Nutrition / Food

How to Make Healthier Food Choices at Every Meal

Three dietitians lay out some better options.

When it comes to a healthy diet, every day counts. Debating food choices may seem trivial at the moment. But all of these decisions amount to either a balanced diet or unhealthy habits. Because of this, we asked three health experts to spotlight four times a day we can make better food choices. Keep reading for their advice on how to make every meal healthier.

At the Breakfast Table

When you’re running late, it may seem convenient to grab a nutrition bar or guzzle some coffee and go. This may seem like a solution in a pinch. However, it actually sets you up to feel hungrier and make more bad food choices later on. Instead, next time you’re in a morning rush, take the advice of Amy Shapiro, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., creator of Real Nutrition NYC. “Thinking of easy pairings helps, even if you are on the go and focusing on whole foods. Pre-prep hard-boiled eggs for the week, and grab a few of those paired with a piece of fruit. Or grab fruit and a handful of nuts or a packet of nut butter.”

Whole foods are the real fast foods in your pantry. They make grab-and-go completely shameless. Keep quick, healthy foods in your kitchen that you can take with you at a moment’s notice. No cooking necessary.

“Also, know your go-to healthy places to pick up a quick breakfast you can feel good about,” Shapiro adds. “A few ideas include Starbucks’ Sous Vide Egg Bites, oatmeal, Greek yogurt, and fruit.” Having a backup plan of healthy options once you’re out the door ensures you stay on track and eat something that makes you feel good throughout the day.

Quick and Easy Breakfast Ideas

Ideally, though, you’ll take the time to prepare a homemade breakfast, either the night before or the morning of, and eat it at home. “Taking time to eat breakfast is the best,” Shapiro says. “If you can, I always recommend pairing protein or fat with a complex carbohydrate to keep you full longer and prevent blood sugar crashes. Some examples are whole-wheat bread with avocado or nut butter, egg omelet (hold the cheese), oatmeal with walnuts and blueberries, or banana with peanut butter.” Each of these takes less than ten minutes to make and beats a McMuffin any day.

For a few more easy breakfast options, check out these suggestions by Jonathan Valdez, a registered dietitian nutritionist, certified personal trainer, and the owner and founder of Genki Nutrition.

Overnight Oats

“These are the perfect make-ahead choice in that they are easy, filling, and adaptable to so many palates. The flavor options are endless, so breakfast doesn’t get boring. On top of all that, overnight oats can last in the fridge for up to five days, which means you can prep a week’s worth of breakfast on Sunday,” Valdez says. “Aim for a half cup raw oats and one cup of liquid with one to two tablespoons of healthy seeds, such as chia, to increase your fiber and omega-3 intake. If skipping the seeds, decrease the liquid to about three-quarters of a cup. Topping options are endless, including one to two tablespoons of slivered nuts, sliced fruit, and spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg.”

Baked Egg Muffins

“These are basically the no-mess option of having your morning omelet. You can make a batch when you have time, freeze them, and warm them up in the microwave before leaving your house,” Valdez explains. “Most recipes include sautéed veggies and spices mixed together with some shredded cheese and eggs. Divide it up into muffin trays, and bake for about ten to 15 minutes.”

Hard-Boiled Eggs and Carrot/Pepper Sticks

“Hard-boiled eggs can last in the fridge for up to a week. So this is another great way to prepare a week’s worth of breakfast the Sunday before,” Valdez says.

Healthy Fruit (or Veggie) and Yogurt Smoothies

“These smoothies can be assembled in the jar of the blender the night before and left in the fridge. In the morning, you can just pop the blender onto its base and spend a minute blending it up before running out of the house,” Valdez explains. “This is also a great option if you drive to work, as drinking the smoothie is mess- and utensil-free.”

During Your Lunch Break

When your lunch break rolls around, it can be tempting to go out and give in to unhealthy options. Beat this temptation by packing your own lunch—full of refreshing, nutritious foods—ahead of time. “Brown bagging is the way to go,” says Carrie Dennett, M.P.H., R.D.N., C.D., creator of Nutrition by Carrie. “This could mean a sandwich on whole-grain bread with raw veggies on the side or a veggie-rich salad with leftover protein from dinner plus some healthy fat from sliced avocado or a sprinkling of nuts.”

The key is preparing something delicious and interesting so that you look forward to it. “Invest in the right-size containers for the job. Chopped salads might work in a mason jar, but a leafy-green salad won’t. And use a tiny jar or to-go condiment cups from a restaurant supply store to hold dressing until it’s time to eat,” Dennett suggests. “If a microwave is available, dinner leftovers are probably the easiest brown-bag lunch around.” All things considered, leftovers are the most convenient option if you’re short on time and sticking to a healthy diet. But if you have some time to meal prep, prepare wraps, sandwiches, or salads.

“When the nights or mornings are too busy for you to pack your own lunch, eating out doesn’t have to be unhealthy,” Valdez notes. “Try to find stores with salad bars and whole-grain sandwich options. And stick to low-fat, low-sugar dressings and sauces.” Check out more of his healthy homemade lunch suggestions below.

Nut Butter Sandwiches on Whole-Grain Bread

“Having about one tablespoon of natural nut butter (e.g., almond, cashew, peanut) on a whole-grain bread is a quick and filling option that travels well,” Valdez says. “It provides you with about 250-300 calories, depending on the bread, and lots of healthy monounsaturated fats and fiber to keep you full throughout the day. Add some sliced veggies on the side or in the sandwich, and you’re good to go.”

Turkey and Avocado Wrap

“Turkey is another easy and filling option,” Valdez notes. “Use about three ounces of lean cooked turkey, a whole-grain wrap, and one tablespoon or less of mayo—or some avocado instead—on the wrap. Fill with any veggies you enjoy, such as lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers, and take a big bite!

Chicken Taco Salad

“This salad has carbs, protein, and veggies all packed into one delicious and crunchy bowl,” Valdez says. “Layer greens, tomatoes, half cup black beans, half cup corn, shredded lean chicken, avocado, red onion, and half cup crushed taco chips (aim for whole-grain corn). Stick to a low-fat, Greek yogurt-based dressing, as opposed to high-fat sour cream dressings.”

During the Dinner Rush

Once the workday is finished, chances are you’re hungry and want to eat dinner ASAP. This often leads to hitting up the drive-through on the way home for a less-than-ideal option. Rather than doing that, consider packing healthy snacks for work or making a quick bite once you get home. “The time between getting off work and sitting down for dinner is the witching hour for many people, in terms of hunger level,” Dennett says. “Plan accordingly by having a snack shortly before leaving work or on the way home. If you know what you will be making for dinner but hunger is already in full swing when you walk into the kitchen, plan a light snack to have while you simmer and stir to take the edge off hunger without totally obliterating it.”

Pay Attention to Your Food Intake Throughout the Day

Between lunch and dinner, Valdez suggests snacking on fruit, whole-grain pretzels or carrot sticks with hummus, whole-grain crackers with natural nut butter, or edamame.

If snacks aren’t cutting it, Shapiro advises learning the healthy options on drive-through dinner menus. It isn’t inherently bad to eat out for a meal. Just pay attention to your food choices, and take note of the healthy items provided. She also suggests keeping some healthy freezer items on hand, such as veggie burgers, frozen veggies, soup, and shrimp, to throw together a quick dinner on the fly. “Also, don’t disregard breakfast for dinner,” she adds. “Eggs paired with some veggies is one of my favorite meals and cooks up in minutes.”

Dennett notes, “It’s also worth looking at how you’re fueling yourself during the day. If you’re undereating, of course you’re going to be ravenous when you get home. That sets the stage for overeating and less-than-optimal food choices. Especially if you also tend to view food as a reward for making it through the day!” Thinking of food as fuel—and using it to keep you healthy and energized throughout the day—has a serious impact on not only your dinner choices but also how you shape your diet overall.

For some quick dinner options, Valdez suggests the following.

Crock-Pot Dinners

“Prepare dinners the night before in a Crock-Pot in the fridge, then stick the Crock-Pot on the base in the morning. You’ll have a hot, homemade, cooked meal as soon as you walk through the door,” he explains.

Freezer-Friendly Foods

“Make large batches of freezer-friendly foods and divide into smaller containers,” Valdez advises. “If every Sunday you make a large batch of one dinner that can be divided into several dinners and frozen, after several weeks you’ll have frozen dinners for an entire week.” This is a great opportunity to practice your meal prepping. “Some examples of foods that freeze well are soups, chilis, beef roasts, and turkey burgers,” he adds. He also suggests prepping and freezing fish and soups that involve vegetables, beans, and peas.

A Couple Hours Before Bed

Many can relate to sabotaging a day of healthy eating by bingeing on not-so-healthy snack foods before bed (guilty!). The first question Dennett wants us to ask in this case is, Why am I eating this? “If you under-eat during the day, the answer could be that you are still trying to appease your hunger,” she explains.

If you’re not hungry, you’ve probably formed a habit of eating late-night snacks (mindless Netflix binges, anyone?). “It’s easy to get in the habit of eating for non-hunger reasons in certain scenarios or certain times of day. It’s worth it to be curious about those habits and experiment with not eating during those times to see how it feels,” Shapiro says. She also mentions that difficulty going to sleep at a reasonable time could lead to a habit of night snacking. “Sometimes you just need to recognize the pattern and practice good self-parenting by sending yourself to bed. Sleep is free energy!” she advises.

On the other hand, emotional eating can take form in late-night snacking. “If you suspect that your late-night eating is emotional, ask yourself what you are expecting the food to do for you,” Shapiro says. “What do you really need? If you need to feel less anxious, bored, sad, or some other feeling, be curious about what else you could do to feel calmer, engaged, or uplifted. Sometimes food is the only coping tool available at the moment. But it’s really a Band-Aid approach to a deeper problem.”

Plan Ahead for After-Dinner Cravings

If the craving for an after-dinner snack just won’t go away, Valdez suggests preparing and portioning out a healthy snack ahead of time. “Once dinner is over, prepare a small, healthy snack—if you plan to eat one later—and then leave the kitchen. Don’t get into the habit of allowing the kitchen to be the hangout room or your study where you sort your mail and work on the computer. Once you are out of the kitchen, the temptation to snack often subsides,” he explains. “If your urge to snack is really strong, try high-protein, low-calorie options like string cheese, a glass of cow’s or soy milk, or peanut butter with apples.”

A healthy diet is necessary to fuel your body both before and after workouts. Check out Aaptiv for workouts you can do at home with many different categories to choose from.

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