It’s important to fuel your body properly. Otherwise, caregiving can take a greater toll.

A healthy diet emphasizes certain foods and recommends a number of servings per day. But you may have a question: Just what counts as a serving, anyway?

It’s a great question. It can be easy to consider too much as a single serving, especially with tasty foods we like.

Here’s a breakdown for several kinds of foods:

Grains: ½ cup cooked rice, pasta or cooked cereal; 1 oz. dry pasta or rice; 1 slice bread; 1 cup ready-to-eat cereal flakes.

Vegetables: 1 cup equivalent of vegetables is 1 cup raw vegetable or vegetable juice, 2 cups leafy salad greens.

Fruits: 1 cup equivalent is 1 cup fruit or ½ cup of fruit juice (orange juice, etc.) or 1/3 cup of a fruit juice blend.

Protein foods (meat, poultry, fish, dry beans and nuts): 3 oz. cooked lean meat, poultry or seafood; 2 egg whites or 1 egg; ¼ cup cooked beans; 1 tbsp. peanut butter; ½ oz. unsalted nuts/seeds. Note that ¼ cup cooked beans = 1 oz. protein equivalent but ½ cup cooked beans = 1 vegetable.

Dairy foods (milk, yogurt and cheese): 1 cup equivalent is 1 cup milk or yogurt, 1½ oz. natural cheese such as cheddar cheese, or 2 oz. processed cheese.

Helpful rules of thumb

Here are a few helpful serving size guidelines to remember:

  • One cup of raw leafy vegetables or a baked potato should be about the size of a small fist.
  • Three ounces of cooked lean meat or poultry is about the size of a deck of cards.
  • A teaspoon of soft margarine is about the size of a single die (from a pair of dice).
  • An ounce and a half of fat-free or low-fat cheese is about the size of four stacked dice.

Consider setting a goal to eat healthy 80 percent of the time. You can use the remaining 20 percent for an occasional treat, or for times when you’re crunched for time and have to prioritize convenience over nutrition.

And here’s food for thought: Once you start eating right, it will be easier to get your loved one started on some heart-healthy, nutritious habits too.

Learn more:

  • Top 10 cooking tips

An Infographic of Serving Sizes for Your Favorite Healthy Foods

Even if you eat nutritious food, you might not be eating smart. When we know a food is healthy, we tend to think it doesn’t matter how much we eat, says Paige Smathers, R.D.N., a nutritionist based near Salt Lake City, Utah. Since the wrong serving size can be just as detrimental to your diet as the wrong food, here’s the right way to serve up 10 healthy but tricky snacks. (And might we suggest these New and Improved Low-Calorie Snacks to Tame Cravings? We tested ’em all, and they’re delicious.)

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If you’re filling a standard bowl with cereal in the morning, you’re probably downing around two cups, says Katherine Isacks, R.D., a nutritionist based near Boulder, Colorado. This mistake is common: “People really do not have a handle on their portion size for cereal,” says Isacks. Check the serving sizes on your favorite boxes-they’re usually 3/4 cup to one cup. If you’re eating more than one bowl, as many people do, that’s an even bigger problem, even if it’s not a sugary version. “The healthiest high-fiber cereal can end up being a very high-calorie and carb-loaded breakfast if you overeat,” says Isacks. She suggests purchasing a small bowl that fits just a cup. Fill it, enjoy it, and be done. (Serve up one of The Healthiest Cereal Choices to Help You Live Longer.)

Orange Juice

The first problem with juice is that it’s inferior to the whole fruit. Oranges have fiber and likely pack more antioxidants than the processed, liquid form, says Isacks. (Learn the whole story in What’s Healthier, Oranges or Orange Juice?) However, if you can’t imagine breakfast without the drink, this is another time to recalibrate your place setting. Most people fill and down a 7-ounce glass or worse, a 12-ounce glass, the latter of which packs 175 calories and 31 grams of sugar! Buy the smallest juice glass you can find and fill it 3/4 of the way, says Isacks. The ideal portion size to keep your carb and calorie intake in the reasonable zone is 4 ounces.


Although cheese is packed with calcium and protein and is actually very nutritious, it’s calorie-dense. A half-cup of shredded cheddar, for instance, packs 229 calories. Cheese can be especially problematic for women who’ve cut back on meat and use cheese as a substitute, says Isacks. “They’ll eat 3 ounces of cheese for their main protein, and they’re getting maybe double or triple the calories than if they’d had a lean pork tenderloin or chicken breast,” she says. Her advice: Think of cheese as a flavoring agent and opt for bold varieties like goat or blue cheese to sprinkle small amounts (about an ounce) on eggs and other dishes (like The 10 Best Cheese Recipes to Satisfy Your Cravings.). That way you get just as much flavor for fewer calories. For snacking, buy cheese sticks to take out the guesswork of cutting one ounce off the block.


When you buy yogurt in a large container, it’s easy to scoop too much. Aim for about 6 ounces, or 3/4 cup, at a time, says Smathers. Measure it out, at least the first time. “Take a mental picture of what that looks like, and then every time you eat yogurt, aim for that portion size,” says Smathers. Of course, the type of yogurt matters too. Always reach for plain Greek yogurt-you don’t have to worry about sugar, and you won’t have to be quite as guarded about your portions (eating 9 ounces instead of 6 of the full-fat kind will only cost around 80 calories). But even with good food, it’s important to keep portion size in check so that you can fill out your diet with a variety of nutrients, Smathers says. (Try one of these 10 Savory Greek Yogurt Recipes.)


This one depends on whether you’re eating in front of Netflix or an IMAX. The ideal popcorn is homemade using an air popper, not slathered in butter or sugar. Then you can eat 3 or 4 cups, no big deal, says Smathers. (It’ll only cost you 100 calories or so.) You can also get away with eating a low-calorie mini bag of microwaveable popcorn. The movie theater, however, is a different story. “You have to think about what’s been put on the popcorn, and that changes how much is a reasonable portion size,” she says. Even the smallest bag at Carmike Cinemas, for example, is 530 calories. If you really want it, buy the smallest option and split it with a few friends. Limit your share to about 2 cups, and don’t make this a regular occasion, says Smathers. (Give your popcorn a flavor upgrade with one of these Healthy Popcorn Recipes with Tricked-Out Toppings.)


Holy guacamole! Even though the average American eats about half of an avocado at once, the recommended serving size is only 1/5 of the fruit, according to CDC data. But don’t worry too much about cutting a 20-percent slice. “I think a good way to approach an avocado is anywhere from a quarter to half at a time,” says Smathers. The healthy fats in avocados will help you feel full while providing the creamy, satisfying texture your taste buds want. The problem with eating the whole fruit? It’s over 300 calories. (Change it up with 10 Savory Avocado Recipes (That Aren’t Guacamole).)

Pasta and Rice

Many people fill half or more of their plate with these starchy sides. That’s a problem because pasta or rice should only take up a quarter of that real estate, says Smathers. Since we know that these foods aren’t the smartest picks, it’s easy to tell yourself to go big or go home. That’s a problem because when you eat a plateful of spaghetti, you’re downing way more calories and carbs than you need. Plus, you’re not getting enough protein and fruits and vegetables. “If you put pasta on first, there’s not likely to be much room left for anything more than a couple sprigs of broccoli,” says Seattle-based nutritionist Marlene Maltby, R.D.N. (Skip the guilt: 15 Low-Calorie Pasta Recipes for a Healthy Italian Dinner.)


The healthy fats in nuts have been linked to a variety of health benefits. However, their good reputation can lead to problems: Because people think of nuts as a “good” food, they think they can eat however much they want, says Smathers. A quarter cup, or a small handful, is a smart serving. To help you stick to that, buy raw unsalted nuts, suggests Smathers. Our bodies are programmed to crave salt, so it’s hard to put salty nuts down. It’s easier to stay in control with unsalted nuts because you’ll actually get sick of the flavor after a while. Rather than leaving them in the canister or bulk container, portion the nuts into small bags so you have the proper serving ready at all times. Pair them with fresh fruits or vegetables to help you fill up without loading up on calories, suggests Maltby.

Nut Butters

Heaping spoonfuls aren’t your friend. Like nuts, nut butters can be nutritious, but they pack plenty of calories and go down even easier than nuts. Measure out 2 tablespoons of nut butter so that you can see what it really looks like. Aim for that much every time you eat it, says Smathers. (Here’s 40 “Betcha Never Tried This!” Ways to Eat Nut Butter.)

Trail Mix

It’s incredibly easy to eat too much trail mix. So much so, in fact, that Smathers usually recommends trail mix to clients looking to gain weight. If that’s not you, stick to a 1/4 to 1/2 cup, placed in zippered plastic bags so you can’t go overboard. The typical components of trail mix tend to be high in calories (nuts, for example) or high in carbs (like dried fruit and candy pieces). For a high-protein mix, Smathers stirs together coconut flakes, raw nuts, and dried cranberries (it’s The Ultimate Healthy Trail Mix).

Bottled Smoothies

Check the label: Often these products pack multiple serving sizes. If you guzzle the whole thing, you’ll down plenty of carbs and calories, but probably not much filling fat and protein. “The problem with that is that carbohydrate doesn’t really give you lasting energy,” Smathers. “It gives you immediate quick energy but you do kind of crash on it quickly, and you get hungry soon and it can lead to eating more.” You’re better off making a 12-ounce smoothie at home with fruit and full-fat plain Greek yogurt, says Smathers. (Change up your usual recipe with one of these 14 Unexpected Smoothie and Green Juice Ingredients.) However, the convenience of a bottled smoothie does give it a special place in your diet-on the go, at the airport, etc. Drink half of it and pair it with something rich in protein and fat.

  • By Julie Stewart

Conventional wisdom (and most research) tells us that healthy eating requires eating balanced portions of a wide variety of foods, especially fruits and vegetables. Seems simple enough…except for the fact that what’s recommended on the back of a nutrition label isn’t always enlightening. And a lot of traditional serving size definitions are pretty unhelpful, tbh. (When was the last time you looked at a deck of cards as a size reference for anything?)

“Portion sizes can get a bit confusing, since a lot of nutrition labels talk in grams for portions and people don’t carry a food scale around in their back pocket,” says Brigitte Zeitlin, RD, owner of BZ Nutrition in New York City. “One serving can seem a bit abstract and not really a concrete visual to understand.”

Most of us tend to overestimate portions since we’re used to restaurant portions—which are actually more like double the recommended serving size, Zeitlin says. The one exception: vegetables, which most of us don’t get enough of. “I tell clients to double or sometimes triple the fresh veggies they have in a day,” she says. By doing so, you’ll edge closer to your recommended 25 grams daily grams of fiber, plus you’ll get a dose of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.

Not sure what a portion is? Here’s what a serving size actually looks like for 10 healthy foods you’re probably plopping in your grocery cart all the time.

1. Cashews

Photo: W+G Creative

Serving size: 18 nuts

Once you start crunching, it can be hard to stop. “Nuts are notoriously overeaten in one sitting,” says Zeitlin. Rich in protein and inflammation-fighting omega 3 fatty acids, nuts are also packed with 157 calories in a one-ounce (or quarter cup) serving. The exact number of nuts per serving varies by the type of nut you’re eating, but a one-ounce serving of cashews is approximately 18 nuts.

2. Avocado

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Serving size: 1/3 fruit

Avocado is another healthy fat that we all tend to overdo, says Zeitlin. (But in our defense, it tastes so good!) One serving of avocado is 1/3 of the fruit for 80 calories and three grams of heart-healthy fiber. While avocados vary in size, the 1/3 rule stands across the board: Larger avocados tend to have larger pits, so the amount of actual fruit you’re getting tends to be very similar.

Want to know even more about the benefits of avocado? Check out this episode of You vs Food:

3. Coconut oil

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Serving size: One tablespoon

Coconut oil is a great swap for butter if you’re avoiding dairy or just want to switch up the flavors in your cuisine. Since it has a high smoke point, it tends to work well as a cooking oil. Just keep in mind that coconut oil is higher in saturated fat than olive oil, at 11 grams per one-tablespoon serving. “You definitely want to be cognizant of the amount you are using throughout the day. Heart health-wise, olive oil is still king, so keep your coconut oil to two tablespoons for the entire day,” says Zeitlin.

4. Nut butter

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Serving size: Two tablespoons

“This can be either the easiest serving to get right, or the easiest one to overdo it on,” says Zeitlin. If you stick a spoon in a jar of almond butter and smear, you’re probably getting more like three to four tablespoons in two scoops, she says. But if you break out your measuring spoons or shell out for a single-serving nut butter packet, you can be sure you’re getting a two-tablespoon portion—and limiting yourself to 190 calories and 16 grams of (heart-healthy) fat.

5. Chicken breast

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Serving size: Three to Four ounces

A serving of chicken could be a single breast—but it depends on the size of the chicken. A better way to nail down a single 3- to 4-ounce serving of meat is to compare it to the size and thickness of your palm. “Restaurants always tend to give a double portion of protein, so it’s a good idea to assume you will be taking half the dish home with you for the next day,” says Zeitlin. Throw leftovers in the next day’s salad or stir fry. If you’ve got less than a serving, Zeitlin suggests tossing shredded chicken in an omelet with veggies for a full serving of protein.

6. Greek yogurt

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Serving size: 3/4 cup

Think a serving of yogurt is one cup? Welcome to the club! You’d be wrong. “A lot of people serve one cup, or eight ounces, in their parfaits and yogurt bowls, but that is just slightly larger than what it should be,” says Zeitlin. One serving is actually six ounces, or 3/4 cup, to guarantee the perfect amount of yogurt (and protein). If you don’t want to break out the measuring cups, opt for single-serving containers.

7. Quinoa

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Serving size: One cup cooked

If you’re not using a measuring cup at home, one 1-cup serving of cooked grains—including quinoa, brown rice, wild rice, farro, etc.—is about the size of your closed fist. Most restaurants use the grain in buddha or poke bowls as a base, which means they’re probably dishing out way more than you need. “These bowls could easily equal your entire day’s servings of grains, or two to three cups total for the day, so you definitely want to keep an eye on the portion,” says Zeitlin.

8. Lentils

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Serving size: 1/2 cup cooked

Unlike most other foods, it’s harder to overdo it on lentils: They’re dense in nutrients and fiber, so you’ll likely feel satisfied with a 1/2-cup serving (or about half the size of your fist). That said, it’s perfectly OK to double up on servings if you’re counting on legumes as a vegetarian protein source for the meal. “A full cup, or two servings, will give you 24 grams of protein and is still under 300 calories,” says Zeitlin.

9. Banana

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Serving size: Eight inches long

One portion of any type of fruit is one cup, or roughly a medium banana. But what, exactly, is a medium banana? Measure it using the tip of the thumb to the first knuckle, which is about one inch; a medium banana is about eight inches long. Zeitlin says people should aim for two servings (two cups) of fruit total per day since it’s still a form of sugar. “We want to keep our sugar throughout the whole day in mind, and all the sources count,” says Zeitlin.

10. Dark chocolate

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Serving size: One or Two squares

This is one food where it’s really only possible to know the portion size by checking the label. A single serving of dark chocolate is one ounce, which could mean one or two squares depending on the bar. To eliminate temptation, Zeitlin likes to pop single portions of dark chocolate in Ziploc bags to bring to work or stash away for dessert at home. Stick to 72 percent cacao or more to benefit from the heart-healthy fats and anxiety-busting magnesium while keeping sugar in check.

Got more food questions? Check out nutritionists’ answers to the most common ones they hear. And here’s the lowdown on the intermittent fasting fad.

Serving size for yogurt

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