There’s nothing like sitting down to a delicious dinner after a long day. While starting your day with a healthy breakfast is important for keeping you satisfied and energized, ending your day with a healthy dinner is key for feeling full and curbing those late-night cravings. This is why it’s helpful to have healthy dinner habits to turn to—especially if you’re trying to lose weight.
In order to determine a few healthy dinner habits, we spoke with Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, and nutrition consultant for The Little Potato Company, about preparing yourself for healthy and easy meals at night. And if you’re looking for more healthy eating tips, be sure to check out our list of 21 Best Healthy Cooking Hacks of All Time.
One of the most successful healthy dinner habits to pick up is planning out all of your meals. Having a plan not only helps you avoid unnecessary purchases at the grocery store, but it also guides you with healthy meals throughout the week that you don’t have to think twice about.
“I always recommend working towards planning being a habit, which doesn’t have to mean prepping everything in advance,” says Jones. “Simply knowing you have the components for a balanced meal, including vegetables, a high-quality starch, a protein source, and some healthy fat, can take a lot of stress away.”
Make it easier for yourself during the week by stocking up your pantry and freezer with a few healthy ingredients—like these 20 Healthy Pantry Staples That Belong in Every Kitchen.
“We all have weeks that we can’t get our grocery trip in, but that can add a lot of stress to mealtime,” says Jones. “By having shelf-stable starches and proteins as well as frozen vegetables on hand, you can always pull together a staple meal. Think rice, potatoes. and wheat pasta for starch, beans, lentils, and canned tuna for protein, and whatever frozen vegetables your family loves.”
“It’s a long haul between lunch and dinner, and your body and brain are using a lot of energy in that time,” says Jones. “A busy schedule can distract you from your hunger cues and for others, it’s easy to buy into a mentality to ‘just make it’ to dinner despite noticing hunger.”
Jones says the best thing to do is to schedule an afternoon snack with a few balanced options such as fruits, nuts, or yogurt. Having a snack can reduce your chances of overeating, which will affect your overall plan.
Why bother eating something you don’t like, only to reach for something you really want later? Jones says it’s not worth restricting yourself and to simply fit in the foods you really are going to want to eat for dinner.
“The more you ignore your cravings, the greater chance you’ll want to keep eating to feel satisfied or go overboard once those foods are available,” she says. “For example, if you enjoy potatoes more with some butter or cheddar, use some, and if you are trying to eat more plant-based, but are craving fish, find ways to incorporate the latter in smaller portions.”
“As a mom, I don’t let all of the planning fall on me since that tends to increase stress,” says Jones. “Over the weekend my husband and I both pick two meals we’d like to have that week so we aren’t scrambling to decide what to make an hour before. This also helps everyone’s satisfaction with what’s on the menu.”
If you have children, Jones also recommends cooking with them in order to increase their interest in all kinds of foods—including vegetables.
“Research shows that involving children in meal preparation may increase their vegetable intake and elicit more positive feelings about mealtime,” says Jones. “I find my son trying more foods while he’s helping me cook than when he’s seated at the table for a meal. While you’re chopping veggies or over a hot stove, have them start with fun and easy tasks to boost confidence, such as mashing potatoes, adding pre-measured seasonings to a recipe, or tossing a salad.”
Did you know that eating with others can actually help with your stress and cortisol levels?
“It’s certainly challenging for families to do this every night when you consider everyone’s busy schedules and kid’s activities, but family meals are important to prioritize when you can,” says Jones. “They’re associated with lower stress levels for parents and in kids, lower risk of depression, anxiety, and disordered eating, with an increased chance of good self-esteem and success in school.”
You don’t have to turn to unhealthy frozen dinners just to keep it simple. In fact, there are a lot of healthy frozen options out there that can easily be cooked in the microwave.
“People forget that you can steam vegetables in the microwave, and one of my go-to hacks is The Little Potato Company’s Microwave Ready Creamer Potatoes because they come in a microwave-safe container that steams the potatoes and has a separate seasoning pack so you can add as much or as little flavor as you like,” says Jones. “They’re ready to eat in 5 minutes. [And] because potatoes are considered a vegetable and provide nutrient-rich starch, just pair with a protein, and dinner is ready! Per serving, potatoes provide more potassium than a banana and are a good source of vitamin C. They also are found to be more satiating than pasta or rice.”
You could also stock up on these 25 Best Frozen Dinners for Healthier Weeknights.
If cooking every night is stressful for you, why not choose a few nights a week to cook and simply double the recipe? That way you can enjoy some of those leftovers for easy meals.
“This helps reduce the number of nights you need to plan and prep for and also helps reduce food waste to save money and support the environment,” says Jones. “Keep a running list of the leftovers you have each day so they don’t get lost in the back of the refrigerator. Then get creative with combining proteins, starches, and veggies. It’s helpful to have fresh greens so a salad base can help the meal feel fresher and less like leftovers.”
“While pressure cookers are trendy and helpful, using them during the week means you still need to prep a full meal at the end of a long day,” says Jones. “The beauty of the slow cooker is adding all of your ingredients in the morning and having the aroma of a warm, balanced meal to greet you once the work and school day has ended. You can even add ingredients the night before and refrigerate until the morning.”
You can even make it easier for yourself by prepping a few slow cooker meals and storing them in the freezer, like these 8 Fastest Crock-Pot Freezer Meals—Ever.