Are you new to eating whole food plant-based (WFPB)? If so, you may be struggling with how to build a nutritionally complete meal that actually satisfies and keeps you full. I hear you there. With so much conflicting nutrition information online it can be difficult to make heads or tails of it all. It doesn’t help that you come home exhausted from a long day at work and have to answer that ever-present question, ‘What’s for dinner?’.
This post is meant to help you learn exactly how to build your plant-based meal so you feel satisfied and energized. There’s also a helpful guide (with a printable cheat sheet full of meal ideas) that you can download to make this process even easier. Grab it here.
Beginnings Are Tough (But They Don’t Have to Be)
When I first started on my WFPB journey, I quickly realized there was a lot I had to change and a lot I had to learn. Before this, meat and dairy products took up a fair portion of my plate (and my calorie intake). I knew that throwing some random plants on a plate and calling it good was not going to net me the best results.
I began to realize that the way I combined these plants would determine my energy levels and how hungry I felt while I went through my day. Simply put, I had to unlearn all of the things I thought I knew about nutrition and start again. It took some time and practice, but I eventually got the hang of what (and how much) I needed at a meal to make me feel satisfied and energized.
If you’re struggling with this, I want you to know that you are not alone. This is the number one mistake I see people make when they begin fueling with plants. A mistake that can leave you walking around like a zombie with no energy, feeling perpetually hungry, cranky, and wanting to mow down on the first food item you see. It can also cause some to gain weight, or lose too much. Not having a good handle on this basic skill can be the difference between thriving on plants, and ultimately throwing in the towel.
The good news is, all of this can be avoided. If you don’t know me yet, I want to assure you that I have your back. I’m all about helping you enjoy this lifestyle by making plant-based living easy. So, let’s get to it, building your plant-based plate.
Building Your Plant-Based Meal
How do you build a filling and nutritious plant-based meal? Well, there are a few components you’ll want to include, in varying proportions. I’ll go over each of them now.
This category includes whole grains and legumes, as well as starchy vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes and squash. These foods tend to get a bad rep nowadays with diets like paleo and keto getting a lot of press. The reality is, these foods are not only healthy but an important part of a plant-based diet. They provide the bulk of the energy your body uses as fuel, as well as necessary nutrients, antioxidants and more. These fibre rich foods are also the ones that help keep you feeling full and satisfied. If you want to avoid walking around hangry (hungry + angry) all the time, you’ll want to eat your starches.
We’ll go into some detail on the different types of starches now.
With a name like Mental for Lentils, it should be no surprise that I love my legumes. These little gems are nutrient powerhouses. They are loaded with fibre, which is great news, considering the vast majority of the western world is considered fibre deficient. They are also loaded with protein and a good source of important minerals like calcium and iron. All of this wrapped up in a package that’s low in fat and cholesterol-free.
All of that good nutrition leads to some pretty stellar health benefits for you. Legume consumption has been linked to better weight control, lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels and better insulin sensitivity. They can even help lower your risk for certain cancers. So, it’s time to embrace the legumes, my friend. Especially those beans, beans, the magical fruit, whether or not they make you toot. 😉
Legumes include foods like:
You can incorporate these into your diet by adding them to soups, stews and salads. You can also blend them up into a tasty bean dip or hummus.
Aim for ¼ of your plate filled with nutritious and delicious legumes.
Another important part of a healthy plant-based diet is whole grains. They provide fibre and complex carbohydrates that your body uses as energy. When it comes to grain products, it’s important to emphasize the ‘whole’, because while whole grains help promote good health, refined grains do not.
This is where the sweeping generalizations regarding carbohydrates come from. Some will try to say that all carbohydrates are bad, but this simply isn’t true. Whole intact grains can help keep blood sugars stable, lower cholesterol levels and more. Simply stated, this isn’t a food group you want to skip.
If you need help identifying whole grains versus refined grains, check out this post here. Generally speaking, you want to aim for intact or minimally processed grains. These will contain more fibre and minerals than highly processed grains, which are essentially empty calories.
Include whole-grain foods such as:
- Steel-cut oats
- Wild rice
- Farro etc.
You can incorporate whole grains in your meals by adding them to soups or salads, utilizing whole grain wraps or pasta, or season and enjoy them as a tasty side.
Starchy vegetables are another important source of energy and nutrients. Unlike refined carbohydrates found in heavily processed foods, they contain complex carbohydrates that are broken down slowly over time. The result is sustained energy levels and feelings of satiation. Rather than a quick spike of energy, these will keep you going for hours.
Starchy vegetables include foods like:
- Sweet Potatoes
- Pumpkin and more.
It’s easy to incorporate starchy vegetables into your soups or stews, as part of a salad or Buddha bowl, or roasted up as a delicious side dish.
Another ¼ of your plate should be comprised of whole grains and/or starchy vegetables.
Non-Starchy Vegetables & Fruit
So far, we’ve allotted half of your plate to a combination of starches. That’s where a lot of your energy is going to come from. Now we’re looking to fill in nutrient gaps and load up on antioxidants. This is where non-starchy vegetables and fruit come in.
These foods are nutrient-dense and low in caloric density. This is a beautiful design because the low caloric-density means you can consume them in higher volumes, filling up on lots of important vitamins, minerals and those all-important antioxidants.
When it comes to vegetables and fruit, their nutrient make-up can vary greatly. To make sure you’re getting a well-rounded array of vitamins and minerals, aim to ‘eat the rainbow’ by including different coloured fruits and veggies throughout your day.
Examples of non-starchy vegetables and fruit include:
Cucumbers and so much more.
Fruit makes a great snack or dessert and can be a delicious accompaniment to breakfast dishes like whole-grain toast or oatmeal. Vegetables can be added to your favourite soups or stews, roasted to make a delicious side, or put them together into a colourful salad.
Fill the remaining half of your plate with non-starchy vegetables and/or fruit.
This category includes dressings, sauces, and other condiments meant to add flavour and excitement to your dish. I also include healthy fats in this category. Things like nuts and seeds as well as avocado. I include these here because creamy plant-based dressings and sauces are often made from nuts and seeds. Including them here is also suggestive of proportions, as these sources of healthy fats can be considered condiments, added to a dish for flavour and crunch, rather than being the star of the show.
Condiments include things like:
Nuts and seeds
Herbs and spices
You can use these for drizzling, dunking and adding some flavour and pizazz to your dish.
Putting It All Together
Let’s take a moment here to recap the components of your plant-based meal. A basic rule of thumb is to have half of your meal coming from the different starches, and the other half from fruit and/or non-starchy vegetables. This will help ensure your meal is filling AND full of important vitamins and minerals that your body needs.
Aim to include legumes as ¼ of your plate, whole grains or starchy vegetables as another ¼, and fill the remaining half with fruits and non-starchy vegetables.
Here are just some of the ways you can put your plant-based meal together:
- Spaghetti squash and bean balls topped with a tomato sauce containing sautéed veggies, and a side salad.
- Whole-grain bread topped with hummus, tempeh and lots of roasted vegetables with some fruit for dessert.
- Whole grain wrap with a generous spread of bean dip and lots of fresh diced or shredded vegetables.
- A bed of greens topped with wild rice, lentils, sauteed veggies and your favourite plant-based dressing.
A Tool to Make It Easy
This should give you the basic framework of how to build a satisfying plant-based meal but coming up with meal ideas can sometimes be a challenge. To keep you from struggling with this I put together the “What’s for dinner?” guide. This is a completely free tool that will make it so easy to build nourishing plant-based meals every time. All you have to do is choose one or more items from each column and put them together in the suggested proportions. The guide also includes meal ideas to get your creative juices flowing and winning combinations to get you started. Grab your free copy below.
The Bottom Line
Building your plant-based meal is an important skill to master. If you don’t have a good grasp on this you risk feeling hungry all the time, developing nutrient deficiencies, gaining weight or losing too much. Often, this can lead people to throw in the towel and give up on plant-based eating altogether. The good news is it’s a really easy problem to fix. Now you have the basic building blocks you need and an amazing tool to help you on your way.
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