Sizing up serving sizes

When it comes to maintaining a healthy weight, sometimes it’s not what you eat but how much.

Linda Stockman, MS, RD, LD, CDE, Registered Dietitian and Medical Weight Management Program coach, offers some tips for estimating serving sizes.

 Approximate with Plates and Bowls

An easy way of guesstimating how much food to serve yourself is “to think about your portions in terms of plates and bowls. Think about a normal-size 9-inch dinner plate. Every quarter of that plate is about half a cup. So half the plate is a whole cup. The whole plate is worth two cups,” illustrates Ms. Stockman.

“Make half your plate fruits and vegetables, preferably non-starchy vegetables.”

A cereal or salad bowl is a whole cup, and a little vegetable bowl is a half-cup, Ms. Stockman says.

“If you’re trying to do eyeball measurements, in a restaurant or wherever, normally a side dish is about a half-cup serving, and a moderate portion of an entrée would be about a cup serving, or half your plate,” explains Ms. Stockman.

“That gives you an idea of to put something on your plate. If a quarter of your plate is your protein — a grilled chicken breast, for example — and a quarter of your plate is a starch — such as brown rice,” Ms. Stockman says, “you still have plenty of room for non-starchy vegetables on that plate, and a glass of low-fat milk or a piece of fruit beside your plate.”


According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), your plate should be:

  • Half fruits and vegetables
  • A quarter grains (carbohydrates), half of which are whole-grain
  • A quarter protein

The USDA website choosemyplate.gov offers good advice on serving sizes.

“The precise amount of recommended carbohydrates, fats, and proteins depends on your meal plan. The government website is a good visual, but it’s not right for everyone. Some people may need a physician or dietitian to help them determine what’s best,” says Ms. Stockman.

As a general rule, Ms. Stockman says, make half your plate fruits and vegetables, preferably non-starchy vegetables, which are high of vitamins and minerals and low on calories. Non-starchy vegetables are all vegetables except potatoes, corn, peas and beans (except green beans).

“We encourage you to eat non-starchy vegetables in large portions. If you start putting those into your meals,” Ms. Stockman says, “you’ll eat less of the entrée, which is usually the most high-calorie, high-fat part of the meal.”

Approximate with Your Fist

According to the National Institutes of Health, another way of getting a rough estimate of a serving size is comparing a serving of meat, grains or vegetables to the size of your fist.

Depending on the food choice — such as calorie-rich food like chicken fried steak or a triple cheeseburger — a serving that’s the size of your whole hand or two hands together very well may be more calories than your body requires.

Actually Measure

Every once in a while, Ms. Stockman says, it’s a good idea to pull out a measuring cup and actually measure.

Measure a half-cup of rice or mashed potatoes or a whole cup of green peas or sliced carrots. It’s a good idea to get a solid understanding of what a half-cup serving looks like when spread out over your plate.

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Sizing up serving sizes