First things first: To start eating a more nutritious diet (and stay with it), you need the right mind-set. And as anyone who has abandoned a meal plan after day three can attest, that’s no easy trick. How do you get yourself to choose virtue over comfort—a side of roasted cauliflower over French fries, or a bowl of berries over cheesecake? Real Simple posed that question to the leaders in healthy eating (the scientists, the authors, and the chefs who walk the walk every day), who came up with these six smart, totally doable strategies.
Make your plate pretty. “Presentation is important,” says Alice Waters, the owner of Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, California, and the author of In the Green Kitchen ($28, amazon.com). “Think of a farmers’ market: The way that vendors put produce in boxes and arrange the radishes is enticing. It’s an artistic experience.” Waters suggests trying to create that same visual seduction when putting together your own dishes at home. That way, eating dinner will be a sensory treat in more ways than one.
Try to remember exactly how bad you felt after the last time you ordered onion rings. To thwart unfortunate cravings, Michael Pollan, author of the every-bite-you-eat-counts bible Food Rules ($11, amazon.com), summons a memory of his last foray into junk food. “When I don’t eat well, I don’t feel good, so it’s a self-reinforcing process,” he says. Case in point: “The last time I ate a highly processed meal, I was up all night, thirsty from the salt and vaguely nauseated by the fillers and additives. On the other hand, when I eat real food, I feel good and get plenty of sleep.”
Make meaningful associations with healthy food. “Training yourself to stop craving salty, sugary, and fatty foods can’t be a cognitive process alone,” says David Kessler, a former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the author of The End of Overeating ($16, amazon.com). “It has to be emotional, too.” That’s where your imagination comes in. Many of us connect positive, nostalgic feelings with unhealthy foods. (A corn dog might conjure a childhood memory of a summer day at a carnival.) Try to make equally affirmative connotations with good-for-you dishes. (Think of your grandmother’s legendary vegetable soup.) “Once you activate that circuitry, you’ll be able to recognize that this desire for junk is simply your brain playing a trick on you. That realization allows you to move on to better things to eat,” says Kessler.
Always have fresh—and long-lasting—stuff in your refrigerator. “I get nervous if I don’t have a vegetable available to put on my plate,” says Martha Rose Shulman, author of The Very Best of Recipes for Health ($35, amazon.com). “So I make sure to keep the sturdiest produce on hand: Carrots, red cabbage, bell peppers, and romaine lettuce all last for up to a week.”
Got to have steak? Save it for dinner. If reducing the amount of meat you eat is your goal, treat the protein like a side dish. Or, says Mark Bittman, author of The Food Matters Cookbook ($35, amazon.com), skip the bacon at breakfast and chicken salad at lunch in order to enjoy a juicy fillet at night—guilt-free. “I eat a vegan diet until 6 p.m. and then whatever I want for dinner,” says Bittman. “That can be an elaborate restaurant feast or a simple meal at home. There’s nothing wrong with eating steak or other rich dishes, as long as you’re eating plants most of the time.”
Always eat dessert. (Tough advice, we know.) Marlene Schwartz, the deputy director of the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, in New Haven, Connecticut, says it’s a rule in her family. “My kids can have one dessert every day,” she says. “This is how we teach balance and moderation.” So go ahead and have that (small) dish of ice cream. Everyone needs a little decadence now and then.
Anatomy of a Healthy Meal
Once, we were told that eating nutritiously simply required choosing from four basic groups (meat, fish, and legumes; dairy; grains; vegetables and fruits). Today the model is different, but the math is just as easy to remember: Half your plate should contain vegetables and fruits; one-quarter should be lean protein; and the last quarter, whole grains.
Why the shift? “We consume way more protein than our bodies need and get less than half the vegetables and fruits we should,” says Marissa Lippert, a registered dietitian and the author of The Cheater’s Diet ($17, amazon.com). Produce is loaded with essential vitamins and antioxidants. It also has lots of fiber, which prevents blood-sugar spikes (so you don’t get hungry again right away), says Lisa Drayer, a registered dietitian, a nutritionist, and the author of The Beauty Diet ($23, amazon.com). Lean protein (salmon, chicken) makes you feel full longer. And whole grains, like barley and bulgur, are nutrient-packed alternatives to processed carbs. The final component: healthy plant-based fats, found in olive oil and avocados, which are unsaturated and cholesterol-free, unlike the old animal fats.
For the super foods you should include in your meals, see The 30 Healthiest Foods. And for healthy recipes that incorporate a number of super foods, see Four Delicious, Balanced Meals.