It was pretty easy to predict how my meals went when I was living in Spain or when I lived alone in the States. My volume formula, if I’m honest with myself, went like this:
- 50 percent carbohydrates (pasta or bread, usually)
- 20 percent meat or meat substitute like lentils, tofu, or chickpeas.
- 20 percent sauce/flavorings (often creamy or cheesy!)
- 10 percent veggies/other plant-based foods.
It’s not the world’s worst proportion, but whenever the sauce/cheese crept up, or the carbs held steady, my meals might look small on the plate but were actually calorie packed. The formula that I’m aiming for these days is more like this:
- 40 percent veggies – salad as a base, or roasted tomatoes.
- 30 percent meat substitutes like lentils, tofu, or chickpeas, with maybe 10 percent of that coming from meats used as flavorings, like a few pepperoni on top of a dish.
- 20 percent carbs (often in combo with the protein, like farro or quinoa)
- 10 percent sauce (still creamy or cheesy, but in the smallest quantity possible while still being delicious!)
This means I’m getting similar volume to my meals, but I’ve subbed in more nutrient rich foods. Sauces like the butternut squash and gouda pasta sauce allow me to actually replace sauce volume (which would have been butter or more gouda!) with a vitamin rich veggie. When this affects flavor negatively, I try to keep my sauce “pure” and just use very little of it.
I’ve been amazed, now that I think with this formula, at how a lot of the foods I crave most are actually equal proportions fat-laden sauce, meat, and carbohydrates: almost no veggie, and not even lean meats and whole grains! My transition, when I can, is to eat the flavors I love but not in the quantity I love – spreading those flavors out over a big baked potato or a tasty pan of farro has been helping me to realize that there are some healthy foods that are also craveable (see kale chips!).
It’s not a perfect system, but this is how I tend to behave when I’m not following a recipe at all; some combination of a small amount of sauce, a big pile of veggies, and small amounts of meat and carbs for texture and flavor, yields a regular-sized meal that doesn’t sacrifice flavor.