How to Build a Plant-Based Plate

Posted by Kaitlyn Tucker, MS, RDN, LDN on

plant based salad plate with avocado lettuce tomatoes radishes yellow pepper cabbage, sweet potatoes and garbanzo beans

Plant-based diets have become increasingly more popular over the past decade and it is easy to see why. Eating plant-based can be extremely beneficial to our health. From cardiovascular health to diabetes prevention to sustainability, there are plenty of reasons to choose a plant-based diet.

As more and more people are choosing to eat this way, it is important that we know how to continue to adequately meet our nutritional needs and feel satisfied with each plate. If you are thinking about or beginning to become more plant-based there are some things you should know to make your experience more positive and effective.

First, let’s define what plant-based means. The main idea is to make plant-based foods, or whole foods, the central part of your meals. A plant-based diet emphasizes foods like fruits, vegetables, and beans, and limits foods like meats, dairy, and eggs. The key here is to remember these are all guidelines, not strict rules. If you happen to eat dairy, meat, or eggs on occasion that does not mean you have failed at eating plant based. Everyone has a unique way of eating that suits their nutrition needs best, but if you are trying to keep the majority of your diet plant-based you are pursuing a plant-based lifestyle.

In this article we are going to talk about one of the foundations of a plant-based diet and that is building a balanced, satisfying plant-based plate. Building a balanced plate in general can be difficult but becoming plant-based adds a layer of complexity. For many people building a balanced plant-based plate is easier said than done, but once you understand how to do so, building a balanced plate becomes much easier.

Here are a couple tips to keep in mind when we are building a plant-based plate:

Focus on the 5 (plant-based) Food Groups

We know about the original five food groups we grew up learning about, but these food groups are geared specifically for plant-based diets. These food groups are non-starchy vegetables, starchy vegetables (potatoes, sweet potatoes, beets, carrots), whole grains, legumes (beans, lentils, pulses), and fruits. By making sure that at least four of these food groups are at each meal you can ensure good variety of vitamins and minerals at each meal. The plate image to the right shows what the break down of these food groups could look like on your plate. Aiming for:

  • 20% protein
  • 20% fruit
  • 25% starchy vegetables or grains
  • 25% non-starchy vegetables.

Make it Balanced

Now that there is an adequate variety of vitamins and minerals, we can now focus on making sure there is also an adequate balance of macronutrients. The three macronutrients are protein, carbs, and fat. Carbohydrates are very easily accessible on a plant-based diet, but protein and fats can be harder for people to get enough of. Plant-based sources of protein include things such as tofu, tempeh, edamame, lentils, chickpeas, green peas, quinoa, nuts and seeds. Fat sources include avocado, nuts, seeds, olive oil, and tahini. By having your plate be 20-25% protein and cooking with oils or topping your food with a modest amount of these fat sources, you can ensure greater balance within the meal.

Fill in the Gaps

If you have been plant-based for any amount of time you know that this diet change does bring some potential nutritional deficiencies if we are not mindful to add these nutrients in. Unfortunately, vitamin B12 is not found in non-animal products so that has to be supplemented in other ways, but nutrients to be mindful of that we can supplement with non-animal products are iron, zinc, vitamin D, and calcium.

Keep it Simple

Some people can get overwhelmed at the idea of going plant-based because they think they have to learn how to make elaborate dishes in order to enjoy this new way of eating, but when it comes down to it simple really is best. If you want to make an elaborate 30-ingredient meal every now and again you absolutely can, but what matters most it what is practical for you on your “everyday day”. As a dietitian who sees a variety of people with different dietary needs, I say to every client, “the best diet for you is the one you can stick to”. Basically, if you do not feel like you can follow a plant-based on your busiest day, odds are you will not stick with it, so make it practical for your everyday life.

Here are some easy meal ideas to get you started:

  • Hummus and veggie snack wraps
  • Veggie stir-fry with tofu
  • Lentil vegetable soup
  • Whole-Grain pasta with marinara and Greek salad
  • Dairy-free yogurt with granola and berries
  • Mexican black bean and rice burrito bowls
  • Portobello mushroom burger with sweet potato fries


Lastly, enjoy it! Eating plant-based provides health benefits like the ones I mentioned previously, but also so much flavor and enjoyment when it is done well. Take this process one day at a time and implement these plant-based habits slowly overtime. If you do not have the “perfect” plant-based plate every time you eat, that is absolutely okay. You can evolve and grow as you go, and by using these tips mentioned above, hopefully building a plant-based plate will become an easy, intuitive part of your everyday life.

author of the article kaitlyn tucker ms, rdn, ldn registered dietary nutrition

Kaitlyn is a registered dietitian and nutritionist located in Knoxville, TN. She works with clients doing outpatient nutrition counseling. She graduated from Carson-Newman University with a Bachelor of Science in food and nutritional sciences and East Tennessee State University with a Master of Science in clinical nutrition.

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