A balanced meal has a thoughtful ratio of food groups, nutrients, colors, portions and nontraditional proteins.
Many of us are seeking balance in our lives, particularly as more opportunities for balance exist with global COVID-19 pandemic rates declining and vaccination rates climbing. Several parts of our lifestyle may have screamed “imbalance” during the pandemic, including more regular food indulgences, less physical activity and limitations to our social lives. Now is a terrific time to create new habits, including balanced choices made at the grocery store. A balanced meal has a thoughtful ratio of food groups, nutrients, colors, portions and nontraditional proteins.
The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 establishes widespread guidance for balanced, healthy eating patterns. The 164-page document has been translated into a user-friendly format called MyPlate. The MyPlate tool simplifies this evidence-based nutrition information into a customizable format to consider unique food preferences, cultures, traditions and budgets. It’s applicable for individuals, families and communities to build healthy food and beverage choices. Key parts of MyPlate include focusing on whole fruits, varying one’s vegetables, making half of one’s grains whole grains, varying one’s protein routine, and moving to low-fat or fat-free dairy or fortified soy. Balance here also means striving for less added sugars, saturated fat and sodium.
Next, balance includes an array of color for snacks and meals. Various colors of the rainbow, from red to violet, indicate different plant nutrients, or phytonutrients, that protect our health, including potentially reduced cancer risk, improved blood pressure and cognition, and better eye health. Dark-green and red/orange non-starchy vegetables are specifically mentioned as foods to include regularly to improve the status of our diets. A retailer can start to mimic these recommendations by throwing bok-choy into a stir fry at the hot counter, offering conveniently pre-stuffed red or orange bell peppers in the produce area, or even adding a Bloody Mary-syle mocktail made with 100% tomato juice at the in-store bar.
The Right Size
We can’t discuss balanced eating without addressing the importance of portions. It’s often said that “there aren’t wrong foods, just wrong portions,” and dietitians couldn’t agree more with this phrase. Grocery products from wall to wall can all be enjoyed, but in the right proportions to one another. It’s important that retailers offer proper portions to champion customers’ health, while still selling a diverse set of product sizes. This can be accomplished through ensuring accuracy in nutrition labeling, particularly if the label is created in-house, clearly stating the intended yield of servings from recipes in store publications and offering many one- or two-person meal ideas throughout key grocery departments.
Consider the Alternatives
Balanced meals also mean rethinking traditionally recognized foods in the protein category. Often, protein has been synonymous with meat, poultry, fish and eggs. However, more and more alternative plant proteins are continuing to hit shelves and restaurants as Americans are seeking more sustainable, animal-free versions of foods and beverages. Retailers can accommodate this request through a summertime barbecue black bean burger-making station, adding tofu scramble to the hot brunch rotation on Sunday mornings, including a mock chicken or chickpea salad to the delicatessen salad case, or simply designating a nearby section within the regular meat case for savory plant-based alternatives.
Balanced meal options for customers can be easily created through small changes storewide and through a strong focus on food groups, nutrients, colors, portions and nontraditional proteins.