Know Your Serving Size
A bowl of cereal is a bowl of cereal, right? The nutritional information on the Cheerios box says that it provides 103 calories, 2 grams of fat, 3 grams of fiber and 21 grams of carbohydrates before you add the milk. Sounds like a good, light start to the day. But wait – the nutritional information was based on a 1 cup serving size. How much cereal was in your bowl? Next time you or your child fill up the cereal bowl, try this experiment. Before adding the milk, pour the dry cereal from the bowl into measuring cups and see how much was in the bowl. If you poured and ate a 2 ½ cup portion of Cheerios, you would have actually consumed 257 calories, 5 grams of fat, 7.5 grams of fiber and 52.5 grams of carbohydrates. Most people have no idea how much cereal they eat for breakfast each day, and most of us are consuming a lot more than we think.
We all eat larger than recommended portions of many types of foods, not just cereal. A portion is the amount of food that we choose to eat at one time. A serving size is a standard amount used to give advice about how much to eat or to identify how many calories or nutrients are in a food. When a product advertises that it contains a specific amount of calories, fat or other nutrients, that amount is calculated per standard serving size – as in the 1 cup of Cheerios in the example above. Serving sizes, while not regulated or uniform, are usually pretty standard within a product category. The USDA dietary guidelines for healthy eating are also based on standard serving sizes, and following the guidelines can help to ensure a balanced, healthy diet. The problem is that we hardly ever eat measured portions that match those used to calculate the calories and nutrients in a product or meet the dietary guidelines. A whole bakery muffin is equal to three daily servings from the grain group and a standard New York bagel is worth four servings. When was the last time you ordered a 3 ounce steak in a restaurant or only ate ½ cup of ice cream? Believe it or not, those are the recommended serving sizes.
Learning how to judge serving sizes is a great way to manage the amount of calories and nutrients that your family takes in each day, and to make everyone more aware of what they eat. Start by reading the labels on products that you use regularly and calculating how much you really eat in a portion of each food. If the box of macaroni and cheese says that it contains four servings and you usually get two portions out of it, take note that each of your portions contains twice the calories, fat, and other nutrients per serving that are listed on the nutrition facts panel. Fill your most commonly used ladles and serving spoons with water or dry rice and measure to see how much they hold; use measuring cups and spoons to portion out servings; or even use a kitchen scale to weigh foods. All will help you to see the volume of your regular portions, open up discussions on awareness for healthy eating, and can even start some impromptu math lessons with your kids. Visualize some common objects to help you to judge portion sizes without kitchen tools. For example, a recommended serving of meat, chicken or fish is 3 oz – and the size of a deck of playing cards or the palm of an adult’s hand. A cup of fruit, vegetables or pasta is the size of a tennis ball or baseball and a half cup of ice cream is the size of a racquetball. 2 tablespoons of peanut butter is as big as a marshmallow, a serving of bread is the size of a CD, and 1 ½ ounces of cheese cubes is the size of six stacked dice.
Portion sizes are a key part of GW’s Snack Guidelines that were published this fall. Our guidelines were written to encourage variety and do not completely eliminate baked goods and other treats. However, they do emphasize the importance of paying attention to serving sizes and the portions that we provide by requesting that cupcakes and muffins be mini sized and that cookies or brownies be limited to small servings as well. The guidelines also encourage us to cut back on the items that are too easy to over indulge on, such as crackers and chips and foods high in fat and added sugars, and to provide more of those items that our kids may not get enough of, such as fruits and vegetables. Those planning class parties should think about the portion sizes that will be offered to students and plan accordingly. Parents – please don’t send in food for class parties unless requested to do so by the class coordinator or teacher. This will help to prevent overly large portions and overeating, as well as to avoid wasting food.
Knowing about serving sizes and how they relate to calorie and nutrient intake can help us all to make better informed choices about our portion sizes and the foods we choose to eat. Parents can set an example for their children by showing them how to make healthy decisions and to become more mindful eaters, and families can become healthier through their shared food and eating choices.