While some argue that counting calories/macros is a cumbersome endeavor, it can be an essential tool when seeking to manipulate body composition. Want to lose weight? Be in a calorie deficit. Love how you look and want to stay right where you are? Simply maintain a consistent calorie load every day. Have goals to build some serious muscle for the next several months? Eat more calories to make that happen.
Side note: “Macros” stands for “macronutrients,” and includes the total amount of calories, carbs, fat, and protein you consume each day.
Counting macros, while not a perfect science, is the best method for tracking how many and what type of calories you eat each day. With so many food tracking apps available online, the process is even easier. In fact, most already have a substantial food database available; simply search for the food in question and enter how much you ate of it. It’s a snap!
As long as you are eating whole foods or popular packaged meals.
But what happens when you want to make your Great Grandma Betty’s famous chicken casserole or that fantastic protein cake recipe you saw online? How do you track macros then?
Actually, it’s not as hard as it seems. In fact, all it takes is a food scale, an online food tracker, and a pen and paper.
Let’s walk through an example together using a recipe for chili. Let me preface this by saying that it’s going to seem complicated because I’m writing each individual step. However, when you actually put it in play it really isn’t that difficult. At all. Trust me.
Let’s get started.
It All Starts with the Food Scale
If you would like to – or already are – tracking the food you eat, having a food scale is essential. I personally use the Smart Weigh Digital Glass Top Kitchen and Food Scale, though there are a ton of other options available online or at stores like Bed Bath and Beyond. The most important component to look for is that it includes measurements in grams, as this is the most accurate unit of measurement in terms of weight (for food).
Side note: A food scale that offers multiple units of measurement like ounces (oz), milliliters (mL), and pounds (lbs) is also handy, though not required. And look for a device that shuts itself off after a period of time, otherwise you’ll run those batteries down before you know it!
Weigh the Empty Cooking Vessel
Now that you have the food scale all set, the first thing you have to do is weigh the empty container you plan to cook (or bake) your recipe in. This step is super important, but it’s also the one I forget to do the most. So don’t make the same mistake: Make sure to weigh the cooking vessel before you do anything else!
Since my chili serves an entire army, I’m using a crock pot for my recipe. I weigh the empty crock pot without the top and write the weight down on a piece of paper.
As you can see, my empty crock pot weighs 2496 grams.
Quick tip: In the event your food scale measures only in ounces, that’s okay. There are a ton of measurement converters online. Simply Google, “ounces to grams” or “pounds to grams” or whatever applies to you and a converter will magically appear.
Now, leave the empty crock pot on your scale, but zero out the weight (your scale should have a “zero” option; read the manual if it’s not immediately obvious).
Weigh each ingredient
The first ingredient in my recipe is kidney beans. So I drain the beans and dump them in the empty crock pot while it’s still on the scale. The scale says 284 grams. I now know that my beans weigh 284 grams and I write that down on the same piece of paper I recorded the crock pot’s weight on.
I’m going to zero out the scale again, and repeat the process. This time I’m going to measure the ground turkey. Because I need to cook the meat ahead of time, I will measure its weight in a separate container while it’s raw (important: always measure meat raw as evaporation and other food-altering phenomenon occur during the cooking process, resulting in inaccurate weights).
I’ll write down the total weight of my raw meat on the list with the beans.
You may notice that I weighed the meat in pounds. This is no problem, just remember to convert pounds to grams using an online converter like I mentioned earlier.
Side note: If your scale doesn’t accommodate a dish as heavy as a crock pot, you can always weigh it in a lighter vessel and then dump the contents into the crock pot after-the-fact. Just make sure you zero out your scale before dumping food in or your reading will include the weight of the vessel and mess up the totals.
By now, you might be catching on with how this works. Simply dump in the next ingredient, record the weight, zero out the scale, and do it over again with the next item on the list. Keep doing it for each ingredient until you’ve done them all.
When you’re finished, you should have a list that looks something like this:
Still with me? Great! Now let’s start cooking.
Weigh the Cooking Vessel…Again
Remember how I weighed the empty crock pot earlier? Here’s the step where it makes sense. After you are done cooking your meal, weigh the crock pot with the food still in it.
Side note: It’s important to weigh your recipe after it’s cooked/baked for the most accurate weight.
In the case of my recipe, the chili weighed more than my food scale could handle so I had to use my regular bathroom scale to measure it (I converted my pounds to grams using an online converter). The total sum of everything put together – including the crock pot – is 5,080 grams.
Now it’s time for a little math.
Do a Little Math
Remember that initial empty crock pot reading I took? I am now going to subtract that from the number I just got with the crock pot full.
The final number is 2,583 grams. This is now the total weight of the chili.
Enter Ingredients into Your Food Tracking App as a “Group” or “Recipe”
Your food tracker is nearly as essential as the food scale since this app does the math for you. For this example I’m going to use Sparkpeople. I’m not familiar with all of the tracking apps out there, but I’m betting your food tracker works in a similar fashion.
Armed with my paper, I create a new food grouping by manually entering each food from the recipe along with its weight.
As you can see, my food tracker used the data I provided and automatically put together the total macros for the entire recipe of chili I just made.
Of course, unless I want to be the first human to ever perish from a chili overdose, it’s highly unlikely I’ll eat the entire 2,189 calories in this recipe in one sitting. So how do I determine how many macros are in a serving?
Create New “Food” Using Recipe Macro Totals
Again, let the food tracker do the math for you. Simply manually enter a new food into your tracker. For example, in Sparkpeople I simply click on the “food not listed” option, create a “food” called “My homemade chili,” and insert the total recipe’s macros in the appropriate fields.
Now look closely: At the very top under “serving size,” I put the total weight of the recipe in grams (remember I determined this number by subtracting the weight of the empty crock pot from the total weight of the entire recipe once it was done cooking). This step is SUPER IMPORTANT.
Now you are ready to rock and roll!
Determining the Macros per Serving
To determine the macros of a bowl of chili, I simply place a bowl on my scale, zero it out, and start scooping chili in. In this case, I scooped in 310g of chili.
I go to my food tracker, find the food called “homemade chili” that I just entered, and indicate that I ate 310 grams. Voila! Sparkpeople tells me exactly what the macros of that portion amount to.
You can also enter a certain weight of chili to see how many macros it will contain before you actually scoop it out. Who knows, maybe your macro numbers allow you to consume 600g of chili instead of my measly 310g. That’s what dreams are made of!
Once you manually enter a recipe into the food tracker, you can use it the next time you make the same recipe without having to enter the information all over again (just make sure you use the same weights for ingredients as you did previously). So while recording weights and entering information into your food tracker may have taken a little extra time up front, in the end it allows you to eat that favorite meal again and again (hooray for leftovers!) without completely derailing your macro goals.
So go ahead, make Great Grandma Betty’s chicken casserole. Or bake that cake. Heck, make some Poularde de Bresse truffee en vessie while you’re at it (you’ll have to Google that one). Just grab a pen and paper before you do. And for the love of all that is holy, don’t forget to weigh the empty vessel!
Unsure how many macros you should be eating as they relate to your goals? Check out the Get Fit Go Figure Diet Guide, where you can find all the information you need to get started.
Have questions about or unsure which food tracker to use? Want to know what food scales people use the most? Check out the GF2 Fitness and Contest Prep Forum on Facebook, an active group of like-minded fit people (including myself) who are happy to help share their experiences and knowledge with others. However, if you have more in-depth questions or want a personalized workout and/or diet plan, don’t hesitate to contact us directly. We’d love to hear from you.