When it comes to food portions, things are not always what they seem. I always try to be diligent about reading nutrition labels and checking the sizes of my portions, but it can be incredibly confusing. What constitutes a serving of grains—one bagel or one slice of bread? How about fruit? It seems logical that a single apple would be a single serving, but the same certainly can’t be said for a single strawberry or grape. Meat is even more difficult. One steak is an incredibly imprecise unit of measurement, in my opinion.
One thing that makes it so hard to control our diet is that many people have a skewed understanding of correct food portions, and most food served to us in restaurants is practically super-sized—and getting bigger. It’s hard to judge just how much we’re supposed to be eating, when nutritionists tell us one thing, and labels tell us another. Exactly what does a serving of vegetables look like? We’re supposed to snack on nuts and fruit, but how much is too much? The bad news is that for most of our favorite things, the correct serving size is a lot smaller than what most of us currently eat, but the good news is that there are handy visual ways to think about portions.
Meat and Sweet Treats
For meat, the standard serving size is about three ounces. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Guide Pyramid recommends that we only eat two to three servings of meat or protein per day, so a fourteen-ounce steak from a restaurant would provide almost two days’ worth of protein. A serving of chicken, pork, or beef should be about the size of a deck of cards, or the size of your palm (minus the fingers).
Sweets might not be healthy, but everyone deserves dessert now and then. A deck of cards is also a good size approximation for a single serving of treats like cake and pie.
Steak photo courtesy of jwalsh (cc)
Playing card photo courtesy of ponchosqueal (cc)
Larger Fruits, Veggies, and Carbs
Try to eat baseball-sized servings of healthy vegetables, which equals about one cup. Raw leafy greens like spinach, broccoli, kale, and chard deserve a large portion size. A baseball is also a good way to imagine a proper serving of a semi-large fruit like strawberries, a single serving of soup, or a single serving of milk or yogurt.
Carbohydrates like cereal, oatmeal, and cooked pasta should also be measured by the cup—even less if you’re actively trying to lose weight.
Smaller Fruits, Dense Starches, and Ice Cream
Smaller berries like blueberries, raspberries, and grapes should come in half-cup serving sizes, which are about the size of an ice cream scoop. The same goes for 100 percent fruit juice. Beans and dense starches like mashed potatoes should also be served in half-cup portions.
If you’re treating yourself to some ice cream, a proper serving of ice cream is only about the size of a single scoop.
Despite the proliferation of giant-sized baked goods, a proper serving of bread items is much smaller than you’d think. Most bagels, muffins, rolls, cinnamon buns, and biscuits should be about the size of a hockey puck or a can of tuna. This guideline is also good for making correctly-sized hamburger patties.
A single potato isn’t always a single serving. A single baked russet potato should be about the size of your computer mouse. For smaller potatoes like red potatoes or new potatoes, they should all combine to be the size of the mouse.
Pancakes and Waffles
I tend to feel industrious on weekend mornings and love to make pancakes or waffles. For nutrition’s sake, they should only be the size of compact discs. If you go out to breakfast or brunch, restaurant pancakes and waffles are usually much bigger than they should be.
Spreads and Small Snacks
For spreads or small snacks, a ping pong ball-sized potion is enough. That includes snacks such as raisins, nuts, and dried fruit, as well as peanut butter and hummus. It’s easy to mindlessly snack on these items without realizing how many calories you’re consuming, but meting out the proper serving size will keep portions proper.
Cheeses and Condiments
When preparing a serving of hard cheese like cheddar, keep it to about the size of three or four dice, or about an ounce and a half. The image of dice is also important for using condiments like butter or mayonnaise—one cubical serving of each is about the size of one die.
Some items make it easy for us—things like apples, bananas, eggs, and corn on the cob are a single serving. For most other foods, though, it’s important to be careful about portion size to prevent overindulging. Many foods are sold and served in portions that actually equal multiple servings. It’s easy to forget about correct portion size and end up eating too much, but remembering these visual aids can help you downsize your body by downsizing the food on your plate.