How to build a healthy real food plate


Studies have long shown that the best diet for you is one that you can stick to for the long term. With that sage wisdom in mind, it’s silly to think that we’d all thrive on a gluten-free diet, or that vegetarian diets are the answer for everyone. We are all individual, and our diets need to be too. The eating plan you choose needs to make sense for your lifestyle, socio-economic status, time constraints, cooking abilities, energy level, food preferences and taste buds. It’s not one-size fits all.

So, the exact foods that are “right” for your healthy eating plan will be unique to you. But that doesn’t mean there’s no guidance available. When you are building a healthy lifestyle or working on a new diet plan, it helps to have an easy and sensible place to start. Enter the plate model.

No matter if you choose vegetarian, gluten-free, the Mediterranean diet or another plan, you can design a plate model that works for the foods you enjoy. Try this:

  1. Fill half your plate with vegetables, and a bit of fruit if preferred.
  2. Fill a quarter of your plate with protein-rich foods, such as poultry, fish, legumes, nuts, eggs or Greek yogurt.
  3. Fill the remaining quarter with whole grains, such as brown rice, quinoa or oats.

It’s important to get healthy fats too. Sometimes those are built-in to the foods above, like if you choose avocado, salmon, nuts and seeds. If you cook with oil or use salad dressing, that’s healthy fat too!

Less restrictions = better you

Okay, let’s face it. Meal plans and food guides can be complex, restrictive and confusing. I’ve had many clients over the years tell me that they started a meal plan, and as soon as they came upon a meal that they didn’t like, they just gave up. That’s because they weren’t equipped with the skills to simply swap the disliked meal for something they preferred. That’s nutrition mistake number one.

When you follow a plate model, your food choices are not restricted. It’s the pattern that matters most, but the food choices you make within that pattern are yours to direct. You choose foods you like best to mix-and-match your meal options. Here’s how:

  • Fill half your plate with vegetables: Your goal here is to aim for a variety of different colors of vegetables. Pick any ones you like (except French fries – they don’t count!) Options can include tomato, cucumber, carrot, broccoli, cauliflower, eggplant, squash, green beans, kale, spinach and peppers –or any other veggies you like! They can be raw, steamed, roasted, stir-fried or in salads – it’s up to you. With so much leeway, it’s easy to fill half your plate. You can use some fruit too, but remember that fruits contain more calories and natural sugar than vegetables.
  • Fill a quarter of your plate with protein-rich foods: this is the most flexible area, as it can accommodate any diet from meat-lover to strict vegan. You need some protein at every meal, in the range of 20-30 grams. That can easily be satisfied with about 3 oz. of poultry, fish or meat. A cupful of edamame (green soybeans), beans or lentils has 15-18 grams of protein. Add some nuts and seeds to bump up those numbers.
  • Fill the remaining quarter with whole grains, such as brown rice, quinoa or oats: Forget about no-carbs! There are many health benefits to whole grains, including a decreased risk of heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and a better ability to manage weight. And even if you can’t tolerate gluten (1% of the population has celiac disease and 5-6% have gluten sensitivity), it doesn’t mean you need to eschew grains. Skip gluten-containing wheat, barley and rye, but choose gluten-free quinoa, corn, millet, brown rice or buckwheat instead. If your diet is lower in grains, you can simply add more vegetables to this quadrant.
Your perfect autumn plate

As the leaves begin to develop hues of orange, yellow and brown, the bounty of seasonal foods can help you build a perfect plate. My favorite autumn meals are:

Sometimes your plate isn’t divided nicely into these quadrants, but you can still keep the plate model in mind. Let’s say you made a pot of chili and the protein and vegetables are all mixed together. That’s totally fine! Just take a look at what’s in front of you and see what’s missing. A hearty chili can be served on brown rice with a side salad to round out the meal and keep the plate model proportions in check. Easy!

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Cara Rosenbloom is a Registered Dietician, celebrated author and international columnist, active as a food blogger, recipe developer and nutrition educator.

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