tips to avoid "portion distortion" and enjoy healthier meals | The Old Farmer's Almanac

Portion Control

Full Plate
Photo Credit
Margaret Boyles
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Public health officials tell us the “portion size” in American meals is way out of whack.

It’s out of whack with our metabolic needs, that plate size, bowl size, cup size, muffin size, restaurant serving size, and movie-popcorn-bucket size have expanded dramatically in recent decades, and along with that, the size of our hips and tummies.

Some experts suggest shrinking the size of our plates and bowls, or eating healthier meals from a large plate and calorie-dense, less healthy choices on smaller plates.

Others suggest reducing portions by sticking to relatively tasteless foods, allowing ourselves only one or two tastes per meal, or adhering to a low-fat, a high-fat, or a high-protein diet.

Whether artfully arranged on a large plate, or nestling against each other on a small plate, small portions make me feel anxious. Confronting those endless amounts of food at buffets gives me fits. If I try to limit how much I’ll take from the delicious foods available, I’ll feel beset by intrusive thoughts of wanting to eat them. If I do indulge, I’ll eat until myself into a stupor and feel lousy for a day or two.

That’s been true ever since I can remember having thoughts about food. It doesn’t matter how peaceful the setting, how beautifully composed the dishes, how pleasant the company, how unappealing the food, or even how hungry I am. I invariably feel uncomfortable when I see only small portions on my plate.

Over many years of reading and thinking, not to mention eating, cooking, growing and writing about “healthy” food, I’ve discovered three simple rules for managing my own portion distortion and the anxiety that comes from thinking about how to eat in moderation.

  • I stay away from all-you-can-eat buffets and bottomless-bowl establishments. I know all too well how I’ll feel if I try to eat less and how I’ll feel if I eat what I want.
  • I plan almost all my meals and fill my plate (or stuff my soups and chilis) with large portions of green, red, and yellow vegetables, dressing them lightly with a dab of butter or olive-oil dressing. This leaves just enough room on the plate or bowl for tucking in a normal serving of fish or chicken (size of a deck of cards), and a small mound of rice, beans, or quinoa (one-third to one-half cup). 

    I especially love piling my plate with roasted vegetables, which need no dressing other than a bit of olive oil to keep them from sticking to the roasting pan. 

    Research I’ve seen has convinced me that eating a wide variety of raw and cooked vegetables is important for preventing disease and having  an abundance of energy. I’ve never seen research that cautions about overdosing on colorful vegetables. If anything, an abundance of research urges people to eat more, a lot more, of them. I feel grateful that I love vegetables, and that I have the ability to grow most of my own.
  • Since I know I won’t control my “portion size” of snacks, desserts, and rich entrees, I take a zero-serving approach to these foods in my home. I simply don’t buy or make them, except on the special occasions noted below. Snacks I keep available: raw, unsalted nuts, sunflower seeds, raisins. Nothing too delicious.

I will admit our that on rare, special occasions: fall/winter holidays and birthdays, we don’t restrain ourselves. Eat a whole pint of New York Superfudge Chunk? Atop a homemade brownie? Finished off with hot fudge sauce, whipped cream and walnuts?
Why not?

These special pigouts at home and occasional celebrations with friends or relatives keeps us from becoming rigid or holier-than-thou about our dietary habits.

There’s a trick to it, though. I buy or make only enough delectables to finish them all off in that one big splurge. And when we’re eating out, we don’t take home leftovers.