A Balancing Act: Improving Our Mental Health One Plate at a Time

Nov 6 / TEKU
The impact of nutrition on our family’s health is undeniable. What we eat has significant effects on our physical, mental and emotional states. Our journey toward health and self-actualization is deeply intertwined with the need to make conscious food choices. There is a lot of information out there on the role of nutrition and mental health, including details of what, when and how to eat, but the key thing to remember is: balance. 

Constructing as many balanced plates helps us build a strong foundation for a healthier life. Healthy eating is not about deprivation but rather conscious choices and moderation. You do not have to follow this “constructing a healthy plate” guide for every single meal-instead, focus on the overall balance aiming for “more balanced plates than not” and just do what you can. Eliminating the pressure of having the perfect meal can be liberating for yourself, and your kids will be more likely to enjoy nourishing their bodies with you! Instead of details, focus on embarking on a journey where the whole family enjoys taking care of their bodies and has plenty of choices to enjoy nutritious food. 

Aside from physical nourishment, food offers significant emotional and social benefits to your whole family. Enjoying diverse types of cuisine can foster inclusivity and appreciation for humanity. Making time to cook meals at home will help you involve your whole family, helping your kids try new foods. Kids will be more likely to try something they have touched, smelled and added to the meal themselves! Enjoying meals together can help promote flexibility, connection and kindness at home–all key ingredients to a healthy family. 

Constructing a healthy and balanced plate

This is simply a template to keep in mind, and you do not need to follow it strictly for every meal. It gives you an idea of what a wholesome meal might look like. Remember the more colorful your plate is the better–you can remind your kids of this by telling them to “eat the rainbow.” Having this approach will help you create a plate with more variety of foods. Variety is very important as diverse food options have diverse elements necessary for our bodies to function well. Embracing meals with this perspective may promote creativity when creating your meals. 

Here are some basic steps to create a balanced plate: 

1. Half of your plate: Fruits and vegetables

Fruits and vegetables are packed with nutrients, vitamins, fiber and antioxidants that our bodies need. Consuming these foods will support gut health, energy levels, immunity function and more! Fruits contain intrinsic sugars. These are not harmful to you like the processed sugars we often consume in many packaged foods. This is important because it means these foods can satisfy your sweet tooth cravings without compromising your health. Perhaps try making fruit smoothies in the morning to go along with your breakfast, adding berries to your cereal or having cut fruit at the table to enjoy after your meals.

Something else to keep in mind is that you do not have to buy organic fruits and vegetables, if it is not within your budget, in order to keep a healthy lifestyle. Frozen vegetables are actually a great alternative. They are healthy, easy to prepare and consume and they can last longer in your freezer. Keeping a bag of frozen spinach, broccoli, and/or vegetable medley on hand can be a very effective way to add more vegetables to your meals, especially if you are cooking for your family and you don’t have time to get fresh produce before each meal. 

Lastly, when preparing a meal we often think of the main protein (chicken, beef, fish, etc) first and create the dish around it. We invite you to practice thinking of the vegetable first and then building the dish around that. This can ensure that the vegetable is the star of your dish. 

2. Quarter of your plate: Lean protein

It is important to incorporate protein into our diets. They are important because they provide our body with essential amino acids. These amino acids help us build muscle, digest food and supply us with energy. Fish and eggs provide all nine essential amino acids so they are often referred to as “complete protein sources.” Although beans, lentils, nuts and tofu are not complete sources of protein, combining them with other foods can complete the amino acid profile. The benefits of eating a plant based diet still outweigh the risk of falling short on essential amino acids. When choosing the types of protein you want to incorporate into your meals here are a few things to keep in mind: 
  • Vegetarian proteins: more fiber, less fat and less saturated fat
  • Animal proteins: less fiber, more fat and more saturated fat
  • Processed meats contain sodium nitrate which damages blood vessels and contribute to hardening of the arteries. They also contain more sodium which contributes to higher blood pressure. 

    This is why we mention having balance is key. You don’t have to cut out your favorite foods but maybe complement them with an extra serving of vegetables or increased physical activity to maintain a balance in your body.

3. Quarter of plate: Whole grains

The final quarter of your healthy and balanced plate should consist of whole grains. Good examples of whole grains include brown rice, quinoa, oats, whole wheat pasta or whole-grain bread. Whole grains offer complex carbohydrates that provide a steady source of energy, along with fiber which aids digestion and a variety of essential vitamins and minerals. This is a great way that substitutions can be added to your diet. Instead of getting rid of pasta, you can opt for whole wheat pasta. You still get to eat your favorite foods but your choices are a bit more conscious. Swapping white rice for brown rice is another great example. These small changes can have great positive impacts in the long run. 

Substitution, not elimination

One of the key factors of making a lifestyle change more sustainable is opting for substitutions instead of cutting out foods entirely. Finding healthier alternatives can be a great way to make our new lifestyle more attainable. If you love snacking, try giving hummus and veggies a chance. Perhaps you can try baked sweet potato chips instead of the regular name brand chips you are used to. Another option could be to make popcorn at home, this way you can season it yourself and have control over which type of oil you would like to try. It can be a way to explore different flavor profiles and food combinations. For example, you can try making your own salad dressing at home and maybe you’ll discover you are a fan of vinaigrettes. Have a craving? Make it at home. This will give you more control as to how the food is being prepared, give you a sense of accomplishment and improve your confidence in the kitchen. 

Balance is key

We often know that certain foods are not good for us. Having a healthier lifestyle does not mean we have to completely get rid of things we love. We can find a balance to make this journey work for us. The point is to get rid of the feelings of guilt when we are enjoying our favorite treats. Knowing that the majority of our food choices are made consciously and with intent, can help us savor and enjoy every meal even if it is something “not healthy.” By focusing on balance, you’re less likely to feel deprived and more likely to maintain a sustainable and enjoyable approach to nutrition. 

Practicing moderation

Making significant dietary changes overnight can be daunting and can often get in our way of starting our wellness journeys. Instead, we can choose to approach it with gradual adjustments. Making one or two small changes per week is more sustainable than adopting a whole new diet from one day to the next. Perhaps start by adding an extra serving of vegetables to your meals. You may choose to switch from drinking soda to sparkling water for a week. Small changes over time can lead to profound and lasting results. Additionally, try practicing moderation by savoring your meals and instead, stay present while eating. Avoid eating in front of a TV or looking at your phone. This will help you be less distracted, so you can actually enjoy the flavors and textures you are eating and allow you to listen to your body when you’re full. 

If you’re starting your journey toward a healthier relationship with food, remember this is a journey and not a destination. Be kind and patient with yourself. Take small steps while keeping your larger goal in mind. Food is a daily necessity to promote our health–let’s reconnect with food as an enjoyable experience that helps us connect with ourselves, each other and our planet. 
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