Planning Balanced Meals

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a healthy diet is one that

  • Emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products;
  • Includes lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts; and
  • Is low in saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt (sodium), and added sugars.

All foods can be incorporated into a healthy diet as long as balance, moderation, and variation take place. Consuming a variety of foods each day is necessary to obtain all of the essential nutrients required for optimal health. Preferences for flavor, taste, and texture impact personal food choices. Choosing nutrient-dense foods or whole foods—those that are less processed—will assist with achieving a balanced and healthy diet. Daily nutrition needs also vary according to age group. Infants, children, and adolescents have certain nutritional requirements to aid in growth and development.

Basic Food Groups

There are five basic food groups that should be incorporated into a daily diet. These consist of the following:

  • Grains
  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Dairy
  • Protein


Grains are divided into 2 subgroups, whole grains and refined grains. Any food made from wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley or another cereal grain is a grain product. Bread, pasta, oatmeal, breakfast cereals, tortillas, and grits are examples of grain products.

Whole grains contain the entire grain kernel —the bran, germ, and endosperm—and provide the most nutrients. Whole grains include oatmeal, whole-wheat flour, bulgur (cracked wheat), whole cornmeal, and brown rice.

Refined grains have been milled, a process that removes the bran and germ. This gives grains a finer texture and extends the shelf-life, but it also removes dietary fiber, iron, and vitamin B. Refined grains include white flour, fine cornmeal, white bread, and white rice.


All vegetables, such as broccoli, green beans, etc., or 100% vegetable juice are part of the vegetable group. Vegetables may be raw or cooked; fresh, frozen, canned, or dried (beans and peas)/dehydrated. Starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, should be eaten in moderation.


Any fruit, such as bananas, apples, oranges, etc., or 100% fruit juice counts as part of the fruit group. Fruits may be fresh, canned, frozen, or dried, and may be whole, cut-up, or puréed.


All fluid milk products and many foods made from milk, which retain their calcium content, are considered part of this food group. Foods made from milk that have little to no calcium, such as cream cheese, cream, and butter, are not considered in this group. Most dairy group choices should be fat-free or low-fat.


All meat, poultry, fish, dry beans or peas, eggs, nuts, and seeds are part of the protein food group. Dry beans and peas are part of this group as well as the vegetable group. Most meat and poultry choices should be lean or low-fat. Fish, nuts, and seeds contain healthy oils, so incorporate these foods frequently in your diet.

Meal Planning

Every meal should include at least three of the food groups

Every meal should include at least three of the food groups. Ideally, half of a meal plate should be vegetables, one quarter lean protein, and one quarter starches. (See chart.)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s website at www.ChooseMyPlate.gov is a wealth of information and allows you to customize a balanced diet to fit your lifestyle.

Pantry Staples

To help make preparing meals at home easy, it is good to have certain shelf-stable products on hand. Plan your meals weekly and try to limit trips to the grocery store to once a week for fresh items, such as vegetables, fruits, milk, and protein.

Dry Goods/ Shelf-Stable Products

Seasonings, such as salt and black pepper, as well as dried herbs and spices, enhance the flavor of food. There are many choices for prepared spice and herb combinations that can be used as dry rubs or seasonings for protein. Dried herbs stay fresh for up to six months.

Condiments, such as mayonnaise, mustard, relish and ketchup can be used on their own or to make sauces.

Steak sauces can be used as a marinade as well as a sauce.

Olive oil should be kept at room temperature with the top screwed on tightly. If properly stored, opened olive oil will last for six months.

Vinegar, such as balsamic, apple cider, etc., can be used to make dressings and marinades.

Flour, baking soda, baking powder, and cornstarch are used to make baked goods and as thickeners for sauces.

Canned vegetables and beans, such as tomatoes, corn, black beans and garbanzo beans can be used for soups and stews, as well as served as side dishes.

Chicken broth is used as a base for soups and stews, as well as for sauces.

Rice and pasta are easy to prepare as an accompaniment to protein.

Pasta sauce is a great staple that can be used as a sauce for just about any protein.

Onions and potatoes provide flavor to soups and stews, and can be served as a side dish. When stored in a cool, dry place, they will stay fresh for up to two months.

Bread lasts for one week when stored at room temperature, but can last for several weeks if frozen. Frozen bread thaws quickly at room temperature and can also be toasted straight from the freezer.

Wine stays fresh for a few days after opening. Wine can be used to sauté and deglaze and adds a rich depth of flavor to sauces and entrées.

Refrigerated Items

Butter adds flavor to many food items. Store butter in the refrigerator for up to three months or in the freezer for up to twelve months.

Eggs should be stored in the original carton or in a closed container in the refrigerator for 3-4 weeks.

Cheese is a great topping for vegetables and as an ingredient for sauces.

Milk should be kept on hand for cereal and to use for baking or to make sauces.