I’m about to invoke the power of anaphora to tell you the things I strongly believe about food. I believe that raisins should just be canceled from trail mix. I believe the yellow Starbursts are objectively the best. And, if I don’t know what to cook myself for dinner, I believe in grabbing a bag of popcorn and calling it a night. The first two preferences incense people I share them with. But describing the dinner apathy that sometimes plagues me after returning home from work usually earns nods of agreement. The question, “What am I hungry for?” is one we’ve all asked ourselves while peering at the contents of our refrigerator.
“First things first, remember, you are not alone,” says Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, RD, host of Well+Good’s YouTube series You Versus Food. “The majority of people don’t meal prep, so chances are you don’t know what will end up on your plate for dinner. While the meal prep technique works for some, it doesn’t always work for others…and that’s okay!” And even if your meal prep skills could knock Bobby Flay off his high horse, the turkey meatball, roasted broccoli combo dreamed up on Sunday might seem less delish come Thursday. So when dinner leaves you with questions yourself, Beckerman says to get real.
Rather than thinking about dinner in terms of what you “should” eat, she recommends sitting down and chatting with yourself on what you want. “Oftentimes, when we try to eat what we think is healthy rather than what we actually want, we find a meal unsatisfying,” says Beckerman. Instead, approach the whole process like a creative endeavor. What could you whip up random items in your pantry? What unexpected flavor combinations are lurking in the back of your freezer? “Having the ability to mix and match different ideas and ingredients allows me to listen more to what my body wants, rather than follow a strict meal plan,” says Beckerman. “I get to pick what I want, have no plan, and truly listen to my body in the moment.”
I hear you, I hear you: Tuning into your body’s needs isn’t like switching the radio to your favorite station. Sometimes, you may ask yourself what you want for dinner and still come up with, “I don’t know—popcorn?” So, below, the Beckerman offers up three ways to read your needs just like you’d read a nutrition label.
3 ways to answer the question: “What am I hungry for?”
1. How have your energy levels been feeling lately?
“I think about the foods I have had a lot of recently, the foods I haven’t had in a while, and what my energy levels have been like lately,” says Beckerman. “If I am feeling fatigued at the gym, maybe I need a more carb-heavy meal. If my skin has been breaking out recently, perhaps I will eat more skin soothing healthy fats. The fact that it is my choice each and every night to decide what I want allows me to look forward to dinner every night.” In other words, let your current emotional landscape guide the needs of your bod—and you can’t go wrong.
2. Create three to four food formulas that you can fall back on
While you should feel at liberty to freestyle with your meals, sometimes returning to an old favorite will be the more freeing option. “Start with your veggies and build off that,” advises Beckerman. “Making your plate 50 percent veggies is the best base, and then add your three crucial components: carbs, protein, and fats.” For carbs, Beckerman is a fan of starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes; beans, eggs, or fish are a good source of protein; and fats taste best as avocados, nuts, or seeds. “These 3 things ensure I will feel satisfied from my meal, and will have gotten a substantial serving of macronutrients to round out my day,” she says. Win, win.
3. Go for a walk to set a boundary between work and dinnertime
“If you are struggling to decide and have determined that you are hungry, but [you’re] overwhelmed by work or school, try taking a walk outside or doing something meditative or relaxing to calm your thoughts,” advises Beckerman. ‘This will allow you to have more focus around what you actually want to eat.” While you’re unwinding from your day at the office, your body may just send out a bat signal that it wants cauliflower pizza and a side salad, or lemon grilled salmon in a bed of greens. Given the time and space, you’ll know just what you need.
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