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Healthy Eating & Your Family

Keeping Portions Under Control

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Bagels as big as frisbees. Muffins the size of flower pots. Bowls of pasta so deep, your fork can barely find the bottom.

It’s not surprising that waistlines of kids and adults have been expanding over the last few decades. Part of the problem is undoubtedly what families eat — too much saturated fat, too much sugar, and not enough nutrients.

But another part has as much to do with quantity as quality. Are our plates simply piled too high?

Portion Distortion

Portion sizes began to increase in the 1980s and have been growing ever since. Our perception of portions has become so distorted over time that, research shows, it’s hard for us to recognize what a normal portion looks like.

Take bagels, for example: 20 years ago, most bagels had a 3-inch diameter and 140 calories; today they have a 6-inch diameter and 350 calories. Eat one and you’ve just consumed three servings of grains — that’s half the recommended number of grain servings for the entire day.

In fact, we’ve become so desensitized to “big food” that we don’t bat an eye when restaurants offer us things like neverending pasta bowls, bottomless fries, or 52-ounce mugs of soda. And we don’t think it’s strange that, in some cafés, we can’t even order a “small” anymore — just variations of big, bigger, and biggest. No wonder car manufacturers had to start building bigger cup holders!

The price we pay for such overabundance is high. Kids and adults who consistently overeat are at risk for developing weight problems and the medical problems associated with being overweight, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, bone and joint problems, breathing and sleeping problems, and even depression. Later in life they are at greater risk for heart disease, heart failure, and stroke.

The Truth About Serving Sizes

One reason that kids and adults eat too much at meals is that they tend to eat what’s on their plate. Thus, as portions have gone up, so have the calories consumed. So it’s helpful to understand the difference between serving sizes and recommended amounts of different foods.

Serving sizes. Contrary to popular belief, the serving size on a food label is not telling you the amount you should be eating. The serving size is a guide to help you see how many calories and nutrients — as well as how much fat, sugar, and salt — are in a specific quantity of that food.

Sometimes the serving size on the food label will be a lot less than you are used to eating or serving. In some cases, it’s perfectly OK (and even a good idea) to eat and serve more than the serving size listed. For example, if you’re cooking frozen vegetables and see the serving size is 1 cup, it’s no problem to serve or eat more because most vegetables are low in calories and fat yet high in nutrition.

But when it comes to foods that are high in calories, sugar, or fat, the serving size is a useful guide to alert you that you may be getting more than is healthy. If your son gulps down a 20-ounce bottle of soda in one sitting, the amount he consumed is 20 ounces. But if the label shows the serving size is 8 ounces, not only did he have 2½ servings, he also had 2½ times the listed calories as well as 2½ times the sugar.

Recommended amounts. Serving sizes tell you how much nutrition you’re getting from a particular food but they don’t tell you which foods you need to stay healthy — or how much of those foods you should eat. That’s where the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate comes in.

MyPlate provides recommendations based on the government’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines that can help you figure out how much food kids and adults should have, based on age, gender, and activity level. Once you know that, you can decide how much of those heaping restaurant portions your family should actually eat!

Visual Cues

Now that we’re so used to overdoing it, is it possible to bring portion sizes back to earth? Yes. But first we have to understand how much food our bodies need as opposed to how much they want.

A great way to visualize appropriate portion sizes is to use the concept of the “divided plate.” Think of a plate divided into four equal sections:

  • Use one of the top sections for protein.
  • Use the other top section for starch, preferably a whole grain.
  • Fill both sections of the bottom half with veggies (or fruit and veggies).

The foods in each section should not overlap or be piled high. Partitioning the plate this way not only will help you keep portions under control, but will help you to serve more balanced meals to your family.

Portion-Control Tips

Picture your favorite meal at your favorite restaurant. Now picture it 75% smaller. Would you be a happy customer?

It’s easy to understand why the food industry tends to serve us way more food than is necessary: We all love to feel like we’re getting more bang for our buck. But that’s also why it’s important to take responsibility for our own portions and to help kids learn to do the same.

Here are some tips:

  • Explain the concept of the “divided plate” to your kids and use it as often as you can.
  • Serve food on smaller plates so meals look larger. A sandwich on a dinner plate looks lost; on an appetizer plate it looks downright hefty.
  • When cooking large batches or storing leftovers, separate them into smaller portions before you put them in the fridge or freezer. That way, when your family reaches in, they’ll automatically grab a portion that makes sense.
  • Avoid letting kids take an entire bag of chips or a container of ice cream to the couch. Everyone will be far less likely to overdo it if you serve individual portions in the kitchen.
  • Dish out meals at the counter and avoid bringing the whole pot to the table. Not keeping the food at arm’s length can make your family think twice about reaching for seconds. If they do want seconds, offer more veggies or salads.
  • Try single-serving sizes to help your family learn what an appropriate portion is.
  • Aim for three scheduled healthful meals and one or two healthy snacks throughout the day. Skipping a meal often leads to overeating at the next one.
  • Add more salads and fruit to your family’s diet, especially at the start of a meal, which can help control hunger and give a sense of fullness while controlling calorie intake.
  • Try not to rush through meals. Go slowly and give everyone a chance to feel full before serving more. Family sit-down meals also provide valuable opportunities to reconnect with one another.
  • Be aware that most restaurant portions may be two, three, or more times the recommended serving size. Try sharing meals, ordering an appetizer as a main dish, ordering kids’ meals (especially at fast-food restaurants), or packing up half to take home before you begin to eat.
  • Don’t be tempted to go for the giant value meal or the jumbo drink just because they’re just a few cents more than the regular size. The “deal” is no value when it triples your family’s calories!
  • Don’t serve kids large portions or expect them to clean their plates. Not only do kids need less food than adults, but studies show that preschoolers do a better job controlling portion size when they’re allowed to serve themselves.

Getting Kids Involved

If you preach to your kids about portion control, chances are they’ll tune out faster than you can say Big Gulp. A better way to go is to get them actively involved in figuring out how much is a reasonable amount to eat.

A serving of rice is about the same size as an ice cream scoop, so let your child use the scoop to serve “rice cream” to the family. A piece of meat should be about the size of a deck of cards, so see how that chicken breast measures up. And why not break out the kitchen scale while you’re at it? Weighing or measuring food may not be your idea of fun, but it probably is to your kids — plus it’s a great way to reinforce math concepts.

One easy way to size up portions if you don’t have any measurements is to use your hand as a guide. Kids have smaller hands than adults, so it serves as a reminder that kids should eat smaller portions:

  • A clenched fist is about a cup — and a cup is the amount experts recommend for a portion of pasta, rice, cereal, vegetables, and fruit.
  • A meat portion should be about as big as your palm.
  • Limit the amount of added fats (like butter, mayo, or salad dressing) to the size of the top of your thumb.

And don’t forget the good news about portions: they work both ways. You may want to cut back on spaghetti portions, but you can dish out more than one serving of carrots or green beans. This can help make the “five a day” fruit and vegetable goal more attainable.

Remember the role you play in showing kids how to size up portions. If you eat two heaping helpings of food each night, that’s what your kids will learn too.

As kids grow, their appetites will vary depending on a number of things. They tend to be more hungry during growth spurts or sports seasons when they’re more active, and less hungry during downtimes. As their appetites change, keep serving right-sized portions and encourage them to slow down to enjoy their food. Then check in on whether they’re full before they go for seconds.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: January 2015