Now is the time to start tracking your food

food scale

A scale can help you consume those snacks responsibly. Stan Horaczek

The coronavirus pandemic has made eating more complicated. Grocery availability is spotty, delivery apps are pushing hard to get people to order takeout, and few (legal) things provide the same kind of blissful instant gratification as a Hot Pocket. Those same factors, however, make this a great opportunity to start tracking what you eat. That’s because you’re almost certainly cooking more at home, making it easier to know exactly what you’re consuming.

Even if you bristle at the thought of weighing and measuring food—especially when your current self-care routine involves wearing the same pair of gym shorts for 23 days running—small steps toward increasing your understanding of current eating habits can make grocery shopping more manageable and food prep less of a chore. Even if you’re relatively lazy about tracking, it can still have an overall positive effect on your health.

Here are some easy tips to get started.

Get a scale and some measuring cups (when available)

The nutrition panel on a bag of Tostitos says a proper serving is seven chips—six if you go for the Hint of Lime. It sounds pathetic—that’s not enough to get you through the cold open of an episode of The Office. That serving size comes with a number, however: 28 grams, which equals one ounce. In other words, if you don’t want to count your chips, weighing them can help.

“It’s totally understandable for people not to know what a serving actually looks like,” says Jessica Bihuniak, an assistant professor of clinical nutrition at NYU. “This process can help them learn.”

You can get many reliable food scales for less than $20 on Amazon or even at your local grocery story next time you’re picking up provisions.

Measuring cups or scoops are extremely useful, too, but they’re even better when used with the scale. A measuring cup can give you an idea of what a serving of shredded cheese should look like, but you’re probably actually undercutting your serving because the cheese doesn’t pack neatly into the cup—weighing it actually gets you more cheese, which is always a positive.

Because measuring cups are so cheap, consider keeping a couple sets on-hand. Going into food prep and finding out your equipment is dirty very quickly turns into an excuse to just give up.

If you don’t have a scale or cups laying around, there are some very rough ways to estimate those serving-size metrics. For instance, the average-sized fist typically takes up the same amount of volume as one cup, and the palm of your hand is about the size of four ounces of meat.

Get an app (or at least a pen and paper) to track your food

Now that you can get a reasonable idea of how much you’re eating, you need a way to keep track of the data you gather. Bihuniak says many of her students choose to use a simple notebook and pen in order to keep track of what they’re eating. That’s helpful if you’re self-conscious about your food choices and don’t want to risk your logs accidentally going public via a bug or an accidental social media share.

If you want an app, Under Armour’s MyFitnessPal has become one of the most popular food tracking apps—and for good reason. It gives detailed information about different types of food and has a large database of items pre-programmed so you can find them by searching or even scanning their barcode with your phone’s camera. If you pay for the Premium version, which costs $50 per year, it will let you drill down into hyper-specific parts of your diet like individual macro nutrients. If you’re just starting and you don’t have a specific plan in mind that you want to follow, you likely don’t need the in-depth look that you get from the Pro subscription.

Bihuniak also recommends, a self-administered 24-hour dietary assessment tool provided by the National Cancer Institute. However, it’s a very clinical tool without many of the consumer-oriented bells and whistles.

Other apps like Weight Watchers or Noom offer layers of support on top of simple tracking and try to guide your eating toward specific goals. For $20 per month, Weight Watchers converts the nutritional values in a food into a simple number and offers some community support to help keep you motivated. Starting at $50 per month, Noom tries to guide your eating habits more proactively by offering questionnaires to figure out your tastes and regular support sessions for encouragement.

HealthyOut is an app specifically dedicated to help break down the nutritional information of food from restaurants, which can be tricky if you’re trying to pick things apart on your own.

Ultimately, choosing the right app is a matter of taste and typically trial and error.

Plan your meals ahead of time

Shopping is difficult during the coronavirus pandemic and planning your meals in advance can help make trips to the market as efficient as possible. “Some of the foods you typically eat may be unavailable and planning for replacements in advance can remove some stress associated with making a change in the moment,” says Bihuniak.

Choose meals that are easy to repeat and ingredients that can fit into multiple dishes. The Yummly app offers a database of more than 2 million recipes and allows you to create a shopping list based on the things you’re hoping to cook during the week. Even recipe apps without any real specific nutritional bent can help—the Tasty app’s in-depth search options allow you to specify vegetarian, low-sodium, and other categories to meet your tastes and needs.

While it can be tempting to make one lunch to last you all week, don’t get discouraged if you’re sick of it by Thursday and give up. Paying attention to your tastes and tracking will help you realize your limits.

Track your water

At the office, a trip to the water cooler can be a nice little break. At home, it’s easy to forget. Monitoring your water intake “will help you realize when you’ve only had a single cup of coffee to drink for the entire day,” says Bihuniak.

Water can be unexciting to track because it doesn’t play into numbers like calorie counts, but it helps reinforce the routine of keeping tabs on what you consume.

Be extremely—even painfully—honest

Getting the infrastructure in place to track is relatively simple, but it’s worryingly easy to lie to your app or notebook about your actions. “People think they just have one almond or a handful of something that they don’t have to track it,” says Bihuniak. “But, you have to include all foods, all snacks, and all beverages.”

Accurate tracking will give you a baseline of what you’re consuming. Tricky and disheartening as it may be to enter “9.5 Krispy Kreme donuts” into your log, it belongs in there. Making a food journal is typically one of the first tasks a nutrition professional will task clients with and the more honest they are, the better the overall plan will be.

If it’s hard to type indulgences into an app and beam them up to the internet, try the paper and pen method for a while to see if it helps with your honesty.

Set attainable goals that aren’t necessarily about weight loss or hard numbers

When you get into advanced tracking, the numbers become essential. You might find yourself counting Cheerios or sucking down a gross sugar-free Jell-O cup to get one more protein macro to hit your numbers. That’s not where you should start, however.

“You don’t want it to be an overwhelming, stressful process,” says Bihuniak. “If your goal is to track five out of the seven days and focusing on fruits and vegetables—increase it by two servings—then that’s manageable.” A simple, achievable goal will incentivize you to keep at it, even when it starts to get tedious, which it will.

Cheat correctly

Blow-ups happen—the trick is to stop them from turning into slow-motion self-destruction. “Find a way to manage the guilt so it doesn’t carry over to the next meal,” Bihuniak says. Track your mishap and then get back to the regularly scheduled programming.

Bihuniak reinforces the importance of not letting the guilt from one bad meal derail your entire efforts. Looking back through your journal to see all the good decisions you’ve made can help prevent spiraling.

Also, don’t make massive dietary changes without talking to a professional. While making positive tweaks to your diet is a positive, huge, sudden shifts can have unintended effects, especially if you have underlying health conditions. Tracking is great for getting a baseline and moving toward a generally more informed way of eating, but it’s best to consult with a doctor before revolutionizing your daily intake. Because after all, the goal is for it to actually make you more healthy.