Portion sizes: How to plate up the right amount of food

If you’re struggling to manage your weight, it might be a case of how much – rather than what – you’re eating.

Chances are you’ve learnt about the “healthy eating pyramid” at some point, and are pretty well across which foods you should and shouldn’t be eating for optimum health.

But have you ever been taught how much food you should actually be putting on your plate?

Lack of awareness about portion sizes is often the reason people struggle to control their weight, says dietitian Joel Feren.

Australia’s official dietary guidelines recommend that people understand what it feels like to be “peckish” or “hungry”, and use “fullness” to gauge how much to eat.

But intuitive eating can be a challenge, which is why Joel says we need to take a good look at what’s on our plates.

What should your plate should look like?

“We have grown up with the idea that protein is king and to also fill plates with lots of pasta and rice,” says Joel, of the Dietitians Association of Australia.

“But we need to rejig this by including more veggies and decreasing the size of the grain and carbohydrate-based foods, as well as the proteins.”

To achieve the right mix Joel recommends following “the healthy plate model”.

“Basically, the premise is a quarter of the plate is filled with wholegrains, things like pasta or bread or a starchy vegetable like potatoes or sweet potato,” he says.

“Another quarter of the plate should be protein; a small piece of steak, half a cup of legumes or two large eggs, basically something that fits in the palm of your hand.”

Finally, the last half should be a colourful mix of veggies such as a salad or stir-fried vegetables.

portion sizes

Getting portion sizes right

Unfortunately, portion size can be tricky at first and may take time to get right.

So, when starting out here are some things to consider.

Check your plate size 

Studies have found the physical size of a plate influences how much we eat.

Joel warns plates have become bigger over time, which can lead to overeating.

To combat this, Joel says use entree-sized dishes to keep your quantities in check.

Measure your food

It’s not for everyone, but measuring portions will ensure consistency.

Nutrition Plus director Melanie McGrice says for “maximum impact” do your research to make sure you are getting the portions right.

“It’s about looking at your calorie intake and how much you actually need then adjusting the proportion to suit,” she says.

According to Australian Dietary Guidelines, a standard serve of:

  • Vegetables is about 75g (about ½ a cup of green or orange vegetables, ½ cup of cooked dried or canned beans or one cup of salad greens).
  • Fruit is about 150g (roughly one banana or apple, two small kiwi fruits or apricots, or one cup of diced fruit).
  • Grain is about 400kJ (119 calories), such as one slice of bread, ½ a roll, ½ a cup of cooked rice or pasta, or one crumpet.
  • Protein is 500-600kJ (119-143 calories), for example 65g of lean red meat, 80g of lean poultry, 100g of cooked fish fillet, two eggs or 170g of tofu.
  • Dairy: 500-600kJ (119-143 calories), such as one cup of milk, 40g of hard cheese, ½ cup of ricotta cheese or 200g of yoghurt.

Serving size v portion

Sometimes portion and serving size are words used interchangeably, however, they are different.

A serving size refers to the standardised measurements used on the back of food packets to help compare ingredients and nutrients and are not a recommended guide of how much you should be eating.

Your portion size cheat sheet

Your plate should comprise:

  • ¼ protein, such as lean meat, fish, poultry, eggs or legumes.
  • ¼ wholegrains, such as pasta, bread, starchy vegetables.
  • ½ veggies, such as salad or cooked vegetables.

Written by Alex White.