Cooking Basics: Planning Meals With the Plate Method

How many of you have planned out your meals for the week, gone to the grocery store, and made sure that your cupboards and refrigerator are well stocked for the days ahead? Did you raise your hand? Chances are you don’t know what you’ll have for dinner tonight, let alone for the entire week.


The term “meal planning” is used frequently in the diabetes world to describe the method or approach that a person uses to ensure a balance of nutrients and also to balance food choices with medicine and exercise to help manage blood glucose. Perhaps “menu planning” is a better description. Dietitians typically encourage people to “plan” and to “think ahead” about what they will eat for the next week or so. But rarely have I come across a person who truly sits down and plans out the week’s menu. It’s hard to think that far ahead. Who knows what you’ll really feel like eating come Thursday evening, and as far as Friday’s lunch, well, maybe you’ll just go out to eat!

So, maybe it’s not fair to ask people to sit down with a pad of paper and a pen (or a laptop) and create a grid of all the meals and snacks they’ll eat for the next seven days. However, I thought about what I usually do: before I head off to the grocery store — I make a list of ingredients that I need for at least two “main” dishes. (I always have a few dishes in the back of my mind, although I do like to try new things, too.). I figure I’ll usually have leftovers for one or two meals. But it’s not always easy, I admit. I’ve been known to bring a frozen dinner now and then to work for lunch, much to the surprise of some of my coworkers.

I’ve given you a few meal ideas and recipes over the past couple of weeks. They may or may not appeal to you, but the point is that you can use these recipes (and hopefully some of your own) to create a file of “basics” that you can turn to when you’re feeling stuck or when you need to put a quick and healthful meal on the table.

Plate It
I’m pretty sure I’ve talked about the plate method in the past. The plate method is one of the simplest meal planning tools available. But looks can be deceiving because it’s also one of the most helpful tools. Most people can relate to a plate. Someone’s eyes can glaze over when you start talking exchanges or grams of carbohydrate, but when you discuss what to literally put on your plate, well, that’s much easier to understand. Here’s how the plate method works:

  • Picture your dinner plate (preferably a 9-inch diameter plate) in your mind or if you want to be concrete, grab a paper plate and draw a line down the center with a marker. (Most dinner plates these days are about 12 inches in diameter, so if that’s the case, plan to leave some space around the outside edge.). You now have two halves on your plate.
  • Next, divide one half of the plate into two to make two quarters.
  • Then, start filling your plate!

Fill one half of your plate with low-carbohydrate veggies. Here are just a few ideas:

  • Broccoli
  • Spinach
  • Green beans
  • Asparagus
  • Summer squash
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Red and green peppers
  • Carrots
  • Tomatoes

There are so many different kinds of vegetables that you can eat. Break out of your rut and try something new.

Next, fill a quarter of your plate with an unrefined or whole-grain carbohydrate food, such as:

  • Brown rice
  • Quinoa
  • Barley
  • Whole-grain pasta
  • Wild rice
  • Sweet potato
  • Corn
  • Whole-grain bread
  • Whole wheat tortillas
  • Legumes (black beans, chickpeas, lentils, cannellini beans, etc.)
  • And fill the other quarter with a healthful protein food (broiled, grilled, baked or stir-fried), such as:

  • Chicken or turkey (without skin)
  • Lean red meat (beef, pork, lamb, veal)
  • Fish or shellfish
  • Tofu or a meat substitute (soy burger, soy “hot dog”)
  • Low-fat cheese
  • Eggs
  • Add a couple of teaspoons of a heart-healthy fat:

  • Olive, canola, corn, flax seed oil
  • Nuts or seeds
  • Trans-fat-free spread
  • Avocado
  • Salad dressing
  • You’re not done yet. Add a garden salad, if you wish. Round out the meal with a piece of fresh fruit and maybe even a low-fat yogurt or glass of skim or soy milk. Now you’ve got a balanced, healthful meal and as long as you stay within the borders of your plate, you’re watching your portions. Boring? It doesn’t have to be. The meal possibilities are endless!

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    • Becky Cooke

      This is by far the best idea I’ve seen in a long time. One diet expert suggests once you have your food on the plate, divide it in half and only eat half. Good tip but not as great as this one. I am getting out the paper plate today and beginning a whole new way of proportioning meals. Portion size has always been my nemesis. What a great idea!! Thanks so much!

    • Rosalind Lee

      I agree this is an excellent idea. But I have a question about the garden salad part at the end. It is in addition to the plate (which by then all quarters are already filled). Is the salad in a small side plate? or can it be a cup of soup instead of salad?

      What do you think the breakfast my husband usually eats: a few teaspoonful of low-fat yogurt (Organic and Greek) with cut up fruits such as kiwifruit, avacado, or papaya.

    • acampbell

      Thanks, Becky! Glad to hear that this method will be helpful for you.

    • acampbell

      Hi Rosalind,

      Thanks for your questions. The plate is pretty flexible in that you can add a side plate of salad or even a bowl of a low-fat, non-creamy soup. As far as your husband’s breakfast, it sounds good. I’d suggest that he perhaps add a protein or fat source to his meal, such as some nuts, peanut butter, an egg, or some reduced-fat cheese. Right now, his breakfast is mostly carbohydrate, which means that it may quickly raise his blood glucose and also may not sustain him over several hours.

    • joan

      There are quite a few methods of how much to put on our plate for a meal. Diabetes is so individualized with what works for us – thank goodness for choices!

      A topic we do not hear much about is the fact that not all carbs are equal! And not all carbs have the same affect on our metabolic system (digestive abilities). That a small apple may not have 15 grams of carbs, it might be less or more carbs depending on the time of year! Same for veggies. For me, I have found that 2-3 grams of carbs (gCb) can make a huge difference in control.

      I prefer to surprise myself with the up-coming meal. For me it is part of the joys of the day!

      * What type a meal?
      * Are ingredients needed?
      * Choose and Weigh the carbs
      * Calculate the insulin to carbs
      (using a Ratio of insulin to carbohydrates)
      * Prep Time including figuring carbs and weighing food – 5 minutes! Trying this method the first few times it might take 15 minutes! :-))

      I have a printed, four page list of my favorite foods and how many carbs per ounce. I just check the list out (carb info taken from the USDA Nutrient web site). I also use my carb list (shortened & carried with me) when dining at a restaurant and enjoy a lovely meal without worrying about carb intake!

      My method might be of some interest to others. It has worked for me for more than 10 years. I am a Type 1 for 53 years this month.

      Life Is Good!

    • acampbell

      Thanks, Joan! It’s always great when people share tips and tricks that have worked for them in order to help others.

    • dee

      Hi, Great tip on the printing out list of carbs etc.. Could or would you possible consider posting this or sharing it via email ?? I am doing all I can to help a husband who is also affected by some mental issues. So he would do much better, perhaps if he could chose from a list. thanks in advance. Dee in NC

    • Fran

      Dee have you spoken with your husband’s doctor maybe he or she can give you a booklet on carb counting ? Perhaps you and or your husband could attend diabetes education at a local hospital.