Raise your hand if you wish a nutritionist would tell you exactly what to eat and when to look and feel great all day long. Yeah, I thought so— here are some simple tips of smarter meal planning.
1) Have a meal or small snack every 2 to 3 hours. This fuels your metabolism and helps prevent binges and blood sugar crashes.
2) Combine protein (meat, fish, beans, nuts, eggs, dairy) and fiber (whole grains, fruits, vegetables) at every meal. When eaten together, these foods take longer to digest than simpler carbohydrates, so you stay fuller, longer.
3) Get up, move around, and drink water often.
Finally, remember that even the “perfect day” isn’t perfect if you eat the same thing over and over again. Here are some ways to mix and match your own delicious, healthy meals.
Wake up with water.
Before you put coffee, tea, or food into your body, it’s best to first break your fast with a glass of water with lemon. When you sleep, your body isn’t just abstaining from food but from water too. Because many vitamins are water-soluble, having a glass before you eat will help your body better absorb nutrients from food. The acidity of the lemon helps rebalance your digestive tract by making it alkaline, allowing “good” bacteria in your intestines to thrive and facilitate optimal nutrient absorption.
This is your ideal fat-burning window. A light bout of cardio soon after you wake up and before you eat—a 20-minute walk with the dog, jumping jacks, or running up and down stairs in your home, etc.—taps into your body’s energy reserves. The idea is to fit in some easy activity and try to eat within an hour or so of waking up.
All of us love oatmeal for breakfast. Have one-half cup of uncooked oats. Your body digests the fiber slowly, so you stay full for a couple of hours. For protein, add a glass of milk, yogurt, or a hard-boiled egg. Or stir some nuts (almonds or walnuts) into your oats. For fruit, one-half cup of mixed berries for vitamins and antioxidants and more fiber. You can also pour a small glass of OJ, which has nutrients like vitamin C, folate, and potassium.
Bonus Tip: Whatever you do, don’t just sip coffee all morning and wait to eat until lunch. You’ll be so hungry, you won’t make healthy choices.
You know you’re supposed to have multiple glasses a day. But it’s better to sip a little water all day long instead of chugging a giant glass when you suddenly feel parched. If your tongue feels dry to the touch or your pee is bright yellow, you’re dehydrated.
Stretch and walk.
Get up, stretch, and stroll every hour to hour-and-a-half. Walk to a coworker’s cube instead of shooting off an e-mail or take the internal stairs when you head to another floor in your office.
Eat every 2 to 3 hours to keep energy up and avoid big mealtime binges. For fiber and protein, try an apple with a string cheese or a handful of nuts (especially if you didn’t have them at breakfast). Or try yogurt with some berries.
Bonus Tip: Sit whenever you eat. Take small bites and try to drag out your snack for as long as possible (ideally 10 to 15 minutes). Research shows the more chewing you do, the more nutrients your body absorbs.
Build yourself a rainbow salad. Start with dark, leafy greens and pile them high with a mix of colorful veggies, protein, and good-for-you fats. Try tomatoes, carrots, peppers, and mushrooms for a healthy mix of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Add 1/4 cup of avocado for healthy, monounsaturated fat, and ½ cup of protein, like tuna fish, grilled chicken, turkey, beans, or lentils. The more color and variety, the better.
It’s okay to have some dressing, but don’t drown your salad in it, and choose a light version or an olive oil-based one. You want some fat in your salad because it helps your body digest fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K. Wash your meal down with water.
Bonus Tip: If you want, have a slice of whole grain bread on the side.
Welcome to the witching hour. Everyone needs to snack between lunch and dinner. For a fiber-protein mix, try a 6-ounce yogurt (the natural milk sugars help with sweet cravings) and a handful of high-fiber cereal. Have a banana with a tablespoon of peanut or almond butter. Or pick something fun, like an ounce of dark chocolate (70% cacao). It’s packed with polyphenols, a type of antioxidant shown to help lower blood pressure, keep your brain sharp, and more.
Bonus Tip: Let your appetite be your guide here—you may not need the same type of snack every day. If you had a big lunch, you may only need a small nibble. If you plan to hit the gym after work, you may want to eat more or save some of your snack until closer to your workout (an hour or so before workout)
Walk or work out.
If you didn’t walk or workout in the morning, now is a good time to squeeze in some exercise. When you have something scheduled, you’re more likely to do it.
Start a meal off with soup. Studies show that people who do end up eating less overall. Have a cup of a low-fat broth-based kind, like minestrone, miso, or gazpacho. For the main meal, a nice portion, 3 or 4 ounces, of grilled wild salmon because it has lean protein and provides healthy omega-3 fats. Add cooked vegetables like sautéed broccoli or spinach and 1/2 cup of brown rice.
For a nonfish option, try turkey meatballs (roll in some whole oats for extra fiber and spices for antioxidants) over a bed of spaghetti squash, which has the texture of pasta but counts as a veggie serving. Use 1/2 cup of tomato sauce, and sprinkle a handful of pine nuts on top for extracrunchy texture. Have water with dinner.
Bonus Tip: Stick to proper portions, especially when it comes to your proteins and carbs.
Wait an hour or so after dinner for a before-bed snack. You don’t have to strictly follow the fiber-protein rule, but it should be more than just empty calories. A few options: A tablespoon of chocolate drizzled over 1/2 cup of berries, apple slices with honey, or coconut water or orange juice ice pops.
Head to bed.
Aim for 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night; less than that, and you up your risk for a host of health problems, including weight gain, diabetes, high blood pressure, and more, not to mention the odds that you’ll feel more tired, frazzled, and likely to overeat the next day. Drink another glass of water shortly before bed, and give yourself plenty of time to wind down with a calming routine, such as a bath or reading in bed.