Meal Planning Basics

By , SparkPeople Blogger
We started our new series by focusing on the long-term commitment of healthy living. A big part of healthy living is learning to make healthy choices. Since we eat every day, learning to make healthy choices with food is an important beginning step. For some people, meal planning is an easy and enjoyable process. Many have also mastered the process of creating a healthy grocery list. For others, meal planning is a big obstacle that keeps them consuming fast and processed foods.

Meal planning can make any dietitian's head spin when they are trying to balance many nutrients at one time. Some of the most difficult meal plans I ever developed at the hospital were those that required controlled levels of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, sodium, potassium, calcium, and phosphorus. It was even worse for the family of the patient once released from the hospital. Lucky for most of us, our meal planning doesn't have to be that involved. Even if you need to limit sodium or simple carbohydrates, meal planning can be a simple puzzle. Here are some basic steps to help you learn to build a healthy meal, one piece at a time.

Make grains the first piece of the meal planning puzzle. There are a variety of ways to enjoy whole grain goodness. Most meal plans have room for at least one serving of grain even if you are trying to follow a restricted carbohydrate plan. Starting with grain selection and selecting whole grains when possible, allows you to use the base of the pyramid as the base of your meal. 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 for a sandwich. Perhaps it will be brown rice to top with a stir-fry. Regardless of the grain you choose, aim for a whole grain when possible and select it first with the rest of your meal in mind.

Protein is the second puzzle piece in meal planning. Regardless of what level of protein or personal preference of source, protein is an important part of every meal. It is important to recognize that all proteins are not equal. The protein 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 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. When selecting protein for your meal, consider the white meat from a fresh turkey or chicken or lean ground beef, pork tenderloin or fish. Include a couple eggs a week and egg substitute as well if your health permits. 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, this is the only plant-based complete protein choice and important to include often. Low fat dairy also provides a complete protein option for your meal. So when deciding what to add to your grain, consider selecting something like cooked 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 third piece of the meal with dessert in mind. Many of us like to end our meal with something sweet. Fructose makes fruits sweet and a wonderful healthy end to a meal. Selecting fruit as your dessert helps you avoid other sweet temptations 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. Using fruit as a dessert at the end of meal provides a variety of benefits. It helps keep the smaller serving size satisfying. 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. 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.

Vegetables complete the main portion of your meal puzzle. Vegetables can provide a meal with color while also being rich in important vitamins and minerals. There are many varieties making it easy to compliment most grain and protein choices. If carbohydrate control is important, select non-starchy vegetables as much as possible. If your meal plan idea requires a starchy vegetable, make an adjustment and use it as your grain selection instead. So load up that sandwich with fresh sliced tomato, include plenty of pea pods in your stir-fry and be creative with fresh and frozen vegetables to find those you like and enjoy to round out your meal.

It is advantageous to keep a focus on dairy even if you don't drink milk. Dairy supplies many important nutrients necessary by the body. There are seven nutrients of concern for adequate intake in the American diet. Dairy supplies four of them (calcium, potassium, magnesium, and vitamin A) in one serving. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest three equivalent servings of low-fat dairy are necessary each day. Including a serving of milk at one or two meals is an easy way to work toward this goal. Selecting yogurt, cottage cheese, or natural cheeses as the protein choice for your meal is another. Since three servings are recommended, a helpful rule for meal planning is to include a dairy in the plan at each meal. 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 can not tolerate dairy or choose not to select it for other reasons, this same rule is important for you as well. If you did not already choose a dairy-free calcium source in your meal plan, it would be advised to include one in the dairy portion of the meal plan. This provides an easy way to make sure you are meeting your daily calcium needs. I enjoy a glass of skim milk with many of my meals. Others select fortified soymilk instead. If neither of those work for you, perhaps you would rather include an ounce of cheese on a baked potato or maybe boiled collage greens as a calcium rich vegetable choice. It doesn't matter whether you choose dairy or another calcium rich option, it is just important to be sure you are getting three calcium rich sources each day. You can use the dairy slot in your meal planning to be sure you do.

Finish off your meal plan with a healthy serving of fat. Fats (also known as lipids) 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 percent 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 and may decide your meal doesn't need another fat source. For other meal plans, you may find you still need a fat. Portion control is key for this part of the meal plan because it is the easiest area to add unwanted and unneeded calories. However, it can also be a place to boost calories if you are under your recommended calorie range.

The Bottom Line

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. Each person simply individualizes the portion sizes of each meal component to meet their personalized calorie and nutrient needs. As you begin, you will likely plan simple meals. As you get better, you will begin finding it easier and easier to fit complex meals into the plan. It just takes practice and starting with small steps.

There is a variety of advantages to using a basic meal planning method like this. The most important is that it helps you focus on whole foods. Bookmark the resources linked in this blog to help you begin building healthy, nutrient rich meals. Here is a one-day plan to get you started.


Grain – Oatmeal

Protein – Walnuts

Fruit – Raspberries

Vegetables – (skip at this meal)

Dairy – Milk used in the oatmeal

Fat – (from the walnuts)


Grain – 100% whole grain bread

Protein – Turkey breast

Fruit – Apple slices sprinkled with cinnamon

Vegetables – Cucumber slices

Dairy – Sliced cheese on the sandwich

Fat – Mayonnaise


Grain – Brown rice

Protein – Chicken breast for Chef Meg's Veggie Chicken Stir Fry

Fruit - Rainbow Fruit Salad

Vegetables – Mushrooms, broccoli, carrots, and red pepper

Dairy – Milk with dinner

Fat – Peanut or olive oil in recipe

Do you think this system will help people learn to plan meals? Using this basic meal planning system, share your favorite meals.