I often get asked about the easiest way to build a healthy plate. While the truth is that there is no one single “right” way to create a healthy meal, there is, I think, a basic framework you can use to quickly and easily build a healthy plate.
Here’s the not-so-secret secret: It’s all about balance.
I know, I know. The whole balance thing isn’t nearly as “sexy” as crazy diets that promise even crazier results, but it’s what works. It’s also what’s good for both you and your kids.
A balanced approach to food means that you’re sure to work in a variety of vital nutrients important in all stages of life, and it leaves room for treats and cravings so you never have to feel deprived or guilty.
It also means that you can model a healthy relationship with food for your kids, and I can’t stress enough how important this is.
The balanced meal approach works for most standard dietary needs, too, so if you or your kids have a food allergy or require a gluten-free or vegetarian diet, this is still for you!
To learn how to build a healthy plate, follow this simple guidance:
1. Most meals should ideally have a source of fiber, protein, and fat.
Have you ever eaten a good sized meal only to find yourself feeling hungry 30 minutes later? Well, that’s probably because the meal you ate didn’t contain enough protein, fiber, or fat to keep you feeling full.
These three nutrients all help your body to feel full and satisfied during and after a meal. Because fiber and fat take longer to digest than most other nutrients, they also help you to continue to feel full for longer after the meal is over. If you want your healthy meals to fill you up, it’s a good idea to include a source of all three at most meals.
- Sources of fiber: whole grains (oats, quinoa, brown rice, whole wheat pasta, etc.), beans and lentils, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds
- Sources of protein: meats, fish, beans and lentils, nuts and seeds, dairy, eggs
- Sources of fat: oils, nuts and seeds, fatty meats and fish, full-fat dairy, avocado, butter
2. A good guide for building a healthy plate is as follows:
- Fill 1/3 to 1/2 of your plate with fruit and/or vegetables
- Fill 1/4 to 1/3 of your plate with a source of protein
- Fill 1/4 to 1/3 of your plate with a good source of fiber like whole grains, beans or lentils.
- Check to make sure the meal also has a healthy fat source
Remember, this is just a guide meant to be used in a relaxed way. There is absolutely no need to measure your food or insist that every single meal meets these criteria.
3. Vary the colors of your fruits and veggies to get a variety of nutrients.
Different colored fruits and vegetables contain different key nutrients, so it’s a good idea to eat a variety. You definitely don’t need to have all the colors on one plate, but try to mix it up throughout the week!
- Green: leafy greens (lettuce, kale, spinach, swiss chard, etc), peppers, green beans, peas, zucchini, asparagus, cucumbers, broccoli
- Red: tomatoes, bell peppers, strawberries, raspberries, apples, radishes, watermelon
- Orange: squash, tomatoes, peaches, apricots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, carrots
- Yellow: bell peppers, lemons, squash
- Blue/Purple: blueberries, blackberries, plums, grapes
- White: onions, potatoes, cauliflower
4. Be creative!
Healthy meals don’t have to be boring. Your plate does not have to literally be divided up into one quarter chicken, one quarter brown rice, and the other half broccoli. Seriously, that would get real boring real fast.
There are all kinds of what we would call “mixed foods” that have tons of good for you things in them. Think foods like casseroles, tacos, lasagna, dinner salads, soups, chilis, pasta dishes… you see what I mean. Mix things up on a regular basis to keep your healthy meals fun and delicious.
5. On the Role of Dairy
If you’re wondering about dairy – you definitely don’t need dairy at all meals. However, it is a good source of both protein and fat that can be incorporated into your meals.
Whether from dairy or other foods, you do need to make sure that you’re getting enough calcium in each day. For more on how to incorporate adequate calcium into your kids’ (and your own) diet, check out my post on 50 tasty alternatives for kids who don’t like milk.
6. Leave room for treats and cravings.
YES. Part of being healthy is leaving room for treats and cravings, too. It’s okay to enjoy foods like ice cream and french fries as part of an overall balanced lifestyle. If you never let yourself (or your kids) indulge in your favorite foods, you’ll end up going overboard later and then probably sit around feeling bad about it. That is the opposite of balance.
I hope these suggestions on how to build a healthy plate help you to plan nourishing meals more quickly and easily.
But remember, this is just a framework, so there’s no need to fret over the details. Use this as a guide as you try to plan healthy meals, but there is no guilt or shame if you deviate.
You know your family’s needs, so simply do your best to keep balance in mind, and mold the framework to work for you.