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How balanced are your meals?

| Healthy You | Eating Right

Plates of healthy food

Forget the food pyramid and focus on your healthy plate.

Forget the food pyramid. There’s a new and improved metaphor used these days to talk about the power of nutrition for good health.

“Experts are moving away from using the food pyramid and are instead moving toward using the healthy plate model,” said Megan Haugen, RD, a dietitian at PeaceHealth in Bellingham. “The healthy plate is more user-friendly and it’s easier to personalize—both of which are important when it comes to nutrition.”

Balanced nutrition may look different for each individual, but often involves defining proportions of the types of foods we eat, aiming for portion control, reducing sodium intake, incorporating more vegetables and fruit, aiming for whole grains, and varying the sources of lean protein in our eating pattern, she said.

Here are the basics of a healthy plate:

  • Fill half of your plate with colorful non-starchy vegetables, such as carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, leafy greens, etc. These are full of fiber, which is beneficial for heart and digestive health. Veggies also provide vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, which act as antioxidants in our bodies.
  • Fill one-quarter of your plate with lean protein foods, such as fish, lean beef, chicken and turkey breast, pork loin, eggs, nuts/seeds, peanut butter, cheese, cottage cheese, and Greek yogurt. Including a protein food at all meals and snacks helps you feel full and satisfied while balancing blood sugars.
  • Fill the remaining one-quarter of your plate with carbohydrates/starches. Foods in this group include grains and starchy vegetables (potatoes, corn, winter squash, and legumes*). Aim to include more whole grains, such as brown rice, quinoa, millet, oats, and barley, as these are higher in fiber which is beneficial for heart and digestive health and promotes feelings of fullness and satiety after eating.
  • Fruit can be eaten as a side-dish or as part of the carbohydrate section of your plate. Fresh or frozen fruit is best, but fruit canned in juice or water (not syrup) is also an option. Avoid drinking fruit juice as it lacks fiber.
  • Drinks should be unsweetened. Stick with water (sparkling or still), unsweetened iced tea, or other non-sugary beverages.
  • Cook with heart-healthy fats such as olive oil, canola oil or avocado oil. You can also incorporate small amounts of avocados, nuts or seeds into a meal or snack.

*Legumes such as lentils and beans contain protein as well as carbohydrates and we sometimes include these in the protein section of the plate if it is a vegetarian meal.

Meal-planning and prepping tips:

  • Start slow. If you are new to meal planning, pick one meal to focus on so that you don’t get overwhelmed by trying to plan every meal for the whole week. For example, maybe focus on planning 3-4 dinners for the week. Or maybe choose what you want for your lunches for the week and even prep them ahead of time. These do not have to be elaborate meals—a meal can be as simple as baked chicken with brown rice and steamed broccoli or a turkey sandwich with an apple and some carrots and hummus.
  • Set aside time before grocery shopping to think about what meals you would like to make for the week – then use this plan to generate your grocery list.
  • Try power meal prepping and batch cooking. If you can, set aside some time after you get groceries to do some meal prep for the week – chop up your veggies, boil some eggs, cook up chicken, maybe even assemble some lunches, etc. This will save you time during the week. Also, if you are going to take the time to cook something, make enough for multiple nights or freeze the extras for a quick meal in the future.
  • Use the 80/20 rule. For 80% of your day’s food intake, aim to eat nutritious, well-balanced meals or snacks and 20% of the time incorporate some “fun foods.” This helps work towards a balanced, sustainable eating pattern.

When it comes to food shopping, the general rule is to shop the perimeter of the grocery store, said Megan, “But don’t forget about some nutritious options you can find in the aisles, such as dried beans and whole grains, low sodium canned vegetables, and frozen fruits and vegetables.”

Budget-friendly shopping tips and items:

  • Shop seasonal fruits and vegetables or purchase frozen produce.
  • Make a list and stick to it.
  • Avoid shopping when hungry or stressed, which can lead to more impulsive purchases that may be less nutritious.
  • Pay attention to unit prices. The bigger items aren't always the most cost effective!
  • Try store brands, which can be 26-28% cheaper and often meet or exceed the quality of brand products.
  • Shop for what’s on sale.
  • Dried beans and peas are a cost-effective way to add plant-based protein into your eating pattern.
  • No-salt-added or reduced sodium canned beans are easy to add to soups or salads. (Be sure to rinse canned items to reduce the sodium even further.)
  • No-salt-added canned vegetables may have lost some of the water-soluble vitamins in the canning process, but they can still be a fast way to add balance to your eating plan.
  • Whole grains, such as brown rice, quinoa, oats, and barley can often be found in the bulk section.
  • Frozen fruits and vegetables are just as nutritious as fresh (avoid those with sauce or seasoning, which are typically high in sodium).  Frozen produce is often more cost-effective and can be a quick and easy addition to meals by steaming or tossing into homemade soups or stir fry meals.

Favorite healthy meal recipe resources:

If you have questions or concerns about nutrition, schedule an appointment with your primary care provider or speak with a PeaceHealth dietitian.

portrait of Megan A. Haugen RD

Megan A. Haugen RD

Megan Haugen, RD, CDCES works as an outpatient Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Care & Education Specialist in Bellingham, WA. Compassion is a fundamental part of Megan’s work with clients, and she enjoys partnering with individuals to help them improve their health through positive lifestyle change. In her spare time, Megan enjoys hiking, cooking, reading, and spending time with family and friends.