What Does a Balanced Meal Look Like?

How to Make a Balanced Meal  

One of the things I hear on repeat is that ‘meals just don’t taste good’ which often leads to dissatisfaction in a number of ways. Your taste buds aren’t satisfied so you reach for more even after you’re no longer hungry, nibbling on this and that and ultimately being dissatisfied and frustrated at overeating — or in some cases, undereating — because of it. 

OR

You’re needing to eat a certain way to heal your digestive system, but “it’s so boring” and “it just doesn’t taste good.” And you resist the healing effect that should be taking place.   

OR

You want to eat intuitively, but you’re overcome by cravings for “junk foods” and comfort foods and simply don’t want to eat “healthy foods.”

The Balanced Plate

One of the best ways to solve a lot of the problems listed above is to build meals that are balanced. This means your meal includes the six primary flavors of sweet, salty, sour, bitter, pungent, and astringent

But it also means there’s a balance of those flavors, in the ideal-for-you proportions. A way that tends to be both nutritious and simple to apply is dividing those six flavors into categories of building and lightening foods. 

You can ask the question of each food ingredient, will this build my body or lighten it?, to help you.

Here’s a good list:

Building Foods (comprising the flavors of sweet, sour, and salty)
Whole Grains
Sweet Vegetables (often root vegetables)
Dairy
Oils
Sweeteners
Fruit
Animal Protein

Lightening Foods (comprising pungent, bitter, and astringent flavors)
Beans and Legumes
Nuts and Seeds
Green Vegetables
Spicy/Bitter/Pungent Vegetables – such as radishes, horseradish, spicy turnips, onions, garlic, and hot/spicy peppers, eggplants
Fresh Herbs
Spices

An Ideal Ratio for Your Balanced Plate

What’s an ideal ratio of building and lightening foods? This can depend on the person, but not as much as you might think. For most, aiming for a ratio of 60% building foods and 40% lightening is ideal.
In the process of doing this, you’ll also nearly always incorporate the six flavors, and meals start to taste better, you enjoy them more, and you notice that you’re feeling satisfied without reaching for more — or struggling to eat because nothing tastes good. 

Omnivore Balanced Plate

To make a basic meal that contains meat or eggs, it’s good to think about splitting the 60/40 ratio into the different components. I recommend 20% meat or eggs, 20% whole grain, and 20% sweet vegetables, like carrots, peas, or zucchini. Then the 40% can be mostly leafy greens, like romaine lettuce with a drizzle of vinaigrette dressing, a small handful of chopped nuts or seeds, and a pinch of fresh basil or mint.
When you add in the oil/fat, spice and seasoning components, depending on your preference for the meal, it will be complete, satisfying, and balanced. 

Plant-Based  or Vegan Balanced Plate

To make a basic meal that’s free from most animal products, split your 60/40 ratio into a whole grain, a sweet vegetable, a legume, and a green/astringent vegetable. Start with 30% whole grain, and 30% sweet vegetables, like any of the examples above or fennel, sweet potato, or corn. Then the 40% can be split between 20% legume, tofu, or tempeh, and 20% leafy greens, like cabbage with a nut-based dressing, and a pinch of fresh basil or mint.
When you add in the oil/fat, spice and seasoning components, depending on your preference for the meal, again, it will be complete, satisfying, and balanced. 

One Idea, Many Variations

The beauty of this Balanced Plate idea is that ultimately, it can apply to any type of food, cuisine or flavoring profile. It worked out just fine when I made a Lasagna, rolled up ingredients into a Sushi Burrito, make homemade Pizza, pasta or noodles, and more.

It also helps to keep this idea in mind when you’re eating out. When your preferred dish on a menu isn’t quite as balanced as this, is there a way to make it a little more so by choosing a specific side or leaving off/adding something? 

But I’m an athlete training for a race and need lots of food! Does this balanced meal ratio apply?

Yes, it does! There are two frequent meal scenarios that athletes tend to get into before recovery or performance starts to suffer. Either there’s not enough of the lightening / green vegetable component to most meals OR there’s too much of it, and not enough of the whole grains, root vegetables and (for plant-based athletes), beans or legumes. If you think one of these might apply to you, see if you can add in more of what’s missing, and see how you start to feel. 

One Final Caveat

These percentages are not meant to be exact or obsessively measured. When you look at your plate, does about 60 percent of it contain a grain, sweet root vegetable, and maybe an animal protein or dairy? And does about 40 percent of it look like it’s green vegetables and maybe beans and a sprinkle of toasted nuts? That’s what we’re aiming for here. 

When you begin to eat more meals that have a balance of the flavors in ideal proportions, you’ll also notice that ongoing digestive symptoms may begin to reduce and eventually go away. And because meals simply taste better without being elaborate or extra complicated, cravings and over- or under-eating begins to be less of an everyday issue.

Much of my nutrition practice is focused on individuals and athletes with digestive health issues such as leaky gut, food allergies and intolerances, chronic GI distress, malabsorption of foods and nutrients, and inflammation. If you’re tired, stressed, and not really sure what to eat to help or hurt anymore, I invite you to reach out to me for more personalized support.

Oat + Almond Chocolate Date Cookies

Dropping in quick with a delicious and nutritious treat to share. May, my favorite and birthday month, is whirling by too quick. I want to grasp late-spring and hold on to it for weeks longer. Bury my nose in the spring flowers. But alas, we move and run on.

I’m on for a longish Friday morning run once I hit publish on this recipe share, and will follow it with a full weekend of running before next week’s rest week. I’m all for the higher mileage weeks in spring and summer, and somehow the busy work and life weeks are lining up with the higher mileage running weeks. Not sure if that’s a good thing but it’s nice to have the lighter running weeks also be the lighter work weeks.

It’s some sort of balance anyway.

Related, just a teensy bit, to the running commentary above, I found out this morning that my childhood and teenage riding instructor/coach/mentor passed away in the last couple days. He was 92 and lived a full life of loving, encouraging, teaching, and leaving a lasting impression on so many — horses and kids/people. He will be deeply missed. By me certainly, but also by so many others.

Even though I’ve barely seen him in person the last few years, he is a person I think of often. That’s what happens when we have wonderful mentors. They leave an impression far beyond the period of life when we needed them for riding lessons or whatever it is, and weave their good-life-advice into our minds where it shows up at just the time we need it over the years beyond.

So even though I didn’t run regularly when I worked with him back then, his advice has often shown up in the way I handle a tough run workout or a bad result, and certainly in my work life with how I want the best for those I work with, and wonder about how they’re doing long after I’ve stopped teaching or working with them.

Those impressions that rub off and are pressed in.

Oat + Almond Chocolate Date Cookies, makes 12
These are a delicious quick treat to make and eat. They’re excellent for those who are active and want to enjoy snacks or treats that contribute to optimal athletic recovery rather than take away from it with excess refined sugars and flours. For the same reason, they work well for most when you’d love a sweet treat but are eating a gut healing/therapeutic diet or learning to eat with less processed dessert products. Note these are flour-free but not grain free.
Helpful Notes:
– Grind old-fashioned oats into a smaller texture by pulsing a few times in a food processor or coffee/spice grinder.
– For certified organic and gluten-free oats in the US, my preferred supplier is Edison Grainery.
– If you’re avoiding nuts, use sunflower butter or tahini and grind raw sunflower seeds into a “flour” using a clean coffee grinder.
– Purchase a good-quality dark chocolate bar and chop it into chunks. You’ll taste the difference over purchasing a lower-quality chocolate. For a list of good quality/fair-trade chocolates and which ones are better to avoid, see here.

1/4 cup / 37 g packed pitted dates (about 3 large dates)
3 Tbs. / 45 ml warm water
2 Tbs. / 27 g coconut oil
2 Tbs. /40 ml maple syrup
2 Tbs. / 14 g ground flax seeds
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup / 128 g almond butter (or another nut/seed butter)
1/2 cup / 50 g quick oats
1/4 cup / 28 g almond flour
3/8 tsp. baking soda
1/8 tsp. salt
1/4 cup / 35 g dark chocolate chunks, (chop a dark chocolate bar until you have 1/4 cup of chunks)

  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Place the pitted dates and warm water in a food processor or blender and soak for at least 5 minutes.
  • Add the coconut oil and maple syrup to the dates and water and blend until smooth. Then transfer the mixture to a small mixing bowl.
  • Add the ground flax and vanilla, along with the almond butter. Stir until mixed well.
  • Stir in the remaining ingredients until well combined. I haven’t tried it yet, but in enjoying some of this last batch, I’ve decided that just a little finely diced candied ginger added to the mixture would be a truly excellent addition. Try it if you think so too. :)
  • Drop the dough by tablespoons or using a cookie scoop into 12 equal portions on a baking pan and bake for 10-14 minutes, depending on your pan and oven. These will be a little softer at first, but will also stay softer for a few days compared to other drop cookies.
  • Let cool on the pan for a couple minutes before transferring to a cooling rack.

Breakfast Tacos with Black Beans + Egg Scramble

A couple weeks ago, I made puff pastry, a cooking project I’ve long considered, but never before attempted. Puff pastry is so rich in butter, containing nearly more butter than anything else, that’s its the ultimate antithesis of a food you might think a nutritionist would make and eat.

It was a project well worth my time and effort. Gluten free, dairy-free (using Miyoko’s cultured ‘butter’), and more rich in refined starches than would be my norm. And it was an eight-hour kitchen project just to turn and fold and chill the dough.

The process and end result was so satisfying. I used the pastry the following day to make a spring asparagus, radish, and egg-topped tart which was super easy to finish and bake, but tasted like, well, I’d spent more than eight hours meticulously turning and folding it.

That puff pastry crunch as our teeth sank into each bite.

In the days that followed, the topic of puff pastry has come up again and again on repeat. In The Great British Baking Show, a past season I’ve been watching for the first time ever. And, multiple nights in a row, I woke up somewhere around 3am from a dream about getting my pastry baked in time, having enough room in the oven, measuring and folding my puff pastry correctly. A direct result of watching the show with apt attention for too many nights in a row.

Puff pastry again in a book I’m listening to on becoming a French chef.

And then another in a new recipe sent to my email from a baking blog I follow, but have never actually baked from.

I consider that when topics or ideas keep repeating themselves in rapid succession in my life, there’s meaning there. But what’s the meaning of puff pastry on repeat?

And what does that have to do with these breakfast tacos?

One thing I realized was just how much joy I found in the process. How little nutrition brain was involved in the making. Is the puff pastry good for me? Yes, unequivocally yes. For any creative process that brings that much joy, present moment awareness, and time just being lost in the process is certainly good for me / us.

Is it nutritionally sound? Certainly not everyday.

It’s taken me nearly 15 years and a whole lot of practice, therapeutic reprogramming, health crises, and grad school to realize that health is about a lot more than just the nutritional components of what we put into our mouth.

Does what we eat matter? Absolutely.

But what our body does with the food, what mindset or stress-state we eat it in, are we enjoying it with full attention or just half-heartedly chewing while doing something else? I’m coming to believe those matter even more. It took me something like these past 15 years to achieve puff pastry freedom from the food police in my brain, and just have joy in the process.

And that’s something to be proud of.

In an earlier article I wrote this year on Intuitive Eating and Cravings, which has quickly become a popular one, I spoke to the idea that we often need to balance our body first before we can decipher between what our body actually wants (intuition) and what our mind desires (cravings).

Was puff pastry an intuition or a craving?

For me, it was neither. It was a cooking project that I’ve long considered quite challenging, especially with gluten-free flour. That I just happened to eat. I love that there’s room for that in my current life.

One thing I’ve realized after I spent more time learning about the purpose of balancing flavors and optimizing a food’s digestibility is that when those two are done, the flavor and yum-factor is usually there by default. And in contrast, some of the recipes I see published that I might have reached for previously stand out to me as overly spiced, one-sided, leaning too heavily on one taste aspect or effect, and containing too many components that stimulate me/us on various levels. Or are just plain too difficult to digest. The more I notice it, the more I notice the effect it has on my mind and body.

As I focus on the balancing flavors in the everyday meal-after-meal routine, the intuitive of what my body needs / wants becomes infinitely more clear. And what it doesn’t want when I temporarily stray from that does too.

So that’s what these breakfast tacos are.

A colorful, flavorful, texture-rich, balanced taste, and for all that, actually-easy taco plate. They may have breakfast in their title, but I enjoy them much more as a weekend after-run brunch or weeknight meal.

Hope you enjoy! If you try them out, leave a comment and let me know how you enjoy them.

Breakfast Tacos with Black Beans and Egg Scramble

Switch up radishes for another seasonal vegetable as desired, add more of your tortillas as needed, or switch them out for rice to make more of a plate-style meal instead of tacos.
The black beans should make enough for a double batch (about 4 servings) to be used for another meal. 

Prep:  overnight   | Cook: 3-4 hours (for beans); 15-20  minutes  to finish  | Serves: about 2

1 small avocado
1 lime, zest and juice
olive oil for cooking eggs
pinch of mineral salt
2 eggs
1 tsp. olive oil
⅛ tsp. salt
½ tsp. smoked paprika
1 bunch of radishes, quartered
cooked black beans, see below
6 small  tortillas (6”)
small handful of cilantro, minced

Black Beans
1 cup dry black beans, soaked overnight
¾ tsp. mineral salt
1 ½ tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. ground coriander
¼ tsp. ground black pepper
1 bay leaf
water to cover by 3-4 inches

  1. A few hours before or in the morning, cook black beans in a medium pot in the spices and water until very soft and flavorful. This is best done for at least 3-4 hours, adding water as needed. 
  2. To prepare breakfast tacos, peel and pit the avocado and mash in a small bowl. Zest the lime and stir in lime zest, salt, and then juice from at least half of the lime. Add more juice as needed. Set aside. 
  3. Scramble the uncooked eggs in a small bowl, add a dash of salt and pepper, and set aside. 
  4. Add the olive oil, ⅛ tsp. salt, and paprika to a sauté pan. Heat until the aroma comes up and then add in the radishes and a splash of water to cover the radishes by about a ¼. Simmer, covered, until the radishes are just soft. Transfer to a bowl, and then use the sauté pan to scramble the eggs in a little oil. 
  5. Heat the tortillas in a clean pan. 
  6. Enjoy the various elements including the seasoned black beans, eggs, sautéed radishes, mashed avocado, tortillas and cilantro, either as traditional taco toppings, or as a plate with tortillas on the side.