How to Make the Perfect Dinner

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By the end of the day, who wants to be making good decisions? And yet dinner is a constant travail, a chance for us to make a final investment in our futures, to get an advantage on the day that follows. Whether you think food is fuel or can’t get enough of the latest restaurant or takeaway option, we all need to think about how dinner feeds into our wider nutrition.

Carbs or no carbs? Meat or veganism? What are the building blocks of a sensible evening meal? There are so many voices, and so few you can truly trust. Luckily we have one such man: the ever brilliant Mike Molloy from M2 Performance Nutrition, a nutritionist who takes all his clients - athletes or civilians - to the next level. A man of sense and eloquence, we asked how people can make dinner into a friend rather than a foe.

Myths about dinner

Some of the biggest misconceptions about dinner or a late-night meal is that you cannot eat past 'X' time - “you can’t eat past 7 p.m.!" - or that it has to be an elaborate fancy recipe. There is weak-to-no evidence that shows that eating a meal later at night will negatively impact your metabolism and, as some people think, immediately be stored as fat.

Dinner does not have to look a certain way either: we have to acknowledge that we all have varying levels of enjoyment and skill level for cooking, and that is okay! Find what aligns best with your schedule, budget, and goals. Simple can be effective.

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The building blocks for a healthy dinner

People should look at their schedule and understand what their demands and responsibilities may be for the week ahead. Create a plan ahead of time and pick two or three foods out of each group - protein, fat, carb, fruits or veggies - to help understand what you need to buy, especially if wanting to try a new recipe.

Use this list and look through your pantry to take inventory of what you have or need. Use this list to help keep you structured at the grocery store or, even better, shop online and use grocery pickup/delivery as an option to help ensure you get what you need and avoid what you don’t.

Is meal prepping a good idea?

Use the list of recipes and ingredients that you created and assess what - and if - you can prep anything ahead of time. Prepping does not mean that you have to cook and portion out everything ahead of time if you don’t want to.

Start small if it seems overwhelming. While cooking dinner, maybe double the portion and save half for the next day.

Don’t like eating leftovers? Consider chopping up your veggies ahead of time.

Don’t really enjoy cooking? Options like microwave rice, little potatoes, frozen pre-cooked meats, and more can help you to avoid eating out, save time and money.

Dinner planning if you work late

For those who work late and or work out late, dinnertime might not be the stereotypical 'dinner' that we think of. Sleep is so important, no matter what your (gut) health and fitness goals may be, and having a lot of food in your stomach from a late meal can negatively impact your ability to fall asleep and to get quality sleep.

For this situation, plan to have enough veggies and water earlier in the day as dinner will not be as large. A smaller meal with protein, some carbs, less fat, and some-little veggies, or a protein shake with a snack, can help satisfy you while not completely impacting your sleep.

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How to tell you're getting dinner right

The largest correlate to improved intake at dinner, compared to the other meals of the day, is assessing your sleep. Are you able to sleep better? Easier to fall asleep? Easier to stay asleep? Many factors impact your sleep (like stress from family, work, etc.) but if you have implemented changes in your dinner routine recently, try to see if your sleep has changed too.

Maybe you have started eating in more, and you used to eat an entire take-out pizza on the regular for dinner. This is okay sometimes, but pizza is typically high in fat. Fats are slower to digest, and although necessary in our diet, having a very high amount at dinner can make it harder to sleep as your body is working through digestion. Now, with a homemade meal for dinner, try to notice if your sleep has changed.

What about your gut health? It is important to observe how you feel inside and if you feel bloated when going to bed or struggle to fall asleep easily, it may simply mean that you're not giving your body the food it needs at that time. In the morning, after drinking a glass of water, things should smoothly in the bathroom area; if not your gut health may need improving and eating more alkaline foods will generally do the trick.

Are there any ways lunch and dinner should synergize in a day? 

This depends on what your schedule is: will you be able to eat at home, will you be running around getting your children to sports practices, or working out?

For both meals, try to build out 1/3 a plate filled with 'colour' from nutrient-dense options (fruits/veggies), ¼ carbs (quinoa, potatoes, rice), ¼ from lean protein (chicken, beef, turkey), and the additional “percentage” left for fats (avocado, oil, nuts.)

These are general guidelines, but the best synergistic approach will be an individualised one. Having a resource like a nutritionist in your corner can help immensely to understand yourself best.

Originally published Jan 6, 2022.
Written by David Levesley.

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