Nutrition Basics

The public generally knows that good nutrition allows you to maintain a healthy weight. A well-balanced diet provides good nutrition by ensuring your body is getting all of the minerals, vitamins and nutrients needed to function properly. Below are nutrition basics to ensure a healthy diet: 

Food Groups  

  • Vegetables are an important source of fiber, vitamins and minerals. They come in a variety of colors, shapes and sizes.  
    • Dark green vegetables broccoli, collard greens, spinach., kale all lettuces 
    • Red and orange vegetables: carrots, red peppers, tomatoes, sweet potatoes 
    • Beans and peas: lentils, black beans, pinto beans, chickpeas 
    • Starchy vegetables: corn, white potatoes, green peas 
    • Other vegetables: mushroom, avocado, iceberg lettuce 
  • Fruits are great sources of potassium, dietary fiber, vitamin C, and folate. The nutrients within fruits help maintain healthy blood pressure, reduce blood cholesterol levels, proper bowel function, repair body tissues and more. Whole fruits are healthier than fruit juice and can be fresh, canned, frozen or dried. 
    • Whole fruit: apple, banana, orange, mango, watermelon, etc.  
    • Fruit juice: 100% fruit juice 
  • Grains are great sources of complex carbohydrates, several B vitamins, dietary fiber and minerals. The nutrients in grains can help in proper bowel function, form red blood cells, healthy immune system and more. It is recommended to consume more whole grains over refined grains. 
    • Whole grains: brown rice, popcorn, oatmeal, whole wheat bread, quinoa 
    • Refined grains: pretzels, grits, regular pasta, white bread, white rice 
  • Protein are great sources of B vitamins, vitamin E, iron, zinc and magnesium. Protein high in saturated fats raise “bad” cholesterol levels in the blood that can increase the risk of coronary heart disease. Avoid protein that are high in saturated fats like pork, lamb, ground beef, sausage, hot dogs, bacon to maintain healthy blood cholesterol levels.  
    • Seafood: shrimp, salmon, tuna, tilapia, crab 
    • Meat, poultry, eggs: beef, chicken, turkey, pork, eggs 
    • Nuts, seeds, soy: almonds, cashews, seeds (sunflower/pumpkin) 
  • Dairy are great sources of calcium, vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin B12, zinc, and magnesium. The nutrients in dairy help with bone strength, healthy blood pressure, prevent onset osteoporosis in adults and more. It is recommended to consume more milk and yogurt over cheese. 
    • Milk and yogurt: Greek yogurt, low-fat milk, soymilk 
    • Cheese: cottage cheese, feta, goat cheese, mozzarella, cheddar, Swiss 
  • Recommended Daily Servings 
    • The daily serving recommendations varies based on age and sex. For dietary guidelines as recommended by the US Department of Agriculture, visit choosemyplate.gov  (here you will find further resources and tools to help you make healthier food choices for you and your family at different life stages).  
    • Healthy Eating Plate from Harvard University provides similar, but more dietary recommendations per meal (here you will find adult and kids Healthy Eating Plates and more information on fats and cholesterol). Choose which plate is the best for you and your family. 
  • Food labels 
    • Understanding the Nutrition Facts label can help in making healthier decisions about the food you buy. Compare labels to make the best decision on food and beverages. Below are basics on how to understand and read labels. 
  • Start with serving size 
  • Look at the total number of calories 
    • The amount of energy from a serving of food mentioned above 
  • Use the % daily value 
    • Shows how much a nutrient in a serving contributes to total daily diet 
    • Generally 5% DV is low and 20%+ DV is high 
  • Choose nutrients wisely- low saturated and trans-fat, low sodium and low added sugar 
    • Try to choose labels high in dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron and potassium 
  • Look at the ingredients 
    • A good rule of thumb is if you can’t pronounce it, don’t buy it. Knowing what is in your food can help in making healthier choices for you and your family.  
    • To better understand the impact of nutrition on one’s health, the following nutrition education programs exist within the Chicagoland area: 
    • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed) catered specifically to SNAP participants and other eligible low-income individuals  
    • Illinois Nutrition Education Programs provides nutrition education to individuals and families in communities around the state of Illinois 
    • It features in-person lessons as well as online resources  
    • The programs are based on current research and engage learners in practical, hands-on classes and activities  
    • Northern Illinois Food Bank, Nutrition Education Program provides pre-recorded lessons that have been developed for each food group in the USDA My Plate model. The videos are meant to encourage children to eat healthy by taking an active role in helping with food preparation.  
    • If you are located in Northern Illinois Food Bank’s 13 county service area, you may apply for financial assistance to help with the provision of materials, food as well as cost subsidies. 

Eating Right When $$ is Tight 

One barrier to eating healthy for many individuals is money. Healthier options often cost more, but they don’t have to. Below are tips to eat healthier on a budget.  

  • Plan ahead to save money and time.  
    • Use a Grocery Budget Calculator to find ways to cut costs based on your family size and the number of meals eaten away from home.  
    • Plan your meals ahead based on what you already have at home. This can limit the costs of extra ingredients that you need to buy at the grocery store and can decrease food going to waste. 
    • Make a grocery list to avoid impulse buying and several trips to the grocery store.  
    • If there is extra money in your budget look for specials that you can buy in bulk. Try to buy frozen and canned food in bulk since it can last longer than fresh foods.   
  • Shop smart to get the best deals.  
    • Ask about discounts, local grocery stores sometimes provide senior discount or loyalty discounts to customers. Look out for store coupons that are usually located right when you walk in. 
    • Use coupons when you can. Visit the following websites for printable online coupons to use: 
    • Consider store brands that usually cost less and are very similar to well-known brands. These products are made under a special label, sometimes with the store name and will often say “compared to…” 
    • Look at unit prices to compare similar products to find the best value. Unit prices can be found as a small sticker on a product. Visit, unit pricing to learn more. 
    • Purchase seasonal and economical fruits and vegetables as they often cost less. Visit, Seasonal Produce Guide for a list of vegetables and fruits in season. 
  • Cook at home to know what you’re putting in your food. Eating out might save time but it’s more expensive in the long run and unhealthy.  
    • Prep your ingredients ahead to save time.  
    • Cook double the amount of food to freeze or refrigerate to use later as leftovers. Remember to cover and label the leftovers and use them within 4 days of refrigerating.  
    • For low-budget friendly recipes visit, 
    • For National Resources for Locating Help with Food costs, the following services are available:  
        • This program provides nutrition benefits to supplement food budgets to help individuals and families move towards self-sufficiency. To find out if you are eligible and information on how to apply, visit SNAP Eligibility
      • This is a program that helps supplement the diets of low-income Americans by providing them with emergency food assistant at no cost. Through this program, the US Department of Agriculture purchases nutritious, high-quality USDA approved foods.