Is It Healthier to Eat an Early Dinner? RDs Explain How to Find the Best Dinner Time for You

Some research links eating an early dinner to certain health benefits—but there's really no one-size-fits-all dinner time.


Santorines/Getty Images

Eating dinner early has often been associated with the 60-and-older crowd or those with really little kids, but these days eating an earlier dinner seems to be more popular than ever. 

One big potential driver of this trend is the shift in restaurant hours. During the pandemic, many restaurants reduced their hours, and patrons got used to eating earlier.  Many eateries have kept their earlier closing times even a few years later. According to Datassential, the average closing time for restaurants prior to COVID-19 was typically around 10 or 11 p.m., but now most restaurants are closed by 9 or 9:30 p.m. during the week, forcing people to dine out earlier.

Another big factor? A growing body of recent research seems to suggest that an early dinner may be healthier than eating later in the evening, pointing to the fact that when sleep overlaps digestion, the body tends to have more difficulty processing sugars and fats, which can be especially detrimental for type 2 diabetes, obesity, or other chronic health issues—hence, the assumption that the earlier your dinner is the better.

But does your dinner time really matter? Are your friends who eat at 5:30 p.m. actually entitled to a sense of righteousness? We don’t need to tell you that everyone’s dinner time is dependent on a number of factors beyond their control—work shifts, errands, exercise, kids’ activities, food availability, pure fatigue, and beyond—so we asked two registered dieticians whether we should all be eating earlier for our health, what exactly qualifies as an early dinner, and if there’s one, universal “best” or “ideal” time to dine.

Eating dinner earlier may be healthier for some people with certain health conditions, research suggests.

Generally speaking, if eating dinner early isn’t in the cards for you, there’s no need to panic—eat when you can and want to. 

That said, when and if it’s feasible, eating earlier may be better in some cases, for example for those with type 2 diabetes. A 2018 study in the Endocrine Journal showed that those with type 2 diabetes who ate late-night dinners showed poorer glycemic control, which can lead to diabetic complications. 

A small 2022 study in Cell Metabolism, also points to the link between later eating times and obesity. It showed that late-night eating altered how the body stores and breaks down fat, leaning towards greater fat storage. Eating later may lower levels of serum leptin, the hormone that helps regulate our body fat and decrease the amount of calories burned throughout the day. 

“This study….reinforced that it’s the [coinciding] and interaction, or cumulative, effects of several factors and mechanisms that make late-night eating ‘potentially risky’ for health,” says Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, MA, RDN.

A December 2022 study published in Obesity Reviews looked at chrononutrition, the term that refers to the timing of meals and the amounts eating at each of those meals throughout the day. The findings showed that in the short term, eating more earlier in the day had a positive impact on short-term weight loss. A small 2020 study from The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism found that late dinners caused nighttime glucose intolerance and lowered ability to utilize fat as energy in 20 healthy adults.

So there may be overall metabolic benefits to eating a bigger meal earlier in the day, but we need to see a lot more research before knowing definitively if earlier always equals better for you. (And a big caveat: Remember that neither body size nor weight loss is necessarily indicative of overall health, and should not be the sole barometers for determining how healthy someone is.)

In general, there isn't one "best" time to eat dinner.

The truth is, there is no one-size-fits-all dinner time. “Some people work on 24-hour schedules while others follow a nine-to-five schedule,” says Maya Feller, MS, RD, CDN of Maya Feller Nutrition in Brooklyn. “There are so many variables that should be taken into consideration when thinking about ‘ideal’ meal times.”

When considering what “early” means in this context, for the average, healthy person, it doesn’t seem to make a difference whether dinner’s at 5 p.m. or 6:30 pm. What’s most important is finding something that works for your own schedule. So don’t beat yourself up too much if you can’t ring the dinner bell at six o’clock sharp every day, or at your own aspirational time between work and family obligations.

However, if you're curious about planning your meals for your personal health, and if you do have some time flexibility, here are some interesting facts and tips to keep in mind.

How to find the best time to eat dinner, based on your schedule.

01 of 02

Work with your circadian rhythm.

Our bodies do tend to follow a natural circadian rhythm—or sleep-wake cycle—the same internal clock that helps us understand when we need to go to bed and wake up.  Many of our bodies’ systems and processes, including metabolism, are tied to our own unique sleep-wake rhythms in some way. And when it comes to food, they prefer a consistent schedule versus more erratic eating or waiting until we’re ravenous in order to eat something. Our metabolism slows as the day goes on (just as our body becomes more tired as it approaches bedtime).

“When our circadian rhythms are disrupted, say by working at night and eating at irregular times, our systems seem to go haywire,” Bazilian says. “And that can increase the risk for heart problems, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and certain types of cancer.”

So even if your schedule doesn’t allow for an early dinner time, there is benefit to regularity in the way that you eat, if that works for your lifestyle. Having meals or snacks every three to five hours can help avoid spikes and dips in blood sugar, which can keep cravings, sluggishness, and “hangry” feelings at bay.

02 of 02

Space out the time between eating dinner and going to bed.

One great way to determine the right eating time for your personal well-being is to think about what time you typically go to sleep—and work backward from there.

Although dinner time itself may be subject to individual schedules, it’s ideal for your health to allow two to three hours between your last meal and going to bed. 

This allows your body to go through the “heavy lifting” part of digestion, Bazilian explains. Eating dinner too close to bedtime means the bulk of digestion will happen while you’re sleeping, which can interfere with your body’s ability to repair and restore, causing disrupted or poor sleep in some people. 

Leaving a decent amount of time between dinner and sleep is also an important way to prevent and reduce issues like indigestion, heartburn, acid reflux, or GERD. “If we eat and lie down, we may experience backflow of stomach contents,” Feller says. “Foods that have significant amounts of added sugars, salts and synthetic fats may be harder to tolerate in larger quantities right before bedtime.” 

But if you do need a bite before bed, that is more than OK—here are some of our favorite healthy midnight snacks that won’t totally derail your sleep.

Bottom line: Eating an early dinner is not a must, but it doesn't hurt to try.

More data may be needed to determine the full benefits of eating dinner earlier—and what the exact, optimal eating time might look like—but if this is something that works for your lifestyle, there’s certainly no harm in trying to see if you feel a difference in your own body by eating earlier, especially if you’re struggling with poor sleep or metabolism are issues. (Always talk to your health care provider for more guidance with those concerns before making any major dietary or lifestyle changes.)  

“Finding your ‘ideal’ or ‘optimal’ [dinner] timing is partly about using what science has shown, and also about paying attention to your personal needs in a real way,” Bazilian says.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles