For those who love food or feel hungry all the time, practicing portion control can seem intimidating. And if you don't quite understand what proper portion sizes look like, the whole concept may seem completely foreign.
But let's say you're trying to lose weight, and you know you need to get a handle on what and how much you're eating. Luckily, there are tools that can help. Portion control containers, for example, are a budget- and user-friendly option that make it simple to keep your intake in check.
"Food should be consumed with pleasure, not guilt or shame," Stefanie Dove, a registered dietitian based in Northern Virginia, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "Using portion-controlled containers allows individuals the flexibility to enjoy all foods while being mindful of the amount they are eating. This reduces the feeling of deprivation, while increasing the pleasure associated with food."
Read more: 3 Benefits of Eating Smaller Portions
What Are Portion Control Containers?
Simply put, portion control containers are reusable containers, typically made of plastic or glass, that are sized to help you measure and regulate the amount of food you eat at each meal. There are a wide variety of options available, from basic glass containers to multiple-piece sets that are color-coded for each food group.
Portion control containers not only help you eat less but also plan your meals in advance, so you can make sure you're filling up on healthy foods rather than grabbing whatever is most convenient.
"In today's busy world, containers make meals a breeze because you can prepare items in advance and have them stored in the fridge or freezer, so all you need to do is warm them up," says Dove. "This eliminates the stress of evening cooking, which is why many people resort to convenience restaurants for meals."
Portion Sizes and Weight Control
If you want to lose weight, Dove says, you need to create a calorie deficit. Therefore, you need to monitor how much you're eating — and portion control containers take the guesswork out of it.
Keep in mind that portion sizes are different than serving sizes. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a serving size is a standardized amount of food, such as the amount the manufacturer lists on a product's nutrition facts label. A portion size, however, is the amount of food you actually eat — and it could be more or less than a standard serving.
It's not an urban legend that portion sizes have increased over the past few decades. Research published in June 2017 in Nutrients looked at the typical portion sizes of 14 foods and found that between 1995 and 2011, the number of calories in a typical portion of 10 of those food items increased significantly. The largest difference was seen in pizza and cake, which increased by 570 calories and 950 calories, respectively. Portion sizes also increased for sausage, cereal bars, processed meat, ice cream and wine.
Additionally, a review of studies published in May 2014 in the Journal of Marketing found that when portion size is doubled, consumption of that food increases an average of 35 percent. In other words, when a person is served more food, they often eat more food. It might not seem like rocket science, but the research shows how easy it is to overeat when you're over-served, whether by yourself or by someone else, such as at a restaurant.
Read more: 7 Tricks to Make Portion Control Easy
The Best Portion Control Containers
With all the portion control containers available for various budgets and desired preferences, it may not be easy to pick out the best option for you. To narrow down the choices, look closely at the reviews and ratings for each container set.
If you're considering a plastic container set, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) recommends looking for storage sets that are free from such chemicals as vinyl or polyvinyl chloride, polystyrene or bisphenol A (BPA). If you're able to find a numerical code that indicates what type of plastic the container is made from, the safest choices are numbers 1, 2, 3 and 5, AND says.
1. Best on a Budget
Efficient Nutrition Portion Control Containers
Costing less than $10, this seven-piece set is color-coded for each food group to ensure you're getting the right amount. For example, the purple container is big enough to hold one cup of fruit, while the yellow container is the right size for a half-cup of grains. The set also includes containers for vegetables, protein, fats and seeds. The containers come with a portion control guide, 21-day planner and recipe e-book.
Read more: How to Meal Prep for Weight Loss Like a Pro
Efficient Nutrition's set is safe for the freezer, microwave and dishwasher, and it's made out of food-safe plastic that's free from BPA. However, there is one drawback to this budget-friendly set: Because it just has seven pieces, you will be regularly washing the containers for the new meal or the next day. Therefore, you might need to invest in more than one set in order to properly meal prep with these containers.
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $7.95
2. Best for Beginners
Fitbody Nation 21-Day Portion Control Containers
When you're starting out with portion control containers, you want to make it easy on yourself — and that means not having to wash containers with every meal. A 28-piece set allows you to portion out meals for at least one full day, depending on how often you eat per day, rather than having to wash each of the seven containers for each meal. As you might expect, it costs a little bit more for these additional containers.
Like the seven-piece set, this larger set of containers is coded to indicate specific colors for each food group and has an easily understood label on each container, so you know exactly how much food it holds. This particular set also comes with two protein shakers with stainless steel mixing balls, so you can get in a shake after a workout, as well as a body-measuring tape, measuring spoon set and weight management e-book.
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $29.45
3. Best Under-the-Radar
Evolutionize Meal Prep Containers
If you prefer the price point of plastic portion control containers, but you don't want the bright colors that scream "I'm trying to lose weight," then a budget-friendly, two-compartment container set will do the trick. These containers look very generic — they're similar to what you might get from a takeout restaurant — but they offer two compartments to limit the amount of food that you prep per meal.
Evolutionize's meal prep containers are safe for the freezer, microwave and the top rack of the dishwasher. The set also comes with the company's meal-prepping e-book that contains both tips and healthy recipes.
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $15.99 for 7-pack
4. Best Glass Containers
Mcirco Glass Meal Prep Containers
Some people prefer not to prep, freeze or heat food in plastic containers. If that's the case for you, look for a high-quality glass option, like this five-piece set made from borosilcate, which is safe for the oven, microwave, freezer and dishwasher. However, keep in mind that they're not entirely plastic-free, as the lids are made from BPA-free plastic with a silicone seal to avoid leakage.
These glass containers don't have color-coding or other visual cues to guide your meal prep. This may be a benefit for people who don't want others, like coworkers, to know they're using portion control containers. However, it could also be a drawback for people who might benefit from food-specific colors or easy-to-spot measurement labels.
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $23.99 for set of five 29-ounce containers
- Nutrients: "Changes in Typical Portion Sizes of Commonly Consumed Discretionary Foods among Australian Adults from 1995 to 2011-2012"
- Journal of Marketing: "Sizing up the Effect of Portion Size on Consumption: A Meta-Analytic Review"
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Serving Size vs. Portion Size: Is There a Difference"
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "How to Use Plastic Food Storage Containers"
- Stefanie Dove Nutrition