As a registered dietitian, I’m used to people making assumptions about me and my diet. It happened just last week at the dentist when the receptionist noticed the letters after my name and said, “A dietitian! So, are you, like, vegan? Vegetarian?” Nope! I’m also not gluten-free or Paleo or Keto, and I don’t do juice cleanses.
I’m also accustomed to people scrutinizing my food choices. At a recent breakfast event, a man looked at my name tag (which listed my occupation) and then at my plate and said, “A nutritionist eats eggs?” and gave me a look that said, “I party like it’s 1999 and yolks are still the enemy.” I’ve been asked on dates if I’m “allowed” to eat pizza, and somebody once even asked if I “approved” of his decision to order pasta (oh dear), but I’ve also had others roll their eyes when I order salad or fish and green stuff.
Long story short, nutrition is very individual, and our needs are all different. The big picture is about balance, and an overall healthy diet can include room for occasional indulgences. So what about those most-of-the-time healthy habits that help you stay on track with your healthy-eating goals?
What does “healthy” mean anyway?
While individual needs vary, most health experts agree that a healthy meal is generally one that provides a balance of nutrients and consists primarily of whole, minimally-processed foods. If you want a go-to healthy dinner formula that doesn’t require overthinking, aim to fill half your plate with veggies, a quarter with protein and the last quarter with a carbohydrate.
There’s a certain voyeurism that comes up around food and diet, especially when social media makes it to easy to see what others eat (or pretend to eat). When clients ask me if they should be eating what I’m eating and posting on my social accounts, I say thanks, but also remind them that everybody is different, so our nutritional needs are all slightly different. It’s also important to keep in mind that everyone curates on social media, so be mindful not to compare your blooper reel to someone’s highlight reel.
That said, I’ve also learned that a little inspiration can be helpful, especially if you’re new to making diet changes and want some healthy dinner inspiration. So what do healthy people eat for dinner? I tapped some of my fellow dietitians to share their go-to dinners and takeaway tips for keeping that evening meal healthy.
When you’ve done your #MealPrep
Amanda Field RDN, CD, of Field Nutrition, is a fan of the MyPlate method and aims for a balance of protein, veggies, carbs, and healthy fat at dinnertime. “My go-to dinner is some farro or barley that I prepped earlier in the week, mixed with pesto, topped with baked tofu or cast iron skillet salmon.” To fill the veggie side of the plate, she loves “roasted broccoli, zucchini, bell peppers, and tomatoes. Sometimes I add avocado or sauerkraut too.”
When you’re throwing it together
“When I’m really pressed for time and couldn’t meal prep over the weekend,” says dietitian Kelly Jones of Kelly Jones Performance Nutrition, “I go with either a veggie omelet with sprouted grain bread and avocado, or a wild caught salmon burger over salad topped with chickpeas. I always have frozen veggies on hand so they can be added to any meal in minutes.”
When you’re craving balance
Nourish Nutrition Co.
Rebecca Clyde MS, RDN, CD, owner of Nourish Nutrition Co., is all about taking a balanced, flexible approach that works with the ebbs and flows of day to day life. “Food rules often lead to deprivation,” she says, so she recommends “turning inward to determine what is satisfying and nourishing…It’s not easy, but it’s way better than feeling bad about yourself and your food choices which almost always leads to self-loathing and often bingeing.”
“Sometimes I’m organized and have some sort of week-long meal plan that I follow, other times it’s not at all organized, and I scrounge through my pantry for pasta or grab some eggs,” she says. “I like both of these bases because they’re really versatile and act as a great vehicle for all those vegetables I have sitting in my crisper. I hate wasting food, so a dish that’s easy to add vegetables to is really great!” This Torta de Patata is one of her go-to dinners, and it’s super-versatile.
When you don’t wanna cook
Kristina Todini, RDN
Don’t have hours to spend slaving over the stove when you get home at night? Dietitian Kristina Todini, RDN gets it. “My go-to healthy and easy dinner when I’m pressed for time is roasted vegetables [made] on a sheet pan. From potatoes to Brussels sprouts, to mushrooms, it’s easy to toss cut vegetables with spices and roast for 30 minutes. Pair with your favorite protein for a super-easy weeknight dinner. This Brussels sprouts recipe is one of her favorites.
When you’re taking it easy
80 Twenty Nutrition
“Dinner doesn’t have to be fancy,” says Christy Brissette, MS, RD, President of 80 Twenty Nutrition. “Simple is best! All you need [are] whole foods and fresh ingredients. My go-to dinner is lemon chicken and quinoa with Greek salad and homemade tzatziki. I meal prep the chicken and quinoa, and the other items take less than five minutes.” This saves time later. “My dinner philosophy is it’s gotta be quick and easy or something that can be made ahead.”
When you want flavor without the fuss
New Jersey-based dietitian Therese Bonanni loves a spinach-and-cheese omelette with a piece of avocado toast for a healthy meal that comes together in no time. “I usually have a bag of pre-washed spinach in the fridge, and it’s easy to throw a handful into eggs while cooking. My secret ingredient is a dash of garlic powder in my omelettes for extra flavor without added salt.”
Not into the avocado toast thing? “Sliced cucumber and cherry tomatoes, sautéed asparagus, or additional sautéed spinach or even half a grapefruit are super-fast and easy sides,” she says.
When you wanna indulge
Amy Gorin Nutrition
Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition in Jersey City, NJ, knows that you don’t have to give up your favorite foods. Simple tweaks can help you indulge in a healthier way. “I love pizza, but I like to make a healthy homemade version that’s loaded with protein and fiber to help keep me full for hours! One of my favorite ways to do so is to make my Sweet Potato Cauliflower Pizza. I use a ‘sauce’ of pureed sweet potato so that I get extra fiber and vitamins. Then I top that with cheese, roasted cauliflower, shallots, and fresh herbs.”
To keep things on the lighter side, she uses a thin, pizza crust-style flatbread. “I like to eat the pizza with a side salad topped with chickpeas or white beans for even more filling protein and fiber!”
When you’re getting tossed
To beat the heat, dietitian Meredith Harper loves to throw together a salad for dinner. “I often skip the lettuce and just chop up cucumbers, tomatoes, bell peppers, and any other veggies I have on hand. I add chickpeas or a veggie burger to the mix for some protein, and dress with olive oil and lemon juice. I always remind my patients that after a long day, the last thing they will want to do is spend a lot of time in the kitchen cooking so they need to have some quick, healthy ideas on hand.”
She also encourages doing some of the prep work on the weekend so there’s less slicing and dicing to do on weeknights.
When you just want a snack
Dietitian Elena Paravantes Hargitt loves the evening dinner ritual she shares with her husband. “Every night after the kids are in bed [we] have an aperitif, which is usually some red wine, along with what we call a “pikilia” — a plate of small bits of cheese and vegetables such as cherry tomatoes, cucumber, carrot and zucchini strips,” she says. “And then we always have a salad with plenty of greens and nuts with an olive oil-balsamic vinegar dressing. It is satisfying but not heavy. In the summer the salad is usually a classic Greek salad.”
When you want to unwind
Abbey\’s Kitchen, Inc
Abbey Sharp, RD, blogger at Abbey’s Kitchen, likes to treat dinner as a chance to relax at the end of the day. “My go-to dinner is the one I can get on the table without stress that both my husband and I enjoy, sitting down,” she says.
“I think the most important thing about dinner is that it’s a time to unwind and relax after a long day, and for me, that means sitting down, distraction free, without any electronics, so I can tune into my hunger and satiety signals.” Her top pick? Sharp dishes, “This chicken sweet potato curry is one of my all-time favorite recipes, and is a favorite in my house because it’s fast, it’s well balanced and is loaded with big bold flavors.”
When you want to feel connected
Tracee Yablon Brenner RDN CHHC, of Triad to Wellness encourages enjoying dinner as an opportunity to connect with friends and family. “I feel it is important to sit down and eat either as a family or with friends, if possible, on a regular basis. Dinner time is a good time to reflect on the day, light candles, use pretty cloth napkins which are also environmentally friendly, and give thanks for the nourishing food you are going to enjoy.” She adds, “Mindfulness is quite important when eating. It is important to have the phones off during dinner or put them in a basket away from the dining room and really engage in conversation.”
To put the focus on the meal, make it convenient to cook something tasty and healthy. It’s helpful if your pantry and freezer are well stocked, says Brenner. You don’t have to prep like the apocalypse is coming, but when you’re cooking, try making a bigger batch of a favorite dish and stashing leftovers in the freezer for a night you want to get something nourishing and satisfying, stat. This slow cooker ancient grain chili is a crowd-pleaser Brenner loves to serve with cilantro cream for a well balanced Meatless Monday meal — or for any night of the week.
Find your new go-to
You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every night. Life gets busy and messy, and having a few easy entree options in your back pocket can keep you sane and satisfied.
Jennifer Bowers, PhD, RD says, “My go-to dinner is Tilapia Tacos. [It] uses just one skillet. Everyone likes it. Ingredients are always on hand. Only takes 15 minutes.” Also key, she says, “It covers protein, veggies and grains. Win-win!”
Dietitian Georgia Rounder says, “I love whipping up quick and easy enchiladas.” Her winning combo is “refried beans, lots of sautéed vegetables, [and] a little bit of cheese,” wrapped up in tortillas and tomato sauce. To serve, “top them with some plain Greek yogurt and avocado slices for a little extra boost of protein and fat.”
You do you
Because no two people are the same, it’s totally normal for your nutritional needs to differ from a friend, family member, or partner. Honor what works for you, and if you’re navigating life with someone with drastically different eating habits, find your common ground and customize from there instead of one person trying to change for the other.
And if you’re having a hard time getting into a healthy dinner groove, don’t be afraid to consult with a dietitian to help you come up with a routine that works for you. A little thoughtful consideration before you feel those hunger pangs, will leave you feeling satisfied in more ways than one.