The origin of the plate method
Previous national food guides, such as Canada's 2007 Food Guide, included target servings of certain foods and specific portion sizes in order to help individuals meet their daily nutrient requirements. While this method can be helpful in certain contexts, for some it can be overwhelming tracking specific numbers. So how can we ensure our meals are nutritionally balanced without tracking numbers? Cue the plate method: an enjoyable way to build nourishing meals.
The plate method was derived from selected national food guidelines including Canada's Updated Food Guide and USA's MyPlate with a few modifications to adapt it for those following a plant-based lifestyle. These guides have been studied and reviewed by experts in the field who have agreed that generally, these proportions meet the general population's estimated macronutrient and micronutrient needs.
The plate method is a simple visual guide that illustrates the general proportion of each plant-based food group that's needed in order to ensure adequate nutrition. If we regularly include all components of the plate method into meals and rotate the types of foods in each category for variety, we are likely to achieve enough macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fat) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) for optimal health and well-being. It takes the numbers, the tracking, the servings of this and the servings of that out of the equation so that the planning and plating of meals become more effortless. The model takes the shape of a plate, but in reality translates into any type of meal being put together whether it's on a plate, in a bowl, in a sandwich, roll, or wrap.
The purpose of the plate method is not to meticulously organize our food in an exact orientation, or become hyper-focused on specific fractions for all of our meals, every day. It's designed to be adaptable based on foods that are accessible and enjoyable to each individual. The aim is to include as many of the food groups as is possible for the majority of meals while recognizing that some meals simply won't align with the plate method, and that's ok. If we allow ourselves to be flexible with the method, it makes it more practical and realistic. In this way, we are more likely to stick to it in the long term.
You may notice that portion sizes are not depicted in the plate method. This is because there is a degree of person-to-person and day-to-day variability that is difficult to represent. The plate method is designed to capture a wide range of nutrients necessary for the majority of the general, healthy population. However, how much we need of these nutrients will vary person-to-person depending on factors including sex, age, weight, and body composition. In addition, each individual's needs may vary day-to-day depending on factors including hunger levels, physical activity, and disease states.
How to balance it all out
If you notice a meal is low in protein, don't sweat it. Aim to enjoy a protein-rich snack later in the day to balance it all out. The same holds true if a meal is low in vegetables, fruits, grains or starches. As long as you're welcoming variety into the foods you eat while roughly following the plate method at most meals, chances are it'll balance out over the course of the week. Again, the aim is to be adaptable and welcome flexibility.
Vegetable & fruits: ½ of the plate
It's no question that vegetables and fruits are immensely nutritious. They are loaded with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fibre which is why we aim to fill up at least half of our plates with them. If fresh produce is not always available to you, frozen or canned fruits and vegetables work well and are great options for convenience. As an added bonus, they tend to also be more affordable. Ideally, in a day, the intake of vegetables would be slightly higher than that of fruits, but as mentioned before the aim is to be flexible.
Grains & starches: ¼ of the plate
Grains and starches offer a fantastic source of sustained energy in addition to B-vitamins and minerals, depending on fortification. Some examples of grains include oats, rice, breads, pastas, barley, millet, quinoa, and buckwheat. Examples of starches include potatoes, yams, and squash.
Plant-based protein: ¼ of the plate
The wonderful thing about plant-based proteins is that they often offer more than just protein. Many of them are also sources of vitamins, such as vitamin B12, minerals, including calcium and iron, and even fibre - talk about nutrient density!
Legume-based sources include beans, lentils, peas, peanuts, and seitan, as well as soy products such as soy milk, soy yogurt, tofu, edamame, and tempeh. Convenience options such as frozen edamame and peas, or canned beans and lentils can help boost the protein in a meal while also cutting down on meal-prep time. Commercial meat alternatives made from plant-based ingredients also fall under this category. When possible, aim to consume whole food protein sources more often than commercial meat analogues.
Whole-food fats: in the meal, on the side, or as a snack
Fats have many important functions in our bodies such as aiding in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Aim for whole food sources over oils where possible, as these offer other beneficial factors including fibre, vitamins, and minerals. Whole food fat sources include avocados, nuts, seeds, nut butters such as almond butter, seed butters such as tahini, olives, coconut flesh, and coconut milk. Oils also contribute to our fat needs but be mindful of the quantity as they are a concentrated source.
Fortified plant-based dairy: in the meal, on the side, or as a snack
Fortified plant-based dairy substitutions are important for one major reason: calcium. In some cases, they can also be a source of protein. We recommend enjoying at least 2 servings a day of calcium-fortified plant-based milk or yogurts, where each serving is approximately 1 cup (240 mL).
Calcium is often overlooked by many individuals, vegan or not. It is critical for the growth and maintenance of our bone health throughout our lifespan. There are other foods beyond fortified plant-based dairy products that provide calcium - albeit in lower amounts - such as dark leafy greens, tahini, and beans. To learn more about calcium, check out our calcium article.
Protein content in plant-based dairy can vary. Legume-based milks and yogurts such as those made from soy and pea have a similar protein content to cow's milks and yogurts. This is not true, though, for most other plant milks including oat, rice, and almond milks. There is no shortage of non-dairy options available and if your preference leads you to one with lower protein content, no sweat. There are plenty of other protein-rich options as discussed above to meet needs. Remember, this tool is meant to be adapted to fit your preferences!
Depending on each individual, their needs and their intake, certain micronutrient supplements may be needed in addition to well-balanced meals. For those following a plant-based lifestyle, the most important are as follows.
Vitamin B12 is rarely found in plant-based foods. Due to this, those following a plant-based diet are advised to take a vitamin B12 supplement. Read our vitamin B12 article to learn more on this topic.
Vitamin D is another nutrient to consider depending on where in the world you live, and this applies to vegans and non-vegans alike. If your region doesn't get a lot of sunlight, a vitamin D supplement is recommended. Learn how to get enough in our vitamin D article.
Putting it into practice
If you need help getting started in recognizing the proportions on the plate, look for our interactive diagram under each PUL recipe. We've developed this tool to see how each recipe measures up to the plate method.
1. The plate method is a tool to help us visualize and create well-balanced meals that meet the majority of our nutrient needs without having to track numbers.
2. Learn each part of the plate method. The aim is to fill ½ of the plate with veggies and fruits, ¼ with grains and starches, and ¼ with plant-based proteins. Include whole food fats and fortified plant-based dairy in the meal, on the side, or as a snack. Supplements may be needed.
3. This guide is designed to be adaptable to the types of foods that are accessible and enjoyable to each person. This way, it's practical and easier to follow long-term.
4. Find the interactive plate method under each PUL recipe that is categorized as a "meal" or "breakfast". Use this tool to help you learn about each category and become comfortable with its use.