Measuring Food: Which method works best for you?
Updated: Dec 17, 2021
Measuring food is something almost everyone has tried for one reason or another. After a while it often ends up being tedious, time consuming and unsustainable. However, measuring and monitoring food consumption is a key component in achieving our health and nutrition goals.
Quantifying food helps individuals to follow a meal plan, record food intake and manage portions. There are four main ways to measure food:
I recommend using multiple measuring methods to help us acquire perceptive skills to measure food more accurately without using equipment. Measuring should be a mindful act and comparing measurements to well-known objects or how they fit on a plate helps to improve these skills.
1. Measuring cups & spoons
This is one of the most practical methods and uses equipment that is common in almost every kitchen. This method also provides lots of sensory feedback in terms of volume. As one builds familiarity with what measurements look like on the plate, it becomes easier to move away from using them daily.
Cups and spoons aren’t ideal for all foods. Sweet potato wedges (too bulky) or raw meat (cleaning) are notable examples. Measuring cups are great for bulk items like greens, grains, rice, nuts and beans. Measuring spoons are better for salad dressings, oils, condiments, sauces and nut butters. Here are a couple conversions that can help with measuring food with cups and spoons.
¼ cup = 4 tablespoons
3 teaspoons = 1 tablespoon
2. Digital Scale
The digital scale is objectively the most accurate measuring tool. It is also the most cumbersome and creates a disconnect from the sensory feedback we get from other methods (especially when weighing in grams). Many individuals cannot correlate portion sizes with weights because of a less tactile interaction with the food. Measuring food with a digital scale on a daily basis is unrealistic for most people.
Instead use them to better understand the volume and weight of different foods. Weighing foods consecutively by using the tare method whenever adding a new food to your plate is a great way to use less dishes. Digital weighing is also great for raw meats, but remember that most food tracking apps use cooked weights for meats. Here are the common conversions for raw to cooked weights of meat, fish, and poultry.
4 oz. raw = 3 oz. cooked
1 lb. raw = 12 oz. cooked
References are the most practical and sustainable method for measuring food. References can be everyday objects like a cell phone, deck of cards, tennis ball, or the best measuring tool, hands and fingers! One major drawback is the variation from person to person. However, this can be corrected with experience measuring food in alternative ways.
When using cups or scales see how the measurement compares to your hand, how that aligns with the estimates provided and remember where you fit in. This method is by far the most mindful and can be used in any scenario: at home, on vacation or at a restaurant. Here are some helpful references.
Deck of cards = 3 oz of cooked meat
One dice = 1 oz of cheese
Golf ball = 2 tablespoons
Tennis ball = medium size fruit
4. Food Labels
Food labels provide information on volume, serving size and weight (and, of course, energy and macro/micronutrients). Serving sizes are commonly viewed by consumers, but using the cups or tablespoons per serving is often ignored. Using estimations for consumption and then calculating cups still provides feedback as to what measurements look like on the plate.
Labels are also great for mixed dishes or when cooking meat, fish and poultry. Making a dish that includes 2 pounds of raw chicken provides about 1.5 pounds of cooked meat (24 oz.) or eight 3 oz. servings. Use the weights provided on the packaging of meat, fish, and poultry to determine the proper portion to add to the plate.
Measuring food should be an educational experience and build our awareness about what properly sized portions look like. Quantifying food doesn’t have to be perfect. Doing this mindfully allows for a better understanding of the amount of food to be consumed. Whether someone is trying to lose, gain or maintain weight, measuring food is an important tool to achieve those health goals.
Daniel Dittmer is currently in the Nutrition/Dietetics Masters Coordinated Program at the University of Illinois Chicago and will graduate in December 2021. He plans on going into private practice after passing his RD exam. You can follow him on IG @dk.nutrition