Posts Tagged portions

Question: My daughter is turning one and seems to eat A LOT! She's very tall for her age and her weight is proportionate. But at  what age do I worry about portion control? I try to balance her meals with all the food groups...a typical meal would be chicken, sliced cucumbers, a piece of whole wheat toast, some cheese, and some fruit.  ~Julie Crispell, Montreal QC

Answer: I'm so glad you asked about portions. We Americans have lost sight of what an appropriate portion of just about anything looks like! It's very important that we parents lay a healthful foundation for infants and children to help them meet their needs for growth and development while not promoting overeating that can contribute to overweight.

Though each child's needs may differ, portions at age 1-2 are typically quite small. In all likelihood, your daughter's increased appetite and consumption likely means she's going through a growth spurt. You may find over the next year that her appetite will wax and wane and she'll get more fussy and may eat less or refuse some foods she once loved. Because toddlers' eating habits can be erratic--especially as they gain a sense of control over the world and want to exert their new found independence--our job as parents is to simply provide as many healthful foods as possible, and give small portions of different foods from the healthy food groups at each meal or snack. Breakfast may look like 1/2 cup oatmeal, 1/2 cup strawberries, and 1 cup of whole milk; Lunch might be 1-1/2 ounces of grilled chicken, 1/4 cup mashed sweet potato, and 1/2 cup whole milk; dinner might be 1/2 cup macaroni, 1 slice of cheese, and 1/2 cup peas; and desserts/snacks may include 1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce and 2 vanilla wafers.

It's always a good idea to use small plates and bowls to serve food to your tots (and older kids alike), give less than you think they'll eat,and let them to ask or signal you that they want more--and then you can give more. The best way to know your daughter is getting enough but not too much is to watch her growth and make sure she stays consistent on the growth charts at her annual check ups with her pediatrician. But keep doing what you're doing--sounds like both of you are on the right track!

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An article called “Snack Time Never Ends” appeared this week in the Dining Section of the New York Times. Since I had been preparing a talk called “Feed Your Family Right: How to Choose Healthful Snacks” for parents of children at a local K-8 school, the timing of Jennifer Steinhauer’s article could not have been better. As a registered dietitian and mother of two boys, aged 11 and 7, I found the article to be extremely reflective of the 24/7 food-focused environment in which we live. It also highlighted the dire need for us as individuals and for our society as a whole to come together and do a better job of helping our nation’s children grow into healthy, fit adults.

Of course being surrounded with a vast array of snack food and beverage options at every turn makes mindful and moderate eating a challenge (to say the least) for many of us. Furthermore, huge portion sizes only add to the problem. Studies show if more we are offered/given more, we will consume more. Hopefully, the recent trend towards smaller portion sizes in convenience food and beverage products and restaurant foods can help us all eat less in 2010 and beyond.

As a registered dietitian, I have always encouraged people to include healthful snacks in their daily diet. In theory, in-between meal snacks can fill in food and nutrient gaps left at meals. For example, having one or more snacks each day can give many children, especially young ones who have tiny tummies and get full easily, more opportunities to fit in foods (and their nutrients) from key food groups (including fruits, vegetables, lean meats/beans, and low fat dairy foods).

But as we all know too well, snacking today has become more of a social ritual, or mindless habit than a nutritional opportunity. Little kids snack in their strollers, and many of us snack while walking and talking, while commuting or driving, or while being a spectator of some sporting event or other activity. Many of us snack not because we’re hungry, but simply because the sight, smell, and round-the-clock availability of food is more temptation than we can handle.

Does snacking cause obesity and overweight? We all know that over the past several decades, the rate at which children and adults tip scales has multiplied dramatically (though recent data reveals that these numbers are starting to level off –finally!). And while there is no one cause of obesity, snacking on high calorie, high sodium, sugary, or otherwise nutrient-poor foods and beverages can easily contribute to excess calorie intake and subsequent weight gain.

Studies also show that both kids and adults snack and graze more than ever before. A recent study published in the Journal of Nutrition looked at national survey data collected since the late 70’s and found that on average, adults now have one extra snack per day than they did before. Furthermore, snack choices today are more energy dense (they have a lot of calories in a small portion) and tend to include nutrient-poor foods like salty chips or crackers, desserts, sugary beverages, and candies. Just like in children, snacks seem to be filling many of us adults out instead of filling in nutritional gaps.

So what should we do? Should we skip snacks and stick to breakfast, lunch, and dinner only? I believe that snacking can and should be part of a healthful diet for all of us. But snacking smart is key if we want to reap the potential benefits and minimize the perils.

Here are six of my favorite snack smart food rules my family and I try to follow; I’d love to hear your personal and family snack rules–together, they’re sure to help us all get a little bit healthier and better manage our weight.

1) Choose wisely. Anticipate snacks ahead of time and be sure to include plenty of foods and beverages from the key food groups (fruits, veggies, whole grains, low fat dairy foods, and lean sources of protein including nuts, seeds, and nut butters) on your weekly grocery list and in your cart. Choose all foods in their lowest fat and sugar form (examples include raw nuts, fat-free or low fat plain yogurt, dried fruit without added sugar, unsweetened apple sauce, whole grain/low sugar cereals, whole wheat crackers or unsalted pretzels, and low fat popcorn).

2) Find where the food (or beverage) fits. When choosing among processed and packaged foods, think about whether those foods come from any of the basic food groups. If they don’t fit neatly into any food group, chances are they won’t make the best snack choice and are more like desserts. Children and adults have between 150 to 300 extra or discretionary calories they can use for such extras--foods or beverages made with added sugars or fats (or in the case of adults, from alcoholic beverages)-- so keep that in mind when making your daily snack choices.

3) Be a portion teller. My former grad school nutrition professor Lisa Young, author of the great book Portion Teller, urges consumers to learn how to eyeball portion sizes using common objects (mousepad, dice, baseball etc) to help them consume appropriate amounts whether at home or away from home. Keeping on hand small plastic cups and bowls, and small plastic baggies can also make it easy for you to pre-portion snacks and reduce the risk of overeating.

4) Be a selective snacker. When you’re out and about–whether at work, at a soccer game, at play practice, at a movie theater, or at a birthday party or sporting event–temptations may be tough to handle. Of course you can plan ahead and bring your own snacks; but let’s face it, sometimes you just really want a cupcake, a piece of birthday cake, movie popcorn, or some other indulgence! The key is that when you have these foods, make sure to adjust how much you eat that day overall--even by a few bites--and limit items made with extra fat or sugar to keep your total daily calorie intake in check.

5) Keep tools on hand to help you end the eating. Whether it’s chewing gum, breath strips, strong mints, or mouth wash, having a few of these on hand in your purse, bag, or desk drawer can not only leave your mouth feeling fresh and minty, but can help you resist the urge to have “just one more bite,” mindlessly snack, and reduce your risk of eating when not hungry.

6) Snack when you’re sitting down. Try to make sitting when you eat (preferably at a table) a habit, whether you’re home or on the go. You may find you actually eat less AND feel more satisfied.

1) Snack Time Never Ends, New York Times, January 20, 2010:
2) J Nutr. 2010 Feb;140(2):325-32. Epub 2009 Dec 2.

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Are you portion-challenged? When you eat or drink, do you often find it difficult if not impossible to stop eating or drinking when you've had enough, even when you're full?

You're definitely not alone...countless people have just the same problem leaving a few chips or cookies in a bag, leaving soda in a can, or leaving unfinished food like pasta, steak, or whatever on a plate. I know I once did, too. A friend once asked me "How can you throw that away?" after I ate only half of a small ice cream cone? I simply told her that after years of dieting and deprivation (in my late teens and early twenties), I have learned to have what I like, savor and enjoy it, and stop when I'm comfortable..I don't need to eat the whole thing. I never feel like not finishing the food on my plate or beverage in my cup or glass is a bad thing; I don't try to be wasteful, but when I've had enough, I've had enough.

Years of practicing portion control have helped me truly learn to 1) enjoy whatever food or beverage I consume; 2) incorporate a wider variety of food into my eating pattern; and 3) no longer associate meals or snacks or any foods or beverages with guilt--because I allow myself small portions of whatever foods I choose, I never feel deprived and instead, feel satisfied when I eat what I enjoy, but simply don't have too much of it.

So, my friends, the Diet Do for today is to pare your portions when you can. I realize this is no easy task, given we live in a world in which supersized portions are the standard. And while it's tough, but not impossible, to find smaller portions at fast food and other restaurants, at convenience and grocery stores, and at ball parks and other sport- or entertainment-related venues, practicing portion control is like an art form and must be practiced to be near-perfected (after all, none of us can nor should we want to be boring that would be!).

Here are some ways to decrease portions painlessly at home or when you're out and about:

1) Before you buy or consume any packaged or processed food, get all the facts. Nutrition Facts panels on food or beverage packages (including bags, cans, cups, boxes, jars, or other containers) show you how many calories one serving of a food or beverage contains, and how many servings the package contains. Before you dig in (or gulp it down), ask yourself how many servings of the item you plan to have, and take the time to do the math to see if it fits into your daily calorie budget and if it's really worth it.

2) Remember that one serving of a packaged item may not necessarily be an appropriate portion for you during one meal or snack. For example, one tablespoon may be the serving size listed on a food label for mayonnaise when one or two teaspoons during one meal may be a more appropriate portion or amount for you to have. Also, just because a package of cookies says 3 cookies is a serving does not mean we should be having 3 cookies in one sitting or on one day (especially if the cookies are more than 50 calories a piece).

3) Invest in smaller sized plates, bowls, and cups. When preparing meals, fill them with the amount you want to consume--not too much, and not too little. If you give yourself a smaller portion than you're used to and eat it with smaller utensils, you'll likely end up consuming smaller portions. If you make extra food you plan to use the next night or another night, be sure to refrigerate or freeze it right away (before you even sit down to eat) to help you eat only the portion you doled out for yourself.

4) When you have snacks, pre-portion single-serve amounts using dixie cups or snack-sized plastic baggies (think of them as your own 100 or so calorie packs). Just as with main meals, planning ahead and preparing appropriate portions of healthful (and sometimes not-so-healthful foods like candy or cookies) can help reduce your risk for over consuming calories and at the same time, satisfy your cravings without derailing your "diet". You may also find it helpful (if not a bit anal-retentive) to carry around a few extra baggies in your purse or bag; this way if you buy a snack in too large a portion and want to control the amount you have, you can put the amount you want to consume (and no more) into one and save the rest for another day.

For more information, go to

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