How to Build a Healthy Plate, According to an RD

The no-stress method to make healthy eating a breeze.

By: Lauren Manaker MS, RDN, LD, CLEC

When trying to follow a healthy lifestyle and achieve your health and fitness goals — such as losing weight or gaining muscle — learning how to build a healthy plate is one of those tools that will help you achieve long-term success. But what does a healthy plate actually mean? In this article, you will learn the must-have healthy options to include. Plus, we’re sharing intuitive tips that will teach you how to balance your plate with ease and confidence so you can support your healthy lifestyle in an approachable way.

What is a Healthy Plate?

The term “healthy plate” is thrown around a lot these days. And with a wide range of diets and opinions on which foods are the healthiest, it can be hard to know what a healthy plate truly consists of. While there is no “one size fits all” approach to making a healthy plate, there are some basic principles that will help you navigate your meal with ease. 

Generally speaking, a balanced healthy plate should include the following components:

  • Lean protein: such as fish, chicken, beans, nuts, tofu
  • Whole grains: such as quinoa, whole grain bread, oats
  • Colorful produce: such as spinach, berries, melon, broccoli
  • Healthy fats: such as olive oil, nuts, fatty fish, seeds

A healthy diet is made up of a multitude of combinations of foods that fall into these categories. So once you get the hang of understanding what makes a healthy plate, you will be able to mix and match different foods with ease.

RELATED: The Ultimate Guide To Healthy Eating

How to Balance Macronutrients on Your Plate 

Protein, carbohydrates, and fat — the three macronutrients — are all important components of a healthy diet (and thus, a balanced meal).

To know which foods fall under which macro category, use the following list as a guide:


When selecting protein, opting for lean choices is suggested, such as:

  • Lean chicken
  • Lean beef
  • Beans 
  • Nuts
  • Cheese
  • Fish and seafood
  • Tofu
  • Soybeans


The healthiest fats include unsaturated fats that are unrefined, such as:

  • Olive oil
  • Avocado
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Fatty fish
  • Chia seeds


The healthiest carbs include fruits and starchy vegetables with a lower glycemic index and fiber-rich whole grains. These include:

  • Whole-grain or sprouted bread
  • Sweet potatoes and potatoes
  • Berries
  • Quinoa
  • Brown rice
  • Bran flakes
  • Oats

Bulk Up Your Plate With Micronutrients

In addition to including the three macros on your dish — lean protein, healthy fat, and low glycemic carbs — fill your plate with a large portion of nutrient-dense foods that are rich in vitamins and minerals, such as non-starchy vegetables.

The Occasional Additions

Dairy Foods 

Dairy foods contain important bone-building nutrients like calcium and magnesium. But, not all dairy foods are created equal, and some people are intolerant to dairy products such as milk and cheese. 

If you are dairy-free, consider dairy alternatives like non-dairy milk or plant-based cheese and yogurts. But, if dairy works for you, there are healthy ways to include it in your diet. Our tips? Be mindful of portion size, and stick to high-quality sources such as pasture-raised and organic, when possible. 

Sweet Treats & Desserts

And as for desserts? Think of sweets as a “treat” and incorporate them on special occasions.

With that said, rather than restricting certain foods from your diet, try to find healthy swaps! You’d be surprised how easy (and delicious) healthier dessert alternatives can be. When your cravings strike, give these options a try

A Sample Healthy Plate

An example of a balanced and healthy plate contains:

  • ½ cup serving of quinoa 
  • 4-ounce salmon filet 
  • 1 cup of sauteed spinach or kale drizzled with a tsp of extra virgin olive oil

Each food is served in a balanced way, and portion sizes are appropriate. 

Tips to Intuitively Build a Healthy Plate 

When building a healthy plate, intuitive eating principles can come into play to save you the effort of measuring every little thing you are eating to ensure proper portion sizes or counting every macro and calorie. Plus, a research study found that an intuitive eating approach supported a positive shift in food habits. 

Here are some tips for intuitively building a healthy plate:

Know What a Proper Portion Size Looks Like

Eyeballing portion sizes is much more appealing than having to lug around measuring tools and making calculations. Building a healthy plate is not an exact science, and estimating portions is a-ok. As long as your carb portion is around the size of a fist and your protein size is around the size of a deck of cards, you will be in good shape. 

When intuitively portioning your meal, here is a general guide:

  • Fill half of your plate with non-starchy veggies or leafy greens
  • Portion a quarter of your plate with lean protein
  • Use the remaining quarter for complex carbs
  • Top your plate with a thumb-sized serving of healthy fats 

RELATED: The 8 Best Foods to Eat That Will Fill You Up

Fill Your Plate With a Variety of Colors

Including a variety of foods is key to a healthy plate. This goes for healthy foods, too. While wholesome foods like carrots are absolutely good for you, having a plate filled with only carrots won’t do you any favors in the long run when focusing on your health. Instead, try to fill your plate with at least 2-3 colors during each meal. By doing this, you are ensuring that you are getting a variety of foods, and therefore, a variety of nutrients. 

RELATED: What Five Servings of Fruits & Vegetables Per Day Actually Looks Like

Make a Mental Checklist For Your Plate and Stick With It

Whenever you are building a plate, bring mindfulness and intuitive eating into the equation. To start, ask yourself if your meal contains lean protein, healthy fats, and quality carbohydrates. If you are missing a macro, fill your gap accordingly. And don’t forget, a balanced plate contains a variety of non-starchy veggies, too!

Building a Healthy Plate For a Healthy Lifestyle

Knowing how to properly build your plate can help support your health goals in an easy and impactful way. Simple steps like ensuring all of the macros are present on your plate and including a variety of colorful produce can help keep you on track. While it may be daunting to think about how to build your healthy plate in the beginning, with time, picking the right foods in the right amount will become second nature. Keep at it, and before you know it, you will be well on your way to enjoying well-balanced meals with ease!

Ready to make healthy eating even easier? Sign up for FitOn PRO and get access to personalized meal plans, including foods you’ll love to eat.