How to Calculate Food Portions Without a Scale

Overhead shot of a deck of playing cards on a table
A portion of meat is about the size of a deck of cards or a standard smartphone. (Image: FogStock/Alin Dragulin/FogStock/Getty Images)

When you’re trying to control the amount of food you’re eating, one of the most important things you can do is pay attention to portion sizes. While taking out a food scale and measuring how much your food weighs may be the most accurate way to calculate food portions, it’s not always possible or practical. If you don’t have a scale or you prefer not to use one, there are other ways to estimate food portions like comparing food sizes to common household items. You can also purchase specialized containers that take the guesswork out of portion control.

A Proper Protein Portion

One of the easiest ways to calculate food portions without a scale is to compare foods to familiar items around the house, using normal serving sizes based on the Diabetic Exchange List. For example, a 4-ounce serving of meat is similar in size to a standard smartphone, and a 3-ounce portion is the size of a deck of cards. When adding nut butters, like peanut butter or almond butter, to your plate, you want to stick to the amount equivalent to the size of a ping pong ball, which is about 2 tablespoons. A serving of raw nuts is 1 ounce -- about the size of an egg.

Measuring a Portion of Fat

Current nutrition research suggests that fats -- which were once shunned by diet and nutrition professionals -- are actually quite good for you. The key is to limit your portions, since a small amount of fat comes with a significant number of calories as well. When calculating a portion of fat, such as butter or olive oil, it should be similar to the size of one die, which is equal to about 1 teaspoon. A portion of salad dressing is 2 tablespoons, just enough to fit into a standard size shot glass.

Determining Dairy Portions

In general, a 1-cup serving of dairy products, like milk, yogurt, and cottage cheese, is considered a portion. To measure out 1 cup without a measuring cup or scale, you can compare the amount to the size of a baseball. For cheese, 1 ounce is considered a serving. With hard cheeses, like cheddar, you can compare the amount to the size of a lipstick tube or two dice; a slice of cheese should be about the size of a standard CD case, just a little thinner.

Calculating Grain Portions

Carbohydrate-rich foods, like rice, quinoa, and pasta, are often the star of a dinner plate, but the correct serving size of these foods is often miscalculated. A serving of rice and quinoa is 1/2 cup, which is equal to the size of a typical light bulb or a tennis ball, while a serving of pasta is 1/2 cup, or about the size of a tennis ball. If you're adding a potato to your plate, choose one that's the size of a computer mouse. Many potatoes sold at the store are at least two servings.

It's easy to fill up a large bowl with cereal in the morning before you head out the door, but a proper portion is 3/4 to 1 cup for cold cereal, depending on the type, which looks like a baseball, and 1/2 cup for oatmeal -- a tennis ball-sized portion.

Figuring Out a Portion of Fruit and Veggies

Fruit is full of healthy nutrients, but it’s possible to overdo it, especially if you’re trying to lose weight. Some pieces of fruit available in supermarkets are huge -- well over a standard serving. While it’s OK to eat a large apple here and there, it’s still helpful to know how many servings you’re getting. A standard portion of fruit like an apple or orange is one small fruit about the size of a tennis ball. If the fruit is cut up or canned, such as pears or mango, the correct portion size is 1/2 cup, which still resembles a tennis ball. For berries, a 3/4- to 1 1/4-cup serving is closer to the size of a baseball.

A typical serving of raw veggies is 1 cup, while a typical serving of cooked veggies is 1/2 cup; so if you're serving up raw veggies, compare the amount to a baseball. If your veggies are cooked, keep the portion around the size of a computer mouse.

Portion-Controlling Containers

If you’re looking for something that’s a little more controlled than comparing your favorite foods to common household items, you may want to try portion-controlled dishes. These are special containers -- or plates and bowls -- that are premeasured for you. They vary in size and shape and generally come with instructions about which types of foods go in which containers. This takes the guesswork out of portion control; all you have to do is fill the container with the appropriate food and you’re good to go.

Tips for Controlling Portions Without a Scale

Even when you know what a proper portion should look like, it can still be difficult to stay within those recommended sizes, especially if temptation is staring you in the face. As you’re figuring out portions, there are things you can do to help control the amount you’re eating. When preparing a meal at home, serve the portion sizes of each food item and then immediately put the rest away for leftovers. If you’re having a snack, measure out the correct portion size into a small bowl and eat from that, rather than straight from the bag or box. If you buy snacks in bulk, measure out portions into small baggies immediately and put them away in a storage container in the pantry. That way, when you’re ready for a snack, you won’t be tempted to dip into the bag; you’ll have all your snack-size packs ready.

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