The holiday season is such a whirlwind. Once January rolls around, it's easy to feel exhausted and kinda like the past month was a blur. After the plethora of holiday activities, our eating, sleeping and exercising routines may be out of whack. It can be tough to get back into the swing of things. One way to ease this transition is to simplify meals.
Make sure you are getting well-balanced meals is a great start to the new year. And there’s no need for this to be complicated! I am all about reducing decision fatigue! So I've put together some easy tips on how to build delicious and nourishing meals.
Think of each meal having at least 4 separate components: protein, starch, vegetables & healthy fats. You can mix and match items from each category to create a well-balanced plate. Whether you plan your meals weekly or decide on the fly, focus on each meal having at least one food from each of the following groups:
Protein: this component includes both plant- and animal-derived protein sources. I recommend incorporating at least one plant-based protein source per day. Plant sources promote health thanks to the fiber, vitamins and minerals they contain. They are also better for the environment and easier on the budget.
Beans + peas (black, pinto, chickpeas, kidney , navy , Great Northern, cranberry, fava, yellow + green peas)
Nuts + seeds
Tofu + edamame
Shrimp + other seafood
Lean red meat (unprocessed beef, pork, lamb, veal + goat)
Low-fat dairy (yogurt, cheese + milk)
Starch: this category includes processed and whole grain varieties as well as starchy vegetables. Processed starches include white rice, white bread, white pasta crackers, chips. The more whole grain you eat, the better for your health. Whole grains are packed with fiber. Fiber is essential for digestive health. It also help prevent spikes in blood sugar levels and can even lower cholesterol levels. Whole grains also contain essential micronutrients that may protect against some cancers.
Whole Grain Starches
Products that have one of these items or the words “whole grain” as the first or second ingredient
Vegetables: this group refers to non-starchy vegetables. Aim to get different colors of veggies throughout the week. They each have different nutrients so variety equals balance. Vegetables are also an important source of fiber in your diet, helping promote gut health and heart health.
Red bell peppers
Yellow + orange bell peppers
Purple Brussels sprouts
Purple bell peppers
Dark leafy greens (collards, mustard greens, turnip greens, kale, swiss chard, boy choc)
Raw leafy greens (romaine, watercress, dark green leafy lettuce, endive, escarole)
Sugar snap peas
Healthy Fats: this category refers to the fats we cook with, use to garnish dishes or that are inherent in certain food items. You might notice most of the items in this category come from plants. These items provide unsaturated fats - the heart healthy kind of fat. Unsaturated fats can improve cholesterol levels and reduce inflammation in the body. The healthy fats that provide essential omega-3s are listed with an asterisk (*).
Plant oils: olive, peanut, canola*, sunflower, soybean*, flaxseed, corn
Nuts + seeds: almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, walnuts*, peanuts, pistachios, brazil nuts, pine nuts, cashews, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, nut/seed butters, etc.
Fatty fish*: salmon, tuna, herring, sardines, mackerel
Butter (best reserved for toast + garnishing dishes)
I generally don’t prescribe specific portions of food for clients to eat. Why? Because it’s important for you to check in with your body and your hunger level. That will help you determine how much you want to eat in any given moment. At some meals you may be hungrier than at other meals and that is totally okay. No one should have to eat the same exact portion of food at each meal (although if that is how your body works best, that is fine too!).
So when I talk to clients about how much of each food group to eat, I like to talk in percentages. That way you can apply it to whatever quantity of food you feel like eating. So aim for the vegetables to take up half of the plate, while the starch + protein sections take up about 25% each. Don’t forget to incorporate the healthy fats throughout the meal. Here are two examples of what this can look like:
One other thing to mention is that this is only a recommended eating style, not a rule. Don’t fret if some of your meals have different percentages. You may have some meals that have very few vegetables and other times when your meals are mostly vegetables. One meal or one day’s eating habits are not going to have negative health outcomes. It’s the overall eating patterns that matter!
Where’s the Fruit?
I love fruit too much to forget about it! The Harvard Healthy Eating Plate includes fruit as a component for each meal. I’m totally cool with that. In this case, I recommend keeping the plate distribution the same and adding a piece of fruit as a side item.
However, I know it can feel overwhelming to need to add another item to meal times. If that's the case, I have some suggestions of how to incorporate fruit at other times of the day:
Have fruit as a snack between meals
Swap out the vegetables at breakfast for fruit
Have fruit as dessert after a meal
Have fruit as an appetizer or snack on fruit while you are cooking dinner
Just so you know, the goal is to eat at least 2 kinds of fruit a day. Getting a variety of colors is important here too. While juice doesn’t count as a fruit option, there are a lot of options to help you meet that goal and not get bored:
Dried fruits (raisins, cranberries, dates, figs, prunes, etc.)
Build in Flexibility
Being flexible is key to enjoying meals without guilt. The recommendations listed above are all meant to be guidelines, not strict rules. Don’t be discouraged or ashamed if a meal, a whole day or even a whole week of eating doesn’t match up. Every eating occasion is a new opportunity to try out the recommendation and see how you feel.
If you like to plan meals for for the week, don’t forget to incorporate flexibility too. I frequently hear meal plans described as a rigid schedule that you must follow - regardless of how you are feeling or what you want to eat in the moment. That can feel stifling. It can also take some of the joy out of eating and being social. So let’s redefine meal planning: It's a flexible list of meal options that helps you nourish yourself by being prepared.
Key to that definition is the work “flexible”. Life can be unpredictable. So it’s important to be able to adapt your eating plans to whatever comes up during the week. For example, I planned to make a pasta dish this evening, but I’m actually craving sushi. Just because I planned to make pasta doesn’t mean I absolutely have to do it. No one is forcing me to (unless I force myself). I may be more satisfied if I go for the sushi and make the pasta tomorrow. Or, I may decide my sushi craving can wait and still make the pasta. The important thing is that I have options - and so do you!
The benefits of a flexible meal plan are important to note. A plan can help you build a grocery list so you know what to buy and feel prepared. It also gives you an idea of what kind of meals to make for the week based on your schedule. Then you can decide what you feel like eating in the moment.
Meal planning can help reduce food waste too. For example, if you know you’ll be too busy to cook in the next 3 days, you may choose to not buy produce that goes bad quickly.
Whew! That was a lot. I hope you aren’t feeling overwhelmed. The whole point of this post is to help you simplify meal planning and prep. I also wanted to give you a variety of food options you can choose from when implementing the recommendations.
To summarize, the guidelines for simplifying meals + meal planning are:
Well balanced meals have at least 4 food components. The recommended proportions = 50% vegetables + 25% protein + 25% starch + healthy fats incorporated throughout.
Aim to eat at least 2 types of fruit per day.
Above all, be flexible! One “off” meal or day of meals will not destroy your health.