What Does A Healthy Plate Look Like?

by Molly Hembree, MS, RD, LD

Last Updated: December 14, 2020

Balance. Such a fundamental word, but it often gets lost in the weeds when it comes to nutrition. Unfortunately, many people are confused about what balance means, especially when building their plates. And you can’t blame them. If you do an online search for the keyword “food,” “diet,” or “nutrition,” and you receive around 13 billion hits. How do we make sense of the clutter? Let’s break down what we know about good nutrition to ease up the decision making when it comes to putting together a healthy, delicious plate of food.

The “Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020” is the nutrition benchmark that simplifies eating well. These guidelines account for the numerous food choices we make each day while still recognizing our own unique eating styles. The “USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion” released a tool called “MyPlate” in 2011 (replacing its predecessor the 1992-2004 “Food Guide Pyramid” and the 2005-2010 “MyPyramid”) which is used as a visual representation of how we can strive to eat for most meals. It identifies five food groups: fruits, vegetables, protein, grains, and dairy, and provides direction on including about one serving of each per meal.

A seismic shift from the way many of us currently eat, fruits and vegetables should be making up half of our plate. Fruit intake should ideally be from whole foods and not drinks or processed products “containing fruit,” which rid the fruit of most of its fiber.

Fruit is “nature’s candy” and can be a stand-in all by itself for dessert (or by adding a dollop of light whipped cream!). Take advantage of seasonal winter produce like: dates, grapefruit, kiwi, mandarin oranges, passionfruit, pears, persimmons, pomegranate, or tangerines.

One fruit serving is equal to one cup raw or cooked fruit, ½ cup dried fruit, or one cup of 100% fruit juice.

The other half of our produce-filled side of the plate specifically calls out vegetables. Great vegetable choices include a variety of fresh but canned (preferably without added salt) and frozen versions. This means that your fresh corn on the cob, canned Kroger No Salt Added Sweet Whole Kernel Golden Corn, and frozen Kroger Traditional Favorites Super Sweet Corn are considered nutritionally equivalent. Vegetables found in various parts of the grocery store might be appropriate given different meal ideas: crispy fresh Boston lettuce leaves for lettuce wraps, canned pumpkin for pumpkin bread, or frozen broccoli for stir-fry next week.

One serving of vegetables is equal to one cup of raw or ½ cup of cooked vegetables, two cups fresh leafy salad greens, or one cup of 100% vegetable juice.

Most people hear the word “protein” and think of meat. However, interest in plant-based eating fueled by preference, religious restriction, health, or to protect animals continues to mount. If you choose to consume animal-based products in your diet, be sure to vary your sources of protein between lean meat/poultry, fish, eggs, as well as meat substitutes, beans, soy, nuts, and seeds. Head here for tips on how to build a sample 5-day plan of plant-based meals.

One serving of protein is about 3 ounces of cooked meat, poultry, or fish, ¼ cup of nuts or seeds, one egg, one tablespoon of peanut butter, or 1/2 cup cooked beans or lentils.

We can think about food choices as placed in health “tiers.” A bottom-tier grain would be a sweetened cereal or donut, while a mid-tier grain might be white rice or enriched bread, and a top (most nutritious) tier for grains is quinoa, brown rice, or whole grain pasta. The goal is to make at least half our grain choices 100% whole grain. You can level up with whole grains with easy swaps from white sandwich bread slices to whole grain hoagie rolls, move from white enriched pasta to buckwheat soba noodles, white pita bread to whole wheat pita bread, or sugar-sweetened refined cereals to oatmeal.

One serving of grains is equal to one-ounce of bread, one-ounce of ready-to-eat cereal, or ½ cup cooked rice, pasta, or cereal.

The rule of thumb for dairy is to make it low fat, which means 3 grams or less of fat per serving. This means fewer high-fat creams and cheeses, with more low-fat cottage cheese and yogurt. Certain calcium-fortified non-dairy alternatives work here, too, like almond and cashew protein milk, plant-based pea protein milk, or Simple Truth Unsweetened Soy Milk. New upgraded snack ideas might include reduced-fat string cheese, low-fat cottage cheese cups, or soy yogurt alternative.

One serving of dairy is equal to one cup of milk or yogurt, one cup of fortified non-dairy beverage, 1.5 ounces of natural cheese, or two ounces of processed cheese.

A healthy plate includes each of the food groups: fruits, vegetables, protein, grains, and dairy. Every meal may not achieve this but averaging about one serving of each food group and most meals will get you that much closer to meeting your health goals. Interested in learning more? Talk with one of our expert dietitians via telenutrition by signing up here.

Disclaimer: This information is educational only and not providing healthcare recommendations. Please see a healthcare provider.

Molly Hembree, MS, RD, LD

Molly Hembree, MS, RD, LD

Molly can help you simplify eating, all while building excitement around good food and freeing up time for all the things that really matter in your life. With a knack for food labeling and regulations, weight management, food intolerances, and plant-based eating, Molly is ready to help you make sense of food again. When not on the clock, Molly can be found hip-hop dancing, cuddling up with her two mischievous cats, playing trombone, or honing in on her food photography skills.