If you've ever experimented with food tracking, you probably know that it's really easy to track the kilojoules and nutritional macros in a can of chicken noodle soup or a box of chocolate chip cookies -- the information is right there on the package and it's often pre-loaded into apps like Fitbit and MyFitnessPal -- but it's a lot harder to track kilojoules and macros in the soup and cookies you make at home.
In fact, "How do I track homemade meals?" is one of the most common questions on nutritional forums, because everyone wants to know.
So let's discuss how to do it.
Add up your ingredients
To find out the nutritional value of food you cook or bake at home, you need to add up the nutritional values of every ingredient and divide by the number of servings the recipe yields. (We'll get to how you determine "a serving" in a minute.)
If you use MyFitnessPal, there's a Recipe Nutrition Calculator that will help you through this process. (There's also a recipe calculator in the MFP app.) I find MFP's recipe calculator to be more confusing than helpful -- you have to double-check all of the brands and products MFP suggests to make sure you're inputting the right one into your recipe and MFP wants you to enter ingredients by serving size when I'd rather put three cups in the recipe and figure out the servings at the end.
I'm also the kind of person who likes to make her own calculators -- you might remember my packing grid -- so I've set up a spreadsheet to handle my recipe tracking. Here's the spreadsheet I put together for the muesli bars I made last weekend:
The spreadsheet makes the process really simple: enter the individual nutritional values for each ingredient, total the values and divide them by serving.
All you have to do is enter the values on the back of the packaging. If you're getting your sunflower seeds from the bulk bin, say and have no packaging with Nutrition Facts, you can look the nutritional values up online. Google will often give you full nutritional info if you search a phrase like "sunflower seeds nutrition".
In most cases, the value on the back of the package won't match the exact measurement you're putting into the recipe; my tub of oats gives me nutritional data for 1/2 cup, but I put three cups into the recipe. I keep my phone handy for any calculations that I can't do in my head, as well as any tablespoons-to-cups conversions that I may have forgotten.
In some cases -- with meat, for example -- your packaging will indicate nutritional value by weight instead of by measurement. Same general rules apply: figure out how much of the food item you're adding to your meal, and calculate the nutritional data.
If you want to be as accurate as possible, you can invest in a digital food scale and measure everything that way.
It goes without saying, but once you start cooking, stick to the measurements in your spreadsheet. Level cups, not heaping ones. One tablespoon of olive oil, not "pouring until it feels right." This is another reason why some people use a food scale: it helps them know exactly how much of each ingredient is going into their meals.
Determine your serving size
Once you've got your ingredients measured and your total nutritional values calculated, you'll need to divide those values by serving size.
Your serving size is generally dependent on the type of food you're making. Soups and stews work well in one- or two-cup measurements -- which means you'll have to know how much soup you've made before you start serving it. (I fill my slow cooker to a level that I know represents ten cups.) Pizzas, pies and bread can all be divided into a specific number of slices. Muffins and muesli bars are tracked per item.
Yes, one of those muffins might be slightly larger than another one, but in this case being imperfectly accurate with your nutritional data is better than not knowing the data at all! Plus, the data is likely to average out. Using my granola bar recipe as an example: a slightly smaller bar might be closer to 670kJ and a slightly larger one might be closer to 750kJ, but over the course of a few days I'll have still eaten roughly 670kJ per bar.
Once you have your serving size calculated, you can enter it into your MFP recipe calculator -- or, if you're following my spreadsheet model, enter the per-serving data into Fitbit or your favourite nutrition-tracking app. (I've been using Fitbit for three years, so that's what I do -- although Fitbit can integrate with MFP if you prefer to go that route!) Most apps will give you the option to enter home-prepared foods, and then you can log them along with the other foods you eat throughout the day.
Just because you've decided that "one cup" represents a serving of soup doesn't mean you're stuck with one-cup lunches forever. Once your app knows the nutritional values of a single cup of homemade soup, it will automatically calculate the correct values when you record that you ate two cups' worth.
Yes, this means that you do have to pay attention to how much food you eat, but it doesn't necessarily mean that you have to get out the measuring cups before every meal. I know that my soup bowls hold two cups of liquid, for example. (I also bought a set of two-cup freezer containers so I could freeze soup for later.)
You can calculate your serving size per gram instead of per cup and use your digital food scale every time you eat -- which will get you the most accurate nutritional information -- or you can eat one muesli bar, two cups of stew, or 1/6th of a pizza. Either way, you're becoming more aware of what you're eating, how much you're eating and how it's affecting your long-term nutritional goals.
Tasting and other tips
A few more tips from someone who's been doing this for a while:
If you like to taste as you cook, you can handle it one of two ways:
- Take small tastes and assume that you'll be eating 50-100 unaccounted kilojoules now, but that they will get tracked later as you eat the meals -- since you aren't going to subtract those kilojoules from your spreadsheet or recipe calculator.
- Track your tastes. I made 24 muesli bars, but divided my nutritional values by 25 to account for the muesli I ate during the process.
If you're a typically messy cook, you might be surprised at how much harder you work to prevent spills or to scrape bowls perfectly clean, once you start tracking your nutrition. After all, making a mess is literally leaving nutrients on the table.
Your fitness tracker isn't a perfect gauge of kilojoules burned, either. All of this nutritional tracking is really about getting as close as you can to actual data and then watching trends: How do you feel? How much energy do you have? What's your digestion like? Is your weight maintaining or changing in the ways you expect?
From there, you can tweak various aspects as necessary -- the same way you'd add a teaspoon of salt to your chicken-noodle soup and then add that teaspoon's value to the spreadsheet.