When it comes to what goes on your plate, here's the first thing a dietitian thinks of and how it can help you make healthier food choices for you.

Lisa Valente, M.S., R.D.
November 02, 2020
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If you’re a food lover, you probably have some idea of what your next meal will be. We used to joke on family vacations that as we were eating breakfast, we were already planning our lunch and dinner for the day. I not only love food, but I work as a nutrition editor for EatingWell, so food is on my mind a lot of the time. That doesn't mean I always know what I'm going to eat next. Whether I’m meal planning, packing lunch or looking for a quick but healthy snack here’s the first thing I consider. 

Balance. 

I know that’s a little vague—so hear me out. I need to balance what I want to eat with what we have on hand (and how much time I have). I also try to balance my plate by including different food groups and nutrients. Here’s what goes through my head that may help you answer the age-old question, “What’s for dinner?” 

What do I want? 

I try to think about what I’m in the mood for. Some mornings that might be oatmeal and some mornings it might be toast with peanut butter or an egg sandwich. Some days, it might be a donut. I think listening to your body and checking in is the first step in deciding what to eat. Even if you thought you were going to have leftover soup for lunch, if that’s the last thing you want, be flexible. Can you freeze your soup and instead grab a sandwich (or goat cheese toast with salad, pictured above)? It’s easier for me to eat what I’m craving for breakfast, lunches and snacks since I’m not usually planning a family meal then. I do try to create a loose plan for dinners, so if tacos are on the menu but we’re in the mood for pasta, I can pivot. I think it’s important to say that nutritionists are people first, and while nutrition is important, every single meal is not going to look “perfect.” Keeping that in mind can take some of the pressure off. 

How will it make me feel?

Once I’ve thought about what I want to eat, I try to figure out how it will make me feel. I love ice cream, but if that was all I ate for dinner, I’d probably feel a little sluggish and blah. Same goes for pasta (I eat that all the time) and sometimes I have just a bowl of noodles. When I want some more staying power and satisfaction, I pair my pasta with veggies and protein for balance. Some foods are going to make you feel better than others, both long and short term. Some days, a brownie will win out for a snack, but a lot of the time it’s going to be fruit and nuts (or something similar) so I have the energy to go about my day.

How many food groups am I getting?

I’m not a fan of eliminating entire food groups from your diet, unless there’s an allergy or legitimate reason to do so. So carbs, protein, fat, vegetables, fruits and dairy all have a spot on my plate (although, not always all at once). Rather than cutting things out, I try to focus on what I’m getting. Is there a vegetable or fruit? A carb (sweet potato, rice, pasta, etc.)? A protein (beans, tofu, egg, chicken, etc.)? Great, that means I’m eating a fairly well-balanced meal. When choosing snacks I try to do the same thing and pair a carb with a protein to help keep me full. Eating a variety of foods is important and this positive way of looking at my plate helps me get the benefits from different foods.

What am I eating later?

The last piece in my balance puzzle is trying to loosely balance my day and week. If I’m having peanut butter toast for breakfast, I likely would skip eating peanut butter & jelly for lunch (unless we are in dire need of a grocery run). The meals are just too similar. I try not to have a quesadilla for lunch and grilled cheese for dinner. It’s not only boring, but nutritionally it doesn’t help me eat that healthy variety of foods. So, I try to balance out my day and week and think bigger picture. If I’m having bread at one meal, can I have oats or rice at the next so that my grains are different? If I’m reaching for an apple at snack, I’ll try and have a different fruit later to mix it up. Most of us are probably doing this naturally. It helps me when I’m feeling stuck on what to have for lunch, to remember the pizza and salad I’m planning on eating for dinner. Then I can make a lunch meal (maybe black bean soup? Or a hummus and veggie sandwich?) that looks different and helps balance out my day.

Welcome to The Beet. A weekly column where nutrition editor and registered dietitian Lisa Valente tackles buzzy nutrition topics and tells you what you need to know, with science and a little bit of sass.