The Five-Food Plate: a template for healthy meals

steak salad with balsamic vinaigrette

Since losing more than 30 pounds two years ago, and because I’ve kinda become known as a food guru in my social circles, people often ask me, “So, how do you eat?”

I’ve had a hard time answering that. It took me a long time and much trial and error to arrive at what works for me, and even when I found it, I was too close to it to be able to articulate it for others.

But this week it hit me. It’s just this simple five-part formula:


Every meal has:

a protein,

some fat,

and at least three different veggies.

(Add ready-made sauces or seasonings to bring the deliciousness!)



shrimp + sausage skillet meal


That’s it! That’s what I’m aiming for as I put together every meal.

The five foods that make up most of every meal:

* some protein (meat, poultry, fish, or eggs)

* some healthy fat (olive oil, avocado, nuts, salmon, good mayo, or clean animal fats)

* a green veggie

* a veggie of a different color

* a veggie or fruit of yet another color

I don’t count or measure or weigh anything. If these are the contents of your meal, you don’t have to worry about counting, because the protein and vitamins will satisfy your nutritional hunger, and the fiber from the veggies plus the fat will satisfy your stomach hunger, so you’ll stop eating when your body has what it needs. You’ll get some carbs from the veggies (and maybe even some in your meat), but they’ll be the kind that gradually changes your blood sugar.

Keeping sugar and starchy grains out of the equation eliminates the overeating or hungry-again-in-an-hour triggers those items set off. (At the end of this post, I’ll include some notes about how to switch over gradually if you’re currently eating more carbs.)

Ideally, your vegetables should be different colors, because different colors (usually) mean different vitamins. And yes, onions count as one of the vegetables. And you can certainly use more than three veggies, if you want.

tuna salad

This way of eating definitely took some getting used to. I was accustomed to meals that looked more like carb + protein + usually one veggie. Usually no more veggies than that, unless I happened to be eating a salad or stir-fry. But my new way has become so second nature I don’t even think about it consciously. I just do it.

gyro-inspired salad

And you can, too!

If you think “three different veggies” at every meal sounds like crazy talk, let me assure you, it doesn’t have to be difficult. It does NOT have to be three different side dishes! Here are a few simple all-in-one options I use again and again.


Easy ways to get three veggies at every meal

Your three veggies can be a quick stir-fry. Keep this Amazin’ Asian Sauce in the fridge to make it even easier. If budget allows, pick up already-prepped veggies at the store. If not, set aside some time on your day off to prep some yourself. They’ll keep for several days if properly stored.

crack slaw - quick and easy with amazin' asian sauce


Also, don’t overlook sauces that incorporate vegetables, such as the tomato base in chili or spaghetti sauce. A sugar-free marinara  has tomatoes and onions; add one more veggie to your plate and you’re there! Here, I’m using zucchini noodles (oh, and roasted cauliflower). Other possibilities for sneaking in a third vegetable are adding chopped spinach to the marinara as you reheat it, or adding finely shredded carrot or pumpkin puree to either pasta sauce or chili.

meatballs, marinara, zoodles, + roasted cauliflower


Another option is sweet potato hash with onions and one or two other veggies. This post explains the basic formula for my “hash method,” and what I keep on hand in the fridge to make it one of my easy go-to meals.

Easy meals - the hash method


Yet another option is making up a big batch of roasted vegetables when you have the time, then stashing them in the fridge to add to scrambled eggs or pasta, use as a pizza topping or sandwich layer, or just reheat as a side dish.

roasted vegetables


It can be three raw veggies served along with a healthy dip, like Dump Ranch, 5-Minute Magic Green Sauce, or Buttermilk Ranch. Pick up pre-prepped or prep them yourself when you have time before you need them. This photo was a veggie tray I took to a party, so there’s more variety (and styling) than I would make for my own meal.

veggie tray with dairy-free ranch dressing


I often use romaine leaves as a substitute for bread, wraps, or taco shells. Romaine counts as a veggie! It’s a good source of Vitamin C. (Iceberg lettuce… not so much.) Here I’ve made a quick tuna salad (tuna + homemade mayo + pickle relish, salt, & pepper) and plopped it in romaine leaves with some chopped bell pepper and tomatoes for a super-quick 5-food lunch.

tuna salad on romaine


And of course, there’s always salad! Check out my post about doing a “Salad Lab,” on the essential ingredients for every salad. Also, search this site for salad: I have lots of recipes for both salads and dressings. The one pictured below is my Easy Antipasto Salad.

antipasto salad


More ideas for making veggies simple

  • Buy veggies that are already washed and, if possible, peeled, chopped or shredded. Don’t overlook slaw mix — shredded cabbage with carrots included. Don’t limit yourself to cole slaw: it can also be used to top fish tacos (or any taco), or in “Crack Slaw.”
  • Buy veggies that naturally come in a small size, minimizing or eliminating the need for further chopping. Baby carrots, baby spinach, baby kale, snow peas, mini bell peppers.
  • Just need a few slices of something? Grab it from the salad bar! Already cleaned, chopped, and ready to go. Sure, it may be more expensive than buying it whole — until you factor in what it costs when you let that celery sit in your crisper drawer for three months before it goes in the trash! (Though here’s a trick for making celery last longer: wrap it in aluminum foil and keep it in the crisper drawer.)
  • Keeping some canned pumpkin puree on hand is an easy-peasy way to add a yellow/orange veggie to anything that has a sauce: spaghetti sauce, taco meat, chili and other soups. Check out my Soup Method.
  • Cruise the grocery store freezer section for new options in frozen prepped veggies and veggie mixes you may not be aware of. Cubed butternut squash and cauliflower “rice” are still whole foods, but eliminate the mess and hassle of prepping them in your own kitchen. Just stay away from frozen veggies that come with sauce, rice, or pasta.


Things that don’t count as vegetables

Sorry, but it has to said. Some things which began life as a healthy vegetable get so processed they’re no longer beneficial to your body. And some veggies aren’t all that nutritious to begin with.

  • Store-bought ketchup (It’s usually about 1/3 sugar. Use it in small quantities, and don’t count as a veggie.)
  • Potato chips
  • French fries (Sweet potato fries have enough redeeming qualities to be okay in reasonable quantities.)
  • Corn (It’s actually a grain: very carby, not much fiber, and very few vitamins.)


Thinking of adding more veggies to your carb-heavy diet?

You don’t have to make a radical shift overnight (unless that works for you). Step One might be continuing with the same type of meals you’re used to, but replacing half of the carbs with some of these add-a-veggie options. And/or using a fruit or starchy vegetable such as sweet potato or squash for one or two of your veggies.

Let me know what you try!

You might also like:

Stocking the freezer for easy meals

30 things I always keep on hand for easy meals

Pin me! 🙂

Since losing more than 30 pounds two years ago, and because I've kinda become known as a food guru in my social circles, people often ask me, "So, how do you eat?" Here's my answer!


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