Do you have ‘portion distortion’? Here’s exactly how big your dinner should be

Portion distortion
Portion distortion

You’ve been told to watch your intake of sugar and salt, more recently, ultra-processed foods. But with so much focus on what’s in your meals, their size may have slipped your mind.

Lunchtime meal deals, restaurant servings and takeaways have all ballooned over the last few decades and supersized options are increasingly offered as default, in a sign that Britain is following the lead of our neighbours across the pond.

Some studies have quantified the problem, revealing that shop-bought curries have expanded by 50 per cent since the 1990s, crisp packets have swelled to the same extent, and restaurant starters are often as large as our mains should be. The result is that we are regularly stuffing our faces with twice as many calories as we should be in one sitting, inevitably fuelling weight gain.

But the problem is not just one outside our homes. The typical dinner plate has grown by 6cm since the 1970s and our endless appetite is filling them up.

Beyond food giants and restaurant bosses trying to offer large volumes to justify their prices, we’re in part to blame ourselves.

“We’ve got a cohort of adults that have grown up with the message ‘you’ve got to finish what’s on your plate’. And we’re now telling that to children. That’s really unhelpful,” says Dr Frankie Phillips, a registered dietitian and British Dietetic Association spokesperson.

“That can then mean you’re not responding to hunger, you’re just responding to something by seeing that there’s food there and not wanting to waste it,” she warns. Studies have shown that four in 10 people will carry on eating to finish their plate, even if they’re full. Additionally, the cost of living crisis means that not wanting to waste food is “a really big thing at the moment”, says Dr Phillips. As a result, people are more conscious than ever of finishing their dinner, whether at home or eating out.

Jump to:

  • Roast dinner

  • Spaghetti Bolognese

  • Fish and chips

  • Stir fry

  • Risotto

How big should our portions be?

(Below calories are approximate)

Roast dinner

Top tip: Serve only two slices of meat and fill half the plate with veggies

A roast dinner should be around two slices of meat (around 70 to 90g) and two or three roast potatoes at the most (around 200g), says Dr Phillips.

However, while a typical portion of vegetables is around 80g, people can exceed this and fill half their plate instead, she says.

“Absolutely go to town with vegetables on the plate. There’s no harm in having a bigger serving of broccoli, cabbage or carrots,” she says.

Vegetables are packed with nutrients and low in calories due to their high water content, meaning it’s fine to eat more if looking to curb hunger pangs, she notes.

Spaghetti Bolognese

Top tip: Cut down on pasta and chuck in some lentils

Packaging guidance recommends that a single portion of dry pasta is 75g (around 150g when cooked, containing 270 calories), which Dr Phillips says is a “reasonably large portion”.

When it comes to the Bolognese sauce, a useful rule of thumb is that it should be roughly what you can put in your hand, or about one ladleful (170 to 240g), she says.

“But if you want to make it bulkier, if you want to have a greater volume, my tip would always be to add extra pulses.

“Chuck in some red lentils. It will cook down, and if you’ve got people who are fussy about those kinds of foods, you can barely even tell that they’re there – it just looks like mince.

“They are going to be giving you the extra nutrients and extra fibre but won’t be quite so calorie-dense.”

Fish and chips

Top tip: Choose a small fish, add some peas or beans and go easy on the chips

“A typical portion of fish and a bag of chips is a huge amount of food. It’s certainly far greater than you would serve yourself at home,” says Dr Phillips.

“Think about those portions as enough for three people rather than just one,” she says.

The average portion of chips served in the UK is around 210g, according to Dr Phillips. “I would say about half of that is probably going to be giving you enough to eat but without being too much.”

A serving of fish, for one person, should cover the palm of the whole hand and be around 1cm thick, says Dr Phillips.

Aim to include a portion of mushy peas or baked beans with each serving to add some extra fibre to the meal, she adds.

“If you’re getting a chippie for yourself, then don’t go for the regular size, go for a small size, because a regular size probably is going to be too much for one person.”

Stir fry

Top tip: Reduce the rice and meat, and bulk up with vegetables

For stir fries, packaging recommends allowing 75g of rice per person, which will weigh around 235g when cooked and contain 360 calories.

As with other meals, people can “overload” on vegetables if they want their meal to be larger, Dr Phillips says.

If adding red meat, we should stick to 70 to 90g per serving, according to official UK guidance.

We don’t actually need much meat. But some meat can be really helpful for protein, iron, zinc and a range of other vitamins. While a little is good, it doesn’t mean that a lot is better.”

There is no health advice on how much white meat we should eat but Dr Phillips suggests we can opt for a “little bit more” than the red meat guidance. However, we should generally stop short of a full chicken breast, which weighs around 150g and contains 36g of protein, she says.

“In the UK, we eat larger portions than we actually need. A full chicken breast is quite a lot of protein. I don’t think there’s any harm in eating a chicken breast every now and then, but it’s probably more than you actually need,” she adds.


Top tip: Use a strong-tasting cheese, replace butter with olive oil and pack in the veggies

Allow around 75g of dried risotto rice per person for a risotto, which will provide a cooked portion of around 200g.

For recipes that use cheese, use a smaller quantity of a strong-tasting cheese. “If the recipe calls for 50g of cheddar per portion, rather than a medium or mild cheese, I would go for 25-30g (about a match box) of extra mature cheddar – it cuts down on the amount of salt and fat as well as saving money,” Dr Phillips says.

If butter is in the ingredients list, swap it for olive oil and use half the amount suggested, she adds.

To further bulk out the meal, stir in vegetables. “Chuck in a load more peas or chopped peppers, mushrooms – pack lots of vegetables in there. It will cost less overall because you can share the meal between more people and you’re boosting up the nutrient contents as well.”

How to cut back when eating out

“We all differ in our needs and our requirements but usually when you go to restaurants, it’s one size fits all. We’re really at the mercy of what the restaurant wants to offer,” says Dr Phillips.

One option is to choose small plates, lighter options or even order from the children’s menu when those options are available, she says. “I think that’s something to really embrace, because we don’t always want the large portion.”

If ordering from a takeaway or restaurant where only large portion sizes are available, consider sharing. “Sometimes the size of a pizza can be enough to feed three or four people, let alone just one. Have a massive side salad with a smaller portion of the pizza,” Dr Phillips recommends.

When grabbing food as part of a busy day, try to take a moment to savour it. “If we’re eating quickly then our bodies haven’t really got time to properly recognise those cues of fullness that we need,” she says.

“Take time to eat away from your desk and follow the concept of mindful eating – thinking about the taste, the smell and how it looks and taking a sip of water between mouthfuls.

“All of those things can be really helpful ways to give your body time to register the cues that actually you are starting to feel full and don’t need to eat any more.”

What can you do at home?

At home, it’s much easier to tailor our portion sizes in line with what we actually need.

But the first step is to find out how much you’re actually eating. “If you’ve got weighing scales, it can be really handy just to see where you sit when it comes to the recommended portion size,” Dr Phillips says.

“Being aware of the portion size you would normally have and how that then compares to the information on the pack really helps put that into context.”

It’s not uncommon to find that you’re actually having three times the recommended amount, she notes.

If you are trying to lose weight, cut back on your typical portion size. Dr Phillips recommends “switching around the balance on the plate” by filling half with vegetables and salad and cutting back on meat and carbohydrates.

Large portion sizes can also be trimmed down by changing crockery. “Lots of people at home have these lovely, beautiful big plates,” she says. “If you put your portion of food on there, it can look a little bit lost. If you’re using a smaller plate, then it actually tricks the eye into thinking that you’re having more to eat.”

If faced with a rumbling stomach come dinnertime, make extra but still serve yourself the correct portion size, says Dr Phillips. If you’re still hungry five minutes after clearing your plate and drinking a glass of water, “respond to that hunger cue and get yourself some more”.

“But if you end up thinking, actually I’ve had enough, the rest of it can go into the fridge into a pot for lunch tomorrow,” she notes.

When it comes to children, parents should watch out for their baby or toddler turning their head or pushing the food away. “Take notice of that as a cue that they’ve had enough to eat, rather than saying, ‘just have one more mouthful’ and ‘finish what’s on your plate’”, she says. “All of those messages that we’re giving to our children could potentially lead to overriding their satiety cues.”