Serving Size vs. Portion Size: What's the Difference?

Find out the difference between serving sizes and portions sizes. Choosing nutritious foods and keeping portion sizes sensible will help keep your family at a healthy weight.

One of the best ways you can help your child live healthy and maintain a healthy weight is to teach them what an actual serving size looks like. They can use this knowledge to make healthier choices when eating at school, having snacks or even choosing from a fast food menu.

Research shows that Americans are eating larger and larger portions. For example, twenty years ago a bagel was about 3 inches in diameter and 140 calories. Today's bagels are about 6 inches in diameter, 350 calories and may count up to three or even four servings in the grains group. Let's also compare a soda twenty years ago that was about 6.5 ounces and 85 calories. Today, an average soda is 20 ounces and can have 300 or more calories.

Serving sizes are often smaller than people think. In fact Americans under-estimate the calories they consume each day by an average of 25 percent. A recent poll revealed that 70% of us felt the amount of food that we eat at home and the amount we are served at restaurants is considered a "normal" serving size. People are unaware that the portion sizes have increased over the years. In fact, the standard size plate used in restaurants has increased from 10 1/2 inches to 12 inches.

Servings and portions... What's the difference?

Serving sizes are defined by the USDA Food Guide Pyramid as a standard amount used to help give advice about how much food to eat. It also helps us identify how many calories and nutrients are in a food. A portion is the amount of food that you choose to eat. There is no standard portion size and no single right or wrong portion size. However, knowing the size of a serving can help your child determine healthful portions. Let's look at some examples:

You eat 2 waffles for breakfast

One serving from the Food Guide Pyramid is equal to 1 waffle.

So that means if you ate 2 waffles, you also ate 2 servings from the grains group.

Here are some other common portions and their respective Food Guide Pyramid serving sizes:

Common portions that people eat

Food Guide Pyramid Serving Size

Total servings per Food Guide Pyramid

1 bagel

1/2 bagel

= 2 servings

1 English Muffin

1/2 English muffin

= 2 servings

1 Hamburger bun

1/2 bun

= 2 servings

1 cup cooked rice

1/2 cup cooked rice

= 2 servings

1 cup cooked pasta

1/2 cup cooked pasta

= 2 servings

In each food group, look at these different Food Guide Pyramid examples indicating 1 serving each. How do these compare with what your portions look like?


1 slice bread, waffle or pancake

1/2 bagel, hamburger bun, or English muffin

1/2 cup cooked rice, pasta or cereal

1 cup ready to eat cereal


3/4 cup (6 fluid ounces) 100% vegetable juice

1 cup raw, leafy vegetables or salad

1/2 cup cooked or canned vegetables


1 medium apple, orange or banana

1/2 cup fruit (canned, cooked or raw)

1/2 cup (4 fluid ounces) 100% fruit juice

1/4 cup dried fruit (raisins, apricots or prunes)


1 cup milk or yogurt

2 ounces processed cheese (American)

1 1/2 ounces natural cheese (cheddar)

Meat and Beans

1 tablespoons of peanut butter counts as 1 ounce

1/4 cup nuts or 20-24 almonds

1 medium size egg

2-3 ounces of poultry, meat or fish (2-3 servings)

1/4 cup of beans

Tips on how to visually estimate 1 serving size

Grains Group

1 oz. bread or 1 slice of bread

CD case

10 French fries

Deck of cards

1/2 cup cooked rice or pasta

Computer mouse

Vegetables Group

1 cup raw leafy vegetables


1/2 cup vegetables

Computer mouse

Fruit Group

1 medium fruit such as an apple or an orange

Tennis ball or the size of your fist

3/4 cup juice

6 ounce juice can (1 1/2 servings)

1/2 cup chopped or canned fruit

Computer mouse

Milk and Milk Products Group

1 ounce cheese

Pair of dice or the size of your thumb

1 1/2 ounces cheddar cheese

2 (9-volt) batteries

1 cup of milk

8 ounce carton of milk

8 ounces yogurt

Baseball or tennis ball

Meat & Beans Group

3 ounces of meat, fish or poultry

Deck of cards (3 servings)

2 tablespoons of peanut butter

Ping-pong ball (2 servings)

1/2 cup cooked beans

Baseball (2 servings)

Try these ideas to help control portions at home:

When your child is hungry and looking for a snack take the amount of food that is equal to one serving (refer to the Nutrition Facts label) and have your child eat it off a plate instead of eating it out of the box or bag.

Don't be tempted to finish off leftover dinner the next day. Freeze leftovers as single servings so that you can pull it out of the freezer when you need a quick, healthy meal for your family.

Be prepared and have emergency snacks on hand if your family is running late and needs a quick snack. Make your own snack bags for traveling by reading the Nutrition Facts label and placing a single serving size into plastic bags.

Have your child measure out a single serving of food before sitting in front of the television or doing other activities that can distract him/her from realizing how much food is being consumed. This way your child will know exactly how much he or she is eating!

Serving sizes on food labels are sometimes different from the Food Guide Pyramid servings. For example, the serving size for beverages is measured in cups or fluid ounces. Whether it is milk, juice, or soda the nutrition facts labeling guidelines is 1 cup or 8 fluid ounces, which equals 1 serving size. However, the Food Guide Pyramid serving size for milk is 1 cup, but for juice it is 3/4 cup.

So, even though the amount of 1 serving on nutrition facts labels and the Food Guide Pyramid may be slightly different it is still a great tool to help you and your child decide if you are getting enough or too much food each day. Encourage your child to get familiar with the serving sizes because smart eating is an essential part of growing and staying healthy!

This family wellness article is provided by Nourish Interactive, visit www.nourishinteractive.com for nutrition articles, family wellness tips, free children's healthy games, and tools. Available in English and Spanish.

Copyright ©2009 Nourish Interactive - All Rights Reserved.