Estimate portion sizes with ‘handy’ tool

I want to make sure I’m eating the proper portion sizes, but I don’t want to weigh and measure everything I eat. Is there an easy way to estimate servings of different foods?

Actually, there are a number of ways to do this, and one is right at your fingertips.

The 2012 Complete Food and Nutrition Guide from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association) includes a “Visual Guide to Amounts,” using an average-sized hand to help you estimate. It’s an important topic, as portion sizes have swelled (along with the average waist) over the years.

You can use these tips to make sure you eat enough (or more) of:

  • Vegetables, fruit, cereal, or cooked beans, rice or pasta: A cup is about the size of your fist.
  • Nuts, seeds or dried fruit: An ounce fits in a small cupped handful.
  • Seafood: Three ounces of cooked seafood is about the size of your palm (no fingers).

And use similar guides to limit these servings:

  • Meat and poultry: Three ounces is about the size of your palm.
  • Cheese: An ounce is about the size of your thumb, from the tip to the base.
  • Peanut butter: A tablespoon is about the size of the tip of your thumb, down to the first joint.
  • Butter, margarine, mayonnaise, oil or sugar: A teaspoon is about the size of a fingertip, from the tip to the first joint.

Of course, your hand size may vary, so you might want to weigh or measure a few items after you do an initial estimate. That way you will know if you can choose a pork chop, for example, that’s slightly larger than the palm of your hand, or if you should take one that’s a bit smaller.

The “plate method” is another way to estimate portion sizes. All you do is imagine your dinner plate is divided in half, and then one side is divided in halfagain. Use the first half for non-starchy vegetables — broccoli, zucchini or salad, for example. Use one-fourth of the plate for lean meat, fish, poultry or other lean protein. And use one-fourth for starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, corn or peas, or other starchy foods, including beans and such grains as rice or pasta.

You can find another good visual guide on WebMD at It uses common household objects to help estimate appropriate portion sizes (for example, a small potato is about the size of a computer mouse; 1.5 ounces of hard cheese is about the size of three dice). Take a look and see if that’s even more helpful (if not as handy) as the other methods.

Why green beans aren’t really ‘beans’

My whole family likes green beans, so we eat them a lot. I recently looked at the Dietary Guidelines and saw we can’t count green beans as beans. Why not?

It’s true. Green beans don’t count in the “beans and peas” category in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. And, perhaps surprisingly, neither do green peas!

The Dietary Guidelines includes subgroups under the “vegetables” category to encourage consumers to get a wide variety of vegetables in the diet. That’s important, because different types of vegetables offer different kinds of nutritional benefits.

When you take a good look at the vegetable subgroups, green beans are counted as “other vegetables,” and green peas are counted as “starchy vegetables.” The reason is simple: The types of vegetables in the beans and peas category have a different nutritional makeup than what you find in green beans and green peas.

The beans and peas group includes mature forms of legumes, such as black beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, lentils, split peas, black-eyed peas (mature and dry), and garbanzo beans (chickpeas). Like other vegetables, they are good sources of fiber, potassium and folate, but they are also excellent sources of protein, iron and zinc.

If you eat about 1,800 to 2,000 calories a day, the Dietary Guidelines recommends that you eat about 1.5 cups of beans and peas over the course of a week.

Because of their unique nutrient composition, beans and peas can also be counted as a protein in the Dietary Guidelines — one-quarter cup of beans and peas equals 1 ounce of a protein food.

You should also try to eat plenty of vegetables in the other subgroups. If you’re eating 1,800 to 2,000 calories a day, try to get:

  • About 5.5 cups a week of red and orange vegetables, including red bell peppers, tomatoes, carrots, winter squash and sweet potatoes.
  • About 5 cups a week of starchy vegetables, including white potatoes, corn, green peas and green lima beans.
  • About 1.5 cups a week of dark green vegetables, including spinach, broccoli, romaine or dark green lettuce, and collard or mustard greens.
  • About 4 cups a week of other vegetables, including green beans, celery, asparagus, onions, mushrooms and zucchini.

For more information about the vegetable food group, including more complete listings of what’s included in each subgroup, see the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Choose MyPlate” website at

Tips can help senior who loses appetite

My mother is in her 80s and seems to have lost her appetite. She is losing quite a bit of weight, and her doctor is concerned. How can we encourage her to eat more?

First, it’s good that your mother’s doctor is involved. Malnutrition caused by a poor diet can lead to other health problems, including a weakened immune system, problems with wound healing and muscle weakness (which can lead to falls and fractures). In addition, unexplained weight loss often is due to underlying health issues or the use of certain medications. So, keeping health professionals in the loop is essential.

Loss of appetite in seniors could have other causes, too. Your mother might be lonely or depressed. She might be experiencing a reduced sense of taste or smell, which can affect appetite, or of sight, which could make it more difficult to prepare food. She might have dental problems that cause discomfort when she eats. If you can identify an underlying problem, try to address it and you might find your mother’s appetite returns.

In the meantime, there are other things that can help. First, focus on protein, which is especially important to prevent malnutrition in the elderly. Canned salmon and tuna are versatile sources of protein that can be used in or added to a number of dishes. Add extra milk to mashed potatoes to increase protein. Or, ask your mother’s doctor if adding a high-protein supplement to soups, stews or other foods might be worthwhile.

You also could make your mother single-serving homemade frozen dinners that she can easily pull out of the freezer and microwave.

Both the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the Mayo Clinic offer other ideas, including:

  • Encourage your mom to eat five or six small meals a day. This is especially helpful if your mother fills up quickly during a meal.
  • Keep nutritious, easy snack foods readily available, including nuts, peanut butter, cheese, crackers, milk, yogurt, fruit, raw vegetables and ice cream. Keep nonperishable items on the counter or otherwise out in the open as a visual reminder for your mother to have a snack.
  • Add cheese, 2 percent milk, beans, vegetables, rice and pasta to stews, soups and other dishes.
  • Try using new herbs and spices, especially if your mom is on a low-salt diet.
  • Drink milk, juice or even hot chocolate more often than coffee and tea, which provide few calories.
  • When possible, make mealtime a social event. Eating with others often sparks the appetite.

For more ideas, see “Senior health: How to prevent and detect malnutrition” from the Mayo Clinic at

Cooking won’t cure all food safety ills

I was making soup in the slow cooker but forgot to plug it in. After five hours, I realized what happened and cooked the soup, which included cooked chicken, on high for five more hours. I thought it would be OK, but my wife said no and threw it out. Who was right?

She did the right thing by throwing away the soup.

One of the basic rules of food safety is that perishable foods should be kept at room temperature — well, actually, anywhere between 40 degrees F and 140 degrees F — for no more than two hours. Any longer than that, and you’re taking too big of a chance that any bacteria or other pathogens will multiply so much that they could make you sick.

At room temperature, bacteria in food can double every 20 minutes. That means that a mere five cells of bacteria can multiply to 320 cells in two hours, or to 163,840 cells in five hours. The more bacteria there are, the greater the chance of illness.

In fact, experts recommend that food be refrigerated within one hour, not two, if the temperature outside is above 90 degrees F, because the risk is just too great that bacteria could multiply even more quickly.

It’s true that if you cook food thoroughly even after allowing it to sit out, bacteria will be killed. But some types of pathogens that cause food-borne illness produce spores or toxins that are not eliminated by cooking. For example, a few types of E. coli bacteria produce something called Shiga toxin, which can cause a serious illness that can lead to renal failure.

Similarly, a bacterium called Clostridium perfringens produces tiny spores that can turn into full-fledged bacteria after cooking. With this bacteria, it’s especially important to refrigerate food within two hours after cooking. Refrigeration does a great job at slowing down bacteria’s multiplication process — so much that it greatly reduces the chance this bacteria will cause illness. But it’s important to note that refrigeration only slows down the process — it doesn’t destroy the bacteria.

Some other temperature-related food safety tips include:

  • When refrigerating large amounts of leftovers, use shallow containers to allow the food to cool more quickly.
  • Don’t thaw frozen food at room temperature. It’s always best to thaw food in the refrigerator. Other, quicker options are to use the defrost setting in the microwave oven, or use cold water (lower than 70 degrees F) to thaw the food. If you try the latter, be sure the food is wrapped in a leak-proof package, and change the water every 30 minutes.

For more information, see

Mindless eating’ leads to weight gain

I try to eat healthfully and normally do well during the day, but in the evening when I’m watching TV, I snack way too much, even though I’m not really hungry. Any ideas?

What you’re doing is so common that it has a name: “mindless eating.” Researchers, especially Brian Wansink at Cornell University, have explored this concept and have found that when Americans eat, we tend to rely not on internal cues, such as how hungry we are, but on other factors. And that leads to overeating.

One of those factors is eating while distracted — when watching TV, talking with family or friends, or eating in the car. When our attention is diverted from what we’re eating, we simply tend to eat and eat and eat — often not even really enjoying the food or the experience of eating it. Research at Yale University shows that viewing television food ads, especially those for unhealthy food, also triggers more food consumption.

Another external factor influencing how much we eat is serving size: If a larger serving is in front of us, we tend to eat more no matter what. Convenience and visibility of a food is another factor — if it’s easy to reach out and grab a food, we’ll be more likely to eat it. Even the way a room is lighted can cause us to eat more: Dim, soft lighting encourages us to prolong the eating experience and we eat more. Still other factors include stress, boredom or emotional reasons for eating.

The kicker? None of this has anything at all to do with how hungry we are.

So, how do you counteract these subconscious influences on eating? That’s a whole other line of study, called “intuitive eating.” Intuitive eating rejects restrictive approaches of dieting. It avoids the idea of “taboo” foods and encourages us to increase our awareness of what our body is telling us related to hunger, cravings and eating behavior. The idea is to actually pay attention whenever you’re eating, pausing to determine your level of hunger versus your feeling of fullness. The idea is to start eating when hungry, no matter what time it is or if others around you are eating or not, and to stop eating when full, no matter if there is more food at hand. Imagine a scale where 1 is starving and 10 is stuffed: Go ahead and eat when you feel like you’re at a 3 or 4 on the scale; stop when you’re at a 6 or 7. It requires thought and self-awareness, but prevents cycles of starving and binging, and also helps prevent emotional eating.

The concept of intuitive eating also lets people eat whatever food they want, as long as they pay attention to hunger/fullness cues. Research shows that such permission also reduces binge eating and is associated with a lower body-mass index.