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Creating nutritionally, balanced meals every day can be a struggle. Meal planning makes things much simpler by allowing you to decide what you’re cooking and prepare ahead of time. With a well-designed meal plan, you can take the guesswork out of the day’s meals and ensure that your family enjoys a balanced and varied diet.
How to plan a nutritionally balanced meal
A balanced meal includes something from all the five major food groups: dairy, fruits, and vegetables, grains, meat, or other proteins. While every single meal doesn’t have to contain all five food groups, you should try to make sure that all five groups are represented in the day’s meals. Some people don’t consume meat or dairy; substitutes are fine.
Examples of dairy foods are milk, cheese, butter, yogurt, and cream. Dairy is a useful part of your diet, providing protein, calcium, and important vitamins, but some dairy foods can be high in fat.
Fruits and vegetables can easily be included in any meal. Ideally, you should eat five helpings of fruit and vegetables every day — one serving is half a cup. One of these portions can be a glass of juice, but others should include the whole fruit or vegetable.
The meat and protein group includes foods like beef, pork, and lamb. It includes poultry (chicken, duck, etc.), fish, and some vegetable proteins like nuts, tofu, or seitan.
Grains cover all grain-based foods, including bread, pasta, and foods like couscous or semolina.
If you’re wondering, ‘how do I calculate my meal nutrition?’, you’ll need to consider factors like age, health, and general lifestyle.
What to avoid
A balanced meal should focus on providing quality nutrition over empty calories. Try to cut out processed carbohydrates, such as white flour, sugar, and corn syrup. Instead, use whole grains and limit sweetened foods. You should also try to avoid foods that are high in unhealthy fats, such as margarine and processed meats.
The first step in making a weekly meal plan is to think about the available foods. This is an excellent time to investigate your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer. Identify the items which will expire the soonest and plan your meals around those.
Next, check which foods are in season. These will sometimes be cheaper and tastier than out-of-season produce. You can also check to see which foods are discounted at the moment and include them in your meal plans.
Stick with family favorites
Your meal plan won’t be very popular if you ditch the foods that everyone enjoys in favor of new and unfamiliar dishes. Instead, plan around the kinds of meals that you’re already making, adapting them to ensure a good balance of different food groups.
An example of a balanced meal might be a bowl of pasta with bolognese sauce, followed by a dessert of fruit salad with a scoop of frozen yogurt. This has meat (ground beef), fruit and vegetables, grains (pasta), and dairy (yogurt). You can probably think of other family favorites that are already well balanced, or which just need a little alteration to include all the food groups.
Another example could be burgers. Who doesn’t enjoy a tasty home-made burger? Served with a side salad and a glass of milk or a dairy-based dessert, a grilled burger in a bun forms part of a nutritionally complete meal.
Prepare foods in advance
A meal plan allows you to prepare many of your meals ahead of time. For example, if you’re planning to serve stew, you can make double the quantity and freeze some for a future meal. It’s fine to serve the same basic meal two days running as long as you mix things up. For instance, tonight’s beef stew can become tomorrow’s savory tomato stew with a tin of tomatoes and some extra vegetables.
Don’t forget to include a few snacks in your plan so nobody is tempted to fill up on junk food in between meals. With a little imagination, it’s easy to plan healthy, balanced meals the whole family will love.