Meal Prep Guide: How to Portion Food to Fit Your Macros

 January 15, 2024|  Dona Maria

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 essential for getting you the results you’re looking for. With a little practice you can master meal prepping to perfect your macro diet meal plan with ease.

What are Macros?

A breakfast with all the macros you need - protein, carbs and fat.

Whether you are looking to lose weight, gain muscle or support your performance, calorie counting has long been the go-to 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 organised into nutrient groups – aka protein, fat, and carbs. This means that by counting macronutrients you can easily build the balanced nutrition structure to strive for, while helping you control calorie intake.

Macro diets can also allow for a more flexible dieting approach as long as it “fits your macros”.

Your first step in starting a macro diet is to calculate how many grams of protein, fat, and carbohydrates you need each day.

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:

  • A Food Weight Scale
  • The Exchange Method
  • The Hand Fist Model

Weighing Your Food

Weighing diced fruit

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

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.

The Exchange Method

A range of measuring cups and spoons to accurately calculate macros

Kitchen scales are great, but they don’t allow you to menu plan in advance – this is where the exchange method comes in.

Using measuring cups and spoons, and associated macro food lists, you can easily figure out how much of each ingredient you need as you are prepping your meals 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


Hand Fist Model

Adult fist vs child fist to illustrate the hand-fist model for measuring food.

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.

The size of your hand is unique and 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.

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

What Counts as a Carb or Starchy Food?

A range of healthy foods scattered across the table

Carbohydrates are sugars, fibres, and starches, and come from anything that grows out of the ground, as well as 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).

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

Baked salmon with tomatoes and asparagus

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 helps increase your micronutrient intake.

Non-starchy veggies 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?

Scrambled eggs for a high-protein breakfast

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

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?

Avocado on toast for a source of healthy fats

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.

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 flavour and satiety.

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.

 January 15, 2024 | Dona Maria
Dona Maria

About the Author

Dona Maria Mesmar is the Nutrition Manager for Kcal Brands. She develops nutrition and diet programs for athletes and provides them with one on one nutrition consultation to help them achieve their body composition goals. She is also a certified fitness instructor, published nutrition writer and has appeared numerous times on national live TV, where she has provided expert advice on nutrition and healthy eating.

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