Visual Aids to Help Estimate Portions

by Melanie Thomassian Health Professional

It has been suggested that the growth of our portion sizes over the years may be the result of poor marketing by manufactures and fast food restaurants - sounds like passing the buck to me However, there's no doubt that we appear to be confused by what constitutes a healthy portion of food.

The size of our plates and the amount of food we pile onto them has definitely grown considerably in size. Apparently, the average portion size has increased by 25-50% over the past 30 years. Thankfully, most people do know the basics about good nutrition. However the problem is just how much of it we're actually eating.

Serving size, portion size? What's the difference? A food serving is a standardized amount of a food, such as a cup or an ounce measurement, used in comparing similar foods; this amount will be stated on the food label. In some cases, a food serving may be close to what we actually eat, such as an apple. In other cases we may serve more than one food serving, for example rice or pasta.

A portion therefore is the amount of food we choose to eat. There are no standard portion sizes. Being able to estimate what a serving of food should look like can be an extremely useful tool in making sure we don't overeat.

Estimating serving sizeOften we remember items more readily when we can visualize their size, shape or weight, in comparison to something else. By relating an appropriate serving of our food to everyday items we can easily estimate a healthy portion of food without the need for weighing scales.

Here are a few examples:* A rounded handful - one 1/2 cup vegetables or fruit, 1/2 cup of cooked rice or pasta, or a snack serving of chips or pretzels

  • Woman's fist - a serving of vegetables, or one piece of whole fruit

  • Small handful or golf ball - 1/4 cup of dried fruit, or 1 oz of nuts

  • A matchbox - a 1 oz serving of meat, or a serving of cheese

  • Deck of cards, or the palm of your hand (excluding fingers) - a 3oz serving of meat, fish or poultry, or ten French fries

  • Thin paperback book - a 8 oz serving of meat

  • Check book - a serving of fish (approximately 3 oz)

  • Tennis ball - 1/2 cup of pasta, or a serving of ice cream

  • Computer mouse - a medium baked potato* Compact disc - one serving of pancake, or small waffle

  • Your thumb - one serving of cheese, or one tablespoon of salad dressing

  • Thumb tip or one dice - one teaspoon of margarine* A ping pong ball - two tablespoons of peanut butter

  • Small milk carton - 8 oz glass of milk

  • A baseball - 8 oz cup of yogurt, one cup of beans, or one cup of dry cereal

Please remember this list gives examples of the size, shape, and/or look of one serving of a particular food, and not a portion.

It is also a good idea to weigh some of the foods which you eat regularly, and try to remember what they look like on your plate. This way you'll be able to visualise a suitable serving of food when away from home.

What are your tips for estimating portions? The holiday season is a difficult time to maintain healthy eating habits, especially portion control! What are you tricks for keeping your diet on track during the holiday season?

Melanie Thomassian
Meet Our Writer
Melanie Thomassian

Melanie is a dietitian and writer. She wrote for HeatlhCentral as a health professional for Food & Nutrition and Heart Health.