Better Plate Theory: A Simple Guide to Build a Nutritious Meal

Better Plate Theory: Build a Nutritious Meal

What does your typical plate look like?

What's on it? Maybe some meat. Some potatoes, rice, or pasta. Maybe a couple slices of bread. Perhaps some vegetables.​

With thousands of different items being sold all across North America, the number of combinations of foods you can put on your plate is, almost literally, exponential.

And it's perhaps why nutrition has become so complicated.

Knowing what to put on your plate for optimal health and performance has become a daunting task, but an ever more important one as every meal you have is either going to make your more or less healthy.

In this post, I want to introduce you to the Better Plate Theory - a simplified guide to building a better plate of food that will help optimize your health, boost your energy levels, and keep the weight down.


Do we really need a better plate?

​The average (North) American plate is generally over-sized and over-flowing.

Each year, we're consuming more and more food (you can see lots of cool food consumption trends here and here) as the food landscape is constantly shifting.

It's no surprise that our food choices have become more and more influenced by clever packaging, advanced marketing tactics, lousy food guides, and social pressures.

Read more: discover how scientists use the psychological connection between your brain and your food to sell you the wrong foods.

​However, we can't forget...

The core purpose of food is to nourish the body - to give the body the nutrients that it is incapable of making itself - the nutrients it needs to build and repair itself.

Unfortunately, the food on the average plate is no longer serving that purpose.

We've come to prefer taste over nutrients. Quantity over quality. And convenience and speed over integrity and value of the food that is in front of us.

Of course, you can't ignore the social, psychological, economical, and emotional attributes of food. Food has always been much more than just about nutrients.

But I think that we can all put a little more thought into what we put on our plate. Our health and longevity depends on it.

So how do you build a better plate?

It comes down to asking yourself one simple question: are the foods on my plate going to make me more or less healthy?

A quick note on calories...

I've discussed the problems with calorie counting in a previous post.

Personally, I'm not a fan of it. Counting calories is not only unsustainable and inaccurate (research has shown that most sources are off by 25% because of incorrect labeling, laboratory measurement error, and food quality), but the process instills bad long-term nutrition habits that do more harm than good.

My rule of thumb when it comes to calories is this: if you are choosing to put the right foods on your plate (those that do make you healthier), then counting calories is irrelevant.

This doesn't mean that there's no place for calories. But in the effort to make things simple, focusing on the quality of your calories rather than the quantity will serve you much better over the long-run.

Building a better plate should be simple and fun. It should not require you to be fumbling with food scales and measuring cups.

Note: if you are interested in learning how to count calories the easy way, there is a great Calorie Control Guide on Precision Nutrition.​

Why Your Plate Matters.

Before you can start building a better plate, you have to choose the right plate.

What does this mean?​

Well, according to research published in the Journal of Consumer Research, the size and color of your plate can trick your mind into eating more or less.

The size of your plate

The fact that smaller plates lead to smaller portions might seem obvious, but it really revolves around an interesting optical illusion known as the Delboeuf Illusion.

Size of Your Plate: Delboeuf Illusion

The two black circles are of the identical size, but the Delboeuf Illusion leads you to think that the black circle on the right is bigger because the outside circle is smaller.

The Delboeuf Illusion makes us think things are smaller when we compare them to things that are larger. A simple concept.

But this simple illusion has a tremendous influence on our portion sizes. Even though the portion of food on the two plates above are the same, you feel less satisfied (perhaps deprived) when you put a small portion size on a big plate.

Simply downsizing your plates will reduce the amount of food you are eating and allow you to feel satisfied at the same time.

So what's the optimal plate size?

Recommendation: while there are many combinations that can work here, I suggest not using plates larger than 9 inches in diameter.​

The color of your plate

Within the same study mentioned above, researchers discovered that the color of your plate (in relation to your food) also influences how much you eat.

They ran an experiment where they examined the relationship between plate color and serving size. They instructed one group of participants to serve themselves pasta mixed with a red tomato sauce and a second group to serve themselves pasta mixed with a white Alfredo sauce.

Each person was randomly given a white plate or a dark red plate.

Color of your plate

If the color of your plate matches the color of your food, you are more likely to serve yourself more food (up to 30% more according to studies). [Image source]

What they found was that when the color of a participant’s plate matched the color of their food - for instance, a dark plate with pasta mixed with red sauce - they served themselves almost 30% more.​

So what color of plates is best to get?

Recommendation: get a mix of light plates and dark plates. Use light plates when you're eating dark foods and use dark plates when you're eating light-colored foods.

How to Build a Better Plate

​Now that you know what plates to get, it's time to start figuring out what exactly you should be putting on your plate. The Better Plate Theory is built around a few simple nutrition principles.

  • Eat whole (real) foods as much as possible
  • Consume less sugar and refined grains
  • Eat more (healthy) fats
  • Source your protein well
  • Eat loads of vegetables
  • Keep fruit consumption on the minimum

These general principles should guide your plate-building decisions. But perhaps we should get more specific. A better plate should be comprised of a combination of the following elements:

  • A good protein source,
  • Lots of colorful vegetables,
  • Some healthy fat, and
  • Some form of healthy carbohydrates (optional)

Here's exactly what the (rough) breakdown looks like:

Better Plate Breakdown

Note: if you haven't already, make sure to download my grocery list so you can see exactly what foods fit under each of the categories above.

Here's the better plate process:

​Step 1: Start with protein

Look at the grocery list for your protein options.​ Choose one and add enough to cover roughly one quarter of your plate.

Keep in mind that the source of your protein matters. If you have the option to opt for grass-fed meats, do so. Otherwise, just choose the leanest cuts you can find.

​Step 2: Add your vegetables

Next, choose a variety of vegetables to add to your plate.

Vegetables should pretty much always make up half (or more) of your plate. They will fuel your body with the vitamins, nutrients, antioxidants, and fiber it needs.

You’ll see in the grocery list that you have a lot of options to work with.

​Step 3: Add your healthy fats

Since fat is calorically dense, it will make up a good portion of your calories.

This is important because the nutritious calories from your healthy fat sources will replace a lot of the (empty) calories you will be cutting out when you get away from grains and sugary foods.

Fat should make up most of the remaining quarter of your plate (see step 4).

How do you add fat?​

Start by choosing a cooking fat (the grocery list identifies which ones are great for cooking) to prepare your protein in. Add some nuts and olives to your meal. Or just drizzle some extra-virgin olive oil on your vegetables.

​Step 4: Optionally add some carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are optional, but you should try to include them particularly on days that you exercise or move around a lot.

My favorite carbohydrate options include sweet potatoes, various squashes, and (at times) slices of grapefruit or cups of blueberries, but you will find a few other choices in the grocery list.

On days that you don’t train, only add carbohydrates if you really feel that you need them. Otherwise, replace those carbs with more healthy fats.

Quick Summary

I hope you have found the Better Plate Theory insightful. More importantly, I hope that it inspires you to put a little more thought into how you build your own plate.

Remember that our food choices trump everything else.

What you put on your plate will determine the outcome of your goals.​ It will determine how you feel. How you move. And how you live.

The Better Plate Theory is just that - a theory. While it works for me and countless people I have shared it with, it doesn't mean it will work for everyone.

So play with it. Test it out. 

Ask yourself if the foods that you see on your plate are serving their purpose. Ask if they making you more healthy or less healthy?

If it it's the latter, it might be worth making a few changes.


Note: if you have any questions about how to build your better plate, leave them in the comments below and I'll do my best to clarify things for you!​