Eating healthy isn't hard, but learning what a balanced, nutritious meal consists of does require you to learn a few tips. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has tried to make eating right easier with its MyPlate icon, a design that shows you the components that make up a healthy meal. If you're concerned about how to improve how you and your family eats, talk to your doctor or a dietitian about dietary strategies and how to set up a flexible menu plan.
According to the USDA's ChooseMyPlate.gov, fruit should make up about a quarter of your plate in a healthy meal. Fresh, dried, canned, juiced and frozen fruit can all count as a serving, but to maximize the amount of fiber and nutrition you receive, choose whole or cut-up fruit over fruit juice whenever possible. Avoid fruit that's canned in syrup or that has added sugar. To incorporate more fruit into your meals, eat it as dessert or add it to cereals, salads, yogurt, trail mixes or sandwiches.
The USDA recommends that at least a quarter of your plate in a healthy meal consist of vegetables. There are five sub-categories of vegetables -- beans and legumes, starchy vegetables like potatoes or corn, dark green vegetables such as spinach or broccoli, red or orange vegetables like carrots and winter squash and other vegetables, including cauliflower, beets and mushrooms. Try to eat as many from each category as possible each day, aiming to incorporate vegetables of different colors in every meal. For example, dinner might include a salad of mixed greens topped with red bell pepper strips, corn and cooked black beans.
At least one-quarter of your plate should comprise grains in a healthy meal. Any type of cereal grains -- rice, oats, barley, cornmeal, wheat and quinoa, for example -- and products made from them like pasta, tortillas or bread can help you fulfill your grain requirement. An adult woman needs about 6 ounces of grains each day, while children should have 3 to 8 ounces depending on their age, gender and level of physical activity. Half of these should be whole grains, advises the USDA. That means using brown rice instead of white, whole-wheat bread instead of white bread and whole-grain pasta in place of regular pasta.
A healthy meal should include a dairy product like milk, cheese or yogurt. If you're lactose intolerant, you can use soy products instead, but make sure they're fortified with calcium. Avoid full-fat dairy products since they're high in saturated fat and calories. Instead, switch to low- or non-fat dairy items. You can work dairy products into a meal simply by offering milk as a beverage, though milk, cheese or yogurt used in soups, pasta dishes or casseroles also count.
Protein is an essential part of a balanced diet. The USDA recommends that protein-rich foods like meat, poultry, seafood, beans, eggs, nuts, seeds or soy products such as tofu or tempeh should take up at least a quarter of your plate in a healthy meal. To keep your total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol intake under control, choose skinless poultry and lean cuts of beef or pork over processed meats. Have fish at least twice weekly and incorporate more meatless meals such as bean burritos or bean soup into your family's routine.