How Plate Sizes and Food Servings Influence Portion Control

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By: Susan Bowerman, M.S., RD, CSSD, CSOWM, FAN, Senior Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training


Small changes can yield great results. Our series continues on this fascinating idea: how serving and plating food can influence how much we eat.


January is all about resolutions so over the last few weeks we’ve been talking about the big nutritional benefits you can get from making just a few small changes.


We started with little adjustments you can make when you’re buying food, and in the last post, I suggested some ways in which you could make changes in the way you prepare your foods to shave calories and make them healthier.


You might already be reaping some benefits if you’ve been trying to make these changes – and you may even be thinking that there isn’t a whole lot more tweaking you can do. However, a little fine-tuning in the way your foods are served can affect your food intake, too.


When you’ve taken the time to shop smart and cook healthfully, it’s easy to assume that how much you eat doesn’t really matter that much.  But I see so many people in my practice who eat really, really well – they just eat way too much.  So, controlling your portions does matter – even when your plate is filled with “healthy” foods – if you’re trying to keep your calories in check.


The idea that “your eyes are bigger than your stomach” really applies here.  When you’re loading up your plate, you’re relying on what you see to determine your portion, which is often a lot more than you can – or should – eat.


We are programmed to finish whatever is put in front of us, whether it’s a lot or a little. That’s your “portion.” And the only way you know that you’re finished eating is when the empty plate tells you, “I’m done.”


Here are seven factors to consider when serving and plating your meals:

1. Size of the serving container

From soup to nuts, any dish served from a large container could encourage you to eat more of it. To manage your portions, try serving from a smaller bowl or saucepan.

2. Size of the utensils

You’ll serve yourself more if you use a large serving spoon than you will from a smaller one, so be aware of how much you’re putting on your plate.  “Just a couple of scoops” of anything can add up really fast when the scoop is the size of a shovel.

3. Size of the plate

When you use a smaller plate, it looks as if it holds more food – which means your eyes are telling you that this plate of food will be more filling.  So, if you’re trying to cut calories by cutting portion sizes, trim the size of your plate, too. Eliminating larger-sized portions could reduce caloric intake by up to 29 percent among U.S. adults.

4. Height and width of drinking glasses

If you’re trying to curb your intake of liquid calories, consider the size and shape of the glass you use.  Tall skinny glasses appear to hold much more than short, wide ones – which fools your eyes into thinking that your stomach will be getting more.

5. Plating up in the kitchen instead of at the table

Serving food family style makes it easy for everyone to help themselves, which is precisely why it’s not such a good idea if you’re trying to control portions. With serving dishes on the table, it’s just too easy to have “just another spoonful”. Instead, portion out your meal in the kitchen. The only serving dishes you should keep on the table are those holding low-calorie veggies and salads.

6. Plate color

I’m not suggesting that you go out and buy new plates, but keep in mind that the color of your plate can affect your ability to visualize how much you’re eating. When there’s a large contrast between the color of the food and the color of the plate – picture a dark square of chocolate cake on a bright white plate – it’s easier to visualize the portion, which makes it easier to control how much you are eating.

7. The food you eat first

When you’re really hungry and you’re serving yourself a plate of food, you’re likely to serve yourself more of the highest calorie foods that are available, and you’re also likely to dig into them first once you sit down to eat, meaning you’re going fill up on those high-calorie foods first!  If this sounds like you, try digging into your salad or veggies first – that way, you’ll start to fill up with the lowest calorie items first, which leaves less room for the heavier stuff.

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