Ways to build a better plate in the New Year

We hear about the benefits of including whole foods, plant-based foods, plant-based protein and “good carbs” in our daily meals, but it may not be the easiest thing to do. When trying to build a better plate of food and a healthier lifestyle for 2024, sorting through all the options requires patience, persistence and a few helpful tips.

A colorful plate of food looks a little bit like a rainbow. And all those colorful foods can lead to maximum nutrition. With a bit of planning, the courage to try new foods and balancing healthy fats, plant protein, vegetables and healthy sweets, even the novice cook can create a food plate that fuels the body, mind and spirit.

Planning out your meals can help keep your healthy eating ambitions on track. Because most of us are super busy and on the go, planning helps you avoid the temptation of grabbing food that might be convenient but is highly processed and lacks nutritional value.

When you make a plan, it also helps you save time and money, reduce waste and decrease stress.

Grocery stores offer most of our favorite fruits and vegetables year-round. Eating with the season is great when possible and is more sustainable during the growing season. When you build your plate, look for fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables. There is nothing wrong with frozen foods because it eliminates the chopping step, and they lock in the flavor of fresh while giving convenience.

Environmental sustainability is best with plant-based foods. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations recognizes the need to eliminate ultra-processed foods, sugar sweetened beverages and drastically reduce consumption of meat to have a lower environmental impact and assure food and nutrition security and healthy life for present and future generations of people, as well as to protect biodiversity and ecosystems, and optimize natural and human resources.

Getting enough nutrients in your diet is important. That means choosing foods with healthy substances such as vitamins, minerals, whole grains and fiber. Nutrient-dense foods offer fewer calories but fill you up faster. Try these:

• fruits including blueberries and blackberries

• green leafy vegetables such as spinach and broccoli

• nuts, seeds rich in omega-3, especially walnuts, flax, hemp and chia seeds.

• whole grains such as quinoa

The more colorful the food, the more nutrients you’re taking in.

Remember that proportions do matter. If you need help balancing your nutrients, try dividing your plate into sections.

Half of your plate should be non-starchy vegetables; a quarter of your plate should be plant protein, such as beans/lentils and peas; and the other quarter should be whole grains. Meat and fish offer protein but no fiber. Processed grains offer calories and some protein but no fiber or micronutrients.

Remember to be patient with yourself. It’s OK if you veer off your nutritional path for a day — try to make up for it the following day. Making gradual nutritional changes can help ensure the changes you make are for life and not just temporary.

— Dr. Ashwani Garg is a family medicine physician with UChicago Medicine AdventHealth Medical Group Primary Care in Hinsdale.