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.

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. 

The Six Tastes for Balanced Meals and Digestion

For a long time, it’s felt appropriate to share a food as medicine approach to eating in this space, but I’m not so sure I’ve adequately explained how to do this other than to share meals that are largely based on whole, minimally processed from-nature ingredients. 

I know you want to eat food and meals that taste good, and are also good for you, but it’s important to recognize that everything we eat also has an effect.

That effect can be incredibly subtle or super obvious and I don’t mean just the effects of the caloric, macro or even micronutrient content of your meal, but because each subtle flavor within a food and meal will affect your body and your mind. 

Particularly when you eat in the same pattern of meals and flavors day in and day out. 

The Six Flavors 

There are six primary flavors within foods and ideally, all six flavors are incorporated into main meals, and at least four flavors are enjoyed at breakfast when we tend to eat a smaller amount. The six flavors are: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, pungent, and astringent

Now, what foods have which flavor? And what are their effects? 

Sweet 

The SWEET taste comes from foods that contain natural sugars: sweet root vegetables like carrots, squash, beets, all fresh and dried fruit, whole grains, natural sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, and molasses, and fresh dairy products such as milk, butter, and ghee. 

The sweet flavor builds tissues within the body, calms the nerves and nervous system, and relieves hunger. It’s the flavor you likely reach for when you’re eating to soothe an emotion or for comfort. This is natural since the flavor of our first food of milk is sweet. That food-memory association between sweet food, love, and being comforted is particularly strong. 

If you are dry, thin, nervous, anxious, scattered, or have nerve disorders, more naturally sweet foods are indicated and may be missing in adequate amounts in your meals – these are the whole grains, root vegetables, sweet fruits, and natural sugars. 

Salt 

The SALTY taste comes from foods that are naturally salty including seaweeds like kombu, arame, wakame, and nori. Some water-based vegetables are also naturally a little salty including celery, tomatoes, zucchini, and cucumbers. And of course, natural salt such as sea salt or pink mineral salt provides this flavor. Adequately cooking our foods in salt, and adding in a teaspoon per serving of dried seaweed when cooking beans or other stewy meals is an excellent way to build the salty flavor into a meal that will help us to retain the water we consume and have tissues that are more deeply hydrated, as well as provide a natural source of iodine – a critical and often missing nutrient for optimal thyroid health. 

If you are dry, drink plenty of water but are still dehydrated, experience constipation or find that the meals you cook taste “flat,” incorporating the salty flavor during the cooking process, rather than at the end, can be especially helpful. 


Sour

The SOUR flavor comes from foods such as lemons, lime, vinegars, unripe fruit, and fermented foods such as yogurt, pickles, kimchi, sauerkraut, sourdough bread, soy sauce and tamari. Many individuals either avoid sour foods or over-do them in meals. Both not enough and too much can cause problems. Adding in just a little squeeze of fresh lime juice or a little spoonful of apple cider or white wine vinegar at the end of cooking meals is frequently just enough of the sour flavor to lubricate tissues and stimulate the digestion process.

If you tend to run extra warm or frequently experience hot, agitated emotions, experience acid indigestion or reflux, have loose or sticky, incomplete stools, rashes, inflammation, or itchy, acne-prone skin, you may be over-doing the sour taste in your meals. 

Pungent

The PUNGENT flavor comes from hot and spicy peppers, black peppercorn, onions, garlic, ginger, mustard, horseradish, wasabi, raw radishes and turnips, asafoetida, cinnamon and cloves. 

This flavor increases heat and stimulates digestion and metabolism. As such, you should incorporate it into your meals in slightly larger amounts if you are routinely cold, experience poor circulation, or have low digestive fire –meaning you don’t digest or tolerate foods well

But for many others, too much pungent flavorings causes extra heat, excessive sweating and inflammation, skin rashes, acne, or eczema, agitated emotions, acid indigestion or reflux, and loose stools and diarrhea. 

If you tend to be a person that’s eternally on the move, both physically or mentally, and find it difficult to slow down your mind or pause for a relax break or day, it’s safe to say you may also benefit from cutting out too much of the pungent flavor — take a couple weeks without onions, garlic, and spicy peppers and then take note of how you feel.

Bitter

The BITTER taste is one many of us avoid. That’s unfortunate because the actions of bitter are to stimulate the digestion process by telling the body to begin releasing essential digestive acids and enzymes. The bitter flavor also helps the liver performs its routine detoxification process (necessary to get rid of waste products, excess hormones, and toxins), and it lightens tissues that are puffy and retaining water. 

Bitter foods include aloe vera, dandelion leaves and root, dark leafy greens, all vegetables in the brassica family, burdock root, eggplants, Jerusalem artichokes, sesame seeds and oil, dark chocolate, coffee, and fenugreek seeds.

Like the pungent flavor, we want just a small amount of bitter flavors in our meals — not an excess. Where many people tend to consume too much bitter is in the form of coffee. Coffee is a stimulant, and caffeine can be particularly troublesome for the liver, especially if you have hormonal imbalances. Try to reduce your coffee intake to no more than one to two 8-oz. cups in the morning if you enjoy coffee regularly. 

Astringent

The ASTRINGENT taste comes in beans and legumes, cruciferous / brassica vegetables such as kale, cabbage, broccoli, and brussels sprouts, unripe bananas, pomegranates, cranberries, and most herbs and spices including basil, bay leaves, caraway seeds, coriander, dill, fennel seeds, marjoram, nutmeg, oregano, parsley, rosemary, saffron, turmeric, vanilla, coffee, tea, wine, and alcohol. 

The astringent flavor helps us to absorb water, and dry and tighten tissues. I’ve used an alcohol-based (astringent) toner on my face a couple times a day for years, and to no surprise, I’ve also tended to experience frequent dry skin. The astringent nature of my facial toner is a wonderful example of what happens internally when we consume astringent foods. This can be excellent and necessary, in small amounts! 

If you experience chronic diarrhea or varicose veins, two examples of the tissues not being able to hold onto their fluids, astringent foods or herbs may be beneficial in slightly larger amounts. On the other hand, if you have routinely dry skin, or a dry internal condition like constipation, eating and drinking less astringent foods will be helpful. 

Six Flavors in Balance

Above all, a great way to begin to understand the effect of the different flavors and particular foods is to really pay attention to the flavor of the foods you are eating. Can you taste the sweetness when thoroughly chewing a whole grain or a steamed carrot? Can you pick out the drying, astringent effect as you take a sip of black tea, coffee, or wine? Do you notice how you internally heat up after a sandwich with spicy mustard or a bowl of particularly spicy soup? And then what do you notice in the minutes or hours afterwards?

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