Building a Balanced Plate – Tips for Creating Healthy Meals

By Kelsie White

Building a Balanced Plate – Tips for Creating Healthy Meals

Nutrition Bites | Week 5

Welcome to our next session of Nutrition Bites! This week we will be focusing on a nutrition education topic instead of a specific recipe. Our topic for the week is all about building a balanced plate when it comes to mealtimes. We will cover all the components of a balanced meal as well as how to apply the steps to other meals like breakfasts or snacks. Let’s get started!

What Does a Balanced Diet Look Like?

There is no one-size-fits all for a balanced diet. Rather, there are generalized suggestions that can be implemented into a variety of dietary patterns according to your individual preferences. The overall idea, however, is to include all three macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) from a variety of food groups including fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds.

When it comes to the three macronutrients, there are ranges for each one that are suggested as part of the overall diet. These are known as the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Ranges (AMDR) and suggest a percentage of calories each macronutrient should contribute to the total caloric intake for the day. According to the AMDRs, carbohydrates should contribute 45-65% of total calories; protein should contribute 10-30%; and fat should contribute 20-35% of total calories. Check out the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans for more specifics on needs for various life stages.

Because it is a range that is suggested, this means that it will look slightly different for each person, depending on their needs. Take a look at the image below to see how it can vary between the different percentages. Both of these scenarios look very different in the amounts of each macronutrient that are being consumed, but both still fall into the AMDRs. This is one great reason to meet with a Registered Dietitian to help personalize an approach that is right for you.

The Three Macronutrients

Now let’s talk specifically about the three macronutrients and what food groups they are found in. Carbohydrates should contribute the highest percentage of calories to our daily diets because they are broken down into glucose, which is our body’s preferred fuel source. They also provide fiber, which is necessary for many reasons including managing blood sugar, lowering cholesterol and maintaining healthy bowels. Good sources of carbohydrates include fruits, starchy vegetables, legumes and whole grains.

Next is protein. Protein is essential to support growth and repair of the cells and tissues in the body. If you follow a whole food, plant-based approach, some great protein sources are legumes such as beans, peas and lentils and soy foods such as tofu and tempeh. Additionally, all plant foods will contain some amounts of protein!

The last macronutrient is fats. This nutrient is essential to help you feel full and satiated and is also a key component in the walls of our cells, helping certain nutrients be absorbed, as well as providing insulation and protection. Some great plant-based sources of fats include nuts and seeds, avocados, olives, and certain plant oils in limited amounts, such as extra virgin olive oil.

The Food Pyramid

Over the years, there have been several different models to depict what a balanced diet should look like. You might remember the Food Pyramid, or more recently, the MyPlate Method. One of my favorite visual representations is called the Plant-Based Plate from Kaiser Permanente, as shown below. The main ideas are:

  • Half the plate with non-starchy vegetables
  • A quarter of the plate with plant proteins
  • A quarter of the plate with whole grains or starchy vegetables
  • Additionally, add 3 servings of fruit, a plant-based milk, and some healthy fats
The Main Idea

No matter which visual aid you use, the main idea is to include more of every plant-based food group at each meal or snack to make a balanced plate. The benefits of doing this include:

  • Keeps you full until your next meal
  • Ensures variety
  • Helps to balance blood sugar
  • Provides adequate nutrients
Applying to Other Meals  

Now this all sounds pretty simple when it comes to our dinner plate because that is when we are most likely going to be eating our veggies. But how do you apply these principles to any other meal? Let’s explore that. The key is to not just focus on one food group for the entire meal, like only eating oatmeal for breakfast. The goal is to include carbohydrates, proteins, and fats at every meal. Our previous Nutrition Bites session on the Plant Power Bowl gives some great tips on creating balanced dinner and lunch bowls.

Balancing Breakfast

Here are a few ideas to balance out your breakfast:

  • Try a smoothie with all the food groups: If you usually just have a fruit smoothie, try adding frozen spinach or kale, ½ an avocado or 1 tablespoon of nut butter
  • Enjoy a tofu scramble with veggies for breakfast
  • Consider having a side of beans with your breakfast
  • Eat a handful of nuts
  • Sprinkle seeds and berries on your oatmeal
  • Swap regular toast for sweet potato toast. Here are some instructions on how to make sweet potato toast
Balancing Snacks

When it comes to creating balanced snacks, think of the phrase, “Produce + Protein.” This means have a fruit or a vegetable plus some plant protein. Doing this will help your snack keep you feeling more satiated. Here are some examples:

  • Carrots and hummus
  • Leftover tofu scramble with veggies
  • Celery and peanut butter
  • Grapes and almonds
  • Roasted chickpeas and blueberries
Weekly Challenge 

That does it for this week! It is my hope that you have learned some tricks to help balance out your meals and snacks. This week, I want to challenge you to try and include vegetables with your breakfast three times during the week. Another challenge is to swap three of your snacks (whatever that might be) for a handful of nuts instead. These are just a few simple steps to start balancing out your meals.

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