Macro Meal Planner: How to Portion Foods to Fit Your Macros

    
Emmie Satrazemis, RD, CSSD
Emmie Satrazemis, RD, CSSD

Knowing your macros is one thing, but how does that translate into your food choices? Learning how to portion your meals according to your individual nutrition needs is somewhat of an art, but essential for getting you the results you're looking for. Luckily, with a little practice and the right know-how, you can master this skill and start meal prepping your own macro diet meal plan with ease. Here's your ultimate portion survival guide to get you started. 

Want to put these foods lists and portioning guide to good use? Start building your ultimate menu with this free meal prep toolkit for weight loss.

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What are Macros in Food?

No matter whether you are looking to lose weight, gain muscle or support your performance, calorie counting has long been the go-to standard for getting results. However, counting macros takes this approach one step further by helping to balance your nutrition with more structured food choices AND control calories at the same time. 

Macros are your calories form food organized into nutrient groups - aka protein, fat, and carbs. Thus, counting macronutrients give you a balanced nutrition structure to strive for, while helping you control calorie intake simultaneously. 

Macro diets can also offer a more flexible dieting approach, helping you to see where treat foods and the occasional splurge fall into your daily nutrition goals as long as it “fits your macros”. 

How to Start a Macro Diet

Starting a macro diet is easy. First, learn how many grams of protein, fat, and carbohydrates you need each day using this simple macro calculator. Then keep reading to learn how to build a personalized meal plan based on your unique nutrition needs. 

How to Portion Food According to Your Macros

Once you’ve figured out your ideal macronutrient distributions, the next step is to convert these nutrient goals into actual meals. There are three ways to do this - all of which come in handy at different times. These include: 

  1. A Food Weight Scale
  2. The Exchange Method
  3. The Hand Fist Model

Weighing Your Food

The gold standard in food portion control is using a kitchen food scale. This is by far the most precise method for determining your serving sizes. Using volume measurements (like cups, tablespoons, etc.) or eyeballing it, leaves room for error. 

Or if you are choosing a portion based on standard serving sizes - like a medium-sized fruit - these can still be slightly different sizes and provide slightly different calorie amounts.  

Food weight scales are also incredibly easy to use and many come with automatic macro calculations built-in macro calculations. Just input the desired food code provided with the scale and weigh your portion.  

Did you know??? The FDA allows food manufacturers a 20% wiggle room on packaged food serving sizes - meaning what the nutrition label says isn’t guaranteed accurate (1). 

The Exchange Method

Kitchen scales are great, but they don’t allow you to menu plan in advance - enter the exchange method. 

The exchange method is based on a carb counting approach used by diabetics but it seamlessly applies to all macros and all diet types. 

Using measuring cups and spoons, and associated macro food lists, you can plug and play ingredients in your meal prep to make it easier to hit your macros. All you need is a food list and associated serving sized for each. 

Essentially, one portion (or exchange) of either a carb, fat, or protein equates to a certain amount of grams for that specific macro. 

Macronutrient

1 Exchange Serving

Grams 

Carbs

1 each = 1/4 cup, 1/3 cup, 1/2 cup varied per individual carb

15 g

Protein

1 each = 3 oz

21 g

Fat

1 each = 1 Tbsp, 1.5 Tsp, 2 Tbps varied per fat

5 g

 

If your food is not listed below, simply lookup what serving equates to the appropriate grams of fat, protein or carbs and use that portion as one exchange. 

Hand Fist Model

At some point, you may find yourself without a food scale or measuring cups and the need to guesstimate exactly how much you should be eating. Well, good news, you have your own portion control device in the palm of your hand already... your hand!

The size of your hand is unique and also closely aligns with your serving size requirements - the bigger your hand, the more food you need. Hold your hand up and look at your palm. One full hand is a single serving of protein. Now make a fist, one fist is a single serving of starches, and 2 fists is a standard serving of veggies. And lastly, your thumb equates to one serving of fat. 


Macros-Trifecta-11

To use the hand fist model, you’ll need a food list and the following nutrient estimates to estimate how many grams of carbs, fat, and protein you’re eating. 

Hand Portion

Macronutrient

Estimated Measurement

Protein = 1 palm

~20-30 g

~3-4 ounces meat, 2 whole eggs, 1 cup Greek yogurt

Carbs = 1 cupped hand

~20-30 g

~½-⅔ cups cooked grains, beans, or legumes, or 1 medium fruit

Fats = 1 thumb

~7-12 g

~1 tablespoon

Macros Food Lists

Now you’re ready to start choosing your macro-friendly foods to build a breakfast, lunch, and dinner that will help you hit your macros every day of the week. 

Here is your complete macro food list breakdown so you plan your grocery list accordingly.

What Counts as a Carb or Starchy Food? 

Carbohydrates are sugars, fibers, and starches, and come from anything that grows out of the ground, and dairy. This includes fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes and grains, as well as some milk and yogurt. 

Carbohydrates also come from added and naturally occurring sugars like table sugar, honey, maple syrup, agave, etc. (this does not include artificial sweeteners). 

Here is your portion list of carbohydrate foods/starchy foods: 

Carb

1 Exchange Serving

Rice, cooked

1/3 cup

Quinoa, cooked

1/4 cup

Whole wheat pasta, cooked

1/2 cup

Barley, cooked.

1/3 cup

Farro, cooked

1/3 cup

Sweet potato

1/2 cup

Mashed potato

1/2 cup

Beans (black, pinto, lima, black-eyed peas)

1/3 cup

Legumes, cooked

1/3 cup

Peas

1/2 cup

Corn

1/2 cup

Bread, whole wheat

1 slice = 15 g/slice (+/-2-3g ok)

Bagel, whole wheat

1/2 each

English muffin, whole wheat

1/2 each

Corn tortillas

2 each (4”)

Oatmeal, cooked

1/2 cup or 1 package

Cereals, cold

1/2 - 3/4 cup (varies per cold cereal)

Graham Crackers

2 each

Pretzels, Chips

3/4 cup

Milk, skim

1 cup

Whole Fruit

1 medium or ½ banana

Berries

1 cup

 

Non-starchy Vegetables

While starchy vegetables would fall under the carb section of the plate, non-starchy are not significantly high in carbs, protein or fat, and have their own section. 

Non-starchy veggies are mostly water and provide few calories. They are also high in nutrient density, meaning you can eat a lot more for a lot less calories. Eating more veggies can also help make sure your micronutrient intake is up to par! 

Non-starchy veggies or “free foods” include: 

  • Artichoke
  • Asparagus
  • Broccoli
  • Carrots
  • Cauliflower
  • Celery
  • Cucumber
  • Green Beans
  • Leafy Greens 
  • Mushrooms
  • Radishes
  • Summer Squash
  • Tomatoes
  • All other veggies

What Counts as a Protein? 

Whole food proteins come from meat, dairy and plant-based sources. 

Here is your list of protein foods:

Protein

1 Exchange Serving

Salmon, shrimp, tuna, cod, halibut, scallops

3 oz

Lean beef, turkey, chicken, pork

3 oz

Jerky

1.5 oz

Greek yogurt, nonfat

1 cup

Cottage cheese, 2% fat

3/4 cup

Whole eggs

2 eggs

Egg whites

4 egg whites/1 cup

Egg substitute 

1/4 cup

Tofu, extra firm

1/2 block

Edamame

1/2 cup

 

What About Fat?

Fats typically acts as a topping or extra ingredient. If you are trying to gain weight, fats are an easy way to add calories without adding a lot of volume. But if you are looking to lose body fat, they should be kept moderate. 

Here are some common ways you can add health fats to your plate:

Fat

1 Exchange Serving

Nut butter

1 Tbsp.

Nuts (walnuts, pecans, almonds, brazil nuts)

10-15 each

Avocado

⅓ fruit

Olives

7 small or 2-3 large

Seeds (chia, flax, etc.)

2 Tbsp.

Plant oils (olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, etc)

1.5 Tsp.

Butter

2 Tsp.

Cheeses

1 oz.

 

If your food is cooked with fat or naturally contains fat, you probably do not need to add any additional fat. But if you are eating very lean, plain foods, you may want to add a little fat for flavor and satiety.

Macro Foods Tracker

While macro foods lists work great in theory, many foods contain a combination of macronutrients and could fall into more than one category. This is why tracking your macros is the final step of the process to ensure success. This will give you a better overview of how well you are doing each day and can also provide weekly macro averages to check in with your long-term progress. 

Download the free Trifecta app now to start tracking your macro meal plan!

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