Healthy eating should be easy. Some of this, some of that, everything in moderation. But all too often fad diets and oversimplified advice end up overcomplicating the topic. When your food choices become black-and-white—no carbs ever, only juice for a week—well, it’s not very appetizing or particularly good for you.
So what should you do instead? The answer is deliciously mundane. Most experts, including those at the Mayo Clinic and the Harvard School of Public Health, agree that the healthiest diet adheres to some sensible and straightforward guidelines, all of which you’ve heard before: Eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and eat less meat.
“Plant foods are almost always more dense in nutrients than animal foods,” says David Katz, M.D., the founding director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. “And you’re not getting only the many vitamins and antioxidants that we’re familiar with, like vitamin C in citrus and folate in broccoli. Plant foods contain thousands of beneficial compounds, some of which we don’t even have names for yet.”
When it comes to meat, it’s not about eliminating anything. (Steak and burgers, still OK.) It’s more about an attitudinal shift. Meat will sometimes be center stage, like in this chicken dish, but it shouldn’t be every night. When possible, use meat just as a flavoring. (A slice of smoky bacon goes a long way in a soup or a pasta dish.) Also, remember that fish, grains, and beans and other legumes can be equally satisfying and flavorful.
As for vegetarian meals, there are easy ways to avoid the pasta (or kale) rut. Keep things interesting—and get a greater variety of nutrients—by going crazy with color. “Bright color signals a high concentration of antioxidants,” says Frances Largeman-Roth, a registered dietitian and the author of Eating in Color. And a recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Research suggests that we eat less overall when there’s a stark contrast between our plates and our food. Challenge yourself to go beyond red, green, and yellow. Pick up some purple potatoes or add wine-colored radicchio to a pizza. Let the farmers’ market (or what’s fresh at the grocery store) inspire you. And don’t forget the frozen-foods aisle, since the produce there is picked and packaged at its peak.
The best part of this plan is that it’s flexible. “We know the theme of healthy eating, but there’s room for variation on a theme,” says Katz. The recipes here will help you happily follow the guidelines through breakfast, lunch, and dinner. On any given day, choose any of these dishes, making sure to eat a variety of ingredients and strike a balance between heavier and lighter. (The vegetable minestrone for lunch? Reward yourself with the steak salad for supper.) Mix, match, and relax.