Exactly what is considered a balanced meal may vary between people of different cultures. In the West, in particular, a balanced meal is typically thought of as being a protein in the form of a piece of meat, surrounded by a starch and side vegetable, with a roll and glass of milk. In part, this is due to being conditioned to selecting foods from the Basic Four as outlined in the food pyramid developed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). However, this agency has restructured its guidelines under the new “MyPyramid” to include five basic foods, with meat given much less prominence and an increased focus on whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. In addition, other food pyramid models exist that caters to those who prefer an Asian, Mediterranean, Latin American, or vegetarian slanted diet.
Regardless of meat-eating status or any ethnicity or regional association, a balanced meal plan is still very much the same for everyone. In other words, all of these food pyramids promote the message that a variety of whole foods is key and that sugars, saturated fats, and alcohol should be consumed in moderation. In fact, the only real difference between these pyramids is the suggested foods listed within each food group. For instance, the Asian food pyramid recommends noodles and rice on a daily basis, while the Mediterranean suggests polenta and couscous instead.
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Obviously, the purpose of these pyramid pictorials is to assist one in choosing foods to prepare balanced meals by the reliable method of choosing a few from each group. In addition, foods recommended in the most quantity always form the widest part of the pyramid, which is the base. However, it can be inconvenient and even a nuisance to refer to a chart just to make dinner each night. That said, there are a few simple guidelines to making a healthy, balanced meal without resorting to pictures or lists.
The second rule of thumb is to include a variety of textures with each meal. This not only provides dietary interest, but also ensures an assortment of whole grains. It’s also worth mentioning that certain raw foods provide texture, as well as optimum nutrition and much-needed fiber.
In fact, cooking vegetables can diminish their nutritional value. So consider a slaw or salad of freshly grated or sliced vegetables as one way to get crunch and power-packed nutrition. For that matter, raw vegetables make an excellent addition to other foods that help round out a meal, such as rice, bean, and pasta dishes.
The final element to knowing what constitutes a balanced meal is the moderation of certain foods. Specifically, sweets, fats, and oils should be consumed the least. In addition, it’s not necessary to include meat with every meal. In fact, most cuts of beef can add a considerable amount of dietary fat and cholesterol and should be limited. This extends to egg yolks as well, which are best restricted to only once or twice per week. Excellent sources of protein in place of meat and eggs include legumes, cheese, and dark green, leafy vegetables.