Portion Caution

Portion Caution

Eating too much or too little can be problematic when it comes to achieving optimal nutrition and maintaining good health. Practicing appropriate portion sizes when it comes to both healthy foods and treat foods helps to create a balanced diet without deprivation. All too often there is an imbalance between vegetable intake and treats. Getting this balance right means an 80 – 20 split between food and treats. Food should offer nutritional benefit such as fibre, protein, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals, while treats are eaten purely for enjoyment as they mostly do not offer any nutrient benefit.

Encouraging children to learn, listen and respond to hunger cues appropriately is the best way to prevent childhood obesity as children have an innate ability to self-regulate from birth. This natural ability is however interrupted by forcing children to finish meals or with the regular intake of highly refined foods which lack nutrition and do not sufficiently satisfy hunger. These behaviours result in overeating and the reduced ability to eat mindfully. If this natural sense is lost, eating with reference to portion guidance can help to reestablish mindful eating.

Developing portion caution skills is a great way to consistently maintain an optimum nutrient intake and avoid excessive energy input. Healthy eating practices, once established, cannot be forgotten.  Ignored, perhaps, but not forgotten. Portion control is therefore a lifelong skill worth developing. Children should be allowed to serve themselves as providing large portions results in excessive energy intake. Consistently consuming energy in excess of energy requirements results in weight gain.

Using a child’s hand is the most convenient tool for measuring portion size. Our hands are relative to our individual body size and the bonus is that they go with us wherever we go. Teaching children to look at food with reference to their hands is the easiest method of transferring portion control to them when they are without parent supervision, especially in environments in which excessive portion sizes are supplied. This method of practicing appropriate portion control is also a simple method for parents and caregivers to model themselves. Modelling good eating practices is the most effective nutrition intervention. Neither overeating nor dieting are appropriate eating behaviours for children to witness. The entire family should simply eat the same healthy food in age appropriate portions.


Using the hand as a portion size guide:


Portion Size


·     Wholegrains and wholegrain products –

Eg. wholewheat pasta, high fibre cereals, oats 

      porridge, brown or wholewheat bread, 

      whole wheat or rye crackers

·     Potatoes, with skin

1 serving = fist

                    (or flat hand, with fingers, for bread)


4 -5 servings per day


Fruits & Vegetables:

·     Fresh fruit and vegetables, raw or cooked

·     Frozen fruits and vegetables

·     Dried fruit

1 serving = 2 cupped hands fresh, frozen or tinned

                 = 1 cupped hand dried fruit


5 servings per day


·       Meat, chicken, fish, eggs,

·       Legumes, soya

·       Cheese, cottage

1 serving = size of palm

2 servings per day



·       Milk, yoghurt, maas

·       Lactose free milk

·       Calcium fortified soya milk

1 serving = 1 fist


2 servings per day


·       Nuts, seeds, nut butter, margarine, mayonnaise, oil (polyunsaturated fats)


·       Butter, cheese, coconut oil, palm oil (saturated fats)

1 serving = size of thumb



1 serving = size of thumb tip



Other tips for encouraging age appropriate portion control

  1. Children should use smaller plates and cutlery
  2. Leave the pots in the kitchen
  3. Serve leftovers into storage containers as soon as everyone is served


Tips for promoting an adequate intake of vegetables

  1. Avoid offering fatty snacks such as crisps, pastries and chocolate between meals as this reduces healthy hunger at meal times
  2. Avoid offering juice before or during meal times
  3. Do not offer food rewards such as dessert