How to Design Healthy Meal Plans
When asked if they want to eat healthier no adult is going to say, “No, thanks.” The problem is that eating healthy usually involves some preplanning and most people are so busy they can’t find the time. So here are some easy ways to keep healthy without spending time you don’t have.
Basic Food Groups
Let’s begin with the basics. The basic food groups are fruits, vegetables, grains, proteins and dairy. There are also oils and fats but these usually take care of themselves and often our concern with this group is in limiting our intake. So each meal should contain each of the five basic food groups: fruits, vegetables, grains, proteins and dairy.
Now consider the ratio of each food group. (The United States Department of Agriculture has a new site to help you consider the types and ratios of food per meal by sex and age.) Fruits and vegetables should be half your plate with the emphasis on vegetables. Grains and proteins should take the other half with the emphasis on grains. Add a glass of milk and you’ve just provided every food group in proportion.
Choosing Health Options From Each Food Group
Fruits and Vegetables
Okay, that’s great but it still doesn’t tell you enough, does it? How do we choose the foods from each food group? A good rule of thumb when dealing with fruits and vegetables is to consider the old skittles commercials – eat the rainbow. Fruits and vegetables provide a wide variety of vitamins and minerals. What is more most fruits and vegetables of similar color provide similar nutrients. So, to receive a wide variety of nutrients change the color at each meal.
Another thing to consider with fruits and vegetables is the fresher the better. As soon as it is picked from the plant your produce will begin to loose nutrients. So if you have local farmers try to get your produce from them. If that is not feasible frozen produce is a good choice as these products are frozen shortly after picking thereby locking in the nutrients.
Grains have received a bad rap, but that is because people have a tendency to choose processed grains, which have a limited nutritional value. When choosing your grains look for whole grains. You want all the nutrients that your grains can offer. Also be careful of “multi-grain” labels. Some companies use multiple grains but they are processed grains. Some good options include whole-wheat bread, whole-wheat tortillas or pasta, whole cornmeal tortillas, whole-grain oatmeal or brown rice. (With rice the brown rice is unprocessed or whole and the white rice is processed.)
When choosing proteins the emphasis in America is chicken and beef. Don’t forget that that eggs, beans and peas, nuts and seed, pork and seafood are also included in the protein group. Seafood in particular contains essential fish oils and the USDA recommends that we eat eight ounces a week. With proteins, as with your fruits and vegetables, remember that variety is the spice of life.
When discussing our portioning we mentioned drinking a glass of milk, but milk is not your only dairy option. Cheese is a flavor enhancing choice. And yogurt can provide a wonderful desert option. Layer in some fruit and sprinkle with nuts and your desert now includes three of the five food groups.
Examples of Healthy Meals
This brings us to our last topic:examples of healthy meals.I will provide a couple of examples for each meal to get you started with your own meal planning.
Healthy Breakfast Choices
Oatmeal is an excellent breakfast choice, particularly when you are running short on time.To make a complete meal of your oatmeal add a variety of dried fruit to the water before you begin heating.(Heating the dried fruit will allow it to reabsorb water so be sure to add a little extra water.)After heating is complete sprinkle the oatmeal with your favorite nut.(I usually crush or grind my nuts.)Pour on the milk and you’ve completed your meal.
- A cup of oatmeal provides two ounces of whole grains
- A half cup of dried fruit provides one cup of fruits
- A quarter cup of nuts provides one ounce protein
- A cup of milk provides one cup of dairy.
Obviously this meal does not included vegetables so it is best paired with a vegetable heavy lunch like a salad.
Another good breakfast option is an omelet, but remember not to overdo it with your cooking oil.Your fillings allow for a variety of vegetables.(The eggs provide enough protein so don’t both throwing in more.)Mushrooms, peppers, onions and tomatoes are all common choices.But feel free to have some fun with your omelet.Corn, olives and tomatoes, particularly when spiced with cumin, can give your eggs a south of the border flavor.Sprinkle on the cheese, add whole grain toast and a glass of 100% fruit juice and you’ve completed your meal.Or you could cook up your egg omelet, fill it with yogurt and fresh fruit, add whole grain toast and a glass of 100% vegetable juice.
- Two to three eggs provides two to three ounces of protein
- One cup of fresh filling provides one cup of vegetables or fruits
- A third a cup of cheese or one cup of yogurt provides one cup of dairy
- One to two pieces of toast provides one to two ounces of whole grains
- One cup of juice provides the cup of fruits or vegetables
Healthy Lunch Choices
Salads are a simple lunch option that allows a lot of room for creativity.Start with a leafy green lettuce or spinach and add cut vegetables like carrots, cucumbers or peas.Add fruit like dried cranberries, apple pieces, strawberries, pear slices or grapes.Sprinkle with nuts or sunflower seeds or, for your eight ounces of seafood a week, consider shrimp.Sprinkle with cheese.Feta pairs well with cranberries and pecans or strawberries and almonds.Parmesan pairs well with spinach and olives or chicken and celery.Feel free to experiment and find your own favorite pairings.Top your salad with whole grain croutons or pair with a whole grain bread and your meal is complete.Just remember not to ruin your healthy choices by drowning your salad in dressing.
- Two cups of leaf greens provides one cup of vegetables
- Half a cup of fresh fruits and/or vegetables provides half a cup of fruits and/or vegetables
- A quarter cup of nuts or seeds provides one ounce of protein
- One third to one half cup of cheese (depending on type) provides one cup of dairy
- Half a cup of croutons provides one ounce of whole grains
Another simple lunch option that also allows room for creativity is the sandwich.Start with whole grain bread.Pair it with deli sliced lunch meat like ham, chicken, turkey or roast beef.Add a slice of cheese.(When choosing cheese slices remember that one slice of American cheese is equal to only 1/3 a cup of dairy versus hard cheese like cheddar or mozzarella which equal ½ a cup of dairy.) Top with vegetables like sliced tomatoes (one large tomato is one serving of vegetables), cucumber (one cup of sliced cucumber equals one serving of vegetables), lettuce (two cups equals one serving), spinach (two cups equals one serving), water chestnuts (one cup equals one serving) or bean sprouts (one cup equals one serving).Add a fruit salad for a well-rounded meal.
- Two slices of bread provides two ounces of whole grains
- Six slices of deli meat provides two ounces of protein
- Vegetable slices provide one to two cups of vegetables
- One slice of cheese provides half a cup of dairy
- Half a cup of fruit salad provides half a cup of fruits
Healthy Dinner Choices
For dinner let’s start with something basic.A small steak (four ounces), chicken breast (three ounces) or salmon steak (six ounces) paired with mashed vegetables, a whole grain biscuit, baked fruit for dessert and a glass of milk to drink provides a protein heavy but traditional meal. However, if you cut the protein in half you will save money and calories and have a more balanced meal.And don’t stop at mashed white potatoes.Sweet potatoes, yams, peas and beans all mash well while provide more variety for your taste buds and colors for your rainbow.
- Half a steak or chicken breast provides one and a half to three ounces of protein
- One cup mashed vegetables provides a cup of vegetables
- One small biscuit provides one ounce of grains
- One cup of baked fruit provides one cup of fruits
- One cup of milk provides one cup of dairy
A more southwestern option that provides room for variety is chili and cornbread paired with baked fruit for dessert.Be careful when choosing your cornbread as most are prepared with refined grains rather than whole grains.The chili itself is easy to prepare if you have a crock pot.You can spice it yourself or buy a package of chili spices.Start with your beans, which are both a protein and a vegetable.Mix the beans to enhance your rainbow of nutrients.Then add a variety of vegetables.Consider corn, tomatoes, peppers and onions, but don’t stop there have fun experimenting with your vegetables.The real secret to chili is giving it enough time to cook.After it’s cooked for the day, sprinkle with cheese and serve.
- One cup of beans provides one ounce of protein and three quarter cups of vegetables
- Half a cup of vegetables provides half a cup of vegetables
- One half cup of shredded cheese provides one cup of dairy
- One cup of baked fruit provides one cup of fruits
- One small piece of cornbread provides one ounce of grains
These meals should help you get started down the road to healthier eating. But remember to determine the exact recommendations for your sex and age so that you can modify these healthy meal plans to fit your specific dietary requirements. Get creative and make these ideas your own. After you’ve been eating healthy for a few weeks you won’t even want to go back. Good luck!