Develop Meal Templates
Research shows that people who eat the same meals over and over lose more weight. Repetition allows your behavior to become a habit with no decisions or willpower required. You don’t have to eat the exact same foods, but having a personalized meal template can help you to lose weight without using willpower. This is Shift #7 in The 15 Shifts to Becoming a Real Loser Series.
What Should I Eat to Lose Weight?
In the last two posts I answered the question—"How much should I eat?" and "How should I eat it?" If you missed it, I’ll sum them up for you. The very short answer is to use a 9-inch dinner plate as a guide to how much to eat, pay attention to your meal, and to eat it slowly. Now I am going to answer the all-important question of, “What should I eat?”
But first a little history…In 2012 something momentous happened. The USDA retired the Food Guide Pyramid (technically it was MyPyramid at the time), and ushered in the age of a new food guide. It is now the age of MyPlate. I teach a version of MyPlate many times every day. It was one of the best things the USDA has ever done, but sadly no one seems to know about it.
When I first started health coaching, I came up with what I thought would be a great segue into teaching “The Plate.” I would start off by asking if people knew about the Food Guide Pyramid. Without fail, everyone of my patients did. Then, I would say, “Now the USDA has come up with something infinitely better—MyPlate.” And without fail, not one of my patients knew what I was talking about. Not one had actually heard of MyPlate.
So my “great way” of introducing the concept of a meal template only lasted a couple of weeks. Which is a shame because...
After teaching these concepts several times a day, for years, I’ve come up with a very effective method to teach the meal template concept. Sit back, pretend we’re meeting together, and I will explain…
Meal Template for Healthy Eating
I’m going to teach you a super simple way to lose weight, cut your carbs, get enough protein, and get enough anti-oxidants, just by watching the portions on your plate. Sounds pretty powerful, huh? You are absolutely right. It is powerful, and surprisingly easy to understand and to do.
We are going to use a meal template. A meal template is just a pattern that you use to get the right foods on your plate and in the right portions to help you feel great, be healthy, and to lose weight.
So, imagine your (small) dinner plate in front of you. Now imagine you are going to divide it into fourths, like cutting a pizza or a pie. Each one of those sections of your plate will be filled with different food groups.
Vegetables in one quarter, Fruit in another, Protein in another, and Starchy sides in the last. Most of the time it’s not about changing what’s on your dinner plate. It’s about changing the proportions.
Now the MyPlate guide doesn’t use exact quarters, but for the sake of ease, I don’t quibble over a tablespoon of food here or there. I use exact quarters.
The MyPlate meal template or guide is a fantastic way to eat for children and people who are happy with their weight—they just want to make sure they are eating in a healthy way. This is how my kids and my husband eat.
Meal Template for Weight Loss
Now, if you want to lose weight or you have issues with your blood sugar, then this is the meal template version I recommend--the Weight Loss Plate. Although the plate says Diabetes on it, this is a great way to eat for weight loss too. This is the way that I eat, and what I recommend to 95% of my clients.
If you compare the two plates above, you can see that they are the same except for the fruit section. If you want to lose weight, you can still have fruit. But for weight loss, fruit becomes part of the Carbohydrate section.
Oh, my beautiful portion plates. One of the most useful things I have ever bought. My clients absolutely love them. Many a client has snapped a picture of these babies or ordered their own on Amazon. (This is an affiliate link. If you buy the plate, I make a small commission at no cost to you. I love this plate and use it myself.)
But, you don’t need to buy one. Just imagine the portions in your mind. To show my clients, I carried around a plate with two lines drawn in permanent marker on it.
Think about your usual dinner…What does your plate look like? What proportions of vegetables do you have? What proportion of protein do you have? What proportion of carbs do you have?
Most of my clients describe eating off a large plate that looks like this when they first meet with me. Lots of times they don't even have to change what they are eating. They just need to work on getting the proportions right.
That's pretty awesome, right?
What to Eat to Lose Weight
Half Plate Vegetables
So, the top half of your plate is going to be filled with vegetables.
Why so many vegetables?
There are three main reasons.
Vegetables are full of fiber. Fiber fills you up. It will help you to feel full.
Vegetables are low in calories. Filling up on vegetables is going to help you lose weight.
Fruits and vegetables are where most of the anti-oxidants are found. As you age or you get high blood sugar, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol, you get cellular damage. Anti-oxidants are like little paramedics in your blood that go around and fix the cellular damage. A very good thing.
Then I give my clients this handout. If you would like your own printable version, click on this link to download one now.
Now look at the list of vegetables and tell me which ones you like.
Here is one of the most surprising things that I’ve learned being a health coach. After years of teaching this to my clients, I can count on my hand how many people I talked to who don’t like vegetables. And most will go down the list and name almost all of them as favorites.
I assumed people weren’t eating vegetables because they didn’t like them. Nope. It turns out they just don’t know how important they are, they haven’t made the time to prepare veggies, or they just don’t know what to cook. Mostly, they just need more ideas of Quick Fix Vegetables. That’s why in the upcoming weeks, I will be introducing my new series—Quick Fix Veggies.
The only tricky thing about vegetables is the starchy vegetables. These are higher in carbohydrates and calories, so I consider them a carbohydrate rather than a vegetable. These include corn, potatoes, peas, winter squash (the orange ones like butternut or acorn), sweet potatoes, and dried beans. Bummer!
Quarter Plate Protein
Next up is the protein section. Hold out your hand, and look at your palm. You want your portion of protein to be about the size of 1-1.5 palms of your hand. If you're male, you get to eat 1-2 palm-sized portions of protein with a focus on less processed meats. Also, make most of your protein lean. I include Greek yogurt in this section as well as cheese.
This works well with vegetarians also. Just substitute non-meat protein sources (including beans) in the 1/4 protein section. Vegans may need a slightly different plate set-up. Check out this link and scroll down to the plant-based eating plate if this applies to you.
Getting enough protein is important when you are trying to lose weight because protein like the fiber in vegetables, fills you up. Protein takes more calories to digest than carbohydrates and fat. And, protein helps you to lose fat and keep your muscles as you lose weight.
Quarter Plate Carbohydrates
Last up is the 1/4 of the plate that are carbohydrates. These include fruit, starchy vegetables, beans, whole grains of any sort (such as oatmeal, quinoa, or rice), and foods made with flour (cereal, bread, crackers, and pasta).
So vegetables help you to feel full, and protein helps you to feel full, but the carbs…they don’t fill you up. And in fact, they can do the opposite. Carbohydrates, especially the processed versions made with flour (and especially added sugar), can activate the craving centers of your brain and make you want more and more. (Check out the next shift on reward centers for more info.) That’s why you can eat a whole plate of pasta, and still ask for seconds.
So, think of the 1/2 plate vegetables as a minimum. You can have more if you are still hungry. A quarter plate protein is also a goal, but you can have more if you are still hungry. But 1/4 plate carbohydrate is a maximum. Don’t eat more of this.
It’s important to choose beans, whole grains (and I mean the actual whole grains not just whole grain flour), starchy vegetables with peels, or whole fruit for your carbohydrate choice over highly processed “white” versions of carbohydrates. Not only do fruit and whole grains like steel-cut oatmeal, brown rice, and quinoa, have more vitamins and fiber, but they decrease your cravings.
It’s easy to eat bowl after bowl of Sugar Fruit Rings cereal, but try that with steel-cut oatmeal. It’s not going to happen. You’ll fell full before you get to the bottom of the first bowl.
So for weight loss, not only added nutrition, try and get most of your carbohydrates from beans, fruit, starchy vegetables, or whole grains. If you are buying food made with flour-- like bread, cereal, or pasta-- buy the brownest, most dense, highest fiber kind you can find.
Weight Loss Plate Strategies
Choose your Favorite Starch
Many American meals have several starchy carbohydrates at a meal. In that case, it’s very important that you prioritize and only eat your very favorite.
For example, I had a client who was going to have BBQ Pork Ribs for dinner. When I asked what he planned to have with his ribs, he told me— a baked potato, corn on the cob, and a roll. Then I questioned which was his very favorite. Which one did he have to have for it to still be a Rib dinner?
He answered without hesitation—the baked potato. I explained, ”Great. Then choose the potato with the skin as your 1/4 plate starch. That means that you can still have a baked potato, but you can’t eat a potato as big as your head. You will have to cut it to fit 1/4 of your plate.”
If you are used to having several carbohydrates at a meal, choose your favorite, choose the least processed or most whole grain version you can, and then portion it to fit 1/4 of the plate.
Eat Your Meal in This Order
One of the best strategies that I can teach you to feel full and eat less is to eat your food in a certain order. It sounds a little OCD, but it will significantly effect the amount of food and calories you eat if you eat your food in this order. Start your meal with your vegetables first. Then eat the protein, and finally eat your carbohydrates.
You will be mostly full by the time you get to your carbohydrates and find yourself satisfied with the 1/4 of your plate portion. If I am having pizza for dinner and I start my meal with a salad, then I will eat one slice of pizza. If I don’t have a side salad, then I will eat 2-3 pieces.
Starting your meal with vegetables can be a game changer.
Do this experiment and you will find yourself satisfied with that 9 inch plate of dinner. You’ll wonder how you stuffed yourself with so much food before.
You’ll also notice on the Portion Plate above, there is a section for a couple of teaspoons of fat. Fat helps you to feel satisfied with your meal as well. The fat can be the oil that you use to sauté your food in or for salad dressing. But for optimal health, you do want to focus on getting healthy fats like olive oil, avocado oil, nuts and seeds, and/ or avocado.
If you have a combination food like spaghetti with meat sauce, or chili with meat, you can still eat according to the Weight Loss Plate. I play with my recipes and add way more protein than the recipe calls for. So if its chili, I want the proportions of beans and meat to be the same. That way I have a 1/4 plate carbs (beans) and 1/4 plate protein (ground beef) that just happen to be in the same dish. Same thing with spaghetti with meat sauce. I want to serve myself 1/4 of my plate whole grain pasta and then top it with a very meaty red Spaghetti sauce that would equal 3-4 ounces of ground beef as a serving.
Personalize the Proportions
The Weight Loss Plate is a great starting point. Most of my clients start with this meal template, but you may want to personalize it after a while.
If you find that you feel better and lose weight more quickly if you eat 1/8 plate of carbohydrates, go for it.
Another popular option is to cut out the carb portion at lunch and then re-instate 1/4 plate carbohydrates at dinner. The key is to find a way to eat that helps you to feel satisfied and lose weight for the long term.
More Meal Ideas
If you would like more meal ideas, I love to show my clients the Diabetes by the Plate Cookbook.
Each page has a dinner meal set-up like the Weight Loss Plate with a corresponding recipe for the Meat, the vegetables, and the carbohydrate. It’s a great way to give my clients ideas for how to make their current meals fit the proportions of the Healthy Plate. (This is an affiliate link. If you buy the book, I make a small commission at no cost to you. I love this book and use it myself.)
Weight Loss Plate Guide
Not sure what to eat for breakfast? Check out my upcoming Coach’s Tip if you are stumped about how to set up a meal template for breakfast.
Until next time,
get the Guide to Losing Weight without Dieting!
What are the secrets of the most successful losers? After coaching hundreds of people, I found these 15 habits and mind shifts in my clients who lose weight and keep it off. Now I'm sharing the guide to losing weight without dieting with you. Get the guide here...
I'm a dietitian, personal trainer, and health coach who started asking all the tough health and weight loss questions-- like how do we get more willpower, why can’t we stay motivated, and why is getting healthy and losing weight so tough?
I discovered that the answer to all these questions is simply--Your Brain.
I help frustrated people end their health and weight loss struggles by understanding their brain and then working with it—instead of against it. Then, I teach them how to put their personalized health habits on autopilot for results that last.
You deserve the health and energy you need to live your best life.