What makes a meal?
On this site and other food blogs, you’ll see lots of recipes. But recipes aren’t necessarily meals; they’re tasty things to eat. Some are healthy, some are decadently delicious, and others might not fit either category. But what makes a meal? Because we are primarily vegetarians, friends and acquaintances frequently ask about our diet with questions like, “How do you get enough protein?”; “What do you eat?”; and so on.
One of the reasons we started this blog was to share what we know with others. We’re not advocating a vegetarian diet, but because that’s how we eat, you will see lots of vegetarian recipes here. What does “primarily vegetarians” mean? We do eat fish. This post is not about how we came to our decisions about what we eat, but it is about how we structure our meals to get our daily nutrients, and we hope, to help you learn a little more about healthy meal planning.
Before I get further into this post, I want to recommend a book that we use frequently: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Complete Food and Nutrition Guide, 5th Ed. It’s huge, but they somehow made it lightweight. As our disclaimer below states, neither of us is a registered dietician or nutritionist, but we both have a lifelong interest in the subject. We rely on the experts to back up what we tell you here.
To answer the above question – what makes a meal – a meal should meet a portion of your daily requirements of foods in these categories:
The above photo shows a typical meal that supplies a good portion of most of these requirements. What’s missing? The dairy portion, but you can get that at other times during the day or by adding cottage or feta cheese to the salad. We also don’t have any fruit in this meal, but again, you can get that at breakfast, lunch, or in snacks.
Over the course of a day, you should aim to meet the recommendations in each category. Based on the recommendations from the USDA ChooseMyPlate.gov site, here’s a pie chart showing the amount of these items you should get in a day. This chart assumes that you consume 2,000 calories a day and that you are an adult.
Vegetables could be a category all by itself, but for this post, we’ll keep it simple. What counts as a vegetable in a meal and how can you fit these into your meals? We need to branch out a little, but here are some vegetables that we get in a typical week:
- Romaine lettuce
- Red, orange, or yellow bell peppers
- Zucchini Squash
- Beans (legumes)
- Sweet potatoes
The meal shown in the photo contains good portions of daily vegetables. The fried brown rice includes mushrooms and spinach. The side salad consists of romaine lettuce, tomatoes, and bell peppers. The side dish of French green beans is a good addition to the meal. The short takeaway is – add vegetables to your meals. In vegetables, color is a good thing. Choose green leafy vegetables over their paler cousins; for example, choose romaine lettuce over iceberg. In addition to nutrients, color adds visual appeal. However, some pale things have other nutrients. Cauliflower is an example of a vegetable that lacks color, but that still has plenty of nutritional value.
Here’s another healthy plate. Salmon is again the main feature, along with the fried brown rice and mushrooms, but instead of a salad, we sauteed green beans and poured a little Chinese mustard sauce on them.
An average adult should get 5-6 ounces of protein a day. Getting this amount isn’t too hard to do, even if you’re a vegetarian. If you eat meat, you can check this off your list with one 5-6 ounce serving. In addition to meat, including fish, other good sources of protein are legumes (beans), nuts, eggs, peanut butter and some dairy products like Greek yogurt and cottage cheese. When I worked in an office, I took a smoothie to work for a mid-morning protein boost. Made with fruit nectar, yogurt, and whey protein powder, I got about 1.5 ounces of my daily protein intake and some fruit. Go to https://www.choosemyplate.gov/protein-foods for more info on protein.
Grains are things like oatmeal, wheat, corn, and rice. If you eat the whole grain versions of these grains, you’ll get more nutrients, although some enriched versions of these have some nutrients added back in. Grains are easy to add to your diet, but be careful of the varieties that have had the nutrients stripped away. When you bake muffins, add some whole wheat flour to the mix or choose brown rice in some meals. In the sample meal in the photograph, brown rice serves as the whole grain portion of the overall meal. A serving of corn, a whole wheat muffin, or a corn muffin could serve as grain portions also. For more info on grains, go to https://www.choosemyplate.gov/grains.
As you can see, there is no fruit in that photo of our meal. You could add a bowl of mixed berries for dessert or aim to get your fruit servings at other times of the day. The USDA sets the recommended daily amount of fruit at about 1.5-2 cups a day. Fruit juices that are 100% juice count, as do dried fruits. In the latter case, ½ a cup counts as one cup of fruit. If you can’t find fresh fruit that you like, try some frozen varieties. The Choose My Plate site has good info about fruits. https://www.choosemyplate.gov/fruit
Thirty-four percent of dairy products in your daily diet seems like a lot of dairy products to us, and we realized that we don’t meet that recommendation. But here’s the good news: you can get the nutrients provided by dairy products in other areas. Dairy products provide calcium, potassium, vitamin D, and protein. For example, soy milk has a lot of calcium and protein. We do eat some dairy like yogurt, cottage cheese, other cheeses, and, occasionally, a glass of milk. To ensure that we get our basic bone building – and at our age, bone sustaining – levels of calcium and vitamin D, we both take supplements to make up for the lack of those items in our diet. But if you’re not eating any dairy and you’re not taking supplements or eating alternatives that provide those nutrients, consider adding something to your diet to offset that deficit. Check out this link for more info about dairy: https://www.choosemyplate.gov/dairy
To summarize, healthy meal planning means consciously choosing foods from the groups above in your meals to get your daily recommended amounts of each category. You can’t get them all in one meal – unless it’s a very large meal – but with good meal planning, it’s not hard to eat healthily.
Disclaimer: Even though Pat has a BS in Holistic Nutrition, neither one of us is a registered nutritionist or dietician. We both have a lifelong interest in the subject, we read about the topic, and we work at maintaining healthy eating habits. We rely on the experts to back up what we tell you here, so we provide links to our sources. We encourage our readers to explore nutrition topics and find out more information about healthy eating.