Do you weigh or measure your food? I don’t. I have a kitchen scale, and I use it a lot, but usually to do things like divide a batch of ground meat into even-sized patties or meatballs so they take the same amount of cooking time. Unless I were truly in a life-threatening state, I don’t think I could be obsessive enough about my portions to meter my food. Happily, the only measuring devices most of us need are conveniently located just past our wrists.
Though the use of utensils in the Western world isn’t more than a few hundred years old, we’ve become entirely socialized to believe that it’s not polite to touch even our own food, let alone someone else’s. Yet for most of human history, we have procured and prepared our food with our hands, and then used those hands to bring the food to our mouths. We developed bowls and cups, and much later, spoons, for liquids, and since the Chinese made noodles first, they came up with the chopstick because spoons just did not work for noodles. The fork was uncommon for the common man until the 17th or 18th century, depending on where you lived. We have until relatively recently relied on our hands to feed us, so it’s small wonder they are so perfect for the job.
Hand Me a Serving
You’ve probably heard the rule that a serving of protein should be about the size (and width) of the palm of your hand. But that’s only the beginning of your hand’s usefulness in portion control. The optimal serving of most carbohydrates, including starchy carbs like bread, rice, cereal and pasta, and more complex carbs like fruits and vegetables, is a hand’s worth. In the case of the starch, it’s about the size of your hand, a slice of bread the size of your hand, or a serving of rice or pasta the size of your closed fist. A serving of fruit or vegetable is about what you can comfortably grab. It turns out most cereals, because they are made of little bits that you have to grab carefully, are also a grab-measure carb. I did an experiment. I checked most of the cereals in my pantry, and the recommended serving size was 3/4 cup. (Sheesh, who’s going to measure 3/4 cup?) I grabbed and weighed, several times, with several different cereals, and it turned out I was within a gram of the recommended amount every time. If you’re concerned that your serving size is more than it should be (and you should be, because it probably is), reach into the box and grab. You’ll likely be closer to correct. When we don’t touch it, we have a tendency to serve food visually; if 3/4 cup doesn’t fill your cereal bowl, you’re going to pour more.
Be careful on high-starch or high-sugar fruits like apples, grapes, or bananas. Your hand should comfortably enclose the apple (the one in the drawing above is too big!). A “medium” apple is about 6 1/2 ounces, a large apple is about 8 ounces. I bought some yummy Jonagold apples the other day, and they tip the scale at almost 12 ounces, so half is much closer to a serving. If I put my wrists together with the apple between my hands, my fingers don’t touch. A two-hand, and therefore a two-serving, apple. An ideal banana should be no longer than your hand from wrist to fingertip, so most bananas are more than one serving. Shop for the small ones! It’s hard to cheat on grapes unless you grab by the stem– your serving is only what you can close your hand around.
Give Yourself a Hand
I’ve seen a couple of websites offering to sell you a “portion control plate”– idiot-proof plates where the portions are measured for you in removable microwave-safe bowls. Hmm. I can see the benefit of using a small bowl instead of your hand for say, diced mango or something similarly slippery, plus anything sticky, gooey, wet, hot, etc. But for a lot less money, you can just pick up a set of small Pyrex bowls that are microwave and stovetop safe. You can also measure in them if you need to, because they are 4 0z. to the “line” and 6 oz. to the top. Or make Jell-O. (Never buy a kitchen item that is only good for one thing!) Just beware of the “mounding” effect when you use a bowl. I hand my husband a bowl that should guide him towards a recommended 1/2 cup serving of ice cream, and by careful use of the scoop and continuous sculpting of a rounded top, he can easily serve himself twice that amount in the same bowl. That’s why he only gets ice cream on weekends.
My husband thinks this “hand’s worth” portion plan is wonderful, because he has enormous hands. Huge. He can palm a basketball without a second thought. He has almost a full knuckle’s length on me when I put my hand up to his. (No, sorry, I’m leaving that unspoken query right there, unanswered. You’ll have to do your own research.) And I know my friends with tiny hands aren’t very fond of the plan. But unless you are part orangutan, your hand size is probably a good indicator of your size, so if you can’t grab a full 30 grams of Special K or Fruit Loops, 25 grams just might be a better serving size for you.
So get in there and get your hands dirty. Most of us don’t wash our hands often enough, so it will be a good excuse. If you are concerned about handling other people’s food, food handling gloves are available for practically nothing. Get your hands on your food again, and it will give you a handle on the portions you should be putting in your mouth.