Tag: Protein

Nourishment for High School Graduates: Basics of Vegetarian Nutrition

Nourishment for High School Graduates: Basics of Vegetarian Nutrition

Welcome to the sixth installment of the Nourishment for High School Graduates series. In the previous posts, I laid out several of the challenges that young adults face when first leaving home and how these challenges affect nutrition,  talked about planning balanced, satisfying meals and 

Nourishment for High School Graduates: Snacking for Health and Productivity

Nourishment for High School Graduates: Snacking for Health and Productivity

Welcome back to the third installment of the Nourishment for High School Graduates series. In the first post, I laid out several of the challenges that young adults face when first leaving home and how these challenges affect nutrition. In the second post, I talked 

Nourishment for High School Graduates: Meal Planning

Nourishment for High School Graduates: Meal Planning

Welcome back to the second installment of the Nourishment for High School Graduates series. In the first post, I laid out several of the challenges that young adults face when first leaving home and how these challenges affect nutrition. The main challenges are limited time, space, and money. To read that full post, click here.

In this week’s post, I’ll talk more about planning out balanced meals to help ensure that no matter how much time or money you’re spending, your meals will give you what you need.


Photo by Anete LusinaMeal planning is, in my opinion, the backbone of good nutrition. Used appropriately, it provides a structure and framework for getting the nutrition you need while being flexible enough to adapt to life’s circumstances. Good meal planning can help ensure that your meals are balanced and satisfying. That way you get what you need and can then move on with your day.

For our purposes here “meal planning,” doesn’t mean, “menu planning”. Menu planning is essentially deciding in advance what you will eat. Some menus are more loose and some are more structured. Writing a menu is also good, but not completely necessary. Meal planning on the other hand, means looking at what you have available to you and putting together a meal that will be balanced and satisfying. It should always be a part of menu planning, but it isn’t the same thing.

So what does a well-planned, nutritionally-balanced meal look like? This will vary, of course, but in general it will have enough calories to meet your energy needs, protein to keep you satisfied, fat to provide flavor and slow down digestion, and fiber to provide a sense of fullness. It should also look and taste pleasant so you don’t find yourself feeling unsatisfied afterwards and looking for something else to hit the spot.

There are several different schemes out there for creating a balanced meal. Here are my two favorites:

Method 1 (the simplest):

Make sure each meal contains at least a serving each of foods from at least three different food groups (more is great, just aim for three as a minimum). As a reminder, the food groups include meat/beans/nuts, dairy, grains, vegetables, and fruits. (Yes, fats/oils is another food group, but it doesn’t need a category of its own for meal planning. As we will discuss in a later part of this series, fat will be incorporated into the other foods that you eat.) This is a very simple method and while not every meal will be perfect when you follow it, as long as you vary which three food groups you are eating from, your diet should be well-balanced overall. This method is best-suited for individuals who don’t necessarily know a lot about nutrition but would like some structure.

Examples of Meals with Foods from at Least 3 Food Groups

Breakfast Lunch Dinner

Scrambled Eggs
Whole Wheat Toast (Grains)
Sliced Pears (Fruit)

Bean and Cheese Burrito (Meat/Beans/Nuts, Dairy, Grains)
Green Salad (Vegetables)

Spaghetti (Grains)
Ground Beef in Marinara Sauce (Meat/Beans/Nuts, some Vegetables)
Green Beans (Vegetables)

Oatmeal (Grains)
made with Milk (Dairy)
sliced Bananas (Fruit)

Macaroni and Cheese (Grains, some Dairy)
with Tuna (Meat/Beans/Nuts)
Broccoli (Vegetables) 

Pizza (Grains, Dairy)
Sliced Watermelon (Fruits)

Method 2 (my favorite):

Make sure that each meal has the following components:

  • Protein
  • Starch
  • Vegetable or Fruit

That’s it! It’s not incredibly complicated, but you do need to know what those things are.

First, protein is the building block of your body. It is made up of chains of amino acids. Your body will take apart these chains and use them to make proteins of its own. You need it for almost every process and every tissue of  your body including muscle growth, immune function, and digestion. Additionally, protein provides a long-lasting sense of fullness to get you through to your next meal or snack without feeling deprived.

Common foods that provide a good amount of protein include meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, eggs, beans, nuts, peanut butter, lentils, cheese, milk, yogurt, tofu, and tempeh. While protein doesn’t need to be the star of every meal, be sure to include at least a serving or two of a protein-rich food.

Second, starches are carbohydrates that are generally neutral in flavor, not sweet like sugars. Don’t be afraid of carbohydrates! They’ve gotten a bad reputation in the last couple decades. This is mostly due to a series of popular, and mostly unsustainable, fad diets. Carbohydrates are the preferred source of energy for your brain. When we don’t get enough carbohydrates, we tend to see increases in binge eating, have more difficulty concentrating, and have a harder time keeping our eating consistent. When carbohydrates are eaten in balance with other nutrients, they do not cause a problem. It’s only when eaten in excess or in specific disease states that they are a problem. Carbohydrates tend to be the main component of a meal that helps us fill up. This is important again so that you don’t find yourself grazing for hours trying to find something to help you top off. They also tend to cost less, which is very important when your resources are limited and you shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed of eating them.

Your best options are starches that are also high in fiber. Fiber helps slow down the digestion and absorption of carbohydrates. This helps ensure that the carbohydrates that you eat don’t cause your blood sugar to spike and then crash. It also ensures that the energy you get from the carbohydrates will last longer and get you from one meal to the next. Eating some refined carbohydrates won’t hurt you, but try to choose high-fiber, complex carbohydrates as often as possible.

Common foods that are rich in complex carbohydrates include whole grain bread, tortillas, crackers, and pastas, potatoes with the skin on, sweet potatoes, winter squash, brown rice, quinoa, corn, beans, lentils, and peas.

Third, a vegetable or fruit is exactly what it sounds like: vegetables and fruit. In general, I like to have a fruit at breakfast and a vegetable at lunch and dinner. (I usually eat more fruit during snacks and I will talk more about that in the next post.) This is the way that I am accustomed to eating so it may or may not work for you. Some people don’t want anything sweet in the morning and that is absolutely fine! Sometimes you have a whole watermelon to get through and it makes sense to have watermelon at dinner. Go for it! Just make sure that in general you have at least one serving of a vegetable or a fruit and that you vary what you are eating. For most vegetables that means about ½ cup cooked or 1 cup raw. For fruit it’s about ¾ cup raw or a piece the size of a tennis ball. More is great too. It can be on the side or incorporated as part of another dish.

So what vegetables and fruits should you eat? Any vegetable or fruit will do. Rather than worry about which vegetables are best, just make sure that you change it up and eat a variety as much as possible. Now is a great time to try new vegetables and fruits as well. You may well find out, as I did, that as an adult your tastes will start to change and foods that you found unappealing as a child are actually quite tasty and satisfying.

Examples of Meals with Protein, Starch, and a Vegetable/Fruit

Breakfast Lunch Dinner

Cold Cereal (Starch)
Soy or Cow’s Milk (Protein)
Peaches (Fruit)

Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich (Grains, Protein)
String Cheese (Protein)
Apple (Fruit)

Baked Potato (Starch)
Chili con Carne (Protein)
Cheese (Protein)
Side Salad (Vegetable)

Cheese Omelet (Protein)
with Spinach (Vegetable)
Whole Wheat Toast (Starch)

Taco Salad made with lettuce, tomatoes, salsa (Vegetables), taco meat, beans, cheese (Proteins), and tortilla chips (Starch)

Minestrone Soup (Protein, Vegetable, some Starch)
Garlic Bread (Starch)

Putting it all together:

So what does a well-planned meal look like? It may look a lot like a picture of MyPlate with a piece of fish, a large salad, a piece of fruit, a glass of milk, and a whole wheat roll. It could also be a tuna noodle casserole with ample amounts of broccoli and carrots added in, a split pea soup with crackers, or pizza with green beans. The combination is really up to you. So when you’re deciding what to eat for breakfast, pack for lunch, make for dinner, or select from the cafeteria, look at what you have available to you, think about what sounds appealing, and then check off your mental checklist for either 3+ food groups or a protein, a starch, and a vegetable/fruit.

With either of those two methods as a guide, you are well on your way to balanced, satisfying meals. It will take extra thought at first, but it will quickly become a habit to scan your plate or your kitchen and make sure that you have the needed components. Of course not every meal will be perfect and that is okay. Good nutrition happens over the course of weeks and months, so if most of your meals are planned well, you will be fine and get the nutrition that you need.

Other Posts from the Nourishment for High School Graduates Series:

The Challenges to Good Health and Nutrition

Snacking for Health and Productivity

Upgrading Your Cheap and Easy Meals

Eating When Time, Space, and Money are Limited

Basics of Vegetarian Nutrition