8 Tips for planning healthy meals for you and your household
Sometimes one of the toughest hurdles to eating healthier is understanding what and how much of each type of food we should be eating. This can keep us locked into a certain routine of eating the same things over and over again. If you feel like you’re in a rut when it comes to deciding on what to eat, then this article is for you. I provide 8 tips for enjoying a greater variety of different foods while also breaking down some of the foundational things you need to know to plan healthy meals.
What is a balanced meal?
First, it’s important to understand approximately how much food you or your household needs based on your age, gender, height, weight, and physical activity. You can get a personalized food plan by entering this information into the MyPlate website or app. You can also consult with a diet and nutrition specialist, like at FIT & NU, who can discuss any specific concerns you may have and develop and individualized plan based around your needs. Once you have your food plan, you can start planning healthy meals.
Take a balanced approach by aiming to eat all five of the food groups each day, according to the recommended daily amount of your personalized food plan. You can see how much of each food category you should eat by visiting Healthy Children. We also shared the most important table to reference below.
8 Tips for Planning Balanced and Nutritious Meals
1. Incorporate fruit into specific meals.
Many people struggle with adding fruit to their dinner, so I recommend including a piece of fruit with your breakfast or lunch. For example, add some berries or sliced apple and banana to your oatmeal, yogurt, or cereal for breakfast. You can also replace a starchy sides or snacks with a piece of fruit during lunch or opt for a salad with fruit instead to get an additional intake of veggies.
2. Sneak in more vegetables.
Aim to include vegetables in every meal if possible. Toss some spinach in your eggs in the morning or your sandwich at lunch. Even better, make one of your entire meals a salad. Need some inspiration? Check out these 5 New Year’s resolution salad recipes and these 5 winter salad recipes.
Other great ways to increase your veggie intake is by adding them to your smoothies, like in this green smoothie recipe, or by adding them to your soup. You can either choose a recipe that is entirely based on a vegetable, like this creamy broccoli soup recipe, or you can simply add a handful of leafy greens to any soup that you’ve prepared. For example, consider adding a cup of spinach and chopped asparagus or broccoli to a pot of chicken noodle soup. For pickier eaters, particularly children, the flavor of the veggies are hardly noticeable this way.
3. Make colorful plates.
By adding colorful whole ingredients to your dish, you can ensure that you’re hitting all of the important food groups that you should be eating each day. You should also take this approach when planning your meals for the week. For example, eating oatmeal and blueberries for breakfast on Sunday, avocado toast on Monday, pesto eggs with tomato and a side of rye bread on Tuesday, and so on. If you need some inspiration, check out our list of recipes. We share new recipes each week.
4. Switch to whole grains.
Most Americans eat plenty of grains, but most of those grains are refined. If you want to learn more about the difference between the two, this Harvard School of Public Health article provides an excellent explanation and a great breakdown of the health benefits of eating more whole grains.
A simple way to eat more whole grains is by swapping out any of the breads you typically purchase with a whole grain or whole wheat bread. You can do the same for other wheat products like tortillas and pastas.
5. Explore different types of protein.
Just like grains, most Americans eat plenty of protein, but they are not necessarily a variety of proteins. Some changes you make to your diet can take care of both issues. For example, by switching from refined wheat products to whole grains, you will dramatically increase your protein intake. Other ways to switch up your proteins include adding some nut butter to your toast or smoothies or adding more legumes and beans to meals like soups and salads.
6 Add diary and non-dairy ingredients to recipes.
Dairy and non-dairy products are excellent sources of calcium and protein. You increase your intake of these products by adding cow milk or non-dairy milk to your oatmeal and adding cheese to your salads, soups, and eggs. Not all cheeses are made equally when it comes to nutritional value though. Natural cheeses like mozzarella or hard cheeses like parmesan are more nutritious than a slice of processed American cheese. Also, note that if you don’t enjoy eating dairy and non-dairy products, you can always add more fortified cereals and juices to your list to help supplement your intake of the vitamins and minerals that are often found in dairy.
7. Proportion like an expert.
To ensure that you’re meeting all of your nutritional needs, diet and nutrition experts generally recommend the 50–25–25 rule. Fill 50 percent of your plate with nonstarchy vegetables, 25 percent with grains or starchy vegetables, and 25 percent with lean protein. Fruit can go into the nonstarchy vegetable category, but you should try to eat more veggies than fruit when you’re including both on the same plate.
8. Use a rule-of-thumb approach when deciding on ingredients.
Learn some general rules-of-thumb when it comes to how much of each food group you should eat to reach the daily recommended amount that is specified by your meal plan. I’ve covered some of the most commonly eaten foods from each of the categories.
The amount of fruit that is equivalent to 1 cup.
- ½ a large apple and 1 small apple
- 1 large banana (8 to 9 inches in length)
- About 32 seedless grapes
- 1 medium grapefruit and pear
- 1 large peach
- 8 large strawberries
- 1 small wedge of watermelon
- ½ cup dried fruit
The amount of vegetables that is equivalent to 1 cup.
- 3 raw broccoli spears
- 2 cups raw leafy greens like spinach, kale, and arugula
- 2 medium carrots
- 1 raw tomato
- 1 large baked or mashed sweet potato
- 1 medium avocado
- 2 large stalks of celery
- 1 large bell pepper
- 1 cup raw or cooked mushrooms, onions, yellow squash, and zucchini
The amount of grain product that is equivalent to 1 ounce.
- 1 slice of whole wheat bread
- 1 cup of cereal
- ½ cup of rice, wheat pasta, and oatmeal
The amount of protein ingredient that is equivalent to 1 ounce.
- 1 egg
- 12 almonds
- 24 pistachios
- 7 walnut halves
- ½ ounce of seeds
- 1 tbsp nut butter
- ¼ cup cooked beans, peas, or lentils
- ¼ cup or 2 ounces of tofu
- 1 oz of tempeh
- ¼ cup of roasted soybeans
- 1 falafel
- 2 tbsp hummus
- ½ cup of lentil soup
- ½ soy or bean burger patty
The amount of dairy and non-dairy product that is equivalent to 1 cup.
- A small 6-ounce container of yogurt is typically equivalent to ¾ cup
- 2 slices of hard cheese
- 1 slice of processed cheese
- 2 cups of cottage cheese
- 1 cup of calcium-fortified non-dairy milk
- ½ cup evaporated milk
If I didn’t list the food item that you are interested in, you can always look it up on MyPlate. I also cannot emphasize enough that it’s important to think about balance. Even if you’re eating the exact amount of each category that’s recommended by the USDA, you will not get all of the essential nutrients you need if you eat the same thing everyday. It’s important to switch up the foods within each category too. So, final bonus tip: rotate your recipe lists so that you are eating different meals each week.