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Meal planning 101: 8 tips for building a balanced diet

Nov 15, 2022 By Devin Collins
Woman chopping chicken at kitchen counter

Clinical Editors: Hemalee Patel, DO and Megan Dodson, PA-C

It’s no secret that a well-balanced diet is key for good health. Eating a variety of nutrient-rich foods is what keeps our bodies alive and well.

While that guidance may seem straightforward, putting it into practice isn’t quite so easy. Between work, school, childcare, and other responsibilities, finding time to make nutritious, well-rounded meals is no simple task. After a busy day, the last thing you may want to do is cook or grocery shop — especially when takeout and food delivery have become so easy these days.

If you’re constantly finding yourself up against an empty fridge asking the question “What should I eat tonight?”, meal planning can be a great way to stay on top of your diet and your health. Though it can take many forms, meal planning essentially involves organizing, scheduling, and/or preparing your weekly meals ahead of time. Not only does it take the guesswork out of mealtime, but it also can be helpful for those looking to manage chronic conditions like type 2 diabetes or heart disease as well. Whether you’re cooking for one, two, or a whole family, taking time to plan meals in advance can help you improve your food choices and stick to your nutrition goals. Here are a few tips for building a healthy, well-balanced meal plan:

1. Start small

If you’ve never meal planned before, the concept may seem overwhelming at first. Like with any new habit though, it helps to start off slowly. Rather than making any drastic changes to your diet or cooking routines right off the bat, set a few incremental changes you can stick to. Consider your current lifestyle. If you eat out or order in most days, set a goal of planning a couple meals or snacks for the week. If you cook some days of the week, start by trying to schedule out your meals rather than deciding at the last minute. Over time, these slight changes will become routine and you’ll be able to continue building on your plan.

2. Focus on your macros

When you’re considering your meals for the week or days ahead, it’s important to make sure you’re incorporating foods from the most important groups, including macronutrients - the nutrients the body uses in the largest amounts. The three main macronutrients - carbohydrates, fats, and proteins - are essential to a well-balanced diet, as they provide the body the energy and fuel it needs to stave off disease and function properly. Though most foods contain these macronutrients, not all sources are equal. Processed foods, for instance, might contain carbs and protein, but be high in other ingredients such as sugar and sodium that aren’t as healthy. However, generally speaking, eating a diet rich in fruits, veggies, fiber, legumes, and whole foods, with minimally processed, refined sugars, will help you get macronutrients your body needs. When it comes to protein, specifically, One Medical provider Hemalee Patel, DO suggests sticking to minimally processed, plant-predominant options, as well as lean meats and seafood that are sustainably sourced. “Hard boiled eggs are a good option, since you can prepare the entire carton, put them back in the packaging, and then keep them in the fridge for whenever you get hungry,” she says. “Tofu can be sliced and baked, while chicken breast can be pre-baked, prepped, and chopped up to add to any dish. Legumes are also high in protein, but it’s important to keep portion size in mind.” To figure out how much of each group you should be consuming, check out the U.S. Government’s MyPlate resource.

3. Keep your pantry stocked

It’s easy to let your diet fall by the wayside when you have nothing at home ready to go. You might find yourself caving into the temptation of fast food or other less nutritious, quick-fix solutions. To avoid this, consider stocking up on shelf-stable staples that can be used in a variety of ways. Foods like brown rice, quinoa, lentils, beans, and mixed nuts, for instance, are nutritious and versatile, and can be bought and stored in bulk. “Meal prep can be daunting so if you’ve never done it before, start simple,” says Patel. “Make sure your fridge and pantry are stocked with essentials and focus on whole food groups such as fiber, protein, healthy fats, and starches. From there you can build a variety of meals that keep you full, satiated and energetic all day long.”

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4. Pre-cut and pre-wash your fruits and veggies

When life gets busy, it’s easy to reach for processed snacks and microwave meals that require little to no cooking or effort. To incorporate more healthy foods into your diet, try preparing fruits and veggies ahead of time, so you have a more nutritious option available when you’re in a rush. “Keeping an array of colorful fresh veggies that are pre-washed, cut, prepped, or even spiralized can be so helpful when you’re on the go,” says Patel. “Carrot sticks, cucumbers, celery sticks and broccoli, to name a few, are high in fiber, super hydrating and high in antioxidants. These can be prepped roasted (be mindful of how much oil you’re using), steamed, raw, or spiralized to turn into pasta or add to your favorite salad. Pre-cooked butternut squash and sweet potatoes are also helpful to have on hand on days you need a bit more starch.”

5. Watch your portion sizes

When building a meal plan, it’s not only the foods you’re eating that matter, but also the amounts you’re eating of them. A balanced meal consists of a variety of foods, so it’s important to avoid leaning too heavily on one particular food group. Whether you’re looking to cut down your sugar intake or consume more protein, it can be helpful to break down your food into appropriate servings sizes ahead of time to ensure you get all the nutrients you need. “Portions can be hard to understand and it’s an important part of a balanced meal plan,” says Patel. “If you’re feeling uncertain, it can be worthwhile to invest in measuring cups or a food scale to help familiarize yourself with what the recommended serving sizes actually look like. For instance, nuts can be a healthy snack option, but in limited portions, so try pre-portioning ¼ cup of nuts ahead of time in reusable bags or containers to avoid overindulging.”

6. Eat what’s in season

“If you’re getting overwhelmed, remember, in general, it’s always best to eat what is available locally and in season,” says Patel. Studies have shown that foods that are grown and consumed during their natural peak season are more nutrient-dense than those harvested at other times of the year. For instance, one study found that broccoli grown during its peak season had more vitamin C than it did out when grown out of season. This is because these foods are allowed to follow their natural growth cycle and reach maturity without being harvested with chemicals or other harmful processes. “Exploring your local farmers markets can be a great way to get familiar with what’s available, while also getting some fresh air and additional steps in on your meal prep day!” says Patel.

7. Consider using a planner or tracker

One of the best ways to prepare and stick to a meal plan is to stay organized. Using a meal journal or tracker can be a great way to keep track of your progress and maintain healthy food choices. “ Tracking what you’re eating can help you recognize unhealthy patterns, habits, trends and triggers,” says Patel. “This enables you to adjust your behaviors and better understand how certain foods affect your body.” With a tool like MyFitnessPal Premium, for instance, you can easily track food and exercise, set and track nutrition goals, and use a food diary to better understand your eating habits in one place. MyFitnessPal Premium lets you easily scan barcodes, log foods and recipes and gives you access to nutritionist-approved recipes and guided meal plans. This allows you the opportunity to evaluate your food plan and modify and tailor it in real time to fit your evolving health and diet needs.

As health is a very individual experience and varies from person to person, it’s important to work with a healthcare provider before using any health or wellness tool. Your provider can help you determine whether tools like a food diary or tracker can be helpful for you and your health goals.

8. Know that moderation is key

One of the biggest reasons many people struggle to stick to a meal plan or their nutrition goals is because they believe they need to give up their favorite sugary treats and salty snacks to do so. Just because you’re looking to eat healthier though, doesn’t mean you have to deprive yourself completely! The key to any well-balanced diet is moderation. So while overly processed, sugary, or fatty snacks shouldn’t make up the majority of your meal plan, it’s okay to indulge from time to time. The same goes for eating out or ordering in. Allow yourself a night or two off a week, knowing that you’re still eating healthier overall.

Have more questions about meal planning? Our primary care team is here to help. At One Medical, we aim to provide exceptional care designed around you and your unique health goals. Sign up today to book a same or next day appointment — in person or over video — through our app.

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Devin Collins

The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, a national, modern primary care practice pairing 24/7 virtual care services with inviting and convenient in-person care at over 100 locations across the U.S. One Medical is on a mission to transform health care for all through a human-centered, technology-powered approach to caring for people at every stage of life.

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