How to plan balanced meals

Times have changed and today almost everyone you meet knows the importance of eating healthy and if you are ready to lend an ear, they will probably even end up giving you ‘gyaan’ on what to eat and what not to eat. This is a welcome change, but what I notice is that most people have no idea on how to plan out a balanced diet.

Including ‘healthy foods’ in your diet is great, but how does one make sure that each meal that is consumed is providing the body with the nutrients needed on a daily basis? Take for example a plate of chapathi and beetroot palya – it can pass as ‘healthy food’ but it certainly isn’t a balanced meal. What could be missing?

Protein, if I have to name just one nutrient. Including a cup of dal or adding some kalu (kabuli or kadale) to the beetroot palya itself will add the much needed protein to the meal. Making similar simple additions can make a balanced meal out of the same.

Planning and eating a balanced diet isn’t exactly rocket science nor do you need to get a diet chart for the entire family from a dietitian for that. For starters, let’s try to understand what exactly a ‘Balanced diet’ means. The human body requires certain nutrients on a regular basis for optimal growth and development. Any nutrient which is missing over a period of time can cause deficiency disease. Take for example the mineral iron – the absence of iron in the diet over a period of time causes anaemia.

Just like iron there are a number of other minerals, vitamins, carbohydrates, proteins and such that are needed by the body. For this reason, it becomes imperative that we plan our meals such that they provide the body with the maximum number of (if not all) essential nutrients possible.

Planning and cooking a balanced meal can be very easy if you keep these 3 steps in mind:

Step 1: Choose an item from each of the four food groups mentioned

  1. Whole grains are full of energy-giving carbohydrates that the body uses as fuel, along with minerals, vitamins and fibre. Try opting for whole grains as these are more nutritious than their refined versions like maida, white bread, noodles, etc. Use unpolished/ semi polished rice or par boiled rice, make chapathis, phulkas or rotti from whole wheat flour, jowar, bajra, corn/makkai, ragi. If you love experimenting, then you could try using oats or broken wheat (dalia) in pulav’s, khichdi’s or bisi bele bhat.
  2. Vegetables and fruits are a great way of getting different vitamins, minerals along with fiber. Aim at including at least two different vegetables, a salad and a fruit instead of dessert/sweets during meal times. Fresh seasonal vegetables, soppu (green leafy veggies) and fruits are loaded with a variety of nutrients. I usually try to buy my fruits and veggies from the neighbourhood ‘tarkari angadi’ (vegetable shop) as they tend to stock fresh vegetables on a daily basis unlike the supermarket chains who have their delivery days just once or twice a week. Buying and consuming fresh veggies ensures that you get the maximum food benefits as nutrients tend to diminish over a period of time. Frozen veggies are a good option for those who are hard pressed for time.
  3. Pulses/lentil/lean meat provide the much needed protein which is needed for growth and replacement of tissues. Vegetarians can choose from a wide variety of dals (bele’s) like togari/ tur, masoor, kadale bele/channa , mung or whole pulses(kalu) like alasande kalu/lobia(black eyed peas),hesarukalu (whole mung), kabuli channa, kadale kalu (brown channa) among others. Sprouting these pulses not only increases the nutrition count but also makes them easy to digest. Soy and soy products like tofu, soy nuggets/granules are another excellent source of protein. Non vegetarians can also choose from lean meat like chicken (skin-out), fish or eggs.
  4. Milk and milk products are an excellent source of calcium and protein. You can add low-fat curd to the salad (raitha) or end your meal with a katori of curd or curd rice or even a glass of majjige/buttermilk. Soy milk is a good substitute for those who are lactose intolerant.

Once you have chosen an item from each group you can decide the dishes you want to make them into.

Step 2: Use very little oil for cooking as far as possible.

Try to make phulkas/rotti without oil or use as little oil as possible. Use just 2-3 tsp oil while making the palya/sabzi’s and sambar/ curries.

Step 3: When serving keep in mind ‘portion sizes’

Eating anything in excess, even healthy food, can have undesirable effects. Here is a picture to make it easier to understand and stick to portion sizes during meal times:

Image courtesy: USDA, Choose MYPlate. gov

As seen in the picture: try to mentally divide your plate into two halves – one half should contain the palya/sabzi (1-2 varieties), a fruit/salad and the other half can be further divided into two portions – one for the whole grain and the other for the dal/pulse(protein) item. Following this makes it easy to avoid overeating which can result in unnecessary weight gain.

Once you get these basic steps correct, you can go a step further and plan out healthy meals not just for the day but for the entire week. Doing so will also help you:

  1. Eat a variety of healthy meals on a regular basis,
  2. Plan your grocery list in advance – that way you don’t end up buying more than you will need,
  3. Save time and money – buying things from the list helps avoid impulse buying and will shorten the time spent in shopping.

Sometimes when I’m in a hurry and have no time to make separate dishes I add the vegetables to the dal/sambar or add some kalu or bele into my palya. Next time try adding some mung dal to the beans palya or kabuli channa to your tondekai (tendli) palya. Bisi bele bath with lots of veggies, combined with cucumber raitha and a fruit can be a quick and easy one-pot meal. Use your imagination and you’ll be surprised at the number of new recipes you can dish out.

A little planning never hurt anyone – and if the planning is for a healthy and balanced meal, then you (and your family) have only benefits to reap at the end of the day!

About Sweta Uchil-Purohit 14 Articles
Sweta Uchil-Purohit is a dietitian with over 15 years of experience in the field of nutrition and dietetics with a passion for helping people understand the topic.

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