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What Is a Serving Size for Dinner?

By Jackie Lohrey

Dinner, whether served in the afternoon or in the evening, has the main meal of the day throughout history. Rather than a bowl of cereal or a sandwich and a piece of fruit, dinner meals tend to be more substantial, consisting of meats, vegetables and grains. You can avoid overeating at this important meal by following principals of portion control that specify serving sizes and help you stay within calorie limitations.

Portion Versus Serving

The first step in determining how much to eat at dinner is to understand the difference between the terms portion and serving. Portion is a subjective term, meaning it has no standard definition. It describes how much food you choose to put on your plate. In contrast, the term serving has a definition based on guidelines established by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Serving information not only tells you how much to eat, but also provides a way to determine the calories and nutritional value of the food. Practicing portion control is a way to bring the two together.


A correct serving size depends on the type of food you choose for dinner. In general, grains can include one slice of bread or a 1/2-cup of rice or pasta. If your vegetable choice is a raw, leafy green, such as spinach, a serving size is 1 cup, but a 1/2-cup for all other raw or cooked vegetables as well as chopped, cooked or canned fruit. A meat serving is 3 ounces and you can round out your dinner with 1 cup of milk, the USDA explains.


To help you visualize a correct serving for dinner, the Food and Nutrition Service, a division of the USDA, provides analogies that can be particularly helpful when you're getting started with portion control. Consider, for example, a dinner consisting of a green salad, a baked potato with butter, broccoli and chicken. The correct serving of a green salad is 1 cup; a comparable analogy is the size of your fist or a tennis ball. A single serving for a baked potato also compares to your fist or a tennis ball, while a teaspoon of butter is about the size of a postage stamp. A 1/2-cup serving of broccoli compares to what you can fit in an ice cream scoop; if your chicken is boneless, a 3-oz. serving is about the size of your palm or a deck of cards. Otherwise, the FNS advises, a serving of chicken is one leg, thigh or breast.


Developing an understanding of what your serving size should be is especially important if you are trying to lose weight or have a medical condition such as diabetes. Because standard serving sizes also include calories and nutrition facts, you can use this information to make food choices that help you lose weight or manage your condition while still getting the right mix of nutrients, the Cleveland Clinic notes.


Practicing portion control is more difficult when you eat dinner at a restaurant. The chances are good, the What’s Cooking America website reports, that the food on your plate may equal two to four times the standard serving size. Instead of ordering a full meal, consider choosing an appetizer.

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