Welcome back to Home Economics for Men, the series that teaches you – the single man of the 21st century – the ins-and-outs of culinary self-sufficiency.
If convenience food is burning a hole in your pocket and giving you that Homer Simpson physique you never dreamed of, then this is the series for you. In last two lessons, we laid out and explored the concept of the meal plan, which is probably the fundamental practice for mastering home economics.
But, key to effective meal planning is making sure that the meals we’re eating is nutritionally balanced. Because all that effort you put into planning your meals isn’t worth squat if you’re not providing yourself the right fuel for living a healthy life.
So how do you make sure that your meals are giving you the things you need? What sorts of things should you be shopping for and how should you envisage a healthy and nutritionally balanced meal?
Fear not, because today’s lesson has the answers. It’s time for you to get to know your nutrition.
What makes a balanced meal?
One of the most important factors in creating a nutritional meal is finding balance.
But, what exactly does a “balanced” meal look like?
It’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer. There is a lot of contradictory nutritional advice out there on the World Wide Web, which much of it informed by questionable science or passing fad diet trends.
Which is a shame, because the secret to a balanced diet isn’t rocket science.
Dig a littler deeper, and you’ll find that the majority of nutritionists still recommend a tried and tested healthy-eating model that is basic, easy to follow, and still comes out trumps in the health department.
The three core food groups and the ¼ + ¼ + ½ principle:
Every meal that you eat should be made up of three core food groups. These are carbohydrates, protein and vegetables. Why? Because each one of these food groups performs one of three functions that keep your body working at its optimum rate: providing, energy, aiding with growth and repair, and maintaining healthy metabolic function. I’ve omitted “fats” as I typically do not consume food high in fats.
This method has worked for me during my weight loss (read my weight loss journey here) and has helped to maintain a healthy diet.
The trick to a balanced diet is making sure that you have the correct ratio of these three foods in your meal. For easy reference, that ratio looks something like this:
Ratio on plate: one quarter
Foods: rice, pasta, quinoa, couscous, bread, potatoes
Function: provide energy to the brain, muscles and other organs
(Wholegrain carbs also provide fiber and vitamin B)
Protein: Growth and Repair
Ratio on plate: one quarter
Foods: eggs, seafood, poultry, red meat, dairy products (milk, yoghurt, cheese), tofu, nuts, pulses, beans
Function: maintain muscle tissue, red blood cells, produce hormones and enzymes
Vegetables: Healthy Metabolism
Ratio on plate: one half
Foods: Carrots, peas, peppers, leafy greens, spinach, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, etc.
Function: rich in vitamins and minerals that are essential to a healthy metabolism and maintaining healthy organ functions
(On the subject of vegetables, Healthline provides a great list of nutrition rich options.)
This ¼ + ¼ + ½ principle is easy to remember and simple to implement. And, provided that your various meals comprise of a variety of the foods listed, it’s a sure-fire way to maintain a nutritionally balanced diet.
Oh, and coming back to a point from article 2, this principle applies to all three main meals, not just dinner. Breakfast and lunch matter just as much.
Of course, there is one thing you need to remember when it comes to the ¼ + ¼ + ½ principle, and that’s portion size…
Why portion sizes matter
Fun fact: since the early 1900s, the size of a normal American dinner plate has grown by 25%. Back in the 1960s, a typical dinner plate was 9 inches in diameter. By the 1980s, they’d grown to 10 inches. At the turn of the millennium, they were 11 inches.
Today, your average dinner plate is 12 inches in size. To put that in perspective, that’s the same size as a vinyl record. You might as well be eating your food off your dad’s copy of “Dark Side of the Moon.”
“Great,” I hear you say, “but why does this matter?”
Because, it’s seriously skewed our sense of what a healthy portion size is, and allowed our daily calorie intake to creep up in the process. The average American adult consumes 300 more calories per day than they did in 1985.
So what can you do about it?
Well, the simple solution is to stop filling your plate, and start portioning your food based on your nutritional needs. Before you get overwhelmed trying to calculate carb, fat and protein requirements down to the gram, here’s a handy way to gauge portion sizes when it comes to plating up your food, courtesy of the BBC.
A serving of carbohydrates for a given meal should be roughly the size of your clenched fist.
A serving of protein should be roughly the size of the palm of your hand.
Once you’ve got those two served, you can gauge the vegetable portion accordingly.
Sure, this is a pretty rough way of measuring out your food, and the mathematicians amongst you might be raging at my decidedly non-scientific approach. But it’s straightforward, it works, and it’ll do you more favors than simply filling your plate to the brim.
That’s it for this week’s edition. By now, you’re not just well versed in meal planning; you now know how to make those meals healthy and nutritionally balanced.
Next class is titled “Master the Meat Market.” In it, we’ll learn about cheap meat, fish options that are nutritionally sound, but friendly on the wallet, as well as exploring other low-cost protein options that are full of health benefits.
See you then.