How can we easily create a balanced plate for healthy meals? Whether you’re a student that’s just learning to cook for themselves, trying to recover from disordered eating, or simply looking for an easy way to slap together a healthy meal, this “plate formula” can be incredibly helpful to make your meals more intentional and structured.

Recently, I’ve been working on some research projects that concern Food-Based Dietary Guidelines (FBDGs) around the world. In other words, food guides! The plate-style or pie-chart presentation of food guides is one of the more common ones across different countries. Examples include the new Canada’s Food Guide, MyPlate from the USA, and food guides from Mexico, Argentina, Denmark, the UK, and more. Interestingly, plate/circle presentations are more common in the Americas, whereas pyramid graphics are more common in European countries!

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1. Fruits & Veggies

variety of fruits
Photo by Oleg Magni on

First up is fruits and vegetables! About half your plate should be fruits and veggies. They provide your body with essential micronutrients (vitamins and minerals!), some water, and fibre to help fill you up and prevent constipation. Plus, they add colour, visual interest, and awesome flavours to keep food fun. Try to have a variety of colours — eat the rainbow.

Try these: Examples of Fruits & Veggies

Here are some of my favourite fruits and vegetables I try to rotate through in my kitchen:

• Apples
• Oranges
• Grapes
• Bananas
• Kiwis
• Grapefruit
• Peaches
• Clementines
• Frozen mixed berries
• Frozen mango
• Pineapple

• Broccoli
• Tomatoes*
• Bak choi
• Napa cabbage
• Iceberg lettuce
• Bell peppers
• Carrots
• Zucchini
• Salad greens
• Spinach
• Eggplant
• Mao gua (hairy gourd)
• Kale

(*I know “Tomatoes are a fruit!” but I see them as a vegetable for their relatively lower sugar and calorie content. Don’t come at me for this.)

2. Protein

grilled salmon fish on rectangular black ceramic plate
Photo by Malidate Van on

About a quarter of your plate should be some kind of protein. This could be beans/legumes, nuts/seeds, meat/poultry, or dairy. Your body needs protein to survive and function smoothly. Protein helps repair damage, grow muscle mass, and keeps you fuller for longer. Individual needs vary, but aim for at least 15g at each meal if you can! (Athletes may consider 20-30g.)

Try these: Examples of Protein Foods

Even if you eat meat/fish, try and incorporate more plant-based sources of protein into your diet too! They come with an extra punch of fibre and add some variety to your diet.

• Greek yogurt
• Eggs/Egg whites
• Nuts (e.g. almonds)
• Seeds (e.g. chia/flax)
• Split peas

• Tofu/Bean curd
• Lentils
• Beans
• Tempeh
• Seitan

• Chicken
• Turkey
• Beef
• Fish + seafood (e.g. salmon, tuna, shrimp)

3. Complex Carbohydrates

gray foods on wicker baskets
Photo by Daria Shevtsova on

About a quarter of your plate should be some kind of complex carbohydrate (carbs!). Aim for whole grains (bread, pasta, or rice), starchy veggies (potatoes + yams), or double down with starchy plant-based proteins like beans or lentils. Carbs are your friend — they give you energy to keep you going throughout the day, as well as some essential micronutrients.

Try these: Examples of Complex Carbs

• Brown rice/Wild rice
• Whole grain breads (like this one)
• Whole wheat pasta
• Quinoa
• Oatmeal
• Sweet potatoes

4. Fats & Oils

bowl being poured with olive oil
Photo by Pixabay on

You’ll probably use fats and oils in your cooking or as a sauce/spread. Healthy fats (e.g. from avocado, olive oil, fish, and nuts) help keep your heart, blood, and brain healthy! Try to limit your consumption of trans fats and saturated fats (e.g. from animal fat or dairy).

Try these: Examples of Healthy Fats

• Olive oil
• Avocado oil
• Nuts and seeds
• Fatty fish (e.g. salmon)
• Avocado

5. Water & Lifestyle

sportswoman with mask on chin drinking water during street workout
Photo by Gustavo Fring on

Just having the proper nutrition at meals doesn’t ensure your long-term health! Make sure you’re staying hydrated (2-4L of water a day) to keep your body’s organs functioning well. Do your best to get enough sleep, stay active and build your muscle strength, and take care of your mental/emotional health! Stay connected with loved ones and seek help if you need it.

Putting it all together: Meal Planning

Now that we understand all the components of the balanced plate formula, how do we use it in our daily lives? On the most simple level, just pick one option from each category for each meal. Personally, I like having multiple types of vegetables in every meal, but it can be hard to achieve when you live alone.

To make things easier, I like to prepare my carbs (and sometimes marinate my protein) in a big batch for the next couple days/weeks. For example, I’ll cook 3 cups of rice at once, instead of having to cook 1/2 cup at each meal. If I purchase a 1kg (2.2lb) package of chicken breast, I’ll dice it up and marinate all of it before portioning into 4oz (112g) portions to freeze. It saves time and energy!

An example day of meals with the balanced plate formula

DISCLAIMER: Below is not a meal plan that you should necessarily follow. Rather, it is simply an example to illustrate how I personally use this formula in my life. Contact me privately for specific advice, or speak with your dietitian/doctor.

• Fruits/Vegetables: an orange
• Protein: Greek yogurt
• Complex Carbs: whole grain bread
• Healthy Fats: flax seeds

The meal: Dice up the orange and mix with a cup of Greek yogurt in a bowl. Top with flax seeds and toast some whole grain bread to complete the meal!

• Fruits/Vegetables: roasted broccoli
• Protein: tofu and eggs
• Complex Carbs: brown rice
• Healthy Fats: oil for cooking, also some in tofu + eggs

The meal: Chop up broccoli, season with salt, and dry roast in the oven at 400°F for 15-20min. Slice tofu and pan fry. Beat eggs and pour over tofu before flipping to fry the other side. Season with salt and pepper. Serve with brown rice.

• Fruits/Vegetables: zucchini
• Protein: shrimp
• Complex Carbs: brown rice
• Healthy Fats: oil for cooking

The meal: Briefly pan fry shrimp with some garlic and onion, then set aside. Stir fry zucchini until nearly done, add shrimp back in, and season. Optional, add a scrambled egg. Serve with brown rice.

• Fruits/Vegetables: frozen mango
• Protein: yogurt or nuts
• Complex Carbs: granola bar

I’ll typically spread my snacks out throughout the day, e.g. a granola bar before lunch, yogurt in the afternoon, and mango in the evening.

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