Ultimate Guide to Building a Balanced Dinner Plate

Sara Chille
Ultimate Guide to Building a Balanced Dinner Plate

The goal of a balanced dinner plate will enable you to reach your body’s nutrient needs. When building a dinner plate you want to focus on vegetables, whole grains, and a good source of protein. These key food sources are packed with essential nutrients and provide many health benefits. The absence of proper nutrition can lead to various diseases and poor functioning of the body. When we supply our body with the tools it needs, aka nutrients, we will feel better, look better, and live a longer, more fulfilling life. 

Vegetables and Fruit

Aim to fill half of your plate with vegetables. They are nutrient-dense, rich in phytochemicals, low in calories, a good source of fiber and have high water content. You have heard the saying eat the rainbow, and no I don’t mean the skittles commercial. Ensure to consume a wide variety of colorful fruits and vegetables daily. They are rich in natural antioxidants which have protective effects against diseases due to their ability to counteract free radicals that cause DNA damage. Examples of antioxidants include carotenoids which produce an orange and yellow color (pumpkin, carrots, yellow squash), chlorophyll found in dark leafy greens, anthocyanins which are red, blue, and purple such as berries and purple cabbage, and anthoxanthins found in white to yellow fruits and vegetables. Color your plate with each of these incredible superfoods for optimal health. 

Whole Grains and Fiber

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend consuming at least half of your total grains to be whole grains, that fill ¼ of your plate. What are whole grains? Whole grains include quinoa, amaranth, brown and wild rice, oats, bulgur, millet, buckwheat, whole wheat bread, and whole-grain crackers. They contain all 3 parts of the grain: the germ, endosperm, and bran. Each part is nutrient-dense containing fiber, protein, B-vitamins, phosphorus, vitamin E, and healthy fats. White bread and pasta are known as refined grains since they go through a refining process that cleaves the germ and bran from the grain and significantly lowers its nutrient profile.

Although we want to limit the intake of refined grains, the Dietary Guidelines recognize them as part of a balanced diet. If you do choose to consume refined grains make sure they are enriched which means that the nutrients lost in the refining process are added back. 

Whole grains are complex carbs which are the main energy source for your body and brain. They create a lower spike in blood sugar compared to simple sugar and refined grains thus providing longer-lasting energy. Whole grains are also an adequate source of fiber which is important for an overall healthy diet. Fiber provides indigestible bulk which promotes regular functioning of intestines, lowers cholesterol, regulates blood sugar, and feeds good gut bacteria. You want to aim to consume 25-38g of fiber per day, and adding more whole grains will help.

Protein

One-fourth of your balanced dinner plate should be filled with good-quality protein. Protein can come from animal and plant sources, however, animal protein is more bioavailable. Choose grass-fed beef, pasture-raised chicken, turkey, eggs, and wild-caught seafood and fish that contain all 9 essential amino acids needed via the diet. Amino acids are needed for the functioning of every cell in our body. Vegetarian options such as tofu, edamame, soy, and tempeh also contain adequate amounts of protein. A healthy adult should consume 1g/kg of protein daily. 

Adequate consumption of protein is essential for the growth and maintenance of body tissue, enzymatic reactions such as muscle contraction and digestion, aid in communication between cells, increases satiety, supply immune support, and provides structure and energy. Make sure you include a good source of protein with every meal.

Healthy Fats

Dietary fat is a very important component of a healthy diet. It contains the most calories among all the macronutrients containing 9 calories/gram. Due to their high caloric content, overconsumption may lead to weight gain, so like everything else, consume in moderation. Quality really matters here as it is also important to make sure you are choosing the right type of fats. Focus on mono- and polyunsaturated fat, limit saturated fat, and avoid trans fat. 

Healthy fats such as mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids offer several health benefits such as  lowering bad cholesterol and triglycerides, reducing the risk of heart disease, are essential for the development and functioning of the brain, and lower inflammation. Great sources include nuts, seeds, avocados, flaxseed, chia seeds, salmon, sardines, and olives. Make sure you are steering away from hydrogenated oils and choose better options such as extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, or flaxseed oil. There is not a maximum caloric amount of healthy oil that should be consumed, although they should be added daily as part of a healthy diet. 

Hydration

Water is known as the “forgotten nutrient”, yet it is the most important nutrient we consume. In addition to building a well-balanced dinner plate, make sure you are including a hydrating beverage. Aim to consume at least half your body weight in ounces of water daily. Keep in mind that this intake increases with exercise and consumption of caffeine and alcohol as these act as diuretics. 

Treat Yourself 

Indulging in some sweets from time to time or enjoying a glass of wine is part of a balanced diet. When are you are craving that chocolate chip cookie and cannot get it off your mind, don’t deprive yourself. Enjoy the cookie. However, your primary focus should be making the majority of your diet full of nutrient-dense foods while limiting your intake of sugar and processed food. Dessert and cheat days should be consumed on occasion, not as an everyday staple. 

Takeaways

Learning to balance your dinner plate allows you to plan your meals easily and ensure you are getting all essential nutrients. Here are some key takeaways to focus on when cooking dinner tonight!

  • Fill half your plate with veggies: consume a wide variety of colorful vegetables. Vegetables are high in nutrients, low in calories, and easy to prepare. Next time you go to the grocery store, pick up a vegetable you have never tried before!
  • Choose complex carbohydrates instead of simple carbohydrates: think whole-grains like quinoa, brown rice, or millet. 
  • Incorporate a source of healthy fats with every meal. Sautee veggies in avocado oil or dress them with extra-virgin olive oil. 

Ready to Build a Balanced Dinner Plate?

The goal of building a balanced dinner plate is to ensure you are providing your body with proper nutrition so you can meet your daily nutritional needs. Quality matters when it comes to food. Make sure you are fueling yourself with real, whole foods, and avoid processed foods and refined sugar. Consistently consuming a balanced diet containing key nutrients, will help you live a healthy, more fulfilling life