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Perfect portions and savvy servings
65% of adults in the UK admit that they buy too much food and it goes to waste. In fact, around 1 in every 6 bags of food to leave a shop end up being thrown away.
It’s estimated that 64% of British adults are already overweight, having a body mass index (BMI) of 25 or more. This includes around 28% of adults who are obese (with a BMI of 30 or more), making the UK the most overweight nation in western Europe.
To responsibly tackle food waste and help you to maintain or attain a healthy well-balanced diet, it’s best to tackle the issue by assessing our portion sizes and servings.
Portion sizes aren’t just important when we’re meal planning and shopping for foods. They are important whenever we do anything to, or with, our food that might increase its chances of going to waste. That includes:
- when we prepare it (for example if the food needs peeling, chopping or when it goes into the freezer)
- when we cook it (if it needs cooking)
- when we serve it
- when we buy it – hopefully you have already started thinking about how much food you need to buy at the stage you are meal planning and/or writing shopping lists. Changing your portion sizes as a result of this week’s activity might impact on those activities.
This article is intended to help you increase your knowledge of portion and serving sizes. We’ve suggested and activity designed to help you check to see if your portion sizes are causing waste at home, so you can take appropriate action.
Brush up on your knowledge of portions and serving sizes
A portion is the amount of food that you choose to eat for a meal or snack. It can be big or small, you decide.
A serving is a measured amount of food or drink, such as one slice of bread or one cup of milk. Recommended serving sizes are there to help us to maintain a healthy well-balanced diet.
Many foods are packaged and sold in multiple-serving formats, but it’s not always obvious and it can be easy to assume that they contain one portion. The nutrition label on packaged foods, on the backs of cans, sides of boxes, etc. usually tells you the number of servings in the packaging. It’s worth checking these if you aren’t already in the habit of doing so.
Of course, not all foods come with labels containing serving size recommendations, and although you should be aware that there are inconsistencies even when they are present, it’s worth paying attention to serving size advice when it is present.
If this is news to you, it’s worth finding out if you suffer from portion distortion.
What is portion distortion?
There has been a general trend for our foods to be packaged and sold in ever increasing portion sizes over the last few years. They sampled 245 food products, and found that the vast majority had greatly increased in size in the 20-year period between 1993 and 2013; with items such as chicken pies increasing in size by 40%, crisps by 50% and single serving shepherd’s pies by 98%. This trend has continued in the intervening years and looks set to continue.
Although many people are likely to feel that larger portions represent better value, it does have considerable downsides. For example, there is strong evidence to suggest that people see some foods as a single ‘serving’ regardless of how big or small the portion is. Certainly, the increase in portion sizes has occurred roughly in line with increases in the number of people who are overweight. In 1990 obesity affected just 14 percent of British adults. It now affects 28 percent, while obesity rates and diabetes are now at record high levels in the UK and are on the increase.
Interestingly, it’s thought that the nutritional value of some of our foods has dropped over a similar time period. It’s thought that this is likely a result of farmers switching to faster growing, higher yielding crops (wheat for example) as they strive to meet our ever-growing demand for more food. However, the increase in average portion sizes in the UK and across the developed world more than compensates for any nutritional deficit from a slight drop in the nutritional value of some of our foods.
More importantly, the enlargement of serving sizes is thought to have contributed to a distortion of what we consider to be a ‘normal’ portion of food, whether it’s pre-packaged or homemade, a phenomenon dubbed “portion distortion”. Our modern-day portions of food (and drink) are generally far larger than what was considered ‘normal’ just 60 – 70 years ago. This change is mirrored in the size of our plates and bowls, which have also gradually increasingly sizes over the same period of time to help us accommodate larger meals. A dinner plate in a modern home has an average diameter of 28cm. In the 1950’s it was just 25cm. A surprisingly good way to reduce your portion sizes is to use smaller plates for your meals.
Activity – A simple way to test if you suffer from portion distortion is to simply choose a few items of packaged food in your home, or at the shop, and guestimate how many servings the pack contains. Then check the label and see how close you are to the recommended serving. If you find that you are getting it wrong, you might be suffering from portion distortion.
If so, you might want to review your approach to portioning at home.
Alternatively, you could try using a food waste diary such as this one. Keep it by your kitchen bin, and whenever you find yourself throwing food away, jot down what it is, roughly how much there is and why it’s being thrown away. If portion sizes are an issue you’ll soon be able to spot a pattern emerging.
Do you measure or guestimate your portion sizes?
In an ideal world we would have the time to carefully measure out portions of foods to avoid unnecessary waste and to help us maintain a healthy and well-balanced diet. If you do have the time and the patience to do this then please carry on, it’s the best way to get your portions exactly right.
However, for many people it’s perhaps easier said than done. Many people fall at the first hurdle as they don’t know what a portion of any particular food is, or should be, and finding out takes time and effort.
45% of adults in the UK report that they feel time pressured in their day-to-day lives, and rather than looking up recommended portion sizes and breaking out the weighing scales, measuring cups and so on, in reality we often do our portioning using “guestimation”. This saves us time but leaves us vulnerable to the appetites of our subconscious minds, which can be a dangerous thing in terms of the types of food we buy and eat.
“The human appetite evolved in a world where calories were hard to come by. We are predisposed to pounce on any food that is high in fat and sugar. And once we start eating this kind of food, we are programmed to keep going: our hormones take longer to send out satiety signals (the feeling of fullness) than they do with lower-calorie foods.” (Henry Dimbleby, in The National Food Strategy Independent review).
It also leaves us vulnerable in terms of the amount of food we buy and eat, and evidence suggests that more often than not guesstimated portions are too large:
- 65% of UK adults admit to buying too much food that ends up being thrown away
- 1 in every 6 bags of food bought goes to waste
- in a 2017 survey of UK adults, 77% were unable to correctly identify what a serving of fruit or veg looked like
Because of this it’s not a good idea to meal plan, go shopping or guesstimate your portions when you are hungry. Doing so dramatically increases the chances that you’ll buy, cook or serve more food than you can eat.
If you find that you are regularly facing this choice, and you are left with unplanned leftovers it’s a strong indicator that you need to review your portion sizes.
Where to get reliable advice on portion sizes
Not all foods have portioning advice on them, and even if they do, the advice can be confusing or unhelpful. If you need to find reliable portion size advice elsewhere we recommend that you use one of the portioning tools linked below;
- the NHS eatwell guidance (or the guidance of a health care professional if you need a special diet). The NHS have also developed a free food scanner app to make the process of finding nutritional information a bit simpler
- the Love Food Hate Waste portion calculator – simply type in the type of food you are portioning, and the number of adults and children eating and you’ll be given all the info you need
To make accessing these resources easier it might help to bookmark them on your phone, tablet or computer.
If you have a smart speaker in your kitchen, keep in mind that you can also ask Google / Alexa etc. for advice on portioning foods as you prepare, cook and serve them. However, please keep in mind that smart speakers draw advice from a wide range of websites and your results may not have been fact checked for accuracy.
If you do decide to draw on a wider variety of sources for help with portioning, keep in mind that most online guides assume that you are an adult, and that you are portioning these foods as part of a normal, well-balanced diet. Although we strongly recommend that you follow the NHS eatwell guide and aim for a healthy, well-balanced diet, your health and personal preference might vary. Please follow any medical advice you have been given, and otherwise use the recommended portion as a starting point and adjust it to what suits you and the needs / appetites of the people you are feeding.
Portioning for kids
Research suggests that many babies are born with the innate ability to self-regulate their food intake, enabling them to almost magically eat just the right amount of food to give them the energy and nutrition they need to live and grow and nothing more. Most children lose that ability by the time they are three or four years old, and at that point they begin learning what’s in a ‘normal’ diet, and what a ‘normal’ portion size looks like from the people caring for them. Getting that right is obviously a key concern for parents and carers.
It can be stressful if you consistently find that your children are regularly leaving food on their plates at the end of meals. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of official advice on how much food children of different ages should eat. The NHS simply recommend that parents and carers follow the principles of the eatwell guide when feeding children, and that they use judgement when it comes to portion sizes.
Good strategies for reducing food waste with children:
- Talking to your children at an early age about the importance of a healthy diet and demonstrating what that looks like at mealtimes (practicing what you preach).
- Help children to choose their own portion sizes – by letting them put food on their own plates
- Talk to your children about the negative consequences of wasting food – using your judgement on how to pitch the message.
- Serve small portions initially, but make it clear they can ask for more if they are still hungry
- Involve children in meal choices and preparations. Children are more likely to eat food they have helped to prepare / cook themselves.
- For smaller children, use smaller plates
Speed up portion measurements
The ideal way to measure most solid foods is by weight. However, getting out the weighing scales and looking up recommended weights for every meal can slow you down.
A good way to claim back some time is to weigh out the portions of foods you cook regularly once. Transfer the weighed portion into a handy container in the kitchen, for example a cup or a mug and note how full it is. Keep your notes somewhere handy in the kitchen.
The next time you want to cook that item of food, grab your mug and fill it up to the same level again.
For example, the recommended serving of uncooked rice is 75g per person. A single portion of rice is about a quarter of a cup. A serving for two people is half a cup, and for four people it’s a full cup.
Cups aren’t great for everything of course, so use a container that works for you. If you are really in a rush or find yourself without your regular measuring container you can also use your hands as a rough guide.
A note on cooking dried foods: dried food such as rice and pasta are commonly wasted because we cook more than we can eat. Both absorb water as they cook causing them to swell, increasing in size and weight. A single serving of dried rice (weighing 75g) fills about quarter of a cup. Once cooked, the rice will expand to nearly fill the cup to the brim, and it will end up weighing approximately 180g.