The Beginners Guide to Portion Sizes

by Lindsay Cotter
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The Beginners Guide to Portion Sizes

Do you ever go out to eat or grab a quick snack at the store only to find out that the snack bag or chicken salad was actually three servings not one? It’s so frustrating. What is a legit recommended portion size when it comes to a meal or a food group? It can be confusing, right? Unfortunately, our food industry likes to double, triple or even supersize servings, leaving the consumer over served. Yes, I said over served, meaning we are served way over the recommended portion needed for a balanced meal or snack. And unfortunately, many consumers have visually adjusted to this serving size and are unaware of what an accurate portion size really looks like. There’s no doubt it can be tricky!

Serving vs. Portion

A serving size is a measured amount of food — 1 cup, 1 slice, 1 bag, etc. — intended to be eaten at one time. It’s the amount you’ll see on a food label, and it’s what the USDA uses in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

A portion size is the amount of food or drink you actually consume at once or in one sitting. Large or small, like a plate of food at dinner or a small cup of yogurt. Yes, both are portions.

But here’s the thing. If we can reprogram our brains to visualize true portion sizes, then maybe, just maybe, we won’t be fooled when it comes to being over served.

In order not to overwhelm us, let’s pick one or two common things that can relate when it comes to food sizes and portions. Your hand being one. And either a tennis ball or dice for the other. Sound good?

Now let’s get that brain up and running. Ready to make sense of proper portion sizes? I promise it will be as easy as cake! (A normal-size, healthy piece of cake.)

Here are some of the most common food portions that many struggle with today.


Rice, Quinoa, Pasta | 1 cup (cooked) | Calories: 180–220
1 cup is about the size of a tennis ball and provides approximately 200 calories and 50 grams of carbohydrates.


Granola | 1/4 cup | Calories: 110–130
Granola is best used as a topping or mixed in with cereal. A little goes a long way for one portion. Be careful of the serving sizes on the granola box. It could say 2/3 cup, which is nearly three times the portion needed (unless you can space that portion throughout the day). Measure out 1/4 cup to fit in a snack size zip-close bag or the bottom of a cereal bowl, to see what a serving can “fill.”



Focus on whole fruit to really fill you up. It packs in more water and fiber. Dried fruit is great but is calorie-dense –– which is perfect for when you need a small, energy-boosting snack but not when you plan on eating a whole bag. Aim for 3–5 servings of fruit per day –– and put fresh first when you can!

Dried Fruit | 1/4 cup | Calories = 90–130
1 serving of dried fruit is 1/4 cup (40 grams), which will fill your palm. Similar to the granola situation, it’s best to spread dried fruit throughout the day or add it to a flaky cereal or a healthy trail mix. Also, watch out for dried fruit that contains added sugar –– it’s best to save those calories for a real dessert.


Fresh Fruit | 1 medium piece | Calories: 80-105
One medium piece of fresh fruit is about the size of a small fist, or about 3-4 inches in diameter. (Not the Hulk’s fist –– just remember that.)



When it comes to veggies, more really is more. Of course, this is assuming you don’t bathe them in creamy dressings, butter or cheese sauce. At a minimum, we should all be aiming to get at least 4–5 servings of vegetables per day. It sounds like a lot, but really, it’s totally doable. Here’s what 1 serving of veggies looks like:

Leafy Greens | 2–3 cups | Calories: 15-20
1 cup is very small as you can see. This is one time where doubling or tripling the portion is just fine!


Nonstarchy Vegetables | 1 cup chopped | Calories: 20-40
Nonstarchy vegetables include broccoli, cauliflower, cucumbers, asparagus, peppers, mushrooms, tomatoes and onions.


Starchy Vegetables | 1 cup chopped or 1 medium (4” diameter) potato | Calories: 100–180
Starchy vegetables like corn, peas, parsnips, potatoes, pumpkin, squash, zucchini and yams are higher in carbohydrates and therefore more calorie-dense –– all the more reason why knowing the portion size is important.



Meat, Poultry and Fish | 3 ounces | Calories: 120–250
A 3-ounce piece of fish, poultry or meat is about the size of a deck of cards or the whole palm of your hand. Focus on power protein! Lean proteins such as chicken, turkey, fish, seafood or lean cuts of beef and pork will fall in the lower end of the calorie range.



Cheese | 1 1/2 ounces (45 g) | Calories:150–165
This is about the size of 4 dice or your index finger. Most 1 1/2-ounce servings are around 150–165 calories, so a little goes a long way. Adding just a slice or nibble of real cheese to your diet is a great source of calcium. Cut into slices or shred and add to a salad!


Milk | 1 serving = 1 cup (8 fluid ounces) | Calories: 90–145
Depending on what variety you buy — such as skim, reduced-fat or whole — 1 cup of milk will provide anywhere from 90–145 calories. In an average-size glass (not a tall and skinny one), 1 cup measures about the size of a small fist.


What does a balanced, portioned meal look like?

One serving of each — fruit, nonstarchy vegetable, protein, healthy fats (such as 1 tablespoon olive oil), dairy and either a serving of whole grains or starchy vegetables.




  • JinjoJoey

    I have always known what proper portions are, the problem is, a “proper portion” does nothing to keep me full. Lol!

    • Allison

      Hi. Portion size is important but just as important is eating nutrient dense foods in those portions. That way you won’t want to eat as much, and most of the times you can actually eat more of those foods by volume which also fills you up such as non starchy vegetables. It’s all about strategy lol!

  • Kaiser

    Are you trying to starve me? Those “portion” sizes are for dainty women. How about portion sizes for 200 lb men who are moderately active? If I ate like you proposed, I’d be dead in two weeks from malnutrition.
    Sorry lady but this is not realistic.

    • Stacy

      She’s not telling you how much to eat rather what 1 serving looks like and what that would be calorie-wise. It’s perfectly ok to have more than 1 serving depending on your calorie needs.

    • Yes, what stacy said. You will need more than one serving of course. Have you ever met with a dietitian to see what your calories needs are? that way you can see how many serving you need. It really helps! Haha I’m not starving you. Promise.

  • Katherine

    Bulk up meals with non starchy veggies. I eat more volume of food now then ever before, but often come in under my 1600 calorie goal (I’m a small woman, but extremely active). For me it’s important to not mindlessly snack. It’s great to have a visual reminder of what an appropriate portion size is. I could never get away with only 1 serving of veggies per meal. I shoot for 3-5 servings of veggies, 1 lean protein per meal. And 2-3 pieces of fruit throughout the day as snacks. I also don’t drink my calories, so I stick to just water. Occasionally I will have unsweetened almond milk.

    • Malia

      Hey Katherine,
      May I ask (bc I’m small framed and trying to take in about 1600cals too), when you refer to “3-5 servings of veggies and 2-3 pieces of fruit” — what does that look like? Approximately, how big is a “serving” of veggie and how big is a “piece” of fruit? I feel like this is where I go wrong — it seems, articles I read about portioning their food is for someone of middle-framed in size…not small. So I feel like I never get info for small-framed peeps. Any help would be great! Thanks Malia

      • Lysa Keller-Nistico

        A serving is a serving is a serving no matter if you’re small framed or not or large framed. See above chart which shows you exactly how big a “piece” of fruit is and how big a serving of veggies is.

  • rosacanina

    This is helpful! One thing though, I am pretty sure zucchini are not a starchy vegetable.

  • Lewcee

    Thanks for this “Portion Size” article….I am gob-smacked at the small size recommended for hard cheese,fish & meats…no wonder I am waaay overweight. Time to retrain my tum.

  • Vangelis Ts.

    Have you thought of creating a printable infographic for daily reference?

    I would love the idea of having one hanging over my table!

  • Edward

    Can someone make a infographic that serves as a bib too? That way wherever I go, I can rest assured that I’m getting the right portions. If possible, BPA free would be preferable.

  • Hal_Aluya

    I found this quite helpful, although the MyFitnessPal app often rrfers to a serving in terms of ounces or grams, and then I’m lost. One thing about the volume of foods like steak, is that I would think the thickness is also important to consider. This is not mentioned in your examples.

    • carla

      best thing to own is a food scale!

  • Eddie

    I also found this very helpful. Up to this point in my life, I’ve strictly counted calories. That hasn’t been working, especially if my wife makes dinner. I’ve sort of come to the realization that it’s not always convenient or feasible to accurately count calories. Looking at my plate and judging my portions seems more doable.

  • Nicole

    Would you consider writing one of these for vegetarians, vegans, and other special diets? I’m pretty sure I never eat the amount of protein posted. I don’t eat meat or meat substitutes like tofu or seitan. It would be very appreciated!

  • Anne M

    helpful but I disagree with putting zucchini In the starchy vegetable section

  • Kathy fox

    I am a newly diagnosed type 2 diabetic therefor carb counts are essential for me to know and count. I wish carb counts were provided along with calorie counts. Thank you

  • Lorrie Arana

    help! I am coming off a vegan book that said all vegetables including starchy can be eaten with wanton disregard of calories.

    What is the truth about starch vegetables as it relates to a plant-based diet???

  • Christian McCrea

    What I’ve learned from this article is that my hand is probably a 120 calories if I decide to eat it.

  • Kaicheng Hu

    Very visual, which is great!

  • Rachel B

    Just realized I probably ate 1/2-1 c granola… eghhhh. Geeeez that’s probably 700 calories right there.