March is National Nutrition Month and this year the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is encouraging you to “Personalize Your Plate!” Developing a healthful eating pattern is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. We are all different, and our choices are shaped by many factors—not only taste preference—but more complex factors too, such as access to food, culture and traditions. No matter your situation, there is more than one way to personalize your plate for healthful eating.
Choose a variety of foods
According to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a healthy eating pattern includes a variety of foods from all food groups. Each food group offers a unique package of nutrients that, when combined, help you become healthier now and maintain your health for the future.
Avoiding food groups leaves nutritional gaps. For example, if you’re lactose intolerant you may be avoiding dairy foods, but dairy has important health benefits. Diary essential nutrients including calcium, potassium and vitamin D, which people of all ages need for growth and maintenance of stronger bodies and minds. These nutrients also play a role in preventing chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.
If you are lactose intolerant, personalize your plate by choosing aged cheeses, like cheddar or Parmesan, which contain nearly no lactose. You could also try fermented dairy foods like Greek yogurt or kefir, or cottage cheese, which contain beneficial bacteria that help you digest lactose. Choose lactose-free milk instead of milk impersonators, such as soy, rice, almond or coconut beverages, which do not offer the same package of nine essential nutrients as real cow’s milk. Lactose-free milk is still real cow’s milk, just without the lactose.
Finding time to sit down for a well-balanced meal is often just as challenging as deciding what should be on your plate. Most Americans fall short when it comes to eating enough plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains, as well as dairy foods, but planning a weekly menu will make healthful eating easier.
First, check your schedule to determine how many meals you can realistically eat at home each week. Then choose healthful recipes that include a variety of food groups. Eating the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate way can guide you. Aim to fill half your plate with fruits and veggies, one fourth with lean protein, such as chicken, seafood, beans, and nuts or seeds, and one fourth with whole grains. Add a cold glass of milk with your meal or a serving of cheese or yogurt to your plate.
If you are limiting your meat intake to follow a plant-based diet, dairy foods are a great way to incorporate more high-quality protein into each meal or snack. One 8-ounce serving of milk provides eight grams of protein. Pairing plant-based foods with dairy creates a superfood power couple. When combined, dairy and plant foods provide the four nutrients missing in most American diets—calcium, potassium, vitamin D and fiber.
Learn new skills
Make meal planning easier, help incorporate variety, and better suit everyone’s preferences by getting the whole family involved with planning and prepping each week. Learn how to eat healthy at every stage of life, during pregnancy, from infant to toddler, teens to young adult and through your adult years and beyond.
The Dairy Alliance offers a variety of recipes that help incorporate dairy into your daily diet. Encourage older kids to find fun recipes that explore new flavors and foods children are more likely to eat the foods they help prepare, while also learning the importance of food safety and healthier food choices. Look to the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans for advice on how to personalize children’s plates, which includes guidance for infants and toddlers for the first time.
Make meals even easier on yourself by learning new cooking techniques that can minimize the amount of time and effort spent on preparation. One-pot meals, sheet pan dinners and slow cooker or instant pot recipes are just a few cooking methods that can simplify family meals. And never underestimate the power of repurposing leftovers.
The bottom line is that everyone is different, and so are our food choices. Work with a Registered Dietitian to get guidance when personalizing your own plate.
Tracey True is a registered dietitian from Maysville, Kentucky. She currently works as manager of food and nutrition outreach for The Dairy Alliance, a regional nonprofit funded by dairy farm families of the southeast.