories
Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images
Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images

A study from the International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders discovered that the brain doesn’t detect calories from liquid as it does from solid food. For instance, if you drink a high-calorie drink like soda, you won’t feel any fuller. Unless you chug it, of course, but that results from your stomach expanding, not fullness.

Dietitian Katherine Tallmadge, M.A., R.D., calls calorie-filled liquids “stealth calories.” They add more without giving any added benefit of feeling fuller. Juice, alcohol, and soda all contain stealth calories. Replace them with zero-calorie drinks such as water or tea if you can.

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An Entire Chicken Breast Is Too Much Food

chicken on a plate
Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images
Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images

Yes, lean protein aids weight loss, but not if you overeat it. Most restaurants provide more than one serving of chicken, which is only the size of a deck of playing cards. This equates to 3 oz–the size of the palm of your hand.

One serving of chicken varies from 100 cal to 140 cal depending on how it’s cooked, so having more than one serving will add up fast. If you cook lean, boneless, skinless chicken, you’ll consume fewer calories.

Drink Water Before Beginning A Meal

drinking water from a faucet to feel fuller
Twitter/@CityofRegina
Twitter/@CityofRegina

When we’re starving, we’re more likely to dish out larger portion sizes. Fortunately, scientists have found a prevention for this. In 2010, researchers reported that overweight adults who drank 17 oz of water (about two glasses) 30 minutes before a meal increased their weight loss by 44%. They ate less after drinking water.

Being well hydrated helps us distinguish between hunger and thirst. A similar study in the European Journal of Nutrition concluded that drinking water before eating helps people feel satiated afterward.

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Eating Slowly Helps

eating dinner at home after a long day at work
Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images
Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

People are more likely to grab seconds if they devour their first serving. A 2008 study published in the Journal of American Dietic Association found that healthy women who ate slowly felt fuller afterward. By eating slowly, the participants used less energy to digest and drank more water during the meal.

It takes around 20 minutes for the brain to register feeling full. After 30 minutes, you may feel even fuller. So if you don’t feel full right away, wait a while and see if you need seconds.

Eat Away From The TV Or Desk

eating in front of the television
CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP/Getty Images
CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP/Getty Images

You may have heard to eat dinner away from the TV, a piece of advice that’s backed by science. In 2013, a review in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition determined that eating while focused on something else results in more food consumed. Distracted eaters also felt less full than those who focused on their meal.

When eating, you may want to avoid watching videos, working, or playing a game. The portions you dish out will sustain you for longer, and you’ll be less likely to go back for seconds.

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Scoop Your Nuts Wisely

a serving cup of nuts
Twitter/@nutsplusnuts
Twitter/@nutsplusnuts

Many people underestimate the appropriate serving size for nuts. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends only 1.5 oz (1/3 cup) of nuts per day. This can include: 16 cashews, 28 peanuts, 24 shelled almonds, or 45 pistachios.

However, if you’re looking to decrease calorie intake, you’ll have to lower the nut portion even more. 100 calories worth of nuts consists of: 14 almonds, 10 cashews, 17 peanuts, 29 pistachios, and 13 walnuts.

Watch Out For Hamburgers

Making a burger on a bun
Sergei BobylevTASS via Getty Images
Sergei BobylevTASS via Getty Images

An average burger, such as those sold at a grocery store, consist of a quarter pound of beef (or 4 oz). However, the recommended serving size for beef is only 3 oz. Most restaurants serve burgers that are 1/3 to 1/2 pound. The USDA recommends that inactive adults only need 5.5 to 6.5 oz of protein per day, which the burger covers more than half of.

Homemade patties can add up as well. One hamburger made from 4 oz of lean beef contains 193 calories. Remember, an average burger bun puts on over 100 more calories.

Schedule Meals And Snacks Strategically

break alarm clock
Twitter/@lanotalatina
Twitter/@lanotalatina

If you skip meals or go to a networking event hungry, you’ll end up forgoing portion sizes and eating as much as you want. Eat before get-togethers such as coffee meetups where you may be tempted to order less healthy food. If you skip meals, you’ll likely eat more later.

If you struggle to keep a viable food schedule, set alarms that remind you when to eat meals and snacks. You can always tell the friends you’re meeting with that you’re watching what you eat; they may support you in ordering healthier meals.

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Two Slices Of Bread Is More Than One Serving

Variety of loafs fresh baked artisan rye and whole grain bread
Natasha Breen/REDA&CO/UIG via Getty Images
Natasha Breen/REDA&CO/UIG via Getty Images

If you’re making a healthy sandwich at home, you’re eating less calories than a restaurant sandwich–if you’re taking the bread into account. Whole grain bread’s single serving is one slice, and each slice contains 70 to 100 calories.

To consume fewer carbs, you may want to replace the bread with 100-calorie flat buns (half the calories of regular bread), a tortilla, lettuce wrap, or cabbage bun. Or, you can lower the amount of meat or spread you place in your sandwich.

Re-Package Your Food

cheerios in a bowl
Twitter/@TedAndrew1
Twitter/@TedAndrew1

Busy or rushed people will feel more tempted to eat their snacks straight out of the bag. But an experiment from Cornell University found that those who do so consume 20% more than people who eat a single bag of the same snack.

If you want to watch your portions on the go, re-package them so that you don’t have to measure every snack you eat. To prevent yourself from going for seconds, write the calorie amount on the bag.

Set Aside Leftovers Before Starting The Meal

grabbing leftovers to eat for lunch
Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images
Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Dietitian expert Jackie Baurmrind, M.S., recommends portioning out leftovers before sitting down to eat your meal. That way, you won’t be tempted to return for seconds, she reports. You can employ the same tactic at restaurants by splitting your entree with someone or asking for a to-go box early in the meal.

By setting aside leftovers before eating, you’ll also have a prepared, appropriately portioned meal for later in the week. Putting your leftovers in the fridge or off the table will also discourage you from grabbing another helping.