Plan Healthy Meals for Your Family

Mother teasing daughter in kitchen whilst making smoothies
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Planning healthy meals isn't any more difficult than planning less-than-healthy meals. You just need to upgrade your ingredients and choose healthier cooking methods.

Consider the nutritional value, flavors, amount of food, time and difficulty, and the cost of ingredients when you plan your meals. If you're not an experienced cook, you may want to start with recipes that are easy to prepare and don't take too long. I keep track of all my favorite recipes on an app called Real Recipes that I can access from my smartphone (perfect for when I'm at the grocery store and need to check the ingredients list). If you don't need to serve large family-style meals, you can also use tips for planning meals for one or two people.

Think of each meal as it will be served on the plate. One-quarter of the plate is for your protein source, one-quarter is for grains, and half is for vegetables.

Choose Your Protein Source

Start with your primary protein source, usually poultry, fish or seafood, a lean cut of beef or pork, or a vegetarian protein like dry beans or tofu. Keep your protein healthy by using the best cooking methods—braise, bake, roast, or stir-fry your proteins, and steam or roast your veggies. These preparations require little to no added oil.

Add Veggies, Lots of Veggies

Half of each plate is reserved for vegetables because they're rich in vitamins, minerals, and fiber, and they're usually fairly low in calories as long as you don't douse them with heavy sauces. How do you know which vegetables go best with your protein source? This is really a personal preference, and the more meals you plan, the better you'll get at choosing foods that complement each other. Vegetables add flavor, color, and texture to your meal.

You don't have to cook only one vegetable, either. You can prepare two different vegetables; just be sure at least one is a green or colorful vegetable — don't double up on the starchier foods, such as potatoes, rice or polenta.

Don't Forget the Whole Grains

One-quarter of the plate is reserved for grains, which is usually a slice of bread or a roll. You can also serve a bit of pasta or a casserole like macaroni and cheese. Choose 100-percent whole grain products for extra fiber and nutrients.

Finish with Healthy Beverages

Serve a healthy beverage with your meal. Plain water is always a good choice, and you can also serve low-fat milk, 100-percent fruit juice, sparkling water, or even a small glass of regular wine, if you choose to consume alcohol, or dealcoholized wine if you choose not to.

What About Cost Concerns?

If you're concerned about cost, you already know how expensive a trip to the grocery store can be. Plan your meals for a week, use ingredients more than once or incorporate your leftovers into lunch or another dinner. You can also stock up on bulk foods when they're on sale. Have an assortment of dried herbs and spices on hand and buy fresh herbs when you need them. Fresh herbs can usually be frozen too.

A Few More Tips

You may need to consider the time it takes to prepare a meal and the skill level. Recipes will usually explain how long it takes to make the dish, so compare the times for each dish—start each dish so they all get done at the same time. You can save time with prepared foods from the deli section of the grocery store, or you can buy frozen vegetables that are ready to steam in your microwave.

Think about food volume. Do you and your family have big appetites or small ones? If you feel like your meal is going to leave you feeling hungry, add a garden salad or vegetable soup for extra volume without a lot of extra calories. Don't add too much dressing to your salad and steer clear of creamy soups. If you've saved room for dessert, choose fruit or berries instead of high-calorie ice creams, cookies, or cake.

By Shereen Lehman, MS
Shereen Lehman, MS, is a former writer for Verywell Fit and Reuters Health. She's a healthcare journalist who writes about healthy eating and offers evidence-based advice for regular people.