The next time you sit down to eat, think of your empty plate as if it were a painter’s blank canvas. Just as plain white walls can be dull, the same holds true for your plate.
“Mother Nature attracts our eye to color for a reason,” says Marianne Merrick, RD, CD and clinical nutrition manager at St. Mary’s Hospital. “Colorful fruits and vegetables have some pretty powerful properties. The deeper the color, the more nutritious they are. They contain phytonutrients that can help prevent cancer, lower your cholesterol, and even have anti-inflammatory effects.”
Eating from the rainbow is so important the American Dietetic Association dubbed it the focus for National Nutrition Month. The easiest way to add color to your diet is with fruits and vegetables. Orange and red-colored vegetables tend to have a lot of vitamin A, bananas are a great source of potassium, potatoes have vitamin C and dark green veggies are full of vitamins and minerals, too.
Obviously, you can’t fit every color into every meal. So spread them out throughout the day and week.
“As you shop in the produce section, remember that buying what’s in season tends to not only be fresher, but it’s usually cheaper,” says Merrick. “Locally grown items also are fresher and tend to have more nutrients because they haven’t had to travel too far. Joining a CSA [Community Supported Agriculture] program is another great idea because then you don’t even have to worry about what to pick up. You’ll get a fresh bag of locally grown fruits and vegetables in season each week.”
But keeping your plate colorful has its challenges, especially in the winter. One of Merrick’s tactics, is to visit the grocery store multiple times a week and purchase smaller quantities of fresh fruits and vegetables.
“Buying is one part of the equation, preparing is another,” she says. “Steaming and microwaving are really good ways to preserve the vitamins and other nutrients in vegetables.”
Another thing to think about when it comes to vegetables is enzymes.
“Enzymes are great for your gastrointestinal tract,” says Merrick. “But at high temperatures those enzymes are destroyed. So focus on lightly steaming or sautéing your frozen and fresh vegetables or eating them raw to get the most benefits.”
Kids’ plates need to be colorful, too. Merrick says well-intentioned parents sometimes focus too heavily on cooked veggies. While kids will turn up their noses at cooked broccoli, they often will dig in if the raw version is set in front of them.
Another good way to get kids excited about healthy eating is to set up an assortment of veggies and have them fill their own salad plate like they’re at a salad bar. Not only is it fun, but chances are your child will take more and try different vegetables.
When it comes to fast food, Merrick encourages people to avoid it all together. “But, if you travel and fast food is your only option, opt for fruits and vegetables, like apples instead of French fries, for instance.”
Having a colorful diet also means focusing on what you eat during the whole day and not just mealtime.
“Make sure when it comes to midday cravings that you are healthy snacking rather than carb snacking,” says Merrick. “Think about having a bright orange tangerine when you’re hungry. Or crunch on some carrots rather than potato chips.”
A colorful plate is important, but did you know the makeup of the plate matters, too?
“People, especially in the Midwest, like to pile their plates with meat and potatoes leaving just a small spot for their veggies. But you really need to rethink that,” says Merrick.
Instead, she recommends visually dividing your plate in half as soon as you sit down to the table. Half of the plate should then be filled with fruits and vegetables with the other half comprised of lean protein and a starch like pasta or rice.
What’s on your plate also shouldn’t be laden with salt. It directly increases a person’s risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.
“Salt is a real problem,” says Merrick. “You want to shoot for less than a teaspoon of salt a day (2,300 mg) for most people. But for African Americans and those at high risk for heart disease, the recommendation is roughly 2/3 of a teaspoon (1,500 mg) and that’s hard to maintain if you eat processed foods.”
This doesn’t mean you have to throw away your salt shaker, instead try to focus on foods that don’t come pre-packaged. That’s where the salt really adds up. Choose whole foods – those that are not packaged or canned. You can find them easily in the grocery store by shopping only on the perimeter as both boxed and canned items tend to be in the middle.
With today’s super-sized society, sometimes it’s hard to know the right amount of food to eat. Here’s a guide to single serving sizes for a few items:
- Vegetables – about the size of a fist (no limit to how much to eat)
- Pasta – the size of one scoop of ice cream
- Meat – the size of a deck of cards
- Snacks – one cupped handful
- Potato – the size of a computer mouse
- Bagel –a hockey puck
- Pancake – a CD
- Steamed rice – should fit in a cupcake wrapper
- Cheese – a pair of dice
Stop Salt’s Negative Health Effects
US dietary guidelines advise Americans to eat less than one teaspoon of salt a day (2,300 mg) to maintain good health. But those with heart disease, high blood pressure and African Americans who are at much higher risk, that drops to about 2/3 of a teaspoon a day (1,500 mg). Here are some tips for cutting back:
- Reduce or stop eating fast foods
- Rinse canned vegetables in water before eating
- Choose fresh fruits and vegetables when possible
- Read food labels and check sodium content
Dietitian Approved Recipe
Vegetable Fried Rice
1 tablespoon canola or corn oil
3 tablespoons light soy sauce
2 teaspoons cider vinegar or lemon juice
2 teaspoons brown sugar
1⁄2 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
1⁄4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 1⁄2 cups chopped fresh broccoli
1⁄2 cup thinly sliced carrot
1 1⁄2 cups diced cooked chicken (about 9 ounces)
1 large egg, lightly beaten, or 1⁄4 cup egg substitute
4 green onions with green tops, sliced diagonally
3 cups cooked white rice as an entree or side dish.