Portion Size Matters

I am not one to count calories, fat grams or anything of the like, but that’s because the one thing I do try to stay mindful of is portion size (and only eating enough to feel full). But in today’s “super-sized” society (i.e. the United States) it’s harder than ever to determine if your portion size is even on par or not. Check this out:

According to French Kids Eat Everything, there was “A scientific study in which two researchers (one French, one American) weighed servings of identical meals at McDonald’s restaurants in Paris and Philadelphia. The serving sizes were wildly different: a medium-size serving of fries at McDonald’s in Philadelphia was 72 percent bigger than at McDonald’s in Paris.”

Let’s hope they aren’t charging the same price, ha ha ha. All kidding aside though, what’s up with that? And there’s more:

According to the CDC, over the last 50 years right here in America “The size of a hamburger has tripled, a basket of fries more than doubled, and the average soda has grown from a modest 7 ounces to a jumbo 42 ounces.” And some wonder why “The average American is 26 pounds heavier than in 1950. [And] about one-third of us are overweight or obese and that number is projected to hit nearly 50% by 2030.”


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One contributing factor, according to research and Michael Pollan, is that instead of using our internal cues to know when to stop eating most of us “allow external, and usually visual, cues to determine how much we [should] eat.” So many of us are likely not listening to our guts and instead just continuing to eat until our plates are clean, the package is empty, or the TV show is over. When was the last time you left some food on your plate simply because you were starting to feel full? I am the first to admit…it’s easier said than done!

So aside from ensuring I eat a variety of real, whole foods (including full-fat dairy), keeping my portion sizes in check is at the top of my priority list. When our family documented and photographed everything we ate for a week last year there were a lot of comments indicating some of our meals didn’t look like enough food. Is that because people were comparing our plates to the super-sized portions of today or the way things used to be (and still are in France)?

I personally think real food is much more filling than the processed stuff so it doesn’t take as much for me to feel full. Plus when I do overeat, and it does happen occasionally (I am human after all!), it really is not a good feeling. And the other great thing about real food filling you up nicely is that it prevents all those crazy spikes in hunger and energy levels throughout the day that people often experience otherwise. Goodbye afternoon crash!

So don’t be fooled by what society is telling you is the right amount of food…eat what’s right for you. You can always go back for more, and believe it or not it’s okay to feel hungry in-between meals on occasion! Here are some things to try:

  • The next time you’re at a restaurant split an entrée with someone at your table.
  • Prepare your food on an appetizer plate instead of a standard sized dinner plate.
  • Eat more slowly to allow yourself time to feel full before going back for more.
  • Stop eating when you feel full…don’t worry about cleaning your plate or finishing the last bite!

What are your thoughts about today’s portion sizes? How did they get so out of control?

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133 thoughts on “Portion Size Matters”

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  1. I am a firm believer that young children are great self regulators when it comes to food. I rarely insist on either of my children finishing their plates. My problem area however, is “dessert”. I do ask that they finish their meals if they would like dessert (and to clarify, dessert doesn’t happen every night and often times is just fresh fruit). Somehow I feel like this forces them to eat more than they would on their own. Any suggestions on the best way to deal with this?

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Marianne. This is how I handle dessert nights(and we’ve had our share of pumpkin pie lately): I just make sure that portions are a little smaller (other than veggies), so they aren’t getting over-full. It seems to work. :) ~Amy

  2. How I envy you… While your lunches look perfectly appropriate for your children, my teenage son does, indeed, require MORE! Especially with after school sports and the fact that he does not get home until after 5p.m. I miss those days of packing his old lunchbox in elementary school. Now I’m racking my brain for ways to get in more food that is not filler but nutritious as well.

  3. One idea we came up with that helps with portion control is when the kids want 2nds of something, they wait until a parent is finished to go get it. Often, they snack on the raw veggies from their plate while waiting and eat much less as the feeling of being full hits them! It also has caused them to eat slower since they’re gonna wait anyway.

  4. I have to laugh every time I hear about how this isn’t enough food regarding one of your posts. I too have a 3rd grader and we pack about the same or slightly less. But that’s appropriate for MY child. That’s the point, what’s appropriate for each child (and staying mindful of NORMAL portion sizing). Of course I would not expect this to be enough for a boy in middle school or high school. And the comments like “really your kids eat that!” I have been very lucky to have a kid that is NOT picky, that said, some kids just are, despite having been exposed to variety etc. (I have a friend who’s daughter had a period of only drinking milk and eating sausage or salami. He son, on the other hand was anxious to try escargot. In the same household … exposed to the same foods … Totally different taste buds.) Let’s look at this from a better perspective … Everyone is different and hopefully parents are in tune with what their child needs. And that’s not a cold Happy Meal with “chicken nuggets”. Yes, apparently a kid in my son’s class has this very often. Luckily, my son is kinds grossed out by it, as I am.

  5. There are little changes you can make that will trick your mind into thinking you’re eating more. Like using smaller plates, instead of the 10″ round plate, go for a 6-8″ plate. If you fill the smaller plate and eat it all, your brain thinks you are more. Or, using a plate with a contrasting color to your food. So if you’re eating chicken veggies and potatoes, go for a dark plate, or if you’re eating steak, go for the light colored plate. When you can see how much food is on your plate, you’ll eat less. But when your food and plate are similar in color, you don’t realize just how much food you have. These are great little tips that I’ve adopted…here are more: http://bit.ly/143h1vu

  6. Good point about visual clues. My husband was recently at a weight loss class at our local hospital and the teacher told them that you are more likely to feel full when you eat a smaller plate (like an appetizer plate) that is full than a large dinner plate with spaces. Since then we’ve been using our small salad plates to help control portions. Still not trying to pile it on, but making our eyes think we’re getting lots.

  7. I know my father-in-law confuses great restaurants as ones with with huge portion sizes. The food doesn’t even have to be good. He often would rather go to an all-you-can place with awful food then a place with really good food because, to him, it a “better bang fir your buck”. I’m sure he is not the only person to think this way.

  8. When my oldest went to camp earlier this month, all the leaders could talk about was how I needed to pack lots of snacks, because they didn’t get fed very much. So, he and I went to the store, and I stocked him up. When we went up to see him halfway through the week, he had hardly touched anything, because he said he was getting more than enough. Without making judgments, the leaders probably fell into the “overweight” group, so they were probably used to much larger portion sizes. It made me feel good, because portion size is something I struggle with, and I was glad to know that he has a healthy view of what is an appropriate portion. He’s also had some bad experiences when he’s over eaten, so he is more aware of how much he eats.

  9. All good points. One thing I’d like to comment on, you mentioned that one-third of Americans are overweight or obese. Actually, it’s more like two-thirds, just shy of 70%. Even more concerning…

  10. My husband and I registered for dinner plates at Pottery Barn and when we got them, we couldn’t believe how huge they were! We now use them as serving dishes and exclusively use the salad plates as our dinner plates.

  11. I’m not sure who is citing what up there, but the CDC’s own website says 2/3 of Americans are overweight or obese. OVER 1/3 of Americans (35.7%) are obese. I’m not trying to nitpick, just pointing out the situation is even worse than that paragraph says.

  12. I definitely agree. We’ve been trying to be better at portion control. I don’t like to throw food out, so I try to serve less and put the leftovers into the fridge right away (portioning them into lunch containers) has helped. :)

  13. Our family typically only eats on smaller plates (ones used for snack portions) – even at dinner time. It helps TREMENDOUSLY with not only placing reasonable/healthy portions on our plates, but also with feeling content with those portions. Totally agree that most of our restaurants serve ridiculous amounts of food – I no longer enjoy the feeling of “fullness”, it’s uncomfortable and makes my stomach bloat…not a fun feeling. Took a while of eating small portions though to even learn to be aware of that! It’s truly amazing how we can program our bodies!

  14. When hubby and I travelled in the US four years ago, we were shocked at the portions! And food was super cheap too, so when we ordered, we assumed we would get a normal or smaller portion than we were used to. In Canada, I’m sure our portions are still too big, but they are certainly smaller (and more expensive) than in the US.

    As for the French fast food, it is smaller portions AND more expensive. Seriously.

  15. I think people are also worried about a good deal. They want to eat every bite because they payed for it. They want to supersize because for 50 cents more….twice as much food. They want a full salad because its only a dollar more. Its a problem.

  16. Thank you for this! I’ve been slowly trying to retrain myself on portion sizes and listening to my body instead of eating just because it’s there. My husband and I recently went to a local Japanese restaurant where part of the dining experience is watching the chef cook at your table. The food is delicious, but the main entree is ginormous. After the soup, salad, and tiny appetizer, I only had a few bites of the main dish and brought home the leftovers. I had lunch for the next four days in that doggy bag. Needless to say that place is a once in a blue moon treat for us.

  17. Over the last 6 months I have been really looking at what is in the food my family eats. I was astounded by the portion sizes and ingredients at our favorite restaurants. It has gotten to the point where I do not even enjoy my favorite restaurants because I cannot convince myself to eat anything on the menu. If I do, I have to modify it beyond recognition. Thank you for reminding us that we decide our fullness, not the person/people who cooks our food!

  18. When we eat dinner out, we usually ask for a box when our food arrives so that we can pack up half of it. We eat the other half the next day. Some restaurants are providing at least calorie counts on their menus. It makes it easier to gauge how much you should eat.

    Trying to stay GMO-free is more difficult (when eating out) unless you can find a restaurant that provides GMO information (I have not found one yet, besides Chipotle).

  19. Anyone have suggestions on teaching a 4 year old the sensation of full. I have the rare child who has ALWAYS cleaned her plate and asked for more. We have talked to her about it since she was 2 but will gorge herself if you let her. She comes home looking pregnant when visiting the grandparents…funny but not really. :-)

    1. It can be complicated and I could fill 10 to 15 pages with advice but a few quick suggestions are; Increase good fat and quality protien as well as whole high fiber food. Give her a glass of milk or some nuts and hour before mealtime. give her food that looks big on smaller plates (if you usually give her carrott chips for example instead give her large carrott sticks) Add an extra serving of a fruit or vegetable she like to her plate in addition to what you normally give her. Give her seconds (make it a very small serving) if she asks for them but have her wait 10 min first. If she asks for more tell her she can have a snack after whatever it is your family does usually for the next hour after dinner and if she still asks for it give her one but a small one. Unless she is gaining too much weight or is having health problems slowly correcting over time is better than a quick fix. Hardest tip? Put limits on the grands she should not be eating to the point you can see her stomach distending!

  20. We were out eating breakfast yesterday at a chain restaurant which is very unusual for us but it was a treat. I noticed the amount of food that was included in the breakfasts and was amazed. This was one of their special meals, two slices of blueberry stuffed french toast, choice of sausage or bacon, two eggs and potatoes. I cannot imagine eating that much food. Also, if you ordered just french toast that was 5 slices and I don’t remember what came with that, but I am sure some meat and something else. We ate some of the smaller portion breakfasts and that was more than plenty. Mine was a 2 egg omelet and a muffin which was huge and that was more than enough. My husband had one egg, two slices of bacon, hash brown potatoes, and 2 pancakes. That was a lot of food and we ordered the small portions on the menu. We don’t eat out often so I don’t really pay attention to portion size but I notice that it seems bigger every time we do.

  21. The worst part in restaurants is that eating half isn’t even safe, a friend who teaches nutrition told me that the average meal at olive garden is 6-8 servings of pasta. It has taken a while but I’m finally getting to where I can honor my own fullness, cutting carbs and eliminating sugar and adding good fats has helped tremendously with that.

  22. This is a multi layered issue. Many hunger for something that has nothing to do with eating and may not even know, connection,community,creativity………eating raises neurotransmitters, ironically the AAD (average American diet) does not nourish the brain as effectively and being really stuffed, even from junk food, calms the nervous system. Our culture has a persistent misconception regarding lack, cemented by advertising. We want a lot for our money…..And people do not know how to make food taste good if they have not learned to cook! And many people do not know how to season food well. Plain brown rice is not so yummy. Add some ginger and soy sauce or garlic and onion and yum, yum, yum……it is ironic that something as simple as nourishing ourselves has become a crises, the simple act of eating well is a grave concern.

  23. A good friend told me: What would you do with the extra food on your plate? Eat it just to clean your plate? Or throw it in the garbage? Why would you want to treat your body like garbage? Makes us really think about the amount of food we eat and how we are treating ourselves. (BTW, we now save very small bites of food – like 1/4 of a chicken breast or two slices of cucumber – and put them together with other “small” bites for snacks or lunch. We do not throw out much food!)

  24. I just started participating in a program called The Light Weigh” it is by Suzanne Fowler. wwwlightweigh.com Its a catholic program but the main point for weight loss is portion size. I hear there are similar programs to teach us how to feel the natural signals our bodies are currently ignoring, some religious some not.

  25. Yep, it’s definitely affected me over the years. I get frustrated if there’s not enough food to either pack myself with or to bring home for lunch the next day. As I explore healthier options, I find the better and more high quality the food, the smaller the portions. SLOOOOOOWWWWWLY I’m becoming OK with this…

  26. There is a chain restaurant here called Claim Jumper. I have never eaten there because whenever anyone I know talks about their experience at that restaurant, all they describe are the huge portions that they offer there. I have yet to hear of one person describe the taste of the food. It puzzles me that people would go to a restaurant for the portions sizes and not the taste.

    I agree that our food portions are way out of control – Bagels are another example. Has anyone purchased a bagel recently? Even the healthy ones are about twice as big as what they used to be. Since I became aware of portion sizes, I usually eat about half a bagel now and that’s plenty for me.

    1. I recently met my girlfriends who wanted to meet at Claim Jumper and decided to check out the nutritional values before I went so I could be mindful of what I was eating. I don’t even count calories, but there was virtually nothing in an acceptable calorie range. It was depressing. And those calories are probably so high because the portions are huge and unhealthy. I had such a stomach ache after eating there. Feel queasy just thinking about it.

    2. The food is very tasty, but the portions are what people go for. Its a group dinner, its fun and its interesting. Where else can you get a slice of cake that is the size of a small mountain? Its not intended for one person, its a group thing.

  27. Yep, so true. The best thing I do is to serve myself a small portion to begin with. If I am truly hungry when I finish that, then I can serve myself more. But I also force myself to finish all my vegetables and everything first before I go back for a second of starches or proteins or whatever.

  28. When I was living in another country I was surprised to see that people always left a little bit of food on their plate. I was told that if you ate everything you were still hungry and wanted more. It was also different in that everyone was served the same portion-no American style of serving plates on the table.

  29. I live in Belgium and portion size at McDonald’s are different. It is more expensive and not fast food the way we Americans know it. For anyone who is interested in French macarons, they are served with the coffee at McDonald’s ;-) Anyway, Pizza Hut portion sizes are also different. The kid size pizza in American is a regular size pizza in Europe. Much more expensive than in the US.

    As for non-American restaurants, the restaurants we go to serve the same size entrees, but do not offer other stuff. If we order spaghetti bolognese, all we get is an extra little cup of cheese. That’s it. We don’t even need a salad with dressing or bread. The entree is plenty.

    Another thing, when we go out and have a beer, we get a tiny cup of peanuts or other snack for free. Not a big bowl of snacks.

    There is much less emphasis on snacking and juice for kids in Europe. The baby food section is also very tiny. If anyone is curious, true to Belgian form, there are only 2-3 baby cereals and one is chocolate baby cereal and the box says for babies 8 months +. Children here are also likely to eat bread with chocolate spread in the morning. Brand competition is very little here, so that also helps, but it’s not necessary. We don’t need any more than those outer aisles of the store with the fresh stuff.

    1. And it is really sad that all those processed choices are made by a handful of companies just with different packaging.

  30. I am so tired of hearing people bash “clean your plate”. There is nothing wrong with teaching children to not put more on their plate than they will eat. They can always go back for more if they’re still hungry, but who wants to eat that food after it’s been on a kid’s plate? By telling them to leave food on their plate, we are teaching them to be wasteful. There are still adults and children, even in this country (USA), who do not have enuff to eat. I just can’t get on the “waste good food” bandwagon!

    1. Debbe – In our house we start with small portions and then go back for seconds (or thirds if need be) until we are full. But surprisingly after eating that first small portion we are usually content. We don’t enforce the “clean your plate” rule, but due to the above practice there’s seldom any food wasted. And thanks to the composter we got as a gift, even that ends up in the garden.

    2. You are right, it shouldn’t be bashing “clean your plate” but rather starting out with “serve yourself small portions, eat until you are full, then stop whether or not you ate all the food on your plate”.

  31. I once saw a fast-food commercial advertise a combo meal that included a very large soda, very large fries, oversize burger, and two deep fried tacos for a very low price. I think part of the problem is that it is seen as economical to purchase large portions of food, in the sense of “look how far I can stretch this dollar.” Quantity and convenience have trumped quality. Also, not finishing food is thought of as wasting it. My old home ec teacher used to say that overeating was a waste of food. I believe industry and advertising has really had an enormous influence on the cultural mindset when it comes to food consumption.

  32. I’m so thankful that my mom learned when I was a kid that forcing a clean plate would lead to bad eating habits! Everyone always teases me about how little I eat. I honestly feel sick if I eat more! It’s because I never got into the habit of over-stuffing myself! If I eat fast food, I get kid size or order from the dollar menu. If I’m at a restaurant, one “serving” will usually make 2-3 meals for me.

  33. Great post. When I moved to the US from India, I was surprised at the portion sizes in restaurants. Most entrees would end up being two meals for me. Over the years I have grown accustomed to the bigger portions now, but I still end up taking a little bit to go when I eat out.

  34. I worry about portion control with my kids. At home we avoid snacking in-between meals, so my children are usually pretty hungry at dinner time. I make most everything from scratch and we are all healthy eaters with healthy weights, but After extensive reading, I am conscious about us having too much sugar, wheat, fruit(high glycemic index), and cheese. Also beans (red, black, pinto, etc.) for bathroom reasons.

    A typical meal for us in main dish, 2 vegetables, 1 fruit and milk. So for instance if the meal is homemade whole wheat mac and cheese, I worry when my kids ask for seconds on mac and cheese or fruit. Naturally, I tell them to finish their milk first, then I offer another vegetable, but they don’t always go for that. How much food is too much? Last night it was chicken fajitas. My 6 year old ate a fajita with chicken, green peppers and cheese, and also had black beans, cucumbers, homemade refrigerator pickles (request), apple slices and a glass of milk. My 3 year old ate the same except she had yogurt (plain) instead of pickles. Then both asked for another fajita. I managed to pacify them with some walnuts and would have been fine giving them more veggies. But my husband and I ate 2 fajitas, it seemed a bit much for a 3 year old.

    1. Read the books by Ellyn Satter. Research has shown that children whose sence of fullness hasn’t been screwed with will eat exactly what they need. If they are given a meal with extra calories/fat added or the exact meal with some calories/fat removed, the child will eat less or more relatively. If you are too controlling about the food, your children will grow up with food issues and possible become overweight. If you offer a variety of nutricious food and let your child choose how much of what then they will be fine, and over time they will eat a very balanced diet (even if each meal isn’t balanced). Some days my 3 yr old will eat as much (or more) as us adults, other day he seems to eat nothing. It all balances out.

    2. Kristin, in my experience kids have a very good sense of how much to eat, and (in contrast to adults) they also rarely overeat. However, parents have to let them keep and develop their naturally good eating habits. In your case, I think less micro-managing would be better. As long as you are offering a healthy selection of foods (which you do), there is nothing wrong about letting your kids pick what and how much they want. I don’t think there is something like an ideal portion size for young kids. Kids’ portion sizes are fluctuating a lot from kid to kid and also from day to day. It is very normal, that little kids eat adult size portions the one day and barely anything the other day. It is also normal, that kids might eat vegetables only the one day and meat only the other day. I think, it is very important as a parent not to disrupt those fluctuations. Meals should primarily be about enjoying good food and conversation. How can a kid enjoy his/her meals and develop healthy eating habits, if (s)he is constantly under the radar and told to eat more or less or something else than (s)he is craving for?

  35. That is so interesting about being full on less. My husband and I just started in January eating real non-processed food and the first thing we noticed was that we got full quicker. I was surprised and delighted. I’m still working on the portion control but making improvements everyday. Thanks for your blog!