/ Food & Drink

Are most food portion size claims unrealistic?

Do you pay attention to the recommended portion or serving sizes on food or drink? I’m wondering just how suitable a lot of them really are.

In lockdown, like many other people, I’ve been eating all my meals at home. As a family, we’ve been cooking more from scratch, trying new recipes and also buying food that we usually wouldn’t.

Read all the latest COVID-19 news and advice on our dedicated hub

We’ve probably eaten more biscuits and snacks than we usually would, allowing ourselves a few more ‘treats’ than usual to counteract the boredom of not going out and the misery of the news.

As a result I’ve been paying more attention to food packaging and have been surprised at the portion sizes manufacturers recommend.

Unrealistic serving numbers

Last week I added a quiche to the shopping basket for a quick and easy work day lunch but was surprised to find that a 400g quiche, that’s around 20cm in diameter, was meant to serve four people.

Are you still struggling to find any items on the shelves?

Served with a salad on the side, unsurprisingly I wasn’t satiated after this lunch and spent the afternoon snacking. Next time I’ll serve a bigger portion or have it with a small baked potato.

This got me thinking about other unrealistic portion sizes. This morning after my 10 year old poured his bowl of cereal I weighed the contents.

The recommended portion size is 40g but he served himself 91g and then topped it with granola.

My husband’s serving was 90g, the recommended portion is 40g!

Made to be ignored?

I should point out that neither my husband nor son is overweight so who really is eating the measly 40g recommended?

I then looked at juice. Many juices come in 1 litre bottles or cartons but a recommended serving is 150ml. This means a 1 litre container contains 6.33 servings?

What is meant to happen to the 0.33 of a serving? Or do manufacturers expect you to ignore the recommended servings and just pour yourself a glass?

Do you follow recommended portion and serving sizes? Have you spotted any completely unrealistic ones?

Share your examples in the comments.


I pay attention to ingredients and nutritional information but not to portion sizes. When portion sizes first appeared I realised that my portions of muesli were more than double the portion size and that was before adding fresh fruit, but it means that I don’t eat biscuits or other snacks in the morning.

Maybe it would be worth showing portion sizes based on the average or median amount that people actually consume.

It depends on whether the recommended portion size is supposed to be the whole meal or just one course.

My breakfast consists of fruit juice, three Brazil nuts, some fat free yogurt, a portion of cereal, a piece of fruit, and possibly a Marmite sandwich.

The portion sizes are just a guide but generally, in a balanced meal, I think they are about right. At the weekends boiled eggs are served and I always have two followed by toast instead of a sandwich.

We do not stock snacking foodstuffs, biscuits or cake.

Hmmm. I won’t be popping round for a coffee. I don’t often make cakes but usually have biscuits for my guests (and me).

On that diet John you are almost assured a greetings card from HM in ???? years?

I tend to have a hearty dinner, Beryl.

I weighed one portion (50g) of muesli and it half-filled a cup, If the photos shown on the front of packets are intended to show the size of a portion, the cereal bowls shown on the front of packets must be rather small and the spoons shown are probably teaspoons.

I take no notice of portion sizes but eat as much as I choose. If I have a quiche and have only that for lunch, I may eat a third, possibly a half. If it is one part of a meal, say with a salad, potato salad, and so on then a quiche will serve 4.

As for orange juice I pour as much of a glass as I want. Sometimes less than 150ml, sometimes more, or have a top up.

I’ve a pretty good idea when shopping for food and preparing a meal how much food to buy and use. If I should get it wrong then the fruit, cheese and biscuits, cake or whatever can be brought out of hiding.

Ian Scott says:
16 June 2020

In addition to implausibly-small stated portion sizes making the food items seem better value for money, they also impact on the health information that manufacturers of packaged food now provide. If the packaging says a portion contains 10 per cent of an adult’s daily “reference value” of salt/fat/sugar/etc, but the norm is to consume a multiple of the stated portion size, the “health” information and associated “traffic light” colours becomes potentially misleading.

That is a very good point, Ian.

Perhaps there is a case for scrapping all references to portion size, or at least for a consumer organisation to engage with the manufacturers when the portion description is fundamentally unrealistic and gives rise to a misleading health or diet indication.

It is well recognised that those who are active are likely to eat considerably more than those who have sedentary jobs or sit at home in front of a screen. Many young people can eat what they want and not put on weight, though the number declines with age.

It would be interesting if Which? did a survey to find out how many find portion size, nutritional information, ‘traffic light’ labelling and ingredient lists useful.

When we shopped of old, with greengrocers, butchers, fishmongers, milkman, bakers…… none of the products they sold were labelled with portion sizes. How on earth did my Mother manage?

My mother bought what was needed and cooked/served quantities that she regarded as appropriate. My mother served small portions, but could go back for more. I learned years later that she had discouraged me from putting sugar in tea and coffee, as my father did. He was persuaded at a later date.

We did not have a fridge until I was about six, so meat could only be stored for a short time in a meat safe, and eggs were bought when cheap and stored in isinglass in a galvanised bucket and used when needed. The only reason that I remember was that the meat safe survived in the garden shed for years and the Egg Preserving Pail, as it was labelled, was used in the garden.

We had no fridge, ever. We did have a porous (unglazed) ceramic cover for the milk bottle that stood in a glazed dish of water, and a similar one for butter. Evaporation help keep the temperature down. You’ve just brought back that memory.

My mother did a weekly shop, had weekly deliveries, and bought from local shops as and when needed. I used to collect her bread on the way home from school.

What are we missing these days that seems to make us less self-reliant?

I suspect that the increasing popularity of eating out may have conditioned us to expecting larger portion sizes. Restaurants and pubs often provide large portions so that their customers don’t feel short-changed. It would be interesting to compare some of these portions with what is suggested on packaged food.

It seems to me that many of the portion sizes shown on packets is simply designed to fudge the nutrition figures.

Do you think the popularity of eating out over the years has contributed to the spread of obesity.I remember a colleague of mine many years ago boasting about his local pub that served 20oz T-bone steaks (something like that) with all the accompaniments and how he would demolish one, before moving on to pudding. I presume we feel obliged to eat everything that is put in front of us because we have paid for it. We continue to pay for it, it seems.

Yes I do and since eating out is has become more popular over the years it must be having an effect, at least for some people. I don’t know whether this has contributed to portions of packaged food look smaller. I presume the unrealistic small portions marked on packets etc. are intended to make the figures for energy, fat, sugar and salt look small so as not to put of prospective buyers.

Even when I visit my local chippie ( regrettably not for 3 months) the haddock overhangs the plate and a portion of chips would serve 4, not one.

I don’t know how we control this sort of over-eating – something that the Americans seem to excel at.

What does appal me as that many parents often seem happy for their children to follow in their footsteps and do not appear at all concerned to see their kids getting rounder and more unhealthy. Is that denial, abuse, or lack of concern?

Our local shop offers a sensibly sized portion of haddock & chips. I have known several people who have asked for children’s portions in pubs.

I very sheepishly asked for child’s portions of fish and chips in our village cafe and was told ‘No problem, lots of people have them’. The adult size is massive, the child size just right. I’m beginning to find that while a lot of suggested portions are too small, the recommended portion size of pasta and rice is just too much, we seem to be eating a lot less nowadays.

Most eateries seem to fall into 2 categories – huge portions or tiny portions under the guise of fine dining.

Never be afraid to ask for a doggy bag and let them know it is for you and not the dog.

Quite a few places do smaller meals or don’t mind you asking for child’s size. We rarely eat out but sometimes order starters and perhaps share a side dish or portion of chips.

Better ask for a child’s portion. A child’s size seems to be bigger than I remember. 🙂

Looking at obesity in children I’d suggest even those portions are excessive. You do not have to eat all you are given, of course. You can share meals. You can, as Alfa suggests, have a starter, then possibly a dessert, cheese and biscuits or fruit. Just eat what you think appropriate.

Here is advice on what portion sizes are relevant to our ‘five a day’ portions of fruit and veg: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/5-a-day-portion-sizes/ I don’t buy fruit juice unless there are visitors because it is easy to consume a lot of sugar.

Be careful with fruit juices as some can interact with medication. Grapefruit for example can increase the intensity of calcium channel blockers and should be avoided if taking drugs to reduce blood pressure. Citrus juices can also trigger migraine in susceptible people.

I hadn’t heard of grapefruit ( I like a fresh half grapefruit at breakfast) interfering with blood pressure medication. I was aware it prevented statin treatments working properly.

Oh, yes; dire warnings about it abound.

That’s a shame – I rather like grapefruit, not everyday but perhaps once a week. I haven’t told the doctor; I shall just carry on. She’s put me on so many things to stop this, help that, prevent something else, there’s bound to be a reaction to anything I consume. I have to take a large bag to the pharmacy every time I collect our prescriptions; much more and I shall need a trolley. With luck – and the avoidance of grapefruit – it won’t be forever.

Grapefruit increases the intensity of your blood pressure meds which in turn can increase side effects. Check this:
http://www.nhs.uk – Does Grapefruit Affect My Medicine.

This includes a list of meds that can interact with grapefruit.

John and Malcolm, I would recommended you have a word with your GP when you next visit.

Grapefruit can interact with with wide variety of medications and the British National Formulary has a comprehensive list: https://bnf.nice.org.uk/interaction/grapefruit-juice-2.html Perhaps the best known is the enhancement of the effect of certain statins but there are other serious interactions. It’s important to recognise that there is a marked difference between different statins, which many people are not aware of.

Certainly worth discussing with your GPs.

Ginger is another one that is probably worth discussing with a GP.

I was not aware of that. It’s not mentioned in BNF, whereas grapefruit has a long list of interactions.

I was recently going to recommend ginger to someone and after firstly doing a bit of checking concluded they ought not to take it without consulting their GP.

Sarah H says:
21 June 2020

My husband and I went for a meal at a friend’s house and pudding was a rather indulgent chocolate Swiss roll.
From memory it looked as if it should serve 6 but we cut it into five portions. Only later when looking at the box we read it should have served 12! We then tried to work out how it could be cut to serve 12 without becoming a crumbly, gooey mess.
We all concluded that the portion size was to make the nutritional values seem OK rather than excessive.
I’ve also come to that conclusion with most ‘portion sizes’ on packaging.

I like it, Sarah. Perhaps you should ask the manufacturer. Maybe if it was frozen, served and thawed it might be possible.

My first introduction to unrealistic portion sizes was when I read a story about feeding of the 5000 with five loaves and two fishes. 🍞🍞🍞🍞🍞 🐟🐟

Nouvelle cuisine is not that nouvelle.

🙂 Very dainty fish sandwiches.

I never believe these estimated crowd numbers. The organisers always exaggerate.

It also depends on which version you read in the media. Some writers in the The Gospels [a Greek language chronicle popular in Palestine but with a world-wide circulation] reported that there were seven loaves and only 4,000 present – but all versions ignored the numbers of women and children who were also satisfied with bread and fish.