I often start out the latest posts stating “It’s been way too long.” I think I suffice to say this may simply be how things are for lettucetalk. I will accept that fact; and I plan to send you some insights as they come – however sparse that may be! Thanks for being loyal and hanging in there with me! I will defend my dissertation in March, so things have been a little…wild. With any luck, I will write the next post as “Dr. Colin.”
Today I want to talk about meal planning. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked to “create a meal plan” for someone, I would be a very rich girl. I have never created a detailed meal plan for anyone, nor will I ever. I don’t shun this request to be cruel. I very firmly believe that creating a “meal plan” does not teach the recipient anything about healthy eating for the long-term. I prefer to teach the roots of meal planning so the recipient can, instead, create a custom meal plan.
If I’ve learned one thing in the past 12+ years as a registered dietitian nutritionist, I’ve learned that people will not follow advice that is complicated. It’s not for lack of intelligence; it’s simply human nature. The simpler the plan, the more likely the person is to implement it. Without diving into a full review of the literature supporting my theory, I think my observation is supported by quite a lot of behavioral research.
So, here it goes: my simple template for meal planning. I want to introduce you to my Olympic medal approach. This template is built upon a Gold, Silver, and Bronze tiered structure.
Now, let’s dive into each level.
Gold-level eating is relatively difficult for many of us to achieve, but certainly not impossible. Gold level consists of half the meal being dark, colorful, non-starchy vegetables; one-fourth of the meal consisting of either whole, starchy vegetables or 100% whole grains or fruit or milk/yogurt; one-fourth of the meal consisting of a protein-rich food source; and a hearty dose of healthy fats intermingled within each of these sections. Please note, sometimes your meal may not be split into sections. For instance, you may have a huge salad for a meal, or you may just have a bowl of soup. The premise here is the ratio of food types, so how you smoosh them together is up to your preferences.
Here’s an illustration of this to help you:
Some examples of Gold meals:
- Eggs scrambled with peppers and greens with avocado and a slice of 100% whole grain toast with real butter
- Sliced, fresh tomatoes with cottage cheese and 100% whole grain crackers
- Fresh greens, avocado, and tuna (I like it with a splash of olive oil & balsamic vinegar)
- Vegetable & meat soup – I made this one recently with RAVE reviews from myself and my kids (although I subbed homemade taco seasoning and homemade ranch seasoning instead of packets for less additives)
- Spaghetti & meat sauce made with 100% whole grain pasta, added vegetables to the sauce (spinach, peppers, mushrooms, whatever), and with a small salad or cooked vegetable on the side
- Fresh vegetables and 100% whole grain crackers dipped in hummus or tuna salad
- Most meat/potato/vegetable meals can be Gold meals, provided the meat isn’t deep-fat-fried, the potato portion is about one-fourth of the meal, and half the plate is non-starchy vegetables
- Nuts and cheese with a pile of raw vegetables
- Really, most of your favorite meals can be repurposed into Gold meals by simply reducing some of the meat and/or starch portions and jacking up the non-starchy vegetable portions. Be creative, and eat things that taste good!
Silver-level meals are those which may not fit the mold of the non-starchy-vegetable-rich Gold-level meals, but still make a deep dent in providing quality nutrients. Silver meals at least contain protein, fat, and fiber, even if they aren’t considered truly “balanced” from lack of vegetables, for instance.
Some examples of Silver meals:
- Oatmeal with nuts or nut butter
- 4% Cottage cheese with fruit
- Tuna or chicken salad with 100% whole grain crackers or on 100% whole grain bread
- Chili with meat and/or beans
- Grilled cheese (100% whole grain bread, real cheese, real butter)
- 100% whole grain cereal with whole milk or yogurt and fruit
Bronze-level meals occur as a last resort, when Gold and Silver meals or snacks are not possible. Please keep in mind, although Bronze situations are going to occur in real-life, planning ahead can avoid having to rely upon them. Bronze meals are things like pre-mixed protein shakes, pre-packaged meals, canned soups, etc. Remember, all food is nourishing in some way (think desert island scenario), but planning ahead can make most meals fall within Gold or Silver tiers.
Also, remember snacks are just tiny little meals. To make any snack a Gold or Silver snack, follow the same guidelines noted above, and simply make smaller portions. Furthermore, try to consider if you’re snacking because you’re actually physically hungry, or if you are snacking because of another reason (habit, boredom, etc.). We should nourish our bodies when we are physically hungry. We should nourish our minds if we discover we are eating for reasons other than hunger.
There are so many other details and directions this conversation could take, but I will digress in the spirit of simplicity. I hope you find this meal planning template helpful with improving your perspective and efficiency with healthy eating. It does not have to be complicated. For more information, please take a look at my two books here: Shop.