Ok, so now you’re an old pro at meal planning because of these guidelines. But you’re not sure what exactly you should be whipping up for optimal health. Today I hope to simplify healthy meal planning for you with my greatest hits of tips. Here goes…
Although some people are insistent on counting calories and macros and all sorts of numbers, you’re not going to find that here. Why? Because healthy living does not come from your calculator. As a matter of fact, some of the individuals who are the most proficient number counters have some of the most heavily processed, terrible, nutrient-lacking diets imaginable. What you will find if you truly embrace the wonders of a whole-food, plant-heavy, real-life eating style is that the coveted “numbers” (i.e. calories, sodium, fat, etc.) tend to actually be exactly where they should be in terms of good health. Calculator not required.
The absolutely, most simple method of building a healthy meal is the “plate method.” There are many, many versions of a healthy plate template; and, I have to admit, I don’t agree with all of them. But what most healthy plate templates seem to have in common is that the aim is for half of our plate coming from non-starchy vegetables. In my favorite versions of the plate method, the other parts of our plate would be roughly one-fourth coming from good-quality protein-rich foods, and one-fourth coming from either starchy vegetables or 100% whole grains. The EASIEST way to distinguish the type of vegetable you have is that the most commonly eaten starchy vegetables are potatoes, corn, peas, winter squash, and legumes; all the other vegetables would then be considered “non-starchy.”
Where does fat fit in? Well fat is often implied. For example, if you are using some salad dressing on your half a plate of salad (non-starchy vegetables) and you are also having some salmon (protein-rich food) with it, you are including plenty of fat. The best way to achieve a good fat intake is to obtain most of your dietary fat from whole food sources (salmon, sardines, almonds, or olives, for example), and limit your intake of most added fats.
What about fruit? Well, we need two to three times as much vegetables versus fruit. Fruit isn’t “bad,” but it doesn’t pack nearly the punch of nutrients as most vegetables do, calorie for calorie. Fruit can be included as a small hunk of our “half a plate of non-starchy vegetables” or it could be consumed as your one-fourth a plate in lieu of starchy vegetables or 100% whole grains.
The real key is to not over-think this whole healthy eating business. If you’re choosing and eating mostly whole vegetables, some whole fruits, some whole grains, some good-quality protein-rich foods, reasonable amounts of good-quality fats, and limiting sugary or fried foods, then you’re going to be just fine. Ask yourself “is half of my entire day’s eating composed of non-starchy vegetables?” and if the answer is “yes,” then you are highly likely to achieve and/or maintain a healthier weight. If you’re not looking to change your weight, then keep in mind that the style of eating I’m encouraging is not just for weight. A nutrient-rich, whole-foods-based eating style is paramount in preventing chronic illness, keeping your brain healthy, etc. Good nutrition is not just about your weight; underneath every single medical condition exists a nutritional influence.
Alright, so…back to meal planning. Not all meals are going to be perfect, nor are they going to be a separate protein-starch-vegetable setup. Sometimes you’re going to want soup, or a casserole. Still, the same rules of the plate method apply. Does your soup have mostly non-starchy vegetables? If not, then plan to have a smaller bowl of soup and a side salad or a handful of raw vegetables. Is your casserole super-cheesy? Maybe back off on the other fat-containing parts of your meal. You don’t necessarily have to search for “healthy recipes” or “healthy cookbooks.” It’s been my experience that “healthy” recipes tend to be shoved full of things that are not real food, such as fat-free cheese YUCK, really?! or other artificial items. My simplest advice is to dust off your old church cookbooks from 1987 and simply use good, practical modifications. Does your recipe call for shortening? Replace it with butter. Does that online recipe tell you to put a pound of cheese in that casserole? Use a cup of shredded cheese and double the vegetables instead.
Keep in mind that some of the age-old recipe substitutions simply try to trick you into thinking you’re eating something healthier. The best example of this trickery is the “applesauce instead of fat” substitution for cakes and brownies. Applesauce doesn’t magically turn your sugar-filled cake into a salad, nor is having a little fat “bad.” As a matter of fact, that little bit of fat in your sugary treat actually probably helped slow down the blood sugar spike that is inevitable when we eat that stuff. Use good ol’ common sense when it comes to “substitutions,” people. Or better yet – EAT REAL FOOD.
Let me know how it goes – comment below!