Tips For Managing Portions When Dining Out

In 1983, if you stopped at your favorite breakfast spot and ordered a bagel, you would be served one with a 3-inch diameter adding 140 calories to your meal. A bowl of spaghetti and meatballs at your favorite Italian bistro 30 years ago averaged 500 calories. Today, that bagel’s size is double and comes in at 350 calories; the spaghetti dinner is now served with larger meatballs, double the sauce and more than double the calories. American meals have grown larger. Along with larger portions has come an obesity epidemic that threatens the health of the nation.

Supersized portions are not a good value

In the land of plenty, food is relatively inexpensive. Marketing executives know that increasing portion sizes while keeping prices low gives the appearance of value. However, this is only appearance. There is no value in eating more than your body requires for its daily nutritional needs. The only difference between throwing food you don’t need into the trash and eating it is that the excess food you eat becomes fat you carry on your body rather than garbage you haul to the curb for pickup.

The trend is reversing, but consumers need to be nutrition savvy when dining out

Americans are making better food choices, according to a USDA report released in 2014. On average, between 2005 and 2009, Americans consumed 118 fewer calories per day. Restaurants have heeded consumer demands for healthier menu options and many now offer “lite” menus and smaller portions. We still have the problem of what the National Institutes of Health calls “portion distortion.” Consumers have become used to oversized meals and don’t realize portions are excessive. A 20-ounce soda is nearly three servings, yet it is considered one serving by many; the size of a standard muffin has quadrupled over the past three decades.

Learn the difference between a portion and a serving

A portion is the amount of food on your plate. A serving is a measured amount used to determine nutritional requirements. To keep portions under control, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with serving sizes. For example, a 3.5-ounce steak is one protein serving. If you eat a 12-ounce rib-eye at your favorite steak house, you’ve consumed, in one meal, twice the USDA daily protein recommendation for adults.  

How to eyeball serving sizes

Carrying a food scale to the restaurant isn’t practical and will draw strange looks from restaurant staff and other diners, but you can measure serving sizes by comparing them to familiar object.

  • 3-ounces of meat or poultry = a deck of cards
  • 3-ounces of fish = checkbook
  • 1-cup of pasta, rice, mashed potatoes or cooked vegetables = a baseball
  • 1 baked potato = a computer mouse
  • 1 ounce of cheese = 2 standard dice
  • 1 pancake = a compact disc
  • 1 bagel = a hockey puck
  • 2 Tablespoons peanut butter = ping pong ball

Controlling how much you eat when eating out

Have you ever gone grocery shopping when you were hungry? The cart seems to fill up with items you didn’t intend to buy. The same thing happens when eating out. If you arrive at the restaurant famished, you’re bound to order too much food. A light snack and large glass of water will take the edge off your hunger. Even if you order sensibly, restaurant portions may derail your healthy eating plan. Try these tips for staying on track:

  • Ask your server to remove the bread basket from the table:
  • Ask for a take-out box with your meal. When the meal arrives, pack away the excess food to bring home;
  • Share an entrée and dessert with a fellow diner;
  • Create your dinner from the appetizer or children’s menu;
  • Replace rice, pasta or potato with a second vegetable for a lighter meal;
  • Have gravy and sauces served on the side so you control the portion;
  • At buffet restaurants, load your plate up from the vegetable section first leaving only a small space for heavier foods;
  • Eat slowly. Set your fork down between each bite. It takes about 20 minutes for your stomach to signal the brain that it is full.