Most people consider quantity rather than quality when planning their meals. To improve food quality, household meals should be planned based on six principles; namely adequacy, balance, calorie (energy) control, nutrient density, moderation and variety.
Adequacy principle: This is about planning meals that should provide enough energy and all the other nutrients required to meet the needs of healthy people.
For example, a person whose diet fails to provide enough iron-rich foods may develop the symptoms of iron deficiency anaemia.
The same is true for all other nutrients. To achieve adequate meals in the households, choose a variety of foods from each major food group to ensure intake of adequate amounts of calories, proteins, vitamins, minerals and fibre.
The major food groups include carbohydrates (starches), proteins (meats and meat alternatives), milk and dairy products, fruits and vegetables and fats and sugars.
Balance: It entails providing foods of a number of types in similar proportions. For example, use some meat or meat alternatives for iron, some milk or milk products for calcium and save some space for other foods. This ensures one does not over-consume some foods at the expense of the others.
Calorie (energy) control: This principle involves management of food energy intake. The key to controlling energy intake is to select foods of high nutrient density and less of energy-dense foods like fried foods.
Low energy density foods include fruits, vegetables and any food that incorporates a lot of water during cooking like steamed and boiled foods.
Nutrient density: This is a measure of the nutrients a food provides relative to the energy it offers. To understand the principle, it is important to note that part of the secret to eating well without overeating is to select foods that deliver the most nutrients for the least energy.
Nutrient density is assessed by comparing the vitamin and mineral content of a food with the amount of calories it provides.
The more nutrients and fewer calories, the higher the nutrient density. Nutrient-dense foods include fruits and vegetables as well as whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds.
Spinach, cabbage, collard greens (sukuma wiki), berries and cherries, whole grain cereals, beans, chickpeas, lentils, beans, peanuts, chia seeds, macadamia nuts, almonds and flaxseed, among others will make your meals nutrient-dense.
Less nutrient-dense foods include; candies, carbonated, alcoholic and sport drinks, baked products like cakes, pastries and doughnuts, ready prepared food products as well as processed meats. These foods should be consumed in moderation.
Moderation: It majorly applies to fats and sugars. Foods rich in fat and sugar have relatively few nutrients. In addition, they promote weight gain when eaten in excess.
A person practising moderation should eat foods rich in fat and sugars occasionally. Generally, the principle of moderation involves providing enough but not too much of a dietary constituent. The goal should be to moderate rather than eliminate intake of some foods.
Variety: It is necessary to note that a diet may have all the virtues described under the other five principles of meal planning but still lack variety, if a person eats the same foods day in, day out.
Variety is important, for at least three reasons. First, different foods in the same group contain different nutrients.
Second, no food is guaranteed entirely free of constituents that, in excess, could be harmful, for example different fruits and vegetables contain different phytochemicals.
Third, as the saying goes, variety is the spice of life. Variety means choosing a number of different foods in any given food group rather than eating the same food daily.
People should vary their choices of food within each class from day to day. This makes meals more interesting and helps to ensure our diets contain sufficient nutrients.
Ndungi is based at the Department of Human Nutrition, Egerton University.