Primary Care in Rochester and Kasson

Right-size portions for healthy eating

3/17/2022 by Michaeleen Burroughs, M.S., RDN, LD


How much you eat is as important as what you eat if you're trying to lose weight and keep it off. That heap of pasta on your plate is a portion, but it's probably not a serving size, which is a precise, recommended amount of food that is measured in cups, ounces or tablespoons. 

You'll find serving sizes on the Nutrition Facts labels of a vast range of products from applesauce to bacon to cheddar cheese. Remember to check the number of servings per container. For example, toaster pastries come two to a pack, but a serving is just one. Or a serving of Doritos is 11 chips — not the whole bag. 

Reading Nutrition Facts labels can provide information that will help you save hundreds of unwanted calories per day. 

'See' your portions

Portion size — the amount on your plate — matters. Research has shown that people consistently eat more food when offered larger-sized portions. But you don't need to memorize a food list or carry around measuring cups to get a better handle on serving sizes. 

Instead, use common visual cues to remind yourself of appropriate serving sizes. How? Many foods match up to everyday objects. 

Some one-serving examples include: 

  • A baseball equals a medium pepper, a half-cup of green beans or one-third of a cup of tomato sauce. 
  • A hockey puck equals one-half of a bagel, a half-cup of pasta or a half-cup of dry cereal. 
  • A deck of cards equals 3 ounces of meat or fish. 
  • A pair of dice equals two 1-ounce portions of hard cheese. 

For more serving-size photos and information, visit Mayo Clinic's Portion Control webpage

Tips for right-sizing portions

Try these tips to right-size your portions: 

  • Pour the amount of cereal you usually eat into a bowl, measure it and compare it to the recommended serving size. Do this for some of your go-to foods so you get used to seeing what the correct portion looks like. 
  • Until you get the hang of portion sizes, consider buying a plate divided into portions for each of the food groups. When filling your plate, keep in mind that half of your plate should be fruits and vegetables. Good choices include spinach, carrots, lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, cucumbers, beets and peppers. Grains fill another quarter section. Choose brown rice, whole-wheat pasta or whole-wheat tortillas. Protein completes the last quarter of the plate. Healthy options include chicken or turkey without the skin, fish and other seafoods, beans, soy, and lean cuts of beef and pork. Round out your meal with an 8-ounce glass of fat-free milk. 
  • Use smaller plates to trick your eye — and brain — into thinking portions are larger. 
  • Dish proper portion sizes onto plates in the kitchen rather than passing food family style. 
  • Eyeball the size of your portion at a restaurant. If your portion is too large, share your meal or ask for a to-go box. If you opt for the to-go box, package up the take-home portion before you start eating. 
  • Use snack-size storage bags to portion foods like crackers, cereal, chips and nuts. Make it a part of your routine when putting away groceries. Then when a snacking urge hits, you'll have the right-size snack portions at hand. 
  • Tell family, friends and co-workers that you're watching your portion sizes. Share strategies you're using to add accountability to your efforts. 

Michaeleen Burroughs, M.S., RDN, LD, has worked at Primary Care in Rochester and Kasson's Department of Family Medicine for 27 years. She helps patients at Mayo Family Clinics Kasson, Northeast, Northwest and Southeast. Her areas of interest are diabetes and child and adult weight management.