I’ve learned quite a few things about keeping track of calories during the times I’ve actively counted calories. Here are some additional tips if you decide to give calorie counting a try.
– Processed foods make life easy: While this runs counter to my belief that one should be making as many things at home from scratch as possible, there’s nothing like having a box with a nutritional information panel on it to help lead the way. Calories vary widely in something as basic as bread – density of the loaf, fats used in baking, thickness of slice, etc. – as does fibre content, so knowing where you stand based on a printed label eliminates much of the guesswork. One slice could be 220 calories, or two slices could be 220 calories.
– Calculate your own cooking: If you (wisely) decide to venture outside of pre-packaged processed food at meal times, or if you make cookies or muffins at home for snacking, you should consider tabulating the calories in your favourite recipes. There are two ways to do this. If you’re cheap, you can Google an ingredient name and calories, and you’ll find sites full of calorie estimates. Go through your list of ingredients one-by-one, then add up the total and divide by the number of portions. If 250 calories per cookie is too much, consider splitting the batch into more portions. Similarly, don’t make way too much food, then feel obligated to finish it all. The second way to calculate recipe calories — and the one that usually costs money — is to buy a recipe database program for your computer where you enter your ingredients and quantities, and the program does all the heavy computational lifting. I’ve been meaning to buy MacGourmet Deluxe for a while now, mostly because of this nutritional information function.
– Pre-calculate favourite foods: In my case, that means stuff like coffee. I’ve estimated that my typical cup of coffee at home – at the correct size and with the correct quantities of milk and sugar – works out to 60 calories. Similarly, my regular cuppa at Starbucks is typically 100 calories. Knowing this in advance means I can add the item to my list right away, instead of waiting until later when I have time to work the math.
– Restaurants are a crapshoot: Portion sizes are a huge issue here. Also, restaurants are typically interested in making something taste great so you come back again (and good for them – that’s what they’re supposed to do), which usually means using lots of yummy things (oodles of butter! whipping cream!) that you may hold back on at home. Do your best to estimate, and be honest with yourself. Also, make sure you include sides, as well as those three bread sticks you ate before your meal arrived.
– Buffets as friend and foe: If you thought it was hard to guesstimate restaurant portions, try figuring out how many calories are in a scoop of butter chicken. But there are two sides to buffets. While they encourage overeating, they also place portion control entirely in the diner’s hands.
– Buy a kitchen scale: They’re cheap, they’re great, and you’ll quickly learn your portion sizes. You don’t have to weigh everything all the time, but knowing roughly how much cereal fills your bowl will help you figure out how many calories you’re getting at breakfast.
– Know your snacks: Assemble a stable of favourite snacks that are reasonably healthy and lowish in calories. For example, a small bag of microwavable popcorn, a favourite granola bar, fruit, small tubs of yogurt. Keep these handy, and know the calorie amount for each. If you’re getting hungry at the office, having a 120-calorie granola bar in your desk may help you avoid splurging on a 400-calorie cookie at Starbucks.
– Drink water: There’s nothing quite as refreshing as an ice-cold glass of water, a fact that’s easy to forget when you constantly reach for a can of pop by default. I keep a Brita pitcher in the fridge so we always have cold water at hand. Also, as an alternative to low-cal artificially sweetened pop, try mixing things up with carbonated water. If you’re feeling fancy, maybe opt for San Pellegrino water (not the juice) or Perrier. If you’re on a budget, try the far cheaper (yet still perfectly acceptable) 2-litre bottles of store-brand carbonated water at your supermarket. I favour the type with a hint of lemon/lime essence added. It’s crazy refreshing when served ice cold, and a couple litres shouldn’t run you more than a buck fifty.
– Look before you buy: Read the label at the store, before you put an item in your cart. Frozen pizzas, for example, are hilariously calorie-packed, and the portion size on the box is rarely realistic. Who eats 1/6 of a frozen pizza? Some things are surprisingly calorie-packed, while other things – like the line of microwavable vegetable steaming packs I’ve recently grown fond of – are surprisingly calorie-light.
– Online is awesome: If you can’t find nutritional information for an item at a chain restaurant, there’s a good chance the information is on their website. Some make it easy to find the info, while others bury it in sub menus. Some even have fantastic meal calculators, where you can put items in a virtual meal basket to calculate your total calories consumed. Also, if you’ve got a smartphone, you have the ability to look these things up on the go.