Meal Prep: How to Plan for Healthy Eating

Maintaining a well-balanced and nutritious diet is vital not just for your general health but can reduce the risk of developing diseases such as obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Today, a healthy diet encompasses a wide range of options and includes whole grains, legumes, seeds and nuts, fish and even plant oils such as olive oil. Add in ethnic, religious, cultural and personal preferences and there are more options than ever before when planning healthy meals and snacks.

Make A Healthy Eating Plan

Before you begin planning, it is important to recognize your goal. If you are trying to maintain a healthier lifestyle that prevents or manages diseases such as obesity and diabetes, your aim should be to keep excess weight off for the long-term. Crash diets or other drastic diets may be realistic in the short-term but will not provide much benefit to your goal. Remember, it is a marathon, not a sprint!

Your aim should be to consume foods that are nutritious while also reducing the number of calories that you take in from your food, compared to how many calories you are expending (physical activity increases the use of calories). You and your health care provider can decide together how many calories you need each day to achieve these goals. Typically, this ranges from 1,200 to 1,500 calories for women and 1,500 to 1,800 for men.

A healthy eating plan can be illustrated in many ways, but there are a few guidelines and practices that you should stick to:

  • Choose a variety of foods from each major food group to ensure intake of adequate amounts of calories, protein, vitamins, minerals and fiber. Choosing a wide range of foods also helps to make meals and snacks more interesting.
  • Adapt the meal plan to meet specific tastes and preferences. For example, a serving of grains does not only mean a slice of wheat bread. It can be wild rice, whole-wheat pasta, grits, bulgur, cornmeal muffins or even popcorn.
  • Combine foods from different major groups. For example, create a meal of (1) tortilla (grain group) and beans (meat and beans group), or (2) fish topped with fruit salsa served with steamed vegetables over pasta.
  • Choose nutrient-rich foods within each group. For example, in the setting of lactose intolerance, choose foods from other groups that are good sources of the nutrients found in dairy products.
  • Restrict intake of certain foods. Avoid eating or drinking products that have a lot of calories but little advantage in terms of nutrition. These products often do not make you feel full either, which means you are more likely to continue eating. For example, drinking sugar-sweetened beverages, desserts, candies and other processed foods often fall into this category.
    • Try to consume foods that have fewer calories but that you can have in larger portions. This, instead, reduces your appetite and hunger.
  • Monitor your eating habits and your weight regularly. Get in the habit of understanding how many calories you take in with each meal (for example, read the food labels). This will help you align more closely with your goal if you are having trouble hitting your targets. For the same reasons, weigh yourself on a weekly basis. You can detect small weight gains early and adjust your plan accordingly.

The guidelines have primarily evolved from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Health and Human Services’ food pyramid, established in 1992, to the new food guide symbol, MyPlate, introduced in 2011 and updated every five years.  

In addition to these guidelines, try to follow try to follow these specific nutritious eating tips:

  • Eat a variety of foods, including vegetables, fruits and whole grain products.
  • Eat lean meats, poultry, fish, beans and low-fat dairy products.
  • Limit consumption of salt, sugar, alcohol, saturated fats and trans fats.

One model for a “balanced” and nutritious meal would be to use the "plate method" for planning food portions:

  • 50 percent as assorted vegetables
  • 25 percent as protein
  • 25 percent as whole grains (e.g., brown rice)
  • One fruit

There are several specific approaches to healthy eating. Before deciding on a specific one to follow, speak to your health care provider on what may best suit you. Above all, stick to a long-term plan as much as possible and on a daily basis.

In 2020, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) updated the nutrition facts label. This should help make it easier for you to make informed food choices that contribute to lifelong healthy eating habits.