One reason Americans eat so many calories is that we tend to eat monstrous portions. Studies find that hamburgers and fries (to cite two notorious examples) are generally offered in serving sizes two to five times larger than the appropriate meal size. Not that we tend to care: Researchers find we usually clean our plates no matter how high they’re piled, even if we already feel satisfied. See the suggestions below to further master the fine art of sizing up your snacks and suppers.
Most of us are aware that restaurant portions are larger than what we serve at home, and that we’re more likely to eat fatty food when dining someplace special. Besides limiting how often we dine out, checking food labels when eating at home is smart — packages always list the calories in specific portion sizes, which may be smaller than you assume.
Appalling-yet-appealing portions are one likely reason Americans continue getting fatter even as the percentage of our total calories from fat has gone down in recent years. Fortunately, portions are relatively simple to control because it’s easier to count cookies than calories or grams of fat.
Pre-picture portions. Use familiar objects to picture how much you should eat of a food before you pick up your fork or spoon. For example, a half cup of low-fat granola is about the size of your fist. A half cup of low-fat vanilla ice cream equals half an orange, size-wise. And a serving of meat, chicken, or fish should be about the size of a deck of cards.
Consider the four-quarters rule. Mentally split your dinner plate into four quarters. The perfect meal has a starch dish in one quarter, a protein in the second quarter, and vegetables in the remaining two quarters. Do that, and chances are you are close to the optimal mix of nutrients and food.
Use a smaller dish. This tip might sound ridiculous, but it works. First and most obvious is that you can’t put as much food on, say, a salad plate. But psychologically, you’re just not as inclined to eat as heartily and quickly if your plate will be empty in 45 seconds.
Keep the seconds far away. If you put the extra chicken or mashed potatoes on the table, all you have to do is reach over to get to them. If they are back in the kitchen (and even better, already put away) you’ll be less inclined to gobble food mindlessly.
Have raw vegetables at every meal. Raw cucumbers, tomatoes, carrots, peppers, and celery have few calories and lots of nutrients. A plate of them in the middle of the table almost always gets eaten up, cutting down appetite for the more calorie-dense meat or starch courses.
Start your meal with soup. Studies show that a bowl of soup at the start of the meal reduces overall meal consumption. Consommés and brothy vegetable soups are best, since they are lowest in calories and highest in nutrients.
Manage your fork. After every bite of food, put your fork down. Don’t pick it up until you have thoroughly chewed and swallowed the previous bite. The goal is both to slow down your eating and to eat less. Remember: Your body needs 20 minutes of digestion before it sends signals to your brain that you are no longer hungry.
Have a snack. Escape the trap of thinking you’ll eat less if you quit noshing between meals entirely — the opposite is true. While you don’t want to overeat, occasional snacking on low-calorie foods helps you feel satisfied and less prone to stuffing yourself when you finally sit down to a meal. Feeding small amounts of food into your system also keeps your energy up throughout the day and doesn’t overload your digestive system at mealtime. Some ideal snacks: carrot or zucchini sticks with salsa, pretzels with low-sodium vegetable juice, and air-popped popcorn without butter. Get in the habit of two to three 100-calorie snacks per day.