Portions are bigger than they used to be. You name the food, the average portion size has increased dramatically in a generation.
A typical serving of pasta with meatballs now weighs in at more than 1,000 calories—more than twice as much as a few decades ago. A typical serving of fries has tripled in size and calories during that time. From soda to spaghetti, from muffins to milk shakes, our portions have increased significantly. But portion distortion hasn’t just happened at restaurants; it’s also occurred in our own kitchens. Somehow, we’ve forgotten what an actual portion looks like.
The typical plate used to be a mere 10 inches in diameter. Today, in many homes, plates are 12 inches. In case you’ve forgotten your high-school geometry, that’s a whopping 44 percent more area to fill with food—a sure sign that we’re dishing up more food than ever before.
“So what?” you might say. “After all, just because portions are bigger doesn’t mean we have to eat more.” While that’s technically true, you should be forewarned that if your family doesn’t eat more as a result of bigger portion sizes, you’re pretty much the only humans for whom that’s true. Study after study confirms that when we’re served more, we eat more. It’s true for adults, and it’s true for kids. It’s true for men and women alike. It’s true for even the healthiest of individuals. We eat what we’re served, or a large percentage of it anyway.
According to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, by age 5, serving size makes a critical difference to consumption. The researchers gave different serving sizes of macaroni and cheese to children aged 3 and aged 5. The 3-year-olds ate the same amount regardless of how much they were given. The 5-year-olds ate 26 percent more when given the larger portion.
Remember those 12-inch plates? Why not replace them in your own home with the 10-inch variety? Unless, that is, you’re serving a heaping amount of vegetables.
Compare calories and quantity of a 10" and 12" dinner plate:
10” plate: 564 calories
Spaghetti and Meatballs: 12 ounces
1 slice garlic bread: 4 ounces Green beans: 1 cup
12” plate: 790 calories
Spaghetti and Meatballs: 16.6 ounces
1 slice garlic bread: 5.6 ounces Green beans: 1.4 cups
– Reprinted with permission from Beth Bader and Ali Benjamin’s The Cleaner Plate Club (Storey Publishing, 2010). Illustration by Dan O. Williams.