I got a fantastic question from Bright Line Eater Rachel Himes today. She writes:
“I was wondering if you have any tips or methods for calculating portions in mixed recipes. I have several recipes that would be appropriate but am not sure how to calculate how much vegetables/protein/fat etc. I am getting per serving since they are all cooked together and sometimes the veggies lose a lot of volume in cooking.”
How have I not addressed this question yet? Thanks Rachel!
First of all, some recipes you’ll have to just give up on and emotionally let go of (like sugar and flour free friendly cake for example). In general, I don’t try to adapt anything with more than a tiny bit of sweetener or flour, it just doesn’t lend itself well to this way of eating. But there are so many healthy and yummy recipes out there (check out my pinterest board for meal inspiration) that are pretty close to compliant but just need a few tweaks and a little math.
When I find a recipe like that and I want to adapt it, here’s what I do:
- Step 1: Remove any sugar or sweeteners from the ingredients list.
- Step 2: Break the ingredients list into your food categories.
- Step 3: Re-Imagine the Dish and Simplify the Instructions
- Step 4: Adjust the Quantities
To illustrate this process, I’ll use an example from Minimalist Baker, one of my favorite recipe sites.
Let’s say I wanted to adapt her dreamy looking Curry Roasted Vegetable & Lentil Kale Salad. That’s pretty darn close to compliant, the food categories are even all there.
Step 1: Remove any sugar or sweeteners from the ingredients list.
- This includes dates, agave, honey, fruit juice, stevia, you know the deal. Don’t even try to replace it, just get rid of it. We just don’t need it. I never miss it.
- Sometimes there might be a small amount of flour in a recipe, but I don’t throw it out until I’ve considered whether it is necessary for binding or texture and whether there’s something else that could work instead.
Step 2: Break the ingredients list into food categories
- Without messing with any of the quantities, just break it down and see what you are looking at.
I literally copy and paste ingredients lists from blogs into a document (in my case I do it right in a draft of a blog post) and just copy and paste items into their categories.
- 4 carrots, cut into bite-size pieces (~ 2 cups or 156 g)
- 1 red bell pepper, sliced (~1 1/2 cups or 120 g)
- 1 small head broccoli, chopped (~2 cups or 180 g)
- 1 large bundle kale, stems removed, roughly chopped (~4 cups or 268 g)
- 2 Tbsp (30 ml) avocado or melted coconut oil, divided
- 3 Tbsp (45 g) tahini
- 1 cup cooked (198 g) brown or green lentils*
- Pinch each salt and pepper
- 1 tsp curry powder (DIY or store-bought), divided
- 2 Tbsp (30 ml) lemon juice
- 1/2 tsp apple cider vinegar
- 3-5 Tbsp (45-75 ml) water to thin
- 2 Tbsp (30 g) green curry paste (DIY or store-bought)
- 1 lemon, juiced (~30 ml or 2 Tbsp)
- Pinch each salt and black pepper
Step 3: Re-Imagine the Dish and Simplify the Instructions
I’ve found that the specific, precise instructions in most recipes are unnecessary. What we are really mining for when we look for recipe inspiration are new and interesting flavors, so I always think about what preparation instructions I can simplify to make each component easier to make and measure separately.
I don’t even look at the instructions, I go off of the ingredients list and rely on my knowledge of basic cooking skills (like cooking lentils and sautéeing veggies). If I don’t know how to make something, I google it and find the easiest method.
When I look at this ingredients recipe for example, I see 4 parts:
- Kale (bed of greens)
- Roasted Veggies
My simplified instructions then would be:
- Roast the veggies with a measured amount of oil and spices
- Measure & mix the dressing in a small jar
- Massage kale w/ a little bit of the dressing, lemon juice, vinegar, & spices
- Cook lentils, add spices
- Assemble plate
Step 4: Adjust the Quantities
- Now that I have a vision of how to make this meal in a simpler way, I tinker with the quantities until they are compliant with my food plan. I adapt it for a single serving, and multiply that if I’m cooking for many. Like so:
- 10 oz of the following:
- Red bell pepper
- 3 oz kale, roughly chopped
- 1 tbsp melted coconut oil
- 1 tbsp tahini (1/2 protein)
- 3 oz lentils (1/2 protein)
Then I would add in the condiments and flavorings, scaling down the original and guessing roughly how much to use. This process is pretty forgiving, I never know if it tastes like it is supposed to, but I always end up with delicious meal.
Some Tips & Tricks for Weighing Mixed Dishes
Weigh veggies raw & add a couple of ounces to account for cooking
For example, if I’m sautéing a bunch of veggies like onions, zucchini, broccoli, and peppers, I might weigh 12 oz raw instead of my normal 10. If I’m batch cooking, I’ll weigh multiple 12 oz bowls of veggies and add them to the pan, counting how many servings it will be when the dish is done.
When batch cooking, do the math ahead of time, know how many servings it will be, and then divide the final dish equally among that many containers.
To return to Rachel’s question, this is how I divide a large mixed dish into a correct portion size. For example, with this chili, I could weigh and combine 4 servings of beans and 4 servings of veggies together in a pot with spices and condiments, and then when it’s done cooking I just have to divide it into 4 equal sized tupperware containers and I know that each one is a perfectly sized serving of protein and veggies.
Those are all of the tricks and tips I can think of at this moment.
In general, I would say that if a recipe is too difficult to adapt, it’s probably not worth making. Stick with things that are fairly simple and close to the right proportions.
There is definitely a trade off – I’ve found that the more complex a recipe, the more potential it has to mess with my peace because my quantities get messed up and my mental food chatter starts up. There is a happy medium. At one point, I had to put up a bright line about making no more than 3 new recipes per week, because inevitably things can get confusing and mess with my boundaries for quantities.