NTOTW: What your plate should look like

As much as the internet and social media has opened up the flood gates for information, it’s still a struggle for many to put together a healthy and complete meal.

Our culture is centered around productivity and efficiency. Hence, the rise of fast food restaurants that allow us to grab and go to allow us to get back to work quickly. Most have to rush home from work to take their kids to practice or do an extracurricular activity. That schedule allows people to get a lot done in a 24 hour period. But, it also forces some things like health and fitness to get pushed into the “non-urgent” pile for later. While the rise of fast food chains satisfied a need, it also caused in the future.

The typical fast food restaurant meal


The typical fast food meal is going to give you a piece of meat (chicken or beef typically) and potatoes. This type of ingredients in a meal allows fast food companies to keep inventory for long periods of time and increase profits. The “burger and fries” meal grew in popularity becoming a staple for a lot of working families. That company model of business was excellent by combining low prices and convenience for people with little time to cook after work. As more women worked instead of staying home, there was an increased demand being met. But as those families kids have grown, that way of structuring a meal has been cemented in their minds. Imagine when someone who grew up with fast food dinners goes to cook for themselves in their 20’s and 30’s. It’s tough for them to even imagine what a healthy meal is comprised of.

When you suggest adding broccoli to someone that grew up on fast food you get a reaction like..

steve harvey

Let’s be honest, broccoli doesn’t taste as good as french fries or a double cheeseburger and it takes more preparation than a drive thru order. The way we eat when we’re younger really has a significant impact in the way we eat as adults. I work with a lot of Latin American athletes that have it hard wired into their brains that a balanced meal includes meat, beans, and rice. I’ve found the best way to fix that is to give a visual. Explaining things aren’t nearly as effective as just showing what a healthy plate is.

With the typical plate including about 50-70% bread or potato and the rest coming from meat (sorry the lettuce doesn’t count as a veggie), we have an easy fix to dramatically improve the overall value of our meals. By lowering the amount of bread or potato and incorporating a veggie like broccoli, carrots, spinach, or cauliflower you are taking out some carbs and adding in vitamins and minerals. Not to mention, veggies are very low in calories but still fill you up. By avoiding fast food all together and cooking meals yourself, you save money and have the final say in what ingredients go in. So it’s so vital to learn about how to do it right.

Here are two examples of how to build a healthy plate:

The above graphics show a way to divide up your plate proportionally. In these two examples, you can see that a majority of your plate should be comprised of vegetables. Next, it’s important to have close to a 50/50 split between protein and starches. The plate on the left shows a section for grains and a section for fruits, while the other shows a combination of the two. However you want to slice it, the point is that you should start thinking of your meals in terms of what it can offer you.

The next visual will show how you can decide what is the right portion size.

serving sizes fist

When putting a plate together, use two fists or palms to determine the right serving size for vegetables. Grains and fruits are more like a handful and for proteins use your one palm as a measurement. Fat should be consumed in smaller quantities, so you should use a thumb instead to determine the correct amount. Here is a great graphic from Precision Nutrition showing these serving sizes:

precision nutrition guide

This should be a good visual for those of you struggling to picture what a good plate should look like. If you can see it, you can do it. At times, your schedule may not allow for a home cooked meal. But at that point, it’s about making the best choice out of what you’re left with. Most fast food chains have realized that their customers are growing health conscious and as a result have included some better items. I suggest trying most of the salads or grilled chickens items and asking to substitute fries with something else. Chick-Fil-A has greek yogurt as a side item replacement for their fries and also has grilled chicken nuggets on the menu. That is a way to do damage control and get back to your regular schedule the following day.

Take home messages:

  • Think of your food in terms of what it can offer you rather than how great it tastes. There are plenty of foods that taste great and still offer more nutrients.
  • Try to split up your plate by carbs, fats, proteins, and veggies. Make sure veggies take up a larger portion of your plate than anything else. Protein is next in line for priority, then carbs and fats. 
  • Although fast food offers convenience, it is not offering the proper balance. Your nutrition goals are too important to spend time wasting money on things that give you very little nutritional advantages. Your health outweighs any anything that fast food may provide unless you are in a real pinch. If you are, sub out the fries for a healthier side and try to pick something like grilled chicken. 

Published by strengthcoach7

Graduated from Florida State University with a Masters in Sports Sciences. Strength and conditioning coach, Sports Scientist, and passion to help people find their athleticism.

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