How to Plan Flexible Mediterranean Meals Without Breaking the Bank or Eliminating Your Favorite Foods

flexible meal planning, Mediterranean diet, non diet dietitian

Lately, I’ve become more flexible with how I structure our meals and less vigilant about making sure Jeremy and I have two vegetables or a fruit AND a vegetable with every lunch and dinner. As a result, meal-planning has become a lot easier and we have been more satisfied with our food.

Does this mean that nutrition has gone out the window? Definitely not.

We’re just taking a more flexible, balanced, and easygoing approach. I attribute this largely to the recent influence of Intuitive Eating and Eating Competence on my nutrition philosophy. In my last post, I shared about this important shift in my thinking about food and nutrition. I’d love for you to check it out and share what you think! :)

Today, I’m getting back into my favorite topic - the practical, day-to-day application of my nutrition knowledge and philosophy. It doesn’t get more practical than how to structure a balanced, nourishing meal without spending a ton of time or getting overwhelmed.

I hope you find this simple and flexible approach freeing. It certainly has been so for me. :)

Flexible MEditerranean Meal Planing

Basic Structure

The majority (but not all - more on this later) of our lunches and dinners now typically include a balance of 4 components:

  1. Protein

  2. Starch or grain

  3. Fruit, vegetable, or both

  4. Fat in and/or on food

That’s it! Each of these categories or food groups provide a variety of nutrients, many of which are not found in other food groups. That’s why including a variety of food groups is so important!

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Add Mediterranean Components

I also aim to mostly follow a Mediterranean eating pattern within this basic framework. These are the specific foods I focus on most often in each category in order to make meals more Mediterranean:

  • Protein: mostly chicken, turkey, and oily fish (salmon and tuna)

    • Less often: red meat - beef, pork, lamb

  • Starch or grain: whole grain pasta, whole grain bread, or brown rice most of the time

    • Less often: potatoes, white bread, white pasta, and white rice

  • Fruit/vegetable/both: all kinds fit into a Mediterranean eating pattern :)

  • Fat in/on food: extra virgin olive oil for cooking and on top of food; additional fats from nuts, seeds, egg yolks, hard cheeses (parmesan, cheddar, etc.), as well as omega 3 fats found in oily fish

    • Less often: butter, all oils besides extra virgin olive oil (coconut, avocado, canola, grapeseed, etc.), fried food, fat on meat/poultry - chicken skin, grease in ground beef, marbling in steaks

Of course, we do still eat white rice, potatoes, steak, and butter as part of our meals here and there, because this is where variety comes in!

Allow Flexibility

As long as most of our meals contain something from each of the food groups I discussed above, I’m really not concerned about nutritional adequacy. Including several food groups in each meal almost always ensures adequate vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients - unless you have a health condition with special nutrient needs.

This means that I’m not worried about using butter on bread here and there or having a steak on occasion (Jeremy always gets excited about this!). Most of the time, I choose foods from each group that fit into a more Mediterranean framework, but not always. For example, last night we had the following dinner:

  • Protein: salmon cooked in olive oil with salt and pepper, lemon squeezed on top at the end

  • Starch/grain: frozen curly fries baked in the oven (Frozen french fries are actually pre-fried before freezing, so if you fry them at home instead of baking, they are double-fried!)

  • Fruit/vegetable/both: steamer bag of green beans cooked in the microwave, then dumped into a bowl and drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and a heaping quarter teaspoon of iodized salt (choosing iodized salt is important for thyroid health)

  • Fat in/on food: fat in french fries, olive oil used for the salmon and drizzled over the green beans

As you can see, there is a mix of foods aligned with the Mediterranean eating pattern - salmon, olive oil, vegetables - and foods not so aligned with it - french fries! This is still a very balanced and nourishing meal which aligns with an overall Mediterranean eating pattern.

Breakfast Structure

Breakfast looks a little different for us. Typically, we will just have baked eggs with cheese and vegetables in them, plus coffee with milk (chocolate milk in my case). Other days, we will have baked oatmeal with full-fat vanilla yogurt. Another easy favorite is whole wheat toast with peanut butter.

I aim for at least two food groups with breakfast and typically make sure there is a combination of protein, carbs, and fat in order to keep Jeremy and me full and satisfied throughout the morning.

Everything in Moderation!

Probably the most important thing to mention with all of this is that not every meal needs to be balanced! There are plenty of times when we are going to a party or just having a fun weekend meal and I don’t worry about making sure it is balanced. This helps protect the simple joy of having a fun meal or snack.

Jeremy and I like going to our favorite local donut shop about once a month on Saturdays, and we don’t usually have a protein, a fruit, or a vegetable - just donuts and coffee! This is perfectly fine! We also often eat ice cream after dinner a few times a week, but again, it’s not an issue.

Balance is a guide for us, not a rule - meaning that we don’t even try to eat balanced meals sometimes. We enjoy our food to the fullest and incorporate a variety of food groups and nutrients most of the time, and that is enough. :)

Isn’t there a saying, “Perfect is the enemy of good”?

I believe this is the case with eating. As long as we are eating a variety of nourishing foods the majority of the time, this is more than enough. Our bodies will be healthy and feel good - with few exceptions!

On the other hand, if we aim for perfection with every bite and sip we take, we usually won’t gain much in health benefits (over a more balanced approach), but we WILL lose a lot of the pleasure of eating.

Conclusion

What are your thoughts on loosely structured meals? Do you have a pattern or structure that you base most meals around? Share in the comments about what works or doesn’t work for you!

Also, what do you think about aiming for “good” instead of “perfect” with food? Does this resonate with you?

I can’t wait to continue the conversation with you in the comments!

 
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