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Stumped by servings?

Take control of how much is on your plate

Counting calories can be confusing. And serving sizes can be perplexing. Portion control is key to weight loss and wellness goals. But with supersized, family-style, piled-high meals, how are you supposed to know where one serving stops and overeating begins?

The dividing line can be especially hard to determine in a nation of buffet restaurants and super size fast food options.

Some guides use your hand to estimate serving sizes: your fist is equal to a cup; your thumb is equal to an ounce. Everyone is different — a six-foot tall man's hand is not the same size as a five-foot tall woman's hand.Instead of comparing servings to subjective items, here are recognizable items that are objective.


Did you know that for more than 100 years the USDA has been creating a food guide? The first guide was published in 1902, as part of the USDA Farmers' Bulletin. This guide taught people how to select foods for families, and stressed the importance of gaining nutrients from food, especially vegetables. The USDA's ChooseMyPlate shares a similar philosophy, encouraging people to make wise food choices (like vegetables and fruits) and exercise portion control as a way to reduce their health risks. The new food plate encourages you to make half of your plate fruits and vegetables.

  • Eat two and a half cups every day.
  • Vary your veggies by adding more red, orange and dark greens.
  • Add beans or peas to salads, soups and sides.
  • Buy fresh vegetables; with canned or frozen veggies, look for “reduced sodium” or “no salt added.”
Vegetables Serving Size Serving Comparison Calories per Serving Important Nutrients
Baked Potato 1 medium Computer mouse 161 High in potassium and vitamins B6
and C
Broccoli 1 cup Baseball 30 High in calcium, dietary fiber, iron, magnesium, manganese, potassium, riboflavin and vitamins A, B6 and C
Carrots 1 cup or 14 baby-cut pieces Baseball 30 Very high in dietary fiber and vitamins A and C
Corn 1 ear Length of a pencil 132 High in dietary fiber, magnesium, phosphorus and vitamin C
Green Beans 1/2 cup Light bulb 17 High in calcium, dietary fiber, iron, manganese, magnesium, niacin, phosphorus, potassium and vitamins A, B6 and C
Romaine Lettuce 1 cup Baseball 8 Very high in dietary fiber, iron and vitamins A and C
Spinach 1 cup Baseball 7 Very high in calcium, dietary fiber, iron, manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, riboflavin, thiamin, zinc and vitamins A, B6 and C
Tomato 1/2 cup Light bulb 15 Very high in dietary fiber, manganese, potassium and vitamins A, B6 and C


Back in 1943, during a time of war and rationing, one of the first food guides — the “Basic Seven” — helped people cope with limited food supplies. However, it provided little guidance on how much people should eat. Fruits were separated into two categories. The first category was citrus fruit, tomatoes and raw cabbage. The second category was potatoes and other fruits and vegetables. With a better understanding of nutrition, MyPlate has shifted its focus to fruits, recommending two cups a day. Fruits provide healthy nutrients — potassium, dietary fiber, vitamin C and folate (folic acid).

  • Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.
  • Use fruits as snacks, to top salads and as the main ingredient of dessert.
  • Slice bananas or strawberries to top cereal or oatmeal at breakfast.
  • Buy fresh or dried fruits; canned or frozen should be stored in water or 100% juice (not syrup).
  • Check the label on juices for 100% fruit juice.
Fruit Serving Size Serving Comparison Calories per Serving Important Nutrients
Apples 1 cup Baseball 95 High in dietary fiber and vitamin C
Bananas 1 cup or 8 inches Length of a pencil 105 High in potassium, dietary fiber and vitamins B6 and C
Blueberries 1/2 cup Light bulb 83 High in vitamin C, dietary fiber and manganese
Cantaloupe 1 cup Baseball 60 High in potassium, niacin, dietary fiber and vitamins A, B6 and C
Grapes 1/2 cup Light bulb 31 High in manganese, low in sodium and saturated fat, and no cholesterol
Oranges 1/2 cup Light bulb 31 High in vitamin C and dietary fiber and potassium
Strawberries 1 cup or 12 berries Baseball 49 High in vitamin C, dietary fiber, manganese and potassium

Whole Grains

Fat. Cholesterol. Sodium. Research in the 1970s showed that Americans were over consuming these three things. And because of it, risks for chronic disease were rising. The USDA collaborated with the American Red Cross to develop the Food Wheel in 1984, shifting the focus from obtaining adequate nutrients to avoiding foods linked to chronic diseases (fatty and high in calories). Much of the wheel served as the base for the 1992 Food Pyramid. The pyramid is founded on bread, cereal, rice and pasta. In addition to over serving bread (six to 11 servings), it fails to mention whole grains. MyPlate caps the grains group servings at six per day, and recommends that half are considered whole.

  • Substitute refined grains with whole grains.
  • Check the nutrition label to make sure “whole wheat” or “whole grain” is listed as the first ingredient.
Whole Grains Serving Size Serving Comparison Calories per Serving Important Nutrients
Brown rice 1/2 cup Light bulb 109 High in dietary fiber and manganese
Oatmeal 1/2 cup Light bulb 150 High in dietary fiber
Whole wheat bread 1 slice Cassette tape 69 High in dietary fiber, manganese and selenium
Whole wheat pasta 1 cup Baseball 170 High in dietary fiber, manganese and selenium

Lean Protein

Until 2005, the food guides emphasized meat but did not provide a hierarchy or quantity limits. Bacon and sausage were as recommended as salmon and chicken breast. MyPlate highlights varying proteins and meets the needs of vegetarians with meatless options (i.e. nuts, beans, peas, tofu).

  • Eat five and a half ounces every day.
  • Vary your proteins with seafood, nuts, beans, peas, poultry and eggs.
  • Have eight ounces of cooked seafood twice a week.
  • Choose ground beef that is at least 90% lean.
  • Trim and drain fat from meat, and remove skin from poultry to cut fat and calories.
Lean Protein Serving Size Serving Comparison Calories per Serving Important Nutrients and Health Cautions
Almonds 1 ounce or 25 almonds Golf ball 163 No cholesterol, low in sugar and sodium, and high in manganese and magnesium
Beef (95% lean) 3 ounces Deck of cards 164 High in niacin, phosphorus, vitamin B6 and B12, and zinc
Chicken (breast) 3 ounces Deck of cards 114 Low in sodium and high in niacin, selenium and vitamin B6
Ham (fat-free lunch meat) 6 thin slices 6 CDs or DVDs 50 calories High in vitamin C; high in cholesterol and sodium
Salmon 3 ounces Checkbook 175 High in niacin, phosphorus, selenium, thiamin, vitamins B6
and B12
Walnuts 1 ounce or 9 walnuts Golf ball 183 No cholesterol, low in sodium and sugar, and high in manganese; high in total fat


From 1956 to 1978, dairy was a quarter of Americans’ diet. The Food for Fitness guide was so focused on nutrition adequacy that it overlooked fats, sugars and caloric intake. Not all milk products are made equal. In fact, MyPlate has poured out any products that have little to no calcium into the fats and oils group. Cream cheese, cream and butter didn’t make the cut to be in the dairy group.

  • Enjoy three cups every day.
  • Choose dairy products that are fat-free or low-fat (i.e. 1% milk).
  • Be careful selecting sweetened milk products (flavored milk, yogurt, desserts) because the added sugars are empty calories.
Dairy Serving Size Serving Comparison Calories per Serving Important Nutrients and Health Cautions
Low-fat milk (1%) 1 cup or 8 ounces Baseball 94 Very high in calcium, phosphorus, riboflavin, selenium and vitamin B12; very high in sugar
Cheddar cheese 1 ounce 1 dice 45 High in calcium; very high in saturated fat and sodium
Low-fat yogurt 6 ounces 1 container 100 High in calcium, vitamin A, phosphorus and potassium; very high in sugar
Greek yogurt 7 ounces 1 container 190 High in protein; high in sugar and saturated fat

Fats and Oils

Butter was a recommended food group? It’s true. In 1943, the Guide to Good Eating had seven food groups, and one was butter and fortified margarine. Now, MyPlate limits oils (butter, margarine, salad dressings) to three to seven teaspoons, depending on your age and gender. That’s two pats of butter or margarine a day.

  • Limits for adults range from five to seven teaspoons; three to four for children.
  • Look out for salt (sodium) in foods. Check the nutrition label and compare sodium amounts before choosing.
Fats and Oils Serving Size Serving Comparison Calories per Serving Health Cautions
Butter (unsalted) 1 tablespoon Quarter 100 Very high in saturated fat
Margarine 1 tablespoon Quarter 100 High in sodium
Mayonnaise 1 tablespoon Quarter 90 High in total fat and sodium
Shortening 1 tablespoon Quarter 110 High in total fat, polyunsaturated fat and saturated fat
Vegetable oil 1 tablespoon Quarter 120 High in total fat and polyunsaturated fat

Meals and Sweets

Casseroles. All you can eat buffets. Endless pasta bowls. Colossal cakes. Portions for meals need to get on the right track and in line with your wellness goals. Give your plate and waistline a gut check. Take control of your servings, ingredients and willpower. The re-engineered food plate and 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans stresses consuming fewer calories, making healthy food choices and being physically active.

  • Drink water instead of sugary drinks.
  • Eat sugary desserts less often.
  • Consume nutrient-dense foods and beverages.
  • Make foods that are high in solid fats — brownies, pizza, cheese — occasional choices, not every day foods.
  • Limit empty calories to less than 260 calories (based on a 2,000 calorie diet) per day.
Meals and Sweets Serving Size Serving Comparison Calories per Serving Health Cautions
Barbeque ribs 2 ribs Checkbook 690 High in saturated fat and sodium
Brownie 2-inch square Box of dental floss 110 Very high in sugar and carbohydrates
Cheese pizza 1 slice 2 dollar bills 300 High in sodium
Chicken pot pie 8 ounces Baseball 484 High in saturated fat and sodium
Cinnamon roll 2 ounces Hockey puck 182 Very high in sugar
Hamburger 3 ounces Deck of cards 396 High in cholesterol and saturated fat
Ice cream 1/2 cup Light bulb 270 Very high in sugar, cholesterol and saturated fat

For more information and examples of serving sizes, visit WebMD’s Portion Size Plate tool.

GuideStone Financial Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention welcomes the opportunity to share this general information. However, this article is not intended to be relied upon as medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.