Don't Be Puzzled by Meal Planning
Updated: May 8
Meal planning can make anyone’s head spin when they are trying to balance many nutrients at one time. Doing it on the run and with limited space can make it even more of a challenge. With a few simple guidelines, anyone can plan a healthy meal in minutes.
Since vegetables are an important part of the meal that tend to be hard to fit in, give them priority as the first part of your meal plan. Vegetables provide important vitamins and minerals while also adding color to the meal. Load up that sandwich with fresh sliced tomato, include plenty of pea pods in your stir-fry, and be creative with fresh vegetables that you can pick up at most fuel stations on your way.
Make grains the second piece of the meal planning puzzle. Regardless of what type of meal plan you are following, most have room for at least one serving of grain. Select whole grains when possible. Don't be afraid to try new-to-you alternatives like quinoa, which can be a great alternative to rice that doesn't spike blood sugars because of its protein content. This ensures adequate carbohydrates will be available to fuel your brain as well as the rest of the body. Maybe you will select 100% whole wheat bread or half of a whole wheat pita pocket for a sandwich, or brown rice in a microwave-ready bowl to top with a stir-fry.
Protein is the third puzzle piece in meal planning. Make sure you are getting protein at every meal. It is important to recognize that all proteins are not equal. The proteins in meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy, and soybeans are complete because they provide all nine essential amino acids required by the body. Other protein sources from grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds contain some but not all of these essential amino acids, and are considered incomplete proteins. A diet with a balance of protein sources ensures your body will have all the amino acids necessary for proper building, repair, and maintenance of body cells and tissues. For those that choose to focus on plant-based protein sources, the body can create complete proteins when the proper incomplete amino acids are all present.
Making sure you include a variety of plant-based proteins each day is the best way to be certain your body has all the building blocks it needs for good health. A chicken breast, as well as lean ground beef, pork tenderloin, or fish all make great protein choices. Include a couple eggs or egg substitute to start your day, whether hard boiled or scrambled in your microwave. There are a variety of vegetarian protein sources too. Be creative with nuts, seeds, and legumes. If you do not have a medical condition that causes you to limit soy, it is a plant-based choice that contains complete proteins. Remember that quinoa we suggested earlier? It is the only complete protein grain and is a great way to boost your protein intake on salads as well as in place of pasta or rice. Low-fat dairy is also a complete protein option for your meal. So when deciding what to add to your grain, consider selecting something like baked or grilled chicken breast cut into thin slices for your sandwich, or tofu and sunflower seeds as part of your stir-fry.
Select your fruits as the last piece of the meal with the idea that it will serve as your dessert. The fructose naturally found in fruits makes them a sweet and healthy end to a meal. Selecting fruit helps you avoid the idea that you have to pick other desserts like pies, cakes, or cookies that can sabotage your weight control efforts. For those of us that deal with carbohydrate resistance issues, limiting fruits to one serving per meal is advisable. Selecting fruit at the end of a meal as your dessert offers several benefits. Perhaps the biggest benefit is the assistance with slowing the rate the fruit is digested. This is because of the protein and fats that are already in the stomach from your earlier courses, making the smaller serving size more satisfying. This also helps manage blood glucose responses. Whether you have a serving of grapes, sliced pears with a sprinkle of nutmeg, or a microwave baked apple, select your fruit with dessert in mind.
Finally, it is advantageous to keep a focus on dairy even if you don't drink milk. Dairy supplies many important nutrients necessary for the body. Selecting Greek yogurt, low-fat cottage cheese, or natural cheeses as the protein choice for your meal is a great option. If dairy was selected as the protein source for the meal, you are covered and no additional dairy is necessary but you may select another if you like. For those that cannot tolerate dairy or choose not to select it, it is still important to regularly consume foods rich in calcium. Perhaps you enjoy a cold glass of skim or 1% milk with many of your meals. Another option is to select fortified soy milk, almond milk or coconut milk instead. If none of those work for you, perhaps you would rather include an ounce of cheese on a baked potato or maybe boiled collard greens as a calcium-rich vegetable choice. It doesn't matter whether your source is dairy or another calcium-rich option; what is most important is that you are getting calcium-rich servings several times each day.
Finish off your meal plan with a healthy serving of fat. Fats supply essential fatty acids necessary to maintain health. They transport fat-soluble vitamins and provide a concentrated source of energy for times of need. Healthy guidelines suggest limiting total fat intake to no more than 30% of our total caloric intake. For most of us, there is room in our meal plan for at least one fat serving at each meal. It is important to select fats that fight cholesterol instead of those that promote increases as much as possible. For some meal plans, you may have already included a food that provides a healthy fat. If you selected an avocado for your salad or sandwich or nuts on your salad, you may decide that your meal doesn't need another fat source. For other meal plans, you may find that you still need to include a fat. Be sure to watch your portion sizes, because it is very easy to add extra calories that aren't needed or aren't providing nutritional value.
You can learn to create healthy nutrient-rich meals you love by putting one piece together at a time. When you do, you increase your intake of healthy nutrients while decreasing processed foods. This process will work whether you are planning for yourself or for family and friends. Begin making small changes to your meal planning today!