Portion Control: What's on Your Plate?

Barbara Gruener · February 19, 2019



One of the things that really resonates with me when CharacterStrong co-founders John Norlin and Houston Kraft speak is the notion that if we keep piling things on to our plates, then we risk broken plates. It’s something that they say to drive home the point that nurturing social and emotional skills and helping develop strength of character IS the plate - the foundation upon which we put everything else. It’s basically a call to prioritize what we need to accomplish and how we best make that happen during the ins and outs of our daily routines.

On a recent walk with our college-aged son, I was explaining this through a self-care lens, disclosing that, despite my best intentions, sometimes I put too much on my own plate and my priorities get mixed up. That’s when he gave me this nugget for thought: So, what you’re saying is that it’s all about portion control?

Boom. Yes, son, that it is.

For more than two decades, I worked in the mental health field as a school counselor and never really thought about self-care or wellness as an invitation to consider portion control. Without portion control, we risk burnout. Without portion control, we risk empathic distress. Without portion control, we risk compassion fatigue.



When and how did my college kid get so wise? Note to young parents: Don’t blink.

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During my recent years conducting workshops on mindset, mindfulness, and mental health, I started bringing along paper plates for activities as a metaphor, to get my learners thinking about what’s on their plates. Initially, we simply used them for a silly growth-mindset activity; with the plate upside down on their heads, participants would draw a picture from the verbal directions I gave them aloud. I adapted the idea from this holiday post, making a school version in which they draw their school building, a flag pole next to their school, a flag onto the pole, a playground in front of their school, some children, some fireworks, and so on, to create a schoolyard picture. This activity feeds our need to play, the brain’s favorite way to learn, and to laugh, because it steps us out of our comfort zones to draw without being able to see how it’s turning out. We score our drawings and talk about grades and growth. If you’ve not tried this activity, give it a go at your next staff meeting; the faculty that plays together, stays together.




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Wanting more after many workshops using the plates for this sole purpose, it occurred to me for a training in August that we could write our One Word focus for the upcoming school year on the front of the plate, then decorate it for a hallway display. What’s one word, I asked the staff at Friendswood Junior High, that you want people to feel when they’re in your presence?  A booster shot of inspiration and light, especially on dark and difficult days, their decorated plates spell IMPACT, to complement the CharacterStrong Advisory sessions that they call Mustang Impact Family Time.

This January, after my walk with our son, I added a third option for the plates; What if, I wondered, we would use the plates to draw individualized self-care wheels as a visual reminder that there are many different parts to our whole? So I shared this Mental Health Self-Care Wheel model, then encouraged the school counselors in my sessions to personalize their plates with the strategies that they use to feed the six sides of who they are: psychological, spiritual, emotional, physical, personal. and professional. I suggested that blank spaces might be a goal-setting area for growth in the upcoming days, weeks, months, and year ahead. Or maybe just provide a pause, a space for them to just BE, to stay in the moment, and unwrap the present. A preventative measure, to keep their plates from breaking.

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The self-care wheel is also a visual reminder about portion control. When we are inclined or invited to take on something new, we owe it to ourselves to figure out what we can delete or delegate to make room for that activity? This post from Next Evolution Performance suggests that we consider this reframe as busy-ness threatens our wellbeing: What if instead of saying, “I’ve got too much on my plate,” you say, “That’s not a priority for me.” Would that create what you need to help exercise healthy portion control?

As you complete your self-care wheel, maybe you’ll choose to prioritize one of the areas over another. Whatever works for you, craft those portion choices with intention, to align with your emotional-wellness dietary needs, so that what’s on your plate nourishes your best self, someone who can wholeheartedly serve others from the strongest character plate possible.


Barbara Gruener

Barbara Gruener thrives on positively influencing change, passionately helping people create caring connections, and intentionally improving a school's climate and culture. Her innovative and inspirational ideas are sparked by 34 years as a Spanish teacher and school counselor growing alongside students from every age and stage, Pre-K through 12th grade. A connected educator, Barbara loves leading supercharged character-development growth sessions with students, parents, teachers and administrators. Her book, What’s Under Your Cape? SUPERHEROES of the Character Kind, earned a Mom's Choice Gold Award for supporting caregivers with stories and strategies to use as they help develop character strengths in young people in school and at home. Though she grew up on a dairy farm in WI, Barbara and her family now call Friendswood, TX, home.