For most of us, portion control can be a little tricky and feel a little boring. And although it may not be much fun, in order to to eat healthier and especially to lose weight, portion control is key. Multiple studies have shown how mindlessly piling up your plate can lead to consuming more calories, ignoring those "I'm full" signals from your brain and eventually piling on pounds. Frances Largeman-Roth, R.D., author of Eating in Color and a nutrition expert who works with people trying to lose weight, concurs. Not minding your portions, she says, "is what does us in."
But there's good news. You don't have to weigh and measure every bite—or even compare the size of your steak to a deck of cards everytime you sit down to eat. The practical tips that follow can help you get a handle on your portions, manage your weight and even enjoy your meals more.
1. Understand serving sizes.
A serving size is what's listed on a package; a portion size is what you decide to put on your plate. But many serving sizes are based on standards set back in 1993, based on how people ate in the 1970s and 80s, so they don't always reflect how much we eat today. For example, a current serving size of ice cream is half a cup, even though most people today eat a cup or more at one time, says Largeman-Roth. To fix the discrepancy, the FDA is requiring that manufacturers update update their serving sizes for certain foods by 2018, so you'll have a more realistic idea of what a healthy serving is (read more about the new food label changes
2. Measure once. You don't need to carry around a measuring cup and kitchen scale. But it does help to measure servings once or twice, so you can see the proper amount and remember it. Learn where 1 cup of cereal falls in your favorite bowl or what exactly 2 ounces of pasta looks like. More often than not, we are eating more than we thought, and that's especially true for beverages, says Largeman-Roth. "A 20-ounce bottle of soda has more than two 8-ounce servings," she says. "That's a very quick way to add up calories."
3. Downsize your dishes. It's a tried-and-true trick: switch out your dinner plates for salad plates and you'll eat smaller portions. Color matters, too—one study from Cornell University found that serving food on high-contrasting plates can help you eat less, while using plates of the same color (think mashed potatoes on white china) can lead to eating more. Check your utensils, too—try a smaller spoon for ice cream, or use chopsticks for noodles to take smaller, slower bites. "Anything that slows you down is a great way to not overeat," says Largeman-Roth.
4. Make mini versions of your favorite foods.
or savory quinoa cakes
in your muffin tin is an automatic way to control portions. Your foods come out in perfect single serve portions. Individual ramekins or mini loaf pans can give you the same result for casserole or meatloaf.
5. Stop eating out of the bag. "That's a disaster waiting to happen!" says Largeman-Roth. It's just too easy to eat more than you intended. Rather than wolfing down that whole bag of pretzels, dump a small handful onto your plate or in a small sandwich bag. It's helpful to see how much you're eating—and once you've resealed the bag you're less likely to go back for more. "Enjoy your snack, and when it's gone, it's gone," Largeman-Roth says. Same goes for dinnertime. Rather than setting dinner out on the table family-style, try plating everyone's food at the stove. You'll control portions from the start, and remove the temptation to keep reaching for seconds.
6. Order not just what you want, but how you want it. Restaurants are notorious for super-sized servings, but you don't have to go along with it. Pass up the bread basket altogether—or when it arrives, give everyone a slice and then hand the basket back to the server, suggests Largeman-Roth. That extra-creamy salad dressing? Order it on the side, and dip your fork in it with every bite of greens. When you order your main dish or dessert, ask for half of it in a take-home container.
7. Go for slow foods. Some foods come with natural speed bumps: pistachios in their shells, fresh cherries with pits. Choosing foods like these forces you to slow down and eat less. Another plus: the pile of shells or pits on your plate will remind you of how much you've already had. Or, choose foods with their own portion limits: apples, bananas and oranges all come in single-serve "packages."
8. Watch the booze. "This where people rack up a ton of calories," says Largeman-Roth. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines advise up to one drink a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men, but eyeballing the specific recommended amounts can be tricky. An easy fix: pour 5 ounces of wine (or 12 ounces of beer, or 1.5 ounces of liquor) into a measuring cup and then into a glass so you can see how much it really is. Hint—just like plates, bigger wine glasses make it easier to drink more wine (and calories).
9. Eat like a kid. "Part of portion control is being aware of what you're eating and knowing when to push away," says Largeman-Roth. "Kids are so good at this—they know when they're full." Kids tend to listen to their bodies, but as adults we're sometimes too rushed or have become too accustomed to eating what's on our plate. It takes about 20 minutes for your brain to register that you've had enough, so slow down to give your brain time to catch up with your eyes and your stomach.
10. Enjoy what you eat. It sounds counterintuitive, but eating less can actually help you enjoy your food more. And focusing on your food, rather than noshing away in front of the TV or computer screen, can also help you savor your meals more. In the end, it's about eating mindfully, says Largeman-Roth. Her advice: Stop multi-tasking, and slow down. "Notice the food in front of you. Savor it. Use all of your senses to enjoy it."