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Understanding Serving Sizes: Easy Tips to Help You Dish Up Healthy Portions

March 19, 2021
Understanding Serving Sizes: Easy Tips to Help You Dish Up Healthy Portions - Lark Health

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When it comes to healthy eating, how much you eat can be just as important as what you eat. If you want to get healthy and prevent or manage chronic health conditions like diabetes, then it is essential to learn to practice moderation and choose healthy portions of your foods.

But what does moderation really mean, and how do you decide how much of any given food is really the proper amount? A 2016 study in the journal Appetite found that each individual's definition of "moderation" depends on personal preferences and perceptions, making "eat in moderation" hard advice to follow.[1]

On top of that, remembering exact serving sizes is also quite tricky, so how are you supposed to know how to dish up a healthy amount of food on your plate when mealtime rolls around?

Thankfully, there are easy, handy tips and tricks that can help you to estimate and serve up appropriate portions of your foods.

Serving Size vs. Portion Size – What's The Difference?

First off, let's clear up any confusion about the difference between serving sizes and portion sizes.

  • A serving size is supposed to represent the amount of a food people typically consume, and is considered a standard amount of that food. Serving sizes are listed on a food's nutrition facts label.[2,3]
  •  A portion size is how much of a food you end up choosing to consume at one time. This may be more or less than the standard serving size listed on the label.[2,3]

For example, a nutrition facts label may say that the serving size of a cereal is 1/2 cup. However, you may pour 3/4 cup of the cereal into your bowl, making your portion size larger than the standard serving size.[2]

It is important to read labels and get to know serving sizes, so that you can begin to understand if the portions you are choosing are in line with your health goals or not.

Easy Tips For Visualizing Serving Sizes

If you want to get healthy, then choosing healthy portions of your foods is essential. That way, you can nourish your body with the appropriate amount of the nutrients it needs without overloading it with too much of things like sugar or carbohydrates.

Try out these simple methods to help you better estimate healthy portions of common foods:

1. Measure It Out

One way to get to know all the different volumes and sizes of proper portions is to take a look at the nutrition facts label of your food and actually measure out the exact serving size. Using measuring spoons and cups can help you to see what a serving size actually looks like in real life. With time, you'll become familiar with the common serving sizes, so that you can learn to eyeball them yourself as time goes on.[4]

This method is great when you have the measuring tools available to you and you have the time to measure it out. But in everyday life, that's not always practical. When it's not possible, the following tips can make it easy to estimate your portions instead with handy visuals and comparisons.

2. Try Your Hand At The "Handy" Method

The CDC suggests using a simple, "handy" guide that uses the size of your hand, palm, and fingers to estimate serving sizes.

Here's a quick summary:

  • Palm of hand = 3 ounces of meat, fish, or chicken
  • Thumb (tip to base) = 1 ounce of meat or cheese
  • Fist = 1 cup, or 1 medium piece of fruit
  • Cupped hand = 1 to 2 ounces of nuts or pretzels
  • Thumb tip (tip to first joint) = 1 tablespoon
  • Fingertip (tip to first joint) = 1 teaspoon.[5]

Methods like this that use hand and finger "measurements" have been shown to be fairly accurate in estimating portion sizes, especially for foods with rough geometric shapes.[6]

3. Compare To Common Everyday Objects

While it might be hard for us to visualize three ounces of chicken or one ounce of nuts, most people can pretty easily picture the size of a deck of cards or a golf ball in their mind.

If you are a visual person, use these everyday items as a guide for your serving and portion sizes:

  • 1 cup = Baseball, fist (Appropriate amount for vegetables)
  • 1/2 cup = 2 golf balls, 1/2 baseball, hockey puck, pool ball (Appropriate for whole grains)
  • 2 tablespoons = Ping pong ball, two tips of thumb (Appropriate for nut butter or salad dressing)
  • 2 teaspoons = Pair of dice (Appropriate for oils and fats)
  • 1 teaspoon = 1 dice, fingertip, postage stamp (Appropriate for oils and fats)
  • 1 oz. of cheese = 3 dice, 9-volt battery
  • 1 oz. of nuts = Golf ball, cupped hand
  • 1 oz. of grain = Tennis ball, small cupped handful
  • 3 oz. of protein = Deck of cards, mini tissue pack, checkbook, palm of hand (Appropriate for proteins like fish, chicken, or beef.[2,4,5,7,8])

The next time you are dishing up a snack or a meal, refer to the list of comparisons above. For example, if you are going for fruit try to aim for the size of a tennis ball, and if you are going for veggies aim for the size of a baseball. Carbs should be about the size of a hockey puck, protein a deck of cards, and oils about one or two dice.[8]

Other Tips For Eating In Moderation

Along with estimating serving sizes to help you dish up appropriate portions, these other tips can come in handy to help you eat healthy amounts at mealtime:

  • Serve up your plate with proper portions, and put the rest away.
  • Keep serving bowls out of reach to reduce temptation to serve up more.
  • Use smaller plates or bowls when serving your meals.
  • Don't eat out of bags, boxes, or cartons. Put the right amount into a bowl or onto a plate so it's easier to stick to the serving size.
  • Put leftovers into containers with pre measured portions so you can grab and go with the proper amount.
  • If at a restaurant, eyeball a healthy portion and then ask for a to-go container to set aside the rest early on in the meal.[4]

Eating Healthy Doesn't Have To Mean Living Without

If you are trying to stick to a healthier diet, then it may feel overwhelming at first. You might feel as though you have to completely overhaul your eating habits and get rid of all the foods you love.

But it doesn't have to be that way. Eating well doesn't have to feel limiting, and you don't have to punish yourself by completely cutting out all of your favorite foods. While you certainly should focus the majority of your diet on healthy, nutritious food options, old favorites (even if they aren't the healthiest) can still play a role in your diet.

You simply need to be more intentional about how much of them you eat, and how often you eat them. That's where serving and portion sizes are most important. Use the tips and tricks above to dish up small servings of these foods, choosing to savor just a little at a time.

If you love cake, for example, save it for special occasions and try to serve up only a very thin slice when it is time for dessert. And be sure to take your time to enjoy each bite!

The Bottom Line

Choosing appropriate portions of your foods can help you to form a well-rounded diet that supports your overall health. With healthy serving sizes, you can still enjoy many of your favorite foods – just in moderation.

But it's not always easy to know what the "right" amount is, especially given that a healthy serving size will vary greatly depending on what type of food you are eating.

Luckily, there are some simple, easy tips that can help you to better estimate appropriate portions of common foods. Whether you measure out serving sizes using cups and spoons, you try out the "hand" method, or you get to know easy everyday object comparisons, try out these tricks to see what works for you!


  1. vanDellen MR, Isherwood JC, Delose JE. How do people define moderation? Appetite. 2016 Jun 1;101:156-62.
  2. Serving Size vs Portion Size Is There A Difference. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Reviewed February 2020. https://www.eatright.org/food/nutrition/nutrition-facts-and-food-labels/serving-size-vs-portion-size-is-there-a-difference.
  3. Just Enough for You: About Food Portions. National Institutes of Health. December 2016. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/weight-management/just-enough-food-portions.
  4. Controlling Portion Sizes. Cleveland Clinic. Reviewed April 11 2019. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/9436-controlling-portion-sizes.
  5. Diabetes Meal Planning. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. April 2 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/managing/eat-well/meal-plan-method.html.
  6. Gibson AA, Hsu MS, Rangan AM, et al. Accuracy of hands v. household measures as portion size estimation aids. J Nutr Sci. 2016 Jul 11;5:e29.
  7. Serving Size Visuals. American Heart Association. https://www.heart.org/idc/groups/heart-public/@wcm/@global/documents/downloadable/ucm_321862.pdf.
  8. Portion Control. Mayo Clinic. November 14 2020. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/weight-loss/multimedia/portion-control/sls-20076148.

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