It's tough to put together a healthy meal because there are so many categories to think about. Of course there's overall flavor and flavor combinations; texture considerations (you probably don't want two slippery foods together); nutrition; and maybe the way it looks (I like pretty dishes). So the idea that you could knock all of the categories out with one guiding principle is exciting. It would make the whole process so much easier.

In ayurvedic cooking, the solution is the six tastes concept. A good cook includes each of these tastes in a meal — sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent — and tries to keep them in balance. But it's not as simple as sweet=honey or sour=lemons.

According to the guide at the Chopra Center, the sweet group includes pastas and grains, rice, dairy, chicken, fish and meat — basically foods that are filling, soothing and satisfying. Sour includes citrus, of course, but also alcohol, tomatoes, berries, pickled foods, yogurt and salad dressings. Salty is straightforward, including salt and salted foods, but pungent is the spicy stuff: peppers, chilies, onions, garlic, cayenne, black pepper, cloves, ginger and mustards are all on that list. Finally we have bitter, which includes bitter veggies like green leafies, kale, celery, broccoli, sprouts and beets; and astringent, which includes lentils and dried beans, apples, grapes, cauliflower and tea.

Each of the six food groups has beneficial effects on the body, according to ayurvedic thought. Sweet foods are building blocks and they calm nerves, while salty stuff lubricates tissues and increases appetite. Bitter foods detox, and pungent or spicy foods rev up metabolism and get digestion going. Sour is cleansing, and astringent foods balance fats and absorb water. But you don't need to remember (or even believe) that this is what these food groups do to get benefits.

If you include one item from each category in every meal, it will likely be nutritionally balanced, which is the beauty of this system — it works with what we know from modern nutrition studies. You choose a pasta, say, but instead of pairing it with meat and a cream sauce, you mix it with tomatoes, beans, a bit of salt, garlic and some broccolini. That's all six tastes in a meal you might find at a good Italian restaurant, and it's a healthier choice.

Following traditional ayurvedic practices, you can eat a bit more or a bit less of certain categories of foods from the six tastes to balance your particular body. There are several different mind-body types, and once you determine which of those you are, you can balance your system using food. (You can take a quiz to figure out your type.)

But as mentioned above, you can also just use this idea of the six tastes as a guideline. It could encourage you to leave the cheese off your next sandwich and replace it with, say, some pickled veggies and some sliced apples. (I love a great sandwich, and both of these items are underrated sammie ingredients!). Or you could add a spicy cheese instead of a plain one. You might be surprised how well the six tastes can work for healthy meal-planning.

Would you use the six tastes as a way to organize your next meal?

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Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.