This blog post is for you if you…
- Don’t want to count every calorie
- Cook a lot of your meals
- Eat a lot of meals at build-your-own salad/bowl fast casual restaurants
- Would prefer to use broad strategies rather than fine-tune details
Today’s blog post is essentially about portion control – which, to be honest, is essential for weight loss or fat loss to some degree. But I don’t love the phrase “portion control” because it connotes restriction. I don’t want someone to hear that phrase and immediately picture themselves doling out sunflower seeds onto a food scale.
Instead, today I’m talking about the broad strokes of portion control – the smart mental templating that you can use whether you’re cooking at home or dining out. These little mental hacks become habits instead of interventions.
So let’s dive into the process of how people change their eating, and how this psychology has to shift over time.
Qualitative vs. Quantitative Change
My clients usually go through (at least) two phases of improving their eating habits when their goal is weight loss or fat loss…
Phase 1: Improving the quality of their food choices, including eating more protein, fiber, and vegetables (and probably less overt “junk”). They feel better, they have more energy, and their workouts are on fire.
But Phase 2 begins with the question (usually a few weeks later): “Why aren’t I losing weight?”
While this can be an incredibly nuanced conversation, the strategies often have to shift from qualitative improvements (what they’re eating) to quantitative changes (how much they’re eating). Of course there are other factors, too, but this tends to be most significant, because it is possible to “overeat” on healthy foods.
This is partly because the spectrum of “overeating” – and how we define it – is incredibly wide. There’s binge eating, which tends to involve large volumes of food (i.e., more than you would be comfortable eating socially) and feeling out of control. There’s also environmental/social overeating, like when you eat a little too much at a barbecue or holiday meal, and your food choices tend to be driven by how long you’re at the event, how the food is presented, how other people are eating, and possibly even how much alcohol you’ve imbibed! Then there are many variations of “overeating” that, it’s important to note, may not leave you feeling stuffed. You may simply be eating “too much” for your goal of fat loss, but not necessarily “too much” to be healthy. You may not even be eating so much that you gain weight – it’s just not little enough to lose weight.
It’s really this last category that I’m speaking to… not the episodes where you’re obviously overeating or bingeing, but the head scratcher “I’m really eating healthy, and I don’t understand why I’m not losing weight!”
Your first line of defense should be sensible quantitative change that doesn’t feel overly restrictive.
Here are 10 tips for harnessing the power of portion control without obsessing over every last calorie.
Tip #1: Check your dietary fat intake.
While I don’t want clients’ diets to be low in fat, one of the first things I invite them to investigate is their dietary fat intake.
This is because fat is more than twice as rich as carbohydrates and protein per gram – meaning, gram for gram, you eat more than double the calories from fat (which is nine calories per gram) than you would from protein or carbs (which are each four calories per gram).
Dietary fat isn’t problematic in the right context (proper serving sizes, etc.), and it can also create problems to have a diet that’s too low in fat. But the issue with fat is not only that it’s calorically rich – it also has a slow “catch up” in terms of fullness sensation. Because it’s relatively small and calorie-dense, you can eat quite a bit of it without it taking up a lot of room in your stomach, and it’s only much later that you realize, “Oh wow, that was a lot.” There’s a big delay, and a lot of eating can happen during that delay.
And fat is also, on a practical/behavioral level, extremely tasty – and that combination of caloric density, deliciousness, and slow fullness signaling often adds up to excess consumption without going to a “10” on the fullness scale.
So that’s our starting point. If you are eating relatively healthy and nailing your workouts, and your intent is to be in a caloric deficit but you’re not losing weight or meaningful body fat, then a smart place to start is to curb fat intake to the level that makes a meal satisfying and tasty, but indirectly keeps calories in check overall.
Tip #2: Only focus on modifying foods that are calorically rich, and don’t worry about the others.
A client recently shared with me an Instagram reel with a vegetarian recipe that is currently popular on TikTok – feta pasta.
She made it. She liked it. But she messaged me with the concern – “is this ok?” She is working on weight loss and she suspects that sometimes her nighttime dinners are too big. She’s also not tracking calories or macros, so it’s sometimes hard for clients like this to nail down where the portions might be going awry (especially with the “no foods are off-limits” way that I coach). And remember, fat has a very slow “fullness signaling” factor, so using fullness as a metric can be tricky with meals where fat is out of balance.
The recipe called for:
- 12 oz grape tomatoes
- 5 garlic cloves, peeled and halved
- 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- salt and pepper to taste
- 8 oz feta cheese block (not crumbles)
- 2-3 cobs of corn, stripped (or sub 1 can of corn kernels)
- 10 oz dry pasta
- 8 oz baby spinach
- thinly sliced fresh basil to taste
- 1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes or to taste
- 1/2 cup reserved pasta water
- 1 tsp lemon juice or to taste
Long list of ingredients, right? If you were going to add up all the calories and macros of every single ingredient, it would be overwhelming. So let’s immediately visually cut out all the ingredients that confer little to no caloric value (i.e., seasonings and not overly-starchy vegetables), and we’re left with:
- 1/2 cup (which is 8 tbsp.) extra-virgin olive oil
- 8 oz feta cheese block
- 2-3 cobs of corn, stripped
- 10 oz dry pasta
Then the next, most important question is…
Tip #3: Ask yourself, “How many servings am I making?”
I swear, this is the most important question you can ask yourself when you’re evaluating/modifying a recipe. This question will immediately reveal what you can/should change about a recipe in order to make it more friendly to your goals (and possibly health!).
Let’s say the goal is four servings, which could be for a one-night dinner for a family of four, or a dinner and leftover lunch for a couple. Or even a four-day lunch series for one person!
Then, it’s critical to know roughly (key word) what amounts of which foods equal one serving (or about 100-200 calories). Here are some examples:
- 2 oz dry pasta – 200 calories
- 1/4 cup dry grain (or 3/4 cup cooked) – 150 calories
- 4 oz meat or fish – 100-200 calories (depending on leanness)
- 1 oz any cheese – 100 calories
- 1 tbsp any oil – 100 calories
- 1 cup any starchy vegetable – 150 calories
- 1/2 can of canned beans – 200 calories
Keep in mind that these are meant to serve as a guide – they’re not 100% exact. But if you use these as placeholders, you’ll be pretty near accurate overall, and the round numbers are easier to remember! If you literally need to print out the bullet points above and post them in your kitchen, do it! Take a screenshot so that you have it on your phone!
Then, you compare the amounts called for in the recipe to how many servings you want to make. This gets much easier with practice, I promise! It become second-nature.
So for example, if you wanted to make four servings of the feta pasta recipe, it could/should be:
- 4 tbsp. (which is 1/4 cup) extra-virgin olive oil
- 4 oz feta cheese block
- 1 can corn kernels
- 8 oz dry pasta
… and not…
- 8 tbsp. (which is 1/2 cup) extra-virgin olive oil
- 8 oz feta cheese block
- 1 can corn kernels
- 8 oz dry pasta
… which is what the original recipe called for. In several cases, the serving sizes were doubled.
And even with the “new and improved” version of the recipe where we’ve cut the fat content to literally half of the original version, there’s still a little bit of a tilt toward fat (two servings) and carbs (two servings) vs. protein (no real source). So you could even cut the fat in half again, as well as…
Tip #4: Add more protein.
So how do you make this recipe better yet again?
You can do what my client did, which was use chickpea pasta instead of regular pasta – instant protein source.
If you eat meat, you could also add a pound of chicken cut into slices. If you don’t eat meat, you could add additional protein with edamame instead of corn, and even add nutritional yeast if the flavor palate works.
By making all of the modifications I described above can take a meal from being a healthy 700-calorie meal to a healthy (and just as satisfying) 400-calorie meal, which for many people who aren’t extremely active (i.e., they have desk jobs), is appropriate for weight loss or fat loss.
Keeping it Simple
You may read the process above and think to yourself, “Rachel, come on. That was a lot of math. I would actually rather full-on track calories and macros than deal with these mental gymnastics every time I cook something.”
But hang in there. Because, first of all, this gets easier with practice, especially if your cooking is fairly simple. Secondly, I’m about to give you some even more big-picture tips that make all of this easier. Here are more mental shifts that will help you implement everything I just described above, without the mathleticism:
Tip #5: Memorize the number of serving sizes in the entire package for foods that you frequently cook.
Because the chances are, you’re going to use the whole package. If you open a bag of dry pasta on a Tuesday night to make dinner for your family of four, the whole bag is probably going in the pot. You’re probably not weighing out the ounces on a food scale – partly because this can be annoying if you end up saving odd amounts, like 2 ounces.
The problem is that we then often eat the whole pot that one night, in one sitting, whether the pasta bag was an 8-oz bag or a 16-oz bag.
If you use an 8-oz bag or box, remember – 2 oz of pasta per person. So 8 ounces is actually perfect for a family of four for one night. But if it’s a 16-oz bag, you have to keep in mind that it’s actually eight servings. Which means that you need to save half of whatever you make – and the other ingredients need to match up to the servings you intend to make.
So if you just want to eat it once without packing up the other half… buy 8-oz pasta boxes/bags.
Similarly, cheeses often come in 8-oz packages – this is incredibly common for non-artisanal cheeses. So how many servings is 8 ounces of cheese? Eight. So if you use the whole package for four servings, keep the other fat sources super low – don’t also douse it with olive oil and throw on seeds, for example. If you want to do that, you need to off-set it by only using half the cheese package, for example.
You have to personalize this for yourself based on the number of people in your family and how many servings you want to regularly cook.
Tip #6: Then, use some products consistently so that you can internalize it without thinking about it.
I almost always buy the same pasta packages, same cheeses, and so on. I don’t have to actively think about portions, because I have internalized my routine. 99% of the time, I make eight servings of meals. So I use two pounds of meat, one pound of pasta, etc.
Research suggests that streamlining healthy behaviors into habits (instead of actively thinking about every single health-related food decision) can be beneficial to long-term success. The more you can eliminate the thinking/feeling part of changing your eating habits, the better. Just change the system, and then stop thinking about it. Just do it the same way every time. This is how it becomes a habit.
Tip #7: Be generally aware of “macros” and how they’re balanced in a dish.
Macros are protein, carbs, and fat. At any meal (or when looking at any recipe), you can ask yourself: “Where’s my protein? Where’s my carb? Where’s my fat?” If a meal doesn’t have a significant source of protein but has double portions (or more) of carbs and fats, that meal is out of balance. This lack of balance can cause meals to be high in calories, but not high in satisfaction.
In any recipe, be sharp about where you could add more protein and reduce excess carbs and fats by making strategic swaps. We already partially discussed this, but doing things like swapping regular pasta for protein pasta, adding protein that’s not called for (i.e., adding chicken or tofu to a recipe), and exchanging a starchier vegetable for a legume (i.e., corn for beans), can increase the protein content and thus the “slow burn” satisfaction of a meal.
Tip #8: Use a measuring spoon or cup, but don’t get caught up in weighing food.
To weigh, or not to weigh?
I use a food scale for specific purposes – often for foods that are hard to measure with a cup that I’m not familiar with. Maybe I’m not confident in my eyeballing skills, like with raw meats that are in weird shapes. I use also recommend scales for portion education for clients – to help internalize what an ounce of a hard cheese looks like, since you can’t measure it with a spoon.
But weighing all your food to help with portion control, as a long-term lifestyle? I’m not into this. I know people who do this and I respect them, but I would never philosophically recommend this for clients.
I think that 90% of portion control education and habit-building can be done with a measuring cup and a tablespoon at home, and that the last 10% that could be achieved with a food scale is probably in the category of diminishing returns.
Using a tablespoon for oils and nut butters, or a measuring cup for grains, can be a game changer (remember: the calorically-rich ingredients). Our eyeballs have been trained by restaurants to estimate much larger servings than are actually ideal for us. Using a tablespoon or a measuring cup can help rewire your visual skills to appreciate what one serving of something looks like – knowing that, of course, you can have two servings, but you know you’re doing it with awareness.
Tip #9: Transfer these skills to dining out (where applicable).
This isn’t just for cooking at home. You can use this “quantitative” habit change when you’re dining out, too, to help yourself manage your overall caloric intake to aid in weight management.
The key mental shift is to understand that however you would cook something at home, it has a lot more fat and carbohydrates at a restaurant. You have to put different goggles on when you’re eating out.
And I’m not just talking about fast food. Places like Wendy’s, Chick-Fil-A, Burger King, McDonalds, etc., get a bad rap – but this happens at more upscale, fast casual, health-oriented establishments, as well!
The easiest type of place to “transfer” this skill is at build-your-own salad and bowl places, like Chipotle or a salad bar, where your food is being made in front of you, and you have a certain degree of control over what’s going into the meal. You can even ask the food service person to use “only a little” of something or to put in double chicken if you pay extra.
Overall, this goes back to my tip to be generally aware of macros. Ask yourself, “Where’s my protein? Where’s my carb? Where’s my fat?” Keep in mind that vegetables can be practically unlimited. You’ll immediately start picking up on the fact that restaurant meals are indirectly coaching you to take in multiple fat sources and multiple carb sources (which tend to be tasty and inexpensive), and limiting you to one protein source. Try to reverse that.
Tip #10: Embrace a mindset shift.
While people can be coming from all different food backgrounds, something that’s typical for my clients is to make a shift from a “diet culture” headspace about food (some foods are good, some foods are bad), to a sustainable mindset that engages critical thinking and encourages habit formation.
Getting really skilled at portion control at home and in restaurants (without overthinking it) is a process. You have to be in it for a real lifestyle change, not a 30-day crash diet. But on the flip side, you want this process to happen in the “background” of your daily life – for most people, weight loss is not a primary life focus. It has to get in line with work goals, family life, and social obligations.
So, in general, cooking more simply, eating out less, and being more mentally aware of what foods represent what amounts of energy can all help you make changes in the right direction and achieve your goals.
Need more ideas for meals at home? Check out my 5-ingredient meal prep recipes – 30+ ideas for easy, tasty home cooking. This can really help with keeping the process simple.