Counting Carbs in Mixed Recipes

How to Count Carbs: Mixed Recipes & Home Baking

Michelle MacPhee, D-Mom

You may be asking: How do I figure out the carb content for my home-made banana bread, or Grandma’s lasagna?

Our family, like many families living with Type 1 Diabetes, has our favourite family recipes. But when our son was first diagnosed, for ease at meal-times, we pressed pause on mixed recipes and home-baking. At meal-times I tended to serve more isolated foods (like chicken, pasta, and frozen peas; so I could count the carbs in each food individually) or packaged foods (the label clearly outlined the carbs and serving size). 

It wasn't very long before we all missed those go-to family dishes. So I learned how to count carbs in mixed recipes that have many ingredients in the same dish, like home-baking, casseroles, salads, pilaf, lasagna, home-made pizza, and many more. Turns out it was easy! Using the simple, 5-step process outlined below (which was taught to our family by the Registered Dieticians at the Alberta Children's Hospital Diabetes Clinic), you can quickly calculate a carbohydrate-gram value for each serving.

Background info on carbohydrates and type 1 diabetes:

An Introduction to Carb-Counting: General Tips

Food Labels


How Many Carbs? A Step-by-Step Process:

When you have a meal which combines more than one carb-containing food, the carb content for a given portion can be calculated by adding up the individual carb values and then dividing by the total yield.

Let's go through this process together, using pancakes as an example for how to calculate the carb-content for a single serving of the whole recipe:

The Steps:

1. Measure and note the carb value for each ingredient in the recipe.

Here's our example. To make this recipe for pancakes (from the Canadian Diabetes Association's Canada's Best Cookbook for Kids with Diabetes) I measure out 2 cups of all-purpose flour, which contains 184g of carbs. Then I measure a tablespoon of sugar, which has 12g of carbs, a half-cup of plain yoghurt with 5g of carbs and 1 1/2 cups of milk, which has 18g of carbs. ((You can count the 1g for the egg... or not. It won't change the final result.) The rest of the ingredients don't contain carbs, so we record them as "zero."

Write it right in your cookbook or on your recipe card if you like – it will save you time and hassle the next time you make this recipe.

2. Add up the individual carb values to calculate a total carb value for the whole recipe.

For our pancakes, we add: 184 + 12 + 5 +1 +18 and come up with 220g total carbs for all of the pancakes that this recipe will make.

3. Cook or bake the food as indicated.

To be reasonably precise in our carb-counting, it's a good idea to be consistent in the size of the different pancakes. I use a level 1/4 cup measuring cup (not heaping, not too shy of the rim) to scoop up the pancake batter, which makes each pancake the same size. (You can heap or shortchange it if you want - you just need to do so by the same amount on each pancake.)

It's not necessary to be consistent in size if you use a carb-factor-by-weight (see step 4 below).

4. Measure the total yield of the recipe (after cooking) by either:

  1. Counting the number of items in the finished product. This works well for things like pancakes or cookies, that end up being discrete items of the same size). OR
  2. Weighing the finished product to find the total weight (minus the dish). This option works well for cakes, inconsistently-sized cookies, chili, lasagne... just about any mixed recipe. OR
  3. Finding the total volume using a large measuring cup (or repeatedly filling a small one). This works well for something like chili or soup.

We could have used either option 1 or 2 for our pancakes, but in this case we counted the total number of items (option 1) and found that the total yield was 12 pancakes.

Tip from the Trenches

If you prefer to work backward from a given serving, you can reverse engineer the portion sizes. Start by combining the ingredients in a large measuring cup and noting the total volume of, in this case, the batter, before cooking. For this example, let's say that the total volume of the pancake batter was 3 cups even. You then divide this total volume by the number of pancakes you want (or alternatively, by the amount of carbs you want each pancake to have - see Step 4). For example, if our pancake recipe yields 3 cups of batter, then it will make:

12 small pancakes, each using 1/4 cup of batter, or
6 large pancakes, each using 1/2 cup of batter.

You then use the appropriate size measuring cup to make the number of pancakes that you want in the end.

Tips from the Trenches

If you use weight or volume as a measure of the total yield, you can simplify things by keeping a record of the weight and/or volume of the pots and pans you typically use to cook (so you don’t have to re-measure them every time). I keep a hand-written note inside a kitchen cabinet door that lists the mixing bowls, pots and pans that I use most often, with their weight (empty) written beside them. Then once I get the finished weight of a mixed recipe (which includes the weight of the pot) it's easy to subtract the weight of the pot to get the finished weight of the actual food.

You can even buy pots with volume measurement “notches” on the side of the cookware, or make your own notches with a sharp object or a Sharpie marker (use marker on the outside of the pot only). Then you can estimate volume fairly easily right in the pot you used to cook the food.

For volume measurement, I found a wonderful 16 cup clear plastic measuring jug at Hendrix Restaurant Equipment and Supplies in Calgary, which accommodates most of my family-sized recipes. Lee Valley also sells a smaller version that's very handy.

5. Divide the total carbs by the total yield.

This gives you the amount of carbs in each serving.

For example: If the above recipe made 12 pancakes, we divide 220g total carbs by 12 pancakes, arriving at 18g of carbs per pancake. (If we had chosen to make large pancakes using the 1/2 cup scoop, the recipe would have yielded 6 pancakes. We would then take 220 and divide it by 6, so each pancake would contain 37g of carbs.)

Remember that the size of the pancakes needs to be consistent for this method to work. (See step 3, above.) If the items are not consistent in size - for example, you make a batch of sugar cookies, using different shapes and sizes of cookie cutters - it will be more precise to calculate the carb content by weight and then use a carb factor for individual cookies.

More on precision in carb-counting (weight vs volume):

Carb Factoring

More on mixed recipes, including examples:

Alberta Children’s Hospital Diabetes Clinic handout “Adapting_and_Calculating_Your_Favorite_Recipes

The above information was significantly modified with permission from The Alberta Children’s Hospital Diabetes Clinic information handouts.

The above information was reviewed for content accuracy by clinical staff of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Diabetes Clinic.