How to Build a Balanced Plate
Let me start this one off by saying this: CARBS ARE NOT BAD! We have made carbs the enemy in America due to the focus on the bad apples in the carb family. It's like when you were in grade school and everyone in the class got punished for something the bad student did (or maybe you were the bad student🤔).
We will be talking about how to build a well-rounded, balanced meal in this post which does in fact include carbohydrates...the good ones. Complex carbohydrates are the body and brain's preferred source of energy. They are the easiest macronutrient to break down into glucose which is then converted to ATP, the main energy molecule for the body. Simple carbs such as white or wheat bread, pasta, candy, baked goods, cookies, soda, added sugar...these are the bad apples that cause everyone else to get in trouble. They are broken down quicker than complex carbs, causing a spike in blood sugar which can cause major problems over time. So how do you build a well-balanced plate that includes healthy carbs?
Most folks have heard of MyPlate, instituted by Michelle Obama to help fight childhood obesity. While the MyPlate is a good recommendation, its not very realistic to get in all 5 food groups at every single meal like it asks you to do. That's why we recommend the Plate Method instead. Unless you are following very specific eating guidelines given to you by a health professional, the Plate Method is a good starting place for most folks when building a meal.
The Plate Method breaks the plate (or any eating vessel) into 3 sections. Half of the eating vessel should contain non-starchy vegetables, a quarter should contain a lean protein, and a quarter should contain a healthy grain or starch. An example plate is shown below.
Source: MANA Medical Associates
The main benefits to using the Plate Method:
It places the emphasis of the meal on vegetables, something most Americans don't get nearly enough of in their diet.
It provides energy in the form of carbs to help break down and absorb the nutrients in the vegetables and the amino acids in the protein.
It helps add variety into the diet and encourages creativity with the choices for each section to be paired together.
While every individual does require different grams of each macronutrient every day, the Plate Method usually leads to a balanced macronutrient profile that is healthy to follow for general weight management and energy needs.
Again, the eating vessel will change. We don't all eat on perfectly round plates for every single meal. The ratios should stay roughly the same though (1/2, 1/4, 1/4) for whatever vessel you're using. If it's a bowl, try to make the base 1/2 of your meal vegetables and load the carbs and protein on top.
Now that we've discussed the ratios, let's talk about some options for each section (this is not an exhaustive list, just some of the most common options).
Leafy greens (spinach, kale, collard greens, etc.)
Potatoes (any variety)
Whole grain bread
Rice (brown or white)
90% lean ground beef
Rinsed canned tuna in water
As you can see, there is a LARGE number of combinations to pair together to build a plate. How you prepare and flavor the foods is up to you, but make it fun and creative. Explore new flavors you've never tried before.
Now you may be asking, "Where are fruit and dairy in this mix?". Great question.
Dairy will usually end up in the meal in the form of cheese or cream. If you're someone who avoids dairy for health reasons, you don't have to worry about that!
Fruit on the other hand should get a bit more thought. We should be getting more vegetables than fruit each day but fruit is not bad, especially the low-glycemic fruits like berries. Fruit can be added either by itself or incorporated into dishes such as berries on salad, apples with pork chops, bananas in oatmeal, etc.
Keep in mind: not every meal is going to follow the Plate Method and that's OKAY! Aim for consistency, not perfection. The more you train your brain to look for these components at meal time, the more you will begin looking for them subconsciously and that's when you know it's become a habit. If it helps, print out a picture of the Plate Method and put it up on your fridge or pantry at home to help remind yourself what to look for.
If you're interested in chatting with a licensed professional to figure out your specific calorie and macronutrient needs, click the button below to schedule a free 15-minute chat!
And remember...it's all about balance☯️
Braeden Yacobucci, RDN/RD, LD, CF-OL1
Cara Barton, OTR/L, PN1, CF-L1