How to Make a Balanced Meal

IMG_0260In terms of general nutrition, every meal should include three parts: A protein, A starchy/complex carbohydrate and fruit/Vegetable.

And as serving sizes go, aim for each item to be about the size of your palm, excluding the fingers.  Obviously, if you’re a six foot tall man, your palm will be larger than mine, a tiny, five-fiver.  Thus, the man’s serving will be proportionally larger than mine.

What is a protein?  A protein is any meat, poultry, dairy, legume (lentils/beans) and nuts, plus, tofu, seitan and soy.

What is a complex carbohydrate? A CC is a grain that has not had all outer fiber of the sheath of the kernel removed before grinding.  It will have a lot more fiber and nutrients than a finely ground white flour.  Try this test – put a bite of white bread (w/o crust) in your mouth and count how many chews it takes to dissolve.  Now put a bite of whole grain bread on (w/o crust) in your mouth and count how many chews it takes to dissolve.  In broad terms, fibrous, nutrient rich foods take longer to chew than highly processed fatty, sugary, low nutrient foods.  If you can inhale your meal in a minute chances are it’s not that good for you.  But if you find yourself chewing awhile, you probably are eating something your body will like and need.  Examples of Complex Carbohydrates are any whole grain including, wheat, corn, bugler, oats, amaranth, quinoa, but also, pasta, bread, potatoes and sweet potatoes.

The act of longer chewing actually aids digestion.  Ever eat a meal super fast and then twenty minutes later your stomach feels like it’s going to explode and you wonder, “why did I eat so much?”  Well, there is a chemical in your stomach, cholecystokinin that as food digests it is released to the brain to signal feelings of fullness and satiety.  If you eat really fast the chemical doesn’t have time to be released, so you end up eating way more than necessary.  Nutrient rich foods require you to chew them – thus they slow down your eating process and you regulate more naturally the proper portion size.

Get in the habit of identifying when you’re meal is balanced and when it is not.  Often “light options” on menus are deficient. They might be veggies and grain.  Classic example is a Portabello mushroom burger.  The bun is your starch, the mushroom is the veg…but where is the protein?  Combine that with the fact that this dish often comes with sweet potato fries.  So we’ve doubled up on the starch carb, (bun + sweet potato) and still no protein in sight.  Then we have dishes that are grilled steak with a mix of veggies.  Where now is the starchy carb?  On the other side of the spectrum are pasta dishes in a meat sauce accompanied by garlic bread.  Let’s just assume that the pasta is a real serving and not the serving for eight as it is in so many restaurants.  But again pasta + bread = 2 starchy carbs.  Meat sauce = protein. Where are the veggies?!

In the photo at the top I made a broccoli salad with apples, dried cherries and seeds tossed in a red wine or cider vinaigrette.  If I wanted to make this a main dish, I could add chicken or steak to it and serve it with whole grain flatbreads.  If I wanted to keep it vegetarian, I could add an egg or grilled tofu.  I also made a butternut squash soup.  Starchy carb but by itself it has little protein and no green veg.  So if I wanted it be my main course, I could have it with wilted spinach and a serving (12) of chopped nuts on top.  As it turns out I got fancy and combined both recipes to create balance:

I added an egg to the broccoli salad and some chopped almonds to the soup for my protein source.  I have fruit via the apples and dried cherries and I have veggies via the broccoli.  The squash/sweet potato soup was the starchy carb.

Dietary changes do not have to be drastic or dire.  Just paying attention to the balance of nutrients at each meal can help you feel better from the inside out!