Learn tricks for counting carbs in hard-to-guesstimate dishes, such as casseroles, salads, and pizza. Plus, find more carb-counting tips to help you stick to your diabetes meal plan.

Marsha McCulloch, RD, LD
September 28, 2018

Simple Tips for Carb-Smart Eating

Looking for carb-counting tips that make sense, are simple, and really work? These 10 tips are for you! Get easy-to-follow ways to count carbs in restaurants, on the go, and anywhere you need to make a quick calculation of what you want to eat. Pasta, pizza, casseroles, salads, sandwiches -- it's all here.

Count Hot Dishes by the Cup

A mix of meat and vegetables in a savory sauce, including stews and many Asian-style entrees, has around 15 grams of carb per cup. For dishes made with pasta or grains, such as lasagna or chicken-rice casserole, estimate 30 grams of carb per cup.

Tip: A 1-cup serving is about the size of a woman's fist.

Think: Spoonable or Forkable?

If soup is so thick and hearty you could nearly eat it with a fork, such as chunky noodles, or if it's loaded with beans, such as chili or split-pea soup, estimate 30 grams of carb per cup. Broth-base soups and cream soups made with water average 15 grams of carb per cup.

Tally Tablespoons

When a dish is served family-style, such as at an Italian restaurant or a steak house, use a tablespoon to size up servings as you put food on your plate. For example, 4 level tablespoons (1/4 cup) of baked beans adds up to 15 grams of carb, and 8 tablespoons (1/2 cup) of corn also contains 15 grams of carb.

Identify Main Ingredients in Salads

If your favorite salads are higher in carbs (and creamy with lots of fat), opt for a smaller serving. Here's how common salads stack up.

Leafy garden salad (without dressing): 1 cup = 2-5 g carb.

Hearty salad (such as chicken, tuna, or egg): 1/2 cup = 7 g carb.

Creamy coleslaw: 1/2 cup = 15 g carb.

Potato salad: 1/2 cup = 22-30 g carb.

Macaroni/pasta salad: 1/2 cup = 30 g carb.

Calculate Pizza by the Crust

Crust accounts for most of the carbs in pizza. A medium (12-inch) thin-crust pizza topped with sauce, vegetables, cheese, and meat that's cut into eight pieces has 20-25 grams of carb per slice. A regular-crust pizza averages 30 grams of carb per slice.

Tip: Thin-crust pizza has 5-10 fewer grams of carb per slice than regular-crust or pan pizza.

Limit Appetizers to One Piece

A single Thai spring roll, Italian breadstick, or Asian lettuce wrap provides about 15 grams of carb -- not counting dipping sauces. Want an appetizer meal? The total calories and carbohydrate in an appetizer often equal (and sometimes surpass) an entree, so if you order multiple dishes, split them with friends.

Scan with Your Hand

An adult's hand when spread typically spans 7-8 inches from thumb to pinky finger. That's the width of a medium flour tortilla, which has 20-25 grams of carb. Size up tortillas at taco and sandwich shops. Some are as much as 13 inches across, packing 55 grams of carb (and that doesn't count the filling).

Count Smoothies Similarly to Soda

Although chewing food is generally more satisfying (and easier on your blood sugar) than drinking it, sometimes it's hard to resist a smoothie. Fruit smoothies average 45 grams of carb per 12 ounces. Comparably, a 12-ounce can of regular soda averages 40 grams of carb.

Tip: 12 ounces of a smoothie (1-1/2 cups) has more carbs than a can of regular soda.

Count a 'Bread' for Breaded Meats

"Naked" meat that's grilled or broiled is carb-free (and generally lower in fat). But if your meal includes a breaded chicken patty or serving of six chicken nuggets, count 15 grams of carb to account for it. For larger breaded meats, such as country fried steak, count 30 grams of carb.

Study Sandwich Standards

Although there are countless ways to build a sandwich, the bread used as the base contributes most of the carbohydrate. Follow this guide for estimating the carb counts in sandwiches made with typical savory toppings.

Breakfast meat on English muffin: 30 g carb.

Burger on standard-size bun: 30 g carb.

Sandwich made with sliced bread: 45 g carb.

6-inch submarine sandwich: 45-60 g carb.

Sandwich on a bagel: 60-75 g carb.