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Knowing Your Portion Size

How to cook the right amount of food for the two of you

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Knowing Your Portion Size

Measuring cups and a scale make it easy to portion your food effectively.

Janet A. Zimmerman

One key to cooking for two is determining your portion sizes - that is, how much of each type of food to cook for each meal. I don't mean what the packaging says, or what recipes say, or what the diet books say. Rather, take the time to figure out how much food you eat. It takes some effort, and it won't happen overnight, but it's well worth the trouble. It makes shopping easier and makes it possible to manage the food you buy to minimize waste and leave you with only the leftovers you want. It's also crucial if you want to be able to reduce recipes written for more than one or two servings.

Because everyone's appetite is unique, I can't tell you what portion sizes are right for you. But here are some starting points:

Protein

Portion sizes for meat and fish can vary substantially, depending not only on your appetite, but also how the protein is served, what other dishes accompany it, how rich it is, and whether it contains bones. A four-ounce piece of cod or probably won't be enough for most people - unless it's deep fried or accompanied by something rich like risotto. But a four-ounce Italian sausage is pretty filling, so it will probably constitute a serving. For most people, portion sizes for proteins will be in the range of four to eight ounces.

Sometimes you'll luck out with precut pieces of meat, but don't always assume that a single chop or steak is one serving - a thick steak can weigh more than a pound, and could be as much as three or four servings for some people.

Grains

Most grains (rice, bulgur wheat, barley, grits) expand upon cooking to about four times their dry volume. Thus, 1/4 cup (four tablespoons) of dry rice will give you about one cup cooked. This might be one serving, or two, depending on what else you're having, your appetite and other factors. Because they expand so much, it can be difficult to cook small servings of some grains. I've cooked as little as three tablespoons of rice or grits, but you do need a very small saucepan for this amount.

Pasta

Two to three ounces of pasta (dry) is probably the portion range for most people. Restaurant portions of pasta are often five or six ounces - they're huge because pasta is cheap. If you like those portion sizes, by all means cook them. For most people, though, I recommend starting with two ounces per portion for dishes with lots of other ingredients (meat, vegetables, rich sauces) and three for dishes where the pasta is the focus. For two ounces of pasta, 1/4 to 1/2 cup of sauce will probably be the right amount.

Vegetables

When determining portion sizes for vegetables, one thing to remember is how they can change upon cooking. If you cut up a couple of carrots and steam them, the volume of the cooked portion will be about the same volume as the raw portion. But if you roast them, they'll shrink considerably because of water loss. You'll typically use less cabbage in a slaw than you would braised or sauteed, because the cabbage will cook down. With spinach, the difference is even more dramatic. That 10-ounce bag of spinach might be four portions if you're using it raw -- in a salad, for instance. But cooked, it will collapse into less than a cup - that may be two servings, or even just one.

A Few Tips to Get Started

  • You probably already own measuring cups and spoons, but this process is much easier if you also have a food scale. If you try to guess with things like pasta or meat, chances are you'll cook too little or too much.
  • To begin with, you may want to take notes on recipes as you make them -- that way you won't have to rely on your memory. As you get more practice, you won't always have to do this, but it helps when you're just starting out.
  • Don't worry if you make mistakes -- if you cook too much food, you can often freeze it or use it later. Here's some advice on dealing with leftovers.

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