Updated: May 18, 2020
What do you think of when you think of a "healthy" meal? Do images of colorful fruits and vegetables come to mind? Do you immediately envision baked lemon garlic salmon with string beans and mashed potatoes? How about fruit and vegetable smoothies with yogurt and nuts? Many people have different opinions about what healthy meals look like. However, science has proven time and time again that an eating pattern that is healthy incorporates a variety of foods including fruits and vegetables while limiting processed foods. Balance is key. Here are six points to focus on when planning your meals.
1. Healthy meals should include your cultural foods.
Do not let anyone speak ill of the foods that have nurtured your ancestors. Your cultural meals and traditions centered around food are important and should be included in your health journey and vision. Some traditional foods may be higher in calories or cooked in what some people may consider "unhealthy" ingredients. However, those foods are usually only eaten a few times a year and will generally not influence your overall health status if you are careful to honor your hunger cues and are mindful of how to serve your plate.
2. Use the MyPlate method to help you serve your meals.
The MyPlate method is a very useful tool that will help you visualize what your meal should look like without tediously measuring out portions. No matter what type of diet you follow, the MyPlate method will help you ensure that you are meeting the general guideline of having fruits and vegetables with each meal. Aim for 1/2 of your plate being fruits and vegetables (the more colorful, the better), 1/4 being protein (meat, fish, poultry, nuts or beans), and 1/4 being grains (at least 1/2 of your servings should be from whole grains). Dairy can be substituted for non-dairy options such as soy and almond milk if desired.
3. Make a grocery list before shopping.
Making a list prior to shopping will help you buy only what you need. Your list should be based on the meals you'd like to prepare throughout the week. This doesn't mean that you need to look up 10 different recipes of the "healthiest" meals you've ever seen. Be honest with yourself. If you have 1 or 2 recipes you'd like to try, go with that. Start with buying the staples of some of your favorite meals and try incorporating more fruits and vegetables with those meals. Try to limit packaged and preserved foods, high sodium food options and snacks that are not nutrient-dense like chips and cookies. Reread that sentence and notice I mentioned to limit buying these foods not eliminating all of these foods. When people restrict their foods, they tend to overindulge later and feelings of guilt may occur. No one should have feelings of guilt while eating. Instead of buying 3 different types of cookies, try purchasing only one pack of your favorite kind. You will notice that the cost of your groceries may decrease as you focus on purchasing fresh foods vs. preserved prepackaged foods.
4. Don't feel pressured to only buy organic foods.
Food is labeled as organic by the United States Department of Agriculture if the foods are "grown and processed according to federal guidelines addressing, among many factors, soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives". This is appealing to many people who are trying to avoid chemicals in their food. However, many of these foods may only be available at limited locations and at a high cost. When analyzing current eating patterns in the United States, it was noted that three-fourths of the population do not eat enough fruits and vegetables. So it is more important for you to work on eating the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables than it is to consume only organic foods. Other suitable options may include buying locally from a community-supported agriculture (CSA), farmers market, buying low sodium canned foods, or conventional fruits and vegetables at a price that you can afford. The goal is to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables daily in order to gain the long term health benefits.
5. Frozen fruits and vegetables are your friend.
Frozen produce can get a bad reputation for not being as good as fresh produce but this is not true. They are picked at peak harvest and are as nutritionally dense as fresh produce. Oftentimes, they can be cheaper and will last longer because you can only use what you need and keep the rest frozen. Using frozen berries in beverages and smoothies can often double as ice and will keep your beverage refreshing. If you happen to find fresh produce at a good price, buy it in bulk and use freezer bags to freeze the rest to extend their use.
6. Seek the help of a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist
If you are trying to plan healthier meals but find that you are struggling, try reaching out to a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. A dietitian is trained to meet clients and patients where they are and to assist in making sustainable changes to eating patterns. We do not endorse any fad diets or encourage extreme dieting. We provide science-based, individualized plans that are applicable to your current nutritional needs. A dietitian is required to uphold a code of ethics and that ensures that the advice we provide is accurate, culturally relevant, and confidential.
To Learn More About MyPlate
To Learn More about USDA Organic Label
For Vegetable-Based Recipes
To Read More about Current Eating Patterns in the United States