5 Easy Steps to Healthy Dinners

Planning ahead will help you create healthy dinners that contain a balance of important nutrients.

healthy dinners

Quick nutrition tip: People who include omega-3 rich salmon in their healthy dinners tend to have a lower risk of depression.

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Do you frequently draw a blank when asked, “What’s for dinner?” If so, here’s a step-by-step strategy that will help you plan a week’s worth of healthy dinners.

Step ➊: Write Down Your Healthy Dinner Plan

One way to achieve a goal for healthy dinners is to put your plan in writing. You can create your weekly plan with pen and paper or on your computer, tablet, or phone—whatever is most convenient. Make seven columns, one for each day of the week. If you know you won’t be eating at home on any of the nights, put an “X’ in the column for that day. This is also the time to consult your grocery store’s weekly flyer; make a list of the items that are on sale and select from the list as you proceed with your planning.

Step ➋: Choose Your Protein

Consider what type of lean protein you’ll be having each day: Fish, shellfish, chicken, turkey, lean cuts of meat (including beef and pork), and plant proteins such as beans and tofu are all healthy choices. Place one protein choice in each column, considering your schedule as you do so: Eating healthy dinners doesn’t mean you have to cook everything from scratch every night. You can cook multiple portions of protein once and serve it in two or more meals.

Step ➌: Choose Your Grain or Starchy Vegetable

Next, pick a grain to complement your protein each day, and write it in the column. If you choose pasta or rice, make sure it is a whole grain—for example, whole-wheat pasta or brown rice. Or, serve a whole grain as your side; quinoa, bulgur, and wheat berries are among the many choices available. If you include potatoes in your meal, treat them like a grain rather than a vegetable. Potatoes, as well as winter squash, corn, and peas, are referred to as “starchy vegetables” because they carry a carbohydrate load similar to that provided by grains.

Step ➍: Fill in the Blanks

Some guidelines for healthy dinners include a vegetable, a fruit, and a serving of low-fat dairy, along with a protein and a grain, in each meal. However, you can be flexible when creating your healthy dinner plan. For example, include two vegetables, rather than a vegetable and a fruit, with dinner—this is easy if one of the vegetables is a green salad with which you begin your meal. Just be sure to include fruit in your breakfast, lunch, and/or snacks. A glass of skim or low-fat milk will fulfill the dairy requirement—or, choose some low-fat yogurt for dessert.

Step ➎: Make a Grocery List

Once you’ve got a week’s worth of ideas for healthy dinners, make your grocery list. You may want to take your weekly plan with you to the grocery store; then, if the store doesn’t have an item, you can check your plan and see what to substitute for that food (no broccoli to accompany your salmon and rice? Perhaps green beans or asparagus would work). Having your healthy dinner plan with you can also help keep you from making impulse buys that might derail your commitment to a healthy diet.

Initially, creating healthy meal plans takes some time, but it will go more quickly once you get in the habit of doing it every week. You’ll no longer have to come up with dinner ideas every day, and, best of all, you’ll be eating healthier.

Originally published in May 2017, this post is regularly updated.

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Dawn Bialy

Dawn Bialy has been executive editor of Weill Cornell Medicine’s Women’s Health Advisor newsletter since 2007. Bialy also has served as managing editor for a variety of special health reports, … Read More

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