Tips On How To Balance Your Meals

A habit of fixed meals is the standard partly because meals are important time for people and families to get together,  and because working life means meals need to be structured with some sort of pattern.  There is no nutritional reason, however, why we cannot take all our food in one day at one meal, or spread it over several small meals or snacks, as long as whatever habit you choose does not leave you so hungry that you now help yourself to more food than planned.

Accordingly, provided your body can adjust to your pattern, it does not matter whether you eat properly or not as far as your digestion is concerned.  What is important is the total quality or quantity of food being consumed over a period. Subsequently, when you eat makes a difference to what you eat, and how you feel. For instance, eating a heavy meal hurriedly immediately before bed is likely to leave you uncomfortable and sluggish in the morning.

I get requests for a healthy meal plan suited to African’s palate.  I think African palate is already globalised, don’t you think? Thanks to the globe-trotting Africans, major ingredients used in African dishes, such as plantain, yam, sweet potatoes, cassava etc are available outside the continent.  I think the major problem in planning balanced meals is not the lack of food items but the knack of mixing and matching ingredients for nutritious recipes.  Very often people get fed up eating the same type of food day in day out.  I remember in my house when it’s time for dinner, the question is ‘Mum, hope it’s not going to be beans tonight o’.  I even get tired thinking of what to plan for meals.  So what did I do?  I got everyone involved in making a meal plan.  Everyone’s favourite appears in the weekly plan once or twice, stuck on the back door of my kitchen.  Never mind there are grunts on beans day, and hurray on rice and fried plantain day.  We also threw in a ‘meat free’ day.  At least there was peace during meal times at home.

Meal balance is no rocket science.  The trick is to make it as healthy as possible, vary the protein, vegetables, fruits, and carbohydrates, include everyone’s favourite, and use the Foods Pyramid Guide as rule of thumb: 50% protein, 25% carbohydrate, 25% fruits and vegetables.

Food Pyramid Guide to Healthy Eating

The Food Pyramid Guide is an easy way of developing a healthy eating plan that will guarantee your body gets the daily nutritional requirements it needs.  Here is what you need to eat each day:

  • Bread, Cereal, Rice and Pasta: 6-11 servings a day. 

These complex carbohydrates make up the base of the pyramid. They provide B vitamins, minerals, and fibre.  Try to avoid highly processed carbohydrates such as white bread and sugary cereals.  Choose whole grain products wherever possible, since they have more vitamins, minerals, and fibre than the processed variety.  In addition, they are gentle on your body giving you a longer lasting source of fuel. One serving from this group equals either 1 slice of whole wheat bread, or 1 oz dry cereal, or ½ cup cooked cereal, yam, rice, corn, millet or pasta.

  • Vegetables: 3-5 servings a day.

Vegetables are a good source of vitamins and fibre.  They are also naturally low in fat and calories.  Choose deep yellow or orange vegetables, like carrots and squash for Vitamin A.  Vegetables from the cabbage and pepper families are rich in Vitamin C. One serving from this group equals 1 cup raw leafy greens or ½ cup any chopped vegetable, or ¾ cup vegetable juice (blended beets, tomatoes, cabbage and lettuce).

  • Fruits: 2-4 servings a day

Fruits are nutritious as snack or dessert.  They are chock-full of carbs energy and potassium, low in sodium, and full of vitamins.  Berries, watermelon, pineapple, and citrus fruits, such as oranges, tangerine, and grapefruit, are packed full of Vitamin C.  Orange coloured fruits like cantaloupe, apricots, plums, honey dew melon, mangoes and papaya have Vitamin A and C.  Try to avoid fruits canned in heavy syrup or sweetened with sugar.  Go for fresh fruits. One serving from this group equals 1 medium apple, banana, or orange, ½ chopped mixed fresh fruit, or berries, ¾ cup fruit juice (blended pineapple, apple, and watermelon).

  • Milk, Yogurt and Cheese: 2-4 servings a day.

Milk products are rich sources of calcium and protein.  A glass of milk or a cup of yogurt has high quality protein equal to an ounce of meat or cheese or one egg.  Try to pick reduced fat and sugar free products when choosing dairy products.  A glass of whole milk, for instance, has the equivalent of two teaspoons of butter, so why would you want to have that amount of fat hidden in your milk when you could enjoy this better spread on a slice of bread or on boiled yam? This is just a reminder to spend your calories wisely. One serving from this group equals 1 glass of low fat milk or low sugar Soya milk, 1 glass of unsweetened yogurt, 1 oz of hard cheese, or 2 pieces local cheese.

  • Meat, Poultry, Fish, Dry Beans, Eggs & Nuts

This group is a major source of protein.  Cooked beans are high in protein and fibre and low in fat.  Soya cheese (Tofu) and white beans provide calcium.  Nuts are good sources of Vitamin E.  Beef contains absorbable trace minerals like iron, zinc, and manganese.  Poultry and seafood contribute Vitamin B6, and pork is a rich source of thiamine.  One serving from this group equals 2-3 oz of cooked lean meat, poultry, or fish; 1 egg, or ½ cup cooked beans or 2 tablespoons peanut butter, nuts or seeds.

  • Fats, Oils and Sweets

This group is the tip of the Food pyramid and moderation is the word.  It includes butter, oils, margarine, cream, sweets, and sweet deserts.  Also keep in mind that not all fats are created equal.  You need to cut down on saturated fats found in animal products like meat and dairy, and trans-fats found in margarine or fried snack foods.  Eat more of heart-healthy unsaturated fats such as those found in olive oil, soya oil, nuts, seeds, and avocado.  Sweets should be minimised as well.  

A Food Pyramid Guide Menu Plan

Breakfast - 2 slices of whole wheat bread, 1 egg, 1 oz of cereal for breakfast with ½ cup skimmed milk, and 1 glass of fruit juice.
Lunch - 1 cup of rice sauté with 2 spoons mixed vegetables, 2 spoons of fried plantain (optional), 2 small pieces of chicken, 2 pieces of fruit. Don’t forget to blot excess oil from the plantain.

Snack – 1 x 150g natural yogurt, I small roasted plantain or corn on the cob, 1 handful of peanuts, or 10 whole cashew nuts
Dinner: 1 cup of stewed beans with corn and fish OR a plate of steamed Salmon fillet, pasta, grapes, green salad or 1 glass of vegetable juice.

Late night drink: 1 glass of milky beverage, or 1 piece of fruit (optional)

You can snack all day on low calorie vegetables like carrots, cucumber, celery or mixed leafy salad with vinegar. If you are trying to lose weight, increase your activity level and reduce the empty calories in your diet.  In particular, cut out lots of highly processed carbohydrates such as commercial snack foods, white bread, and soft drinks.  Try to replace these foods with whole grains, multi-grains bread, oats, and other more nutrient dense source of carbohydrates.

If your goal is to gain weight, eat more servings from all the food groups and be sure to stay active.  Stick to a low-fat, adequate protein, and higher calorie diet in conjunction with weight training, so the weight you gain is muscle, not fat.

This meal plan is just an example to guide your food choices, and by no means exhaustive with no hard and fast rule. It is also not necessary to measure each serving of food.   The serving sizes are given only as a general guideline.  For mixed foods you can estimate the food group servings of the main ingredient.   For example a cheeseburger with lettuce and tomato would be: 2 bread (each half of the bun), 1 meat (the burger), 1 dairy (the cheese), and 1 vegetable (the lettuce, cucumber, and tomato) OR boiled yam with egg stew with onions and tomato, tea with milk and 1 banana would be 2 carbs (yam), 2 protein (egg),  1 vegetable (tomato, onions), 1 fruit (banana), 1 dairy (milk in tea).

If you are a vegetarian for instance, there are substitutes you can make which will ensure you take adequate nutrients.  Also depending on what part of the world you live, your best bet is to make use of what is available in your area.  Utilise the fruits and vegetables you are familiar with, and use more of cereals and bread at your disposal. Most importantly, eat well to stay well.

Photo credit: Creative Commons


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