Tips to help control portions in (and out) of the Firehouse.

Learning how to manage portions will help any first responder manage their weight and health. Here are some great tips that will help any first responder in (and out) of the firehouse.

Firehouses are filled with good and tasty foods.  Some of these foods are healthy while others, not so much.  It can be difficult to eat healthy in some firehouses with all the temptations and the lack of time for meals due to busy shifts.  One thing that can help keep your fitness and nutrition on track is finding ways to control your portions.  Another “trick” is to start to evaluate your appetite and ask yourself if you really need all that food.

Portion Control Tip #1- Serve on Smaller Plates

I know firsthand that cooking in the firehouse for a group of hungry firefighters can be very difficult.  You have to accommodate a lot of different tastes and eating preferences.  But the biggest fear of every firehouse chef (including myself) is not preparing enough food for the crew.  This fear usually leads to an excess of available food and larger portions around the table.  So, today I wanted to give you a quick and easy "trick" you can use to get your crew to take smaller servings and control their portions.

Here is a great video discussing the culture of the big platter with FDNY Bat. Chief Salka.


Answer this question:  Which is the larger black circle – the left or the right?

Does the one on the right side look larger to you?  Yes?

If you said that the one on the right is larger, you are wrong.  The correct answer is that they’re both the same size!

Interestingly, this silly perception problem could be causing you and your crew to eat more food.   Most firehouses not only serve an abundance of food but they usually serve them on large plates.  Let’s be honest, it does feel too good to heap your plate when you’re starving during a long day and busy shift, but if you’re struggling to finish all of it or you feel a huge energy slump after your meal, it’s probably a sign that you’re having more food than your body needs.  A simple switch of dinnerware size could be an incredibly useful solution to the large firehouse serving size.

Research suggests that people eat up to 22% fewer calories when they’re able to decrease the amount of empty space on their plate (click here to read more). Basically, when you see a large plate with an empty void around the food, the brain unconsciously assumes the plate contains less food than a smaller-sized dish with no white space (see below), when in fact, both plates contain the same amount.

If you are eating in the firehouse with the plate on the left, I can almost guarantee you are gonna load it up.  Larger plates can make a serving of food appear smaller, and smaller plates can lead us to misjudge that the very same quantity of the food as being much larger. This leads you to eat more from the large plate. And since the eyes (not the stomach) count the calories, the brain will still think that the body is eating less – and the more likely it will send signals for you to embark on getting hold of a second serving.  

So the key is to serve your firehouse meals on smaller plates.  Instead of using a big 20-inch plate for your meals, opt for an 8-inch plate packed full to the sides. If you’re using different plates for different foods, you can switch things around to your advantage. Use bowls for salad and vegetables and smaller plates for the meat and carbohydrates. 

Portion Control Tip #2- Eat slowly and STOP EATING when you are 80% full.

Sounds like a simple concept, stop eating before you are full… But, in the firehouse, and in the typical household these days, there seems to be less and less time to eat.  This causes some urgency when eating which leads to consuming food faster than needed.  So, slow down when eating!

To understand why “slowing down” works, let's look at the science that supports this tip.   The brain is always behind the stomach in signaling that we are full.  Hunger and satiety cues are based on the release of hormones within our bodies.  It takes about 15-20 minutes for the body to signal to the brain that you are full. If you are eating too quickly while watching TV or distracted then you won’t even sense these subtle changes going on.   Then, you go back for a second (or third) helping because you still feel hungry.  A couple of minutes later you discover you are too stuffed!  This is a common occurrence in most firehouses (and barbeques, picnics, etc.).

So, slow down eating, chew your food, limit distractions like TV and get in touch with how you feel while enjoying your food.  Try to take at least 15 to 20 minutes to eat your first helpings, then re-evaluate if you are still hungry.  Then, wait another 5-10 minutes before getting any second helpings and check-in with yourself one more time before proceeding. By checking in, you will get a better sense of hunger and satiety cues plus detach emotions from food.

How to identify what 80% full feels like.

You probably know what “stuffed” feels like, right? When you are just about struggling to breathe and unbuttoning the top button of your jeans to ease the discomfort…

-Let’s call that “150% full”.

You also might know what absolutely “starving” feels like. Thankfully very few of us experience true primal starvation, but when that 10 am snack feels like such a long way away from breakfast, I’m sure you can guess what it must be like to go without food for days…

-Let’s call that “0% full”.

Somewhere in between all of that is the sweet spot of “80% full”.

You may need to first identify what 100% full or even 150% full feels like first so that you can work your way backward from there to find something closer to 80% full.

At times you may even overshoot and eat too little, finding yourself still hungry and in need of a snack 20 minutes later. This is part of the process.  It takes a little practice.  Ideally, you should be able to finish your meal no longer hungry (possibly even a bit doubtful that it was enough food) and then find that 10-20 minutes later you surprisingly actually feel comfortably satisfied and satiated.

By using these two techniques- smaller plates and slowing down, you can naturally decrease your caloric intake and improve your health and wellness! Be patient with yourself, experiment a little, and really check in to what your body is trying to tell you.  Listen to your body and start to identify when you are full and when you are eating due to emotion or stress.

I know this will help!  Give it a try and a chance.

Let me know how it works for you.

Stay safe and Get FRF,

Aaron (Zam) Zamzow


TRY FRF for Free!  I created the FRF 28-day Catalyst Program to help first responders, gain strength, lose fat and improve performance.  You can try it now for FREE.  The program includes workouts, exercises, nutrition guidance, and access to our FRF app.

Click here to get access to the FRF 28-day CATALYST Workout




Precision Nutrition, The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition

Leave a Comment