What I mean, though, is how I plan to make sure we get all the nutrients we need. I'm not an expert at this by any means. A couple of weeks ago I bought so little at the store that I was starving all week ... oops. John and I both have very fast metabolisms, and the baby eats more every day, so we really do need to make sure we buy a lot. And I try to make sure it's healthy stuff, and enough variety to get us all the nutrition we need.
My meal planning takes place at the store. I don't plan snacks or any meals at home besides dinner, but I decide what to buy that will work for snacks and lunches. I do have a rough idea in my mind of what dinners I'll make every day.
But when someone asked on Facebook recently how to balance her family's diet and food budget when eating real food, I have to admit I drew something of a blank. She was asking if we should use the USDA's food pyramid, to which I had to give an emphatic NO. 6-11 servings of grains? That's a LOT -- especially for something that isn't very nutritious. White grains in particular are pretty much just straight carbohydrates, with few vitamins. And you know I don't agree with what it says about fat.
This one would be a bit better. But I don't actually feel the need for a complicated pyramid. Does anyone else remember the "Basic Four"? Four food groups that were generally arranged in a square: meat and fish, eggs and dairy, fruits and vegetables, grains and beans. That setup works just fine for me to keep track.
Nourishing Traditions, the bible of real food, recognizes certain foods that are nutrient dense: organ meats, shellfish, other meat, bone broth, eggs, and raw or cultured dairy are the main ones. I try to have something that's pretty nutrient-dense at every meal. You'll notice these are all animal foods. Animal foods tend to have everything an animal (like us) needs, because they're made from (or, in the case of milk, for) animals! Most of the nutrients in animal foods are readily absorbed, too, because they're in the same form that we use and don't need to be converted into a usable form. Ideally you should pick the healthiest animals possible to eat, like grassfed beef, pastured chickens, and wild fish.
Once I've got a small portion of animal foods in each meal, I start thinking about vegetables. Vegetables provide vitamins that don't transfer as well from animal foods, like vitamin C, which is destroyed by cooking. Some vegetables should be eaten raw, and some, like broccoli and spinach, should be cooked. Some fat on your vegetables, like BUTTER for instance (yum) will help you absorb any fat-soluble vitamins they provide. They also make you more likely to eat a lot of them!
If I've got an animal food and a vegetable or two, I can really stop there. I use fruits as snacks throughout the day. (When I was a kid, I only ever ate one fruit a day, at lunch. I'm beginning to discover how nice it is to eat more than that! Some fruits are expensive, but some, like bananas, aren't.) But the other foods, like grains and beans, have a place too. Since they are not as high in nutrients as meat and vegetables, I don't make them the centerpiece. But they're good for filling up the corners if you have high calorie needs. It's important, though, never to let nutrient-poor foods crowd out the nutrient-dense ones ... something I do very often, when I bake bread. I end up eating the bread all day instead of having a real lunch. It fills me up great, but it's pretty deficient in nutrients! I do eat whole-wheat bread, but since it's a seed, most of its vitamins are bound up so as to be useless to us. I've read a lot about soaking, sprouting, or fermenting grains in order to free up those vitamins, but it's easier for me not to expect grains to be a big source of nutrients.
Ideally, you're supposed to eat a probiotic food, like a lacto-fermented vegetable or cultured dairy, at every meal. Lacto-fermenting ketchup and salsa are good ways to make that readily available. Sour cream also is an excellent garnish for many foods, particularly soup. Only a tablespoon or two is really necessary. Make sure to add them once the food has cooled so that you don't kill all the friendly bacteria.
So, I'd better give some examples. For dinners, we often just have a piece of meat (chicken or pork), a vegetable (spinach with butter, creamed collard greens), and potatoes (I count these as a starch, not a vegetable). Other days we have some kind of soup or chowder: bone broth, a vegetable, and a starch. An example would be carrot soup -- chicken stock, carrots, and potatoes are the main ingredients. Other times, it's some kind of combined dish: spaghetti contains meat, vegetables (tomatoes, onions, and mushrooms), and pasta. Shepherds' pie has meat, vegetables, and potatoes.
During the day, I tend to just eat whenever I'm hungry. Eggs make a better breakfast than cereal, being denser in nutrients AND higher in protein ... so that you're not dealing with a carb crash all morning. Sometimes I have a bit of fruit. Or if I have yogurt in the fridge, I have that with some jam. Later on, I might have some leftover vegetables, a salad with crumbled bacon and kimchi (SO GOOD), a sandwich, more fruit, cheese, and -- if I have any bread -- way more bread than I should be eating. To help keep me a bit more balanced in what I'm eating, I sometimes make things ahead of time that have a variety of ingredients: whole wheat carrot muffins made with eggs and milk or ham and cheese pockets. I don't really have a lot of discipline where food is concerned ... I eat what's there, whenever I feel like it. I could use to work on this -- once the baby's older, and we have (hopefully) more kids, I would like to just make one big breakfast and lunch and have us all eat it instead of snacking throughout the day.
So, that's not exactly what I'd call a carefully planned diet. I do make sure to buy a variety of vegetables so we're not always eating the same thing. But overall, as long as I'm not over-focusing on any one of the four food groups to the detriment of the rest, I tend to feel okay about what I'm eating. I could use a bit more discipline, though, and more knowledge would certainly not hurt. I'm aware I don't follow the WAPF diet completely, but I do try.
What about you? How do you know you are providing a balanced diet for your family (or yourself)?