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“Eat when you’re hungry; stop when you’re full.” I don’t remember who gave me that advice, and I also don’t know what planet they lived on, because eating is never that simple. For many, many reasons, we can be out of touch with our hunger cues. As humans, we’re social eaters, which means many of our meals are set based on the “normal” time to have them, and not necessarily based on our body’s clocks. You might just have to eat lunch at noon because that’s when your lunch break is, but that may not be when you’re hungry, so that can throw your entire appetite schedule off for the day. When we eat with others, we chat, and lose track of how much we consume. Then there are ingredients we consume today in processed foods that mess with our hunger cues, and even hormonal imbalances that can make it difficult to assess hunger levels. It’s a mess. So “Eat when you’re hungry; stop when you’re full” is a pipe dream for many.


When you can’t fully rely on your brain or stomach to tell you when to keep eating or stop eating, you may need to lean on your eyes. Visual cues play a big role in our eating habits, too. What your food looks like can determine how much of it you eat, and much of that comes down to how food is plated and served. Here are plating and serving tips that help with portion control.


portion control food

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Start with smaller serving platters

It all starts with the serving of the food. Before food even hits individual plates, there are things you can do to help you put less on plates, like using smaller serving platters. If you have set out five-quart platters, then you’re going to feel pressure to fill those serving platters. The larger the platter, the easier it is to look at it and think, “We’ve barely made a dent in that,” and keep eating. You may have made tons of food in pots and pans to eat for days, but you don’t need to transfer them to equally massive serving platters. Smaller serving platters give the visual cue of, “We’ve eaten a lot of food already” since they empty out quicker.

portion control food

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Actually plate it

This one may seem intuitive, but it’s not for everyone. Busy individuals may just hover around the kitchen island, eating directly out of cartons, containers, and shared dishes with loved ones. But it’s very hard to assess how much you’ve eaten if you don’t actually plate your food. So do make a proper plate. Put exactly the amount you will eat, in its entirety, for that meal, on the plate. That helps you really see how much you’re consuming. If you do all sit down at a dining table, leave the serving platters in the kitchen. Putting them on the dining table, family-style makes it too easy to impulsively put more on your plate.

portion control food

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Make half your plate veggies

Nutrition experts state that half of your plate should be produce. That can be broken down into slightly more vegetables than fruit, since fruit can be high in sugar. If you load up half of your plate with leafy greens, you literally leave less space for the heavier items like your meats and carbs. And the nice thing about leafy greens is that they take a lot of effort to chew and swallow while giving you very few calories. The simple time spent eating them can trick your brain into thinking, “I’ve eaten a lot,” when you haven’t actually consumed many calories.

portion control food

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Know your plate sizes

Standard dinner plates used to be between 10 to 12 inches in diameter. Then, slowly but surely, many restaurants started to favor larger, plates, ranging 11 to 14 inches in diameter. Some of this has to do with aesthetic and liking the look of extra, clean plate on the outsides. Some of it has to do with the expectation that, when you dine out – especially in America – you’re going to get a lot of food. NPR-owned podcast WBUR reported that restaurants tend to serve dishes that are an average of 134 more calories than needed. So we shouldn’t necessarily be taking their lead on plating, but many Americans have started to buy restaurant-size plates.

portion control food

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Consider a food scale

We think we’re accurately calculating our calories because we think we’re having the “recommended serving size” stated on the bag of rice or box of cereal. But do you really know what three ounces looks like? Or one-fourth a cup? Few people do. And yet, tiny over-estimates, every day, over time, can add up to consuming several hundred more calories a day than you’d planned. A food scale can help you make sure you’re actually eating the recommended serving size. It can be interesting to see what an ounce or a half a cup really looks like. Over time, you may begin to intuitively determine these sizes.

portion control food

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Keep fluids nearby

We determine fullness levels in many ways, but one is literally how full our belly feels. You can fill your belly with high-calorie foods, but you can also fill it with zero- or low-calorie liquids, which will still make you feel full. Research has even found that consuming a full glass of water a half-hour before a meal can help individuals eat less and lose weight. Keep a low-calorie beverage nearby with meals. Take time to take sips between bites. Filling your stomach up with fluids may help you feel fuller, and eat less. Taking a sip also gives you a moment to pause, breathe, and slow down.

portion control food

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Have a small bowl/plate for high caloric food

Maybe you have a decadent item as part of your meal. Maybe it’s mac ‘n cheese, mashed potatoes, cream of corn, or something like that. Give that its own dish. Make it a small one. Maybe you have small bowls, and you put your mashed potatoes in the small bowl, and set it to the side of your healthier items. This signals to your subconscious that that is a special item. It’s not one of the other items you may grab more of, like the salad or grilled chicken. It’s a treat, so it gets its own special bowl, but as a treat, it’s also not something you’re going to get seconds of.

portion control food

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Make leftovers at the beginning

If you make a large batch of food, hoping to have leftovers for the week and spare yourself the task of cooking again, make actual leftovers up top. Take the portion you’d like to eat tonight, and plate it. Then take the rest and immediately put it in Tupperware. This is your way of communicating to yourself that that food is for another night, and not for tonight. Those portions have been earmarked for other meals. When you do this, it will make you think twice about going back for seconds when you’re already full. You’ll be robbing future you of a ready-made meal, and forcing yourself to cook again.

portion control food

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Buy colorful plates

Research has found that, in addition to the size of your plate, the color of your dishware also impacts how much you eat. While you can’t always plan for this, see if you can find plates that will contrast to the color of your food. So rather than putting your pasta with red sauce on orange plates, put it on white plates. The study that observed this found that being able to clearly see the empty space on a plate causes one to eat less. When your food and plate are similar in color, you may not give as much thought to how much you are eating.

portion control food

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Smaller serving utensils; larger dining utensils

When it comes to choosing utensils that help with portion control, there are some conflicting rules. It can be smart to use smaller serving utensils since you will then (ideally) put less food on your plate. Seeing the serving utensil full gives the impression that you’re serving yourself a lot of food. A smaller serving utensil looks full quicker than a bigger one. But when it comes time to eating, consider using larger forks. One study found that taking larger bites actually leads one to eat less. It may have to do with the feeling of the food in your mouth – a full mouth can mean a full tummy. Small forks lead to small bites, which can make you believe you need to eat more.

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