Decoding serving sizes can be downright confusing—so we’ve devised a clever way to help you keep portion sizes in check.
Credit: Illustration: Jessy Scarpone

If you’re buying a box of pasta or popcorn, you’ve probably scanned the nutrition facts to ensure you’re making a healthy choice. Likely, you also consider the serving size of the food, the amount that determines the calories, fat, sodium, and more per serving.

Like many of us, you probably assume that serving size is directly tied to portion control—and that as long as you consume this amount, you can maintain a healthy weight while reaping the full health benefits of the food.

Unfortunately, this isn’t quite the full story. In fact, the serving size on a food label is determined by the manufacturer—and not the USDA, who determines the current dietary guidelines for Americans. However, under the FDA’s current labeling laws for nutrition facts, this isn’t actually misleading. The FDA states, “By law, serving sizes must be based on amounts of foods and beverages that people are actually eating, not what they should be eating.”

To complicate matters more, if you portion your food according to the serving size on the label, you may be eating a larger amount than the USDA recommends. For example, on a box of pasta, the serving size is typically two ounces, which is about ½ cup dry or 1 cup cooked. This contradicts MyPlate, the USDA’s nutrition guide, which defines one “serving” for any grain as just one ounce—or ½ cup, cooked.

But why exactly is this problematic? First off, instead of servings, you’ll notice that the USDA uses cup- and ounce-equivalents to tell you exactly how much from each food group you should eat to meet your macronutrient needs each day. For a reference, take a look at the USDA’s current recommendations on a 2000 calorie per day diet below. (Your daily nutrition needs vary depending on your age and gender, but the 2000 calorie range is generally a good representation of everyone.)

  • Fruits: 2 cup equivalents
  • Vegetables: 2 ½ cup equivalents
  • Grains: 6 ounce equivalents
  • Proteins: 5 ½ ounce equivalents
  • Dairy: 3 cup equivalents

So, if you’re measuring out a 2-ounce serving of pasta, you’re consuming nearly half of the USDA-recommended daily amount! And since many of us struggle to stick to serving sizes anyway (as one Cooking Light staffer found out when she weighed her food for a week), you could easily find yourself going way over the daily limit in a single meal.

Credit: Jessy Scarpone

View Serving Size Guide: Fruits & Vegetables

So, should we be ignoring the serving sizes on food labels completely? Not necessarily. They can provide a framework for basic portion control. But it’s important to understand that these amounts don’t always reflect MyPlate’s recommendations.

Credit: Jessy Scarpone

View Serving Size Guide: Oils 

And while following these recommendations is the best way to ensure you’re working enough nutrients into your diet, translating ounce- and cup-equivalents into something everyone can easily understand is more difficult. You know that you need 2 ½ cups of vegetables or 6 ounces of grains each day—but what does all of that really mean?  

Taking that into account, we’ve devised a handy way to think about healthy serving sizes in an entirely new way. These clever illustrations convey the same information that MyPlate does, but in a fun, memorable way.

Credit: Jessy Scarpone

View Serving Size Guide: Dairy & Treats 

We’ve divided the illustrations into seven categories tied in with MyPlate’s five food groups—fruits, vegetables, grains, proteins, and dairy. We’ve also included oils, which isn’t technically a food group, but they’re acknowledged by MyPlate because of key nutrients they provide. (Examples of oils include cooking oils, nuts, and salad dressing.) The last group, treats, are common snacks and indulgences.

Credit: Jessy Scapone

View Serving Size Guide: Grains & Protein

Besides, would you ever think that a small frog is the same size as one serving of pasta? Or that a single serving of popcorn is roughly enough to fill a 7-11 Big Gulp? Probably not, but one thing’s for sure—you’re definitely not going to be forgetting any of these images anytime soon.

We've included links to the illustrations here, but you can also them on Cooking Light's Pinterest page. Share them, pin them, or print them out. We hope that they will help you pile as much nutrition as possible onto your plate.