How to Determine the Nutrient Profile of Home Made Meals

Screen Shot 2013-11-25 at 2.21.16 PMOne of the questions I get pretty regularly is “How can I determine the nutrition information of recipes I make at home?” When you’re trying to lose weight or build muscle, or working to ensure you’re giving your body the protein and vitamins and minerals it needs to thrive, knowing the protein, nutrient and calorie content of your meals can be super helpful. But cooking at home using whole foods can make it trickier, as whole foods don’t come with a nutrition label! There is a way to figure out all these values, and with the right tools and tricks it’s not too complicated.

The first few times you do this will be a learning process – expect imperfection. But you’ll get the hang of it quickly. Hang in there!

You’ll need two tools to get an accurate idea of the nutrient profile of your recipes. First, you’ll need to find a recipe analyzer you feel comfortable with. There are dozens available online. I would say they’re all pretty comparable, so check out a few and get a feel for which one seems most user friendly to you. I use this one at Calorie Count. Many of my clients use this one at MyFitnessPal. Spark People has a good one, as does Self Magazine. Here’s one from Fit Watch. Dieticians of Canada also has a good one. Some of these analyzers require you to create an account, but the accounts are free. The benefit of creating an account, though, is that you can save your recipes for future reference and only need to analyze them once.

You’ll also need a decent food scale (I like this one, although there are many to choose from at different price points).

And now that we’ve got the tools, here’s how you do it:

1. Enter all the ingredients of your recipe into the recipe analyzer of your choice, and tell the analyzer how many servings the finished product will produce. The analyzer will give you the nutrient profile for a serving of your recipe.

2. Prepare the recipe.

3. Weigh the entire finished recipe. Make sure to subtract the weight of the container you’re using to weigh the recipe. You can do this by weighing the empty container before weighing the recipe, or if your scale has a tare function, simply place the container on the scale and press the tare button to zero out the weight reading, then add the finished recipe to the container and the scale will read only the weight of the food.

4. Divide the finished product into servings by weight.

Here’s an example:

Our imaginary example dish is going to be beans and rice. Enter all the ingredients into the analyzer, in this case we’ll enter 2 cups uncooked rice, 1 cup dry beans, 3 carrots, 3 stalks of celery, 2 large tomatoes, a tablespoon of olive oil and a teaspoon of salt (we’re going for simple here). Then we tell the analyzer this recipe makes 4 servings. The analyzer will make it’s calculations and spit out the nutrient profile for one serving. Then, we prepare the recipe. When the recipe is finished, we place the entire dish on the food scale. After figuring out and subtracting the weight of the container the food is in, we determine the finished recipe weighs 36 ounces. We then divide the recipe into 4 equal 9 ounce servings, and either serve and eat, or package up for later. Viola! Home made meal, accurately profiled and divided. You now know your home made meal’s macronutrient, micronutrient and calorie profile.

One benefit of determining the nutrient profile of your recipes is that you can see if they are balanced to meet your goals, and if not, you can alter them. For instance, this beans and rice recipe may be too low in protein for someone on a fat loss diet, so seeing where the protein is coming from can give them ideas for improving the protein balance (perhaps by increasing the bean to rice ratio, or adding another protein dense ingredient). You can also determine if your recipe is calorie dense enough to meet your energy needs, or if it lacks micronutrients you may need to increase your consumption of. Remember, being aware of the nutrient profile of your diet IS NOT and SHOULD NOT be about restriction, it should be about ensuring you are meeting your nutrient and energy (calorie) needs adequately. Spending some time learning about the way your diet balances out over time can help you create new eating habits. Once those habits are in place, you can leave the tracking behind.

Related blog posts:

Calorie Primer
Habit: the Real Key to Weight Loss Success
Body Composition

eMeals Meal Plans

7 thoughts on “How to Determine the Nutrient Profile of Home Made Meals

  1. I understood this intuitively but hadn’t thought to weight the final product. Great explanation of the process!!!

  2. Great post! I know tracking & knowing stats bothers so many people these days – just eat whole foods & all will be fine. BUT really, it is not always that way & many really don’t know the truth of what they are taking in… To each their own but for me, I like to know the stats… :)

  3. I suppose it is a good idea to have a general understanding of the nutrient profile of your food. For me, it plays into food phobia, vilification and the concept of ‘dieting’, too much. I would rather invest in eating enough, whole foods, simple or single ingredients, organic and non-gmo while learning how to evaluate how that food feels after it is ingested. It is important to build a loving, trusting relationship to food, trust that you will eat appropriate to your training goals, and strive to eat as healthy as possible given your budget and the availability of better foods.

  4. I do sort of have some qualms about this….it feels very like something that those on the REDS spectrum get up to habitually. I certainly know that my own experience with ED (very mild….everyone just thought I was really ‘healthy’), left me with the ability to calorie-count the total for a recipe in my head, work out how to adjust to make easily divisible into ‘correctly’ sized portions, and work out the weight of one of these ‘correct’ portions in my head within a matter of seconds. This is now a very difficult habit to break, and I still find myself just automatically calorie counting all homemade food. I do feel that just trying to eat reasonable portions of a vat of home cooked food, stopping when full, is a healthier option. Obviously, the more controlling route is not bad for everyone temporarily, but it is what it signifies and can lead to that is the problem.

    • It’s not for everyone. I think tracking can be a useful tool for people who want to lose weight safely and for people recovering from anorexia or who have a tendency to undereat. Sharing these tools is in no way a mandate that everyone must use them.

      • Nono, I certainly did not think you were being prescriptive! (Sorry I have not posted before, so no way of knowing my general stance, but am a great fan already :)) I just wanted to highlight how, for those with tendencies to eating issues/OCD, gaining the knowledge for this can be a bit of a poisoned chalice that you then cannot ‘un-know’. It also could lead to ‘eating by numbers’ rather than keeping in touch with one’s own bodily signals. On the other hand- for those for whom those signals are not heeded- both over eating or denying hunger, and those who are avoidant of ‘non labelled foods’, this can be a great help.

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