A 1,200-calorie diet is restrictive enough, so don't complicate it with prohibitively expensive or uncommon foods. Sticking to everyday foods makes it easier to improvise, and the simplicity could be just what you need to stay dedicated. It's important to keep your diet balanced between the food groups and include some variety so you get enough nutrients on just 1,200 calories per day.
An exchange menu dictates how much of each food group you need per day to reach your calorie goal and lets you fill in the blanks with your favorite foods from each group. For a 1,200-calorie diet plan, ChooseMyPlate.gov recommends 4 ounces of grains, 1 1/2 cups of vegetables, 1 cup of fruit, 2 1/2 cups of low-fat dairy and 3 ounces of protein each day. Divide that between meals for the day and you'll get something that looks like this: 1/2 cup of dairy, 1 ounce of protein and 1 ounce of grains for breakfast; 1/2 cup of dairy and 1/2 cup of fruit for a morning snack; 1/2 cup of dairy, 1/2 cup of vegetables and 2 ounces of grains for lunch; 1/2 cup of fruit and 1/2 cup of vegetables for an afternoon snack; 1 cup of dairy, 1/2 cup of vegetables, 2 ounces of proteins and 1 ounce of grains for dinner.
Vegetables and Fruits
The 1 1/2 cups of vegetables on the 1,200-calorie exchange menu refers to cooked vegetables -- count 1 cup of leafy greens or raw vegetables as 1/2 cup on the exchange menu. Some everyday foods that fit in this group include black beans, asparagus, avocado, cabbage, cauliflower, lettuce, spinach, mushrooms, onions, broccoli, corn, potatoes, carrots, peppers and tomatoes. The cup of fruit on the exchange menu is for chopped fruits and considers a small to medium whole fruit as a 1/2-cup serving. Common fruits to choose from include apples, bananas, grapes, oranges, strawberries, raspberries, watermelon, and orange or grape juice.
Grains and Proteins
The 1-ounce portions of grains on the exchange menu make it simple to weigh most things to find appropriate serving sizes. However, for simplicity, count things like a single slice of bread or half a bagel as a 1-ounce serving. Common grains to pick from include brown rice, oatmeal, whole-wheat bread, pasta, sandwich buns, tortillas and cereals, cornbread, crackers and white rice. Proteins are equally easy to weigh for the exchange list, but count a single egg or 1/2 cup of beans as a 1-ounce serving. A note on beans: a 1/2-cup serving of beans counts as a helping of protein and of grains. Pick from common proteins such as lean cuts of beef and pork, lean ground beef, chicken, turkey, eggs, black beans, tofu, almonds, cashews, peanuts, salmon, trout, tuna, crab and shrimp. Use fish and seafood as your protein choice at least twice weekly, per recommendation of the American Heart Association.
Dairy and Fats
The dairy servings in the exchange menu are simple to measure to an exact amount without hassle. Always opt for fat-free or low-fat dairy to keep your meals healthful and low-fat. Common choices include milk, chocolate milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, calcium-fortified soymilk, cheddar cheese, mozzarella cheese and American cheese. Fats are not included on the exchange menu, but you can use a serving or two each day without worrying about eating too many calories. A serving equals 1 teaspoon of fats such as olive oil, butter, cream cheese or mayonnaise.
Milk, water, unsweetened tea and unsweetened coffee are healthful beverage choices. You can also use fruit juice to get a serving of fruits and to add variety to your drink options. Always drink at least one glass of water with your meals and snacks to stay hydrated. There's no room in a 1,200-calorie diet for sodas and other sugary drinks -- save these for rare indulgences if you can't give them up.