Calorie counting for fresh food cooking
August 9, 2013 12:35 PM   Subscribe

What's the best way to count calories when you're cooking food from scratch? How do you count calories?

I've got to start counting calories, but hardly any of the food I eat or recipes I use have nutrition labels (I get lots of food from a farm share). I don't want to just guess, because I'm sure I'll underestimate how much I'm eating. Should I use a scale and weigh my raw ingredients? I've heard lots of good things about My Fitness Pal, but it seems best used for prepared foods that come with Nutrition Facts on the side.

Also, in general, how do you count calories? What is easiest and works best for you?
posted by ocherdraco to Health & Fitness (26 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Weigh/measure and use this as a starting guide.

Make a quick list of what you usually get on sticky notes, put together to calc a meal.
posted by tilde at 12:37 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Total up all the calories in the ingredients and divide by servings.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:38 PM on August 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

I use a calorie counting app on my phone with a recipe builder. You add exactly how much of each raw ingredient you are using, tell it the number of servings, and it gives you the calories per serving. I use tap&track, but there's dozens of these.

Absolutely weigh your food!
posted by inertia at 12:39 PM on August 9, 2013

Over and above counting calories, I found the weight watcher's points system best for dropping weight. Just use the equation
(16*protein + 18*carbs + 45*fat - 14*fibre) / 175

You just need to find out how many points to eat per day depending on sex/height/weight/target weight.

(I was eating within my calories but the points said to stop eating yoghurt and boy did it make a difference!)

Otherwise I would just add all the calories from the labels (where they exist) and divide by # of servings. I wouldn't count calories from veggies.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:40 PM on August 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

calc a meal, input your own recipes on your fave app. When I did WW online (before data phones) I would just calc it, and pick from one of my "blocks"

- MEAL - 4-5 points

WW didn't need to know WHAT I ate, just how much.

So if your fave app goes by calories and fat and carbs, work up some basic combos


and so on.
posted by tilde at 12:40 PM on August 9, 2013

I bought an electronic scale, and weighed all ingredients. I used either the packet stats or for raw ingredients, a site (the site I used was but when I was in the US I used Calorie Count.) Also, I made sure to cook for one to make it accurate, because dividing a big meal was messing up my counting, allowing for seconds etc. However, I pretty rarely count now, since after a while you tend to get a feel for it a little.
posted by Dimes at 12:41 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I use a kitchen scale and/or measuring cups/spoons, depending on what I'm eating, and if I don't know the calories in the food I look them up on (I also have a little book that has the calories for everything, but I mostly use the website now.) Old school, simple, quick, no apps or fancy stuff.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 12:42 PM on August 9, 2013

I found nutritiondata really helpful. say you look at the entry for potato - you can enter in the approximate size of the potato, and get a calorie count for that. You can get a pretty good estimate for the foods you are cooking with, and then divide by the servings.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 12:45 PM on August 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

For foods that have no nutritional labels, I weigh them and use the USDA Nutrient Database. I use a digital kitchen scale and measure to the gram. Use weight/mass, not volume to measure food.
posted by Tanizaki at 12:47 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

What's the best way to count calories when you're cooking food from scratch?

By weight. Weigh everything.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:47 PM on August 9, 2013 [4 favorites]

If you have recipes you make frequently, it's worth it to sit down and figure out their calories and write that number on the page in the cookbook -- I generally figured out how many calories in each raw ingredient, totaled it up, and divided it by servings. Then I'd write "800 calories total, 100 calories per 1/8 serving" or something like that underneath the recipe. Lots of apps and websites let you "recipe build" by common measurements rather than weights, which makes it even easier. It's an estimate, but all calorie counts are really. A scale is more accurate, but gets pretty onerous after a while.

It's mindless work well-suited to commercial breaks during a TV show. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:48 PM on August 9, 2013

I use Wolfram Alpha. It can parse stuff written in recipe form, e.g., 1/4 cup of olive oil.
posted by Jacqueline at 1:17 PM on August 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

I use My Fitness Pal and most of the food I eat is self-prepared. You can enter entire recipes and the serving size and it will calculate the whole thing for you, plus save it for future use. If you're using popular cookbooks the recipe is likely to already be in the database, too.
posted by something something at 1:18 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Calorie Count site at has a nice recipe analyzer. You just enter in all the quantities and ingredients and it gives you a nutrition label.
posted by payoto at 1:20 PM on August 9, 2013

I generally figured out how many calories in each raw ingredient, totaled it up, and divided it by servings.

This is what I did, except instead of dividing by servings I divided by weight. So I totaled up the calories in all the ingredients, and then when I made it I weighed the entire pot of whatever and then calculated calories per ounce/6 ounces to put into SparkPeople.

I did this because one prepared meal usually equals two dinners (bigger one for my partner, smaller one for me) plus one or two lunches for me, and I am TERRIBLE at eyeballing or serving food in equal portions when it's not being spooned out all at once. If you already have a kitchen scale for weighing ingredients when you cook, it's trivial to use it to weigh out how much you're serving yourself when you eat the meal for dinner or as leftovers. Or as a midnight snack.
posted by iminurmefi at 1:22 PM on August 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

I use My Fitness Pal and most of the food I eat is self-prepared.

Ditto. It's actually not too tough to do for generic foods like apples and apricots and rice and quinoa and cucumbers and whatever. The two secrets are

- weight/measure everything for best accuracy. I got a $6 kitchen scale that does grams and ounces and it's terrific for this. I have also become a pro at fractions and converting between metric and whatever it is that we use in the US.
- create recipes of stuff like soups which will do all the work for you after the initial input like Eyebrows McGee says

Basically if you've gotten to the point where you feel like you have "got to count calories" then it's important to find the system that works for you meaning one that you'll keep up with. What worked for me when I started last April was MyFitnessPal and a kitchen scale and getting sort of routinized about the stuff I ate (so a lot of sameness with my meals which was fine with me) and being a little more rigorous about eating out (eating things that I thought I could measure and not things I thought I couldn't). Once I started it became sort of its own process, like I would still eat a dessert or something but once I realized how many calories were in a donut (for example) I was more likely to snack on dark chocolate or something a little more reasonable. Good luck and feel free to join the MFP MeFi group which you can find (i think) via my profile.
posted by jessamyn at 1:30 PM on August 9, 2013

I've tracked my food on and off using the food tracker on Fitbit, and it's worked pretty well for me, mostly because I tend to have certain standard meals, and once something is established as a favorite, it's pretty quick to select and enter.

Actual data entry is my bugaboo, however.
posted by ambrosia at 2:42 PM on August 9, 2013

You find it gets easier as you go along - after a while you will get good at judging amounts by just looking plus you will have already figured out the calorie count for your favorite recipes. so even if it is aggravating now, give it a try for a few weeks and see if it gets better.

The secret for me is to keep my eye on the big picture. For me what works is to have a daily goal for calories in that is a little below the actual number so I have a (small) built in allowance for undercounting. Not enough to splurge without writing it down but enough that I don't drive myself crazy. At this point, having lost the weight and been in maintanence for a year, I just guesstimate volumes on everything that isn't portion controlled. Similarly, I never use more than 1/2 my calories from exercise (and usually none) to allow myself to eat more. That compensates for the overcounting on exercise. (Note that my exercise level tends to be very low. Furthermore, i love the calories burned number on my elliptical but I don't believe it.) More exercise = more weight loss, not more food eaten.
posted by metahawk at 3:18 PM on August 9, 2013

The part about "divide it by servings" is what always threw me off, since I never know exactly how much I am going to eat later. So here's what I did when I made a big recipe of something. I use either inches (if I make it in a baking pan), or volume (If I make a big pot of chili/pasta) or weight (I wrote down the weights of my pots and pans so I can tare it out after I've cooked the meal, because I don't ever think to weigh it before I start), whichever one seems most convenient for the recipe.

Add up the calories for all the ingredients in a recipe using one of the sites listed above (I use Sparkpeople) by entering in the entire recipe, then name it like "Pasta bake with sausage, 13x9 pan" or "Vegetarian chili, makes 12 cups". It seems weird, because it looks like 6,572 calories, but that's for the whole recipe. Then when you eat a serving:

If I made it in a baking pan, I used inches. A 13x9 pan is 117 square inches. When I cut a serving, I measure it (3 inches x 2 inches = 6 square inches) and then divide that by 117 to get a ratio (0.05 of the pan) and that's what I enter in Sparkpeople for the number of servings.

If I made a potful that I know was 12 cups, then I eat a one-cup serving, that is .08 of the whole pot. Same thing if I weighed the whole recipe for a total of 1200 grams and I eat a 150 gram serving - divide it out and enter .125 servings into Sparkpeople.

It drives me crazy when I look for foods entered by other people and it just says "200 calories per serving" and I have no idea how much food that is.
posted by CathyG at 4:02 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

My sister in law has a scale that counts calories. Each food has a code she types in before weighing, and then it tells her the calories in that amount of food. I think it's even cumulative, so you can weigh ingredients as you add them to a bowl. I don't know which brand she has, but there are a bunch listed on Amazon. She's a vegetarian and it's one if the tools that has helped her drop a ton of weight and become a triathlete over the last two years.
posted by apricot at 4:48 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Sparkpeople has a recipe builder that does this.
posted by Deodand at 6:55 PM on August 9, 2013

The Lose It! phone app has a pretty good database, and lets you set daily calorie goals.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 1:30 PM on August 10, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks everybody! I've ordered a scale; now let's see if I can get this counting stuff done right.
posted by ocherdraco at 11:23 AM on August 11, 2013

Response by poster: Okay, I'm up and running. Here's what I'm doing right now: I'm weighing everything, unless it comes in a package with a barcode (since I can scan those few things with the MFP app). Everything is entered into My Fitness Pal, which is now synced with Fitbit. I'm just using MFP for input, and managing everything from the Fitbit dashboard, since I'm more familiar with it. Yay!
posted by ocherdraco at 12:05 PM on August 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Total up all the calories in the ingredients and divide by servings.

I recently bought a kitchen scale and have installed MyFitnessPal on my phone, so this is totally useful for me. However, other than the cook it, weigh it, and then decide how much should be in a serving method, how does one determine how many servings are in a recipe?

As an example, I recently made a low sodium turkey salad recipe which involves 15 oz. of diced cooked turkey, 1 celery stalk, 1/4 of a small onion, 2 oz. of red bell peppers, 1 T of light mayonnaise, 2 T of light sour cream, 3 tsp. of yellow mustard, 1 T of apple cider vinegar, 1/8 tsp. of garlic powder and 1/8 tsp. of black powder.

The recipe stated that it serves 5 people, but other than weighing the whole thing and dividing by five, how can you mathematically determine how much a serving weighs if you're inputting your favorite recipes in advance? What happens when you cook foods and some volume or mass is lost due to the cooking process?

Should I just make my own AskMe question?
posted by TrishaLynn at 12:21 PM on December 2, 2013

how does one determine how many servings are in a recipe?

If I don't split it up into containers, like soup or something, I just say it's one serving from the get-go and make sure the fractions of it that I eat total 100% and try to eyeball it. So for recipes I don't think if you've added up all the ingredients correctly, that you need to weigh the output, just divide it.
posted by jessamyn at 2:52 PM on December 2, 2013

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