Think you eat well? The truth is, most of us could do a lot better. Some 87% of American adults fall short on the recommended intake of veggies, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and 92% of us are missing the mark on whole grains. But you don’t need radical meal makeovers to improve your diet—just some subtle, strategic ingredient switcheroos at every meal. “Small ways to fill in those nutritional gaps can make a huge difference over weeks and months,” says Cynthia Sass, RD, author of Slim Down Now.
Try these easy, delicious ideas for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks, plus our favorite carb-smart sides, chain restaurant swaps, and salad bar swaps. You’ll pack in more nutrition—and you just might shrink a few sizes, too.
Instead of: Nonfat fruit yogurt
Try: Low-fat or nonfat Greek yogurt topped with fresh berries and unsalted nuts
Benefits: Greek yogurt has nearly double the protein of regular yogurt (9 grams vs. 17 grams per 6-ounce serving) for greater staying power; fresh berries add antioxidants and fiber; and nuts provide healthy fats that slow the release of natural sugars into the bloodstream. Plus you’ll drop nearly 12 grams of added sugar—and all for the about the same number of calories.
Instead of: Fried egg on a toasted English muffin
Try: Hard-boiled egg and avocado on a sprouted whole-grain English muffin
Benefits: Sprouted grains have more protein, fiber, and micronutrients (such as folate, vitamin C, and essential fatty acids), and fewer carbs than plain English muffins. Can’t find sprouted? Go for whole grain (just make sure whole wheat or another whole grain is the first ingredient). Adding a quarter of an avocado provides healthy fats so you’ll feel more satisfied. Boiling the egg instead of frying it in butter eliminates heart-clogging saturated fats. Boil a bunch at once and keep them in the fridge so you can prep this meal quickly in the a.m.
Instead of: Cheddar omelet with two eggs
Try: Veggie avocado omelet with one egg and three egg whites
Benefits: You’ll pack in more protein—three egg whites have nearly 10 grams of protein, compared to 6.3 grams for a whole egg—while being cholesterol conscious. An omelet is a great way to sneak veggies into breakfast—try spinach, mushroom, and bell pepper. Plus, you get healthy monounsaturated fat from the avocado (which is also high in potassium and a natural de-bloater). Eliminating the cheese saves 115 calories and 5 grams of saturated fat per ounce.”
Instead of: Store-bought smoothie
Try: Homemade smoothie with 1 cup fresh fruit, a handful of veggies (kale, spinach, celery), 1 Tbsp. almond butter, and 1 cup almond milk or Greek yogurt
Benefits: Making your own smoothie means more veggies and less fruit—so you’ll get fewer calories and less sugar, along with plenty of filling fiber. The almond butter provides good fat, which makes you feel satisfied, and which you need in order to absorb many of the antioxidants from the fruits and veggies.
Instead of: Pre-packaged sweetened oatmeal
Try: Homemade oatmeal: Blend together 1/4 cup rolled oats with 1/4 cup unsweetened whey protein powder; add 1/4 cup hot coconut milk (from the dairy aisle); top with a small apple, sliced or chopped, and 1 tsp. cinnamon
Benefits: You’ll ditch the added sugars of the pre-packaged stuff and, by adding protein powder, actually displace some of the oatmeal, trading quick-burning carbs for slow-burning protein. Coconut milk, besides being delicious, adds good fat (medium-chain triglycerides) that boosts metabolism and good cholesterol; the apple provides vitamin C and over 4 grams of fiber; and cinnamon has many health perks, including that it slows stomach emptying and improves insulin sensitivity.
Instead of: Chef’s salad with bacon and cheese
Try: Green salad with salmon, tuna, or sardines
Benefits: The word “salad” doesn’t guarantee nutrition. Swap out the bacon and cheese for fish. It provides the same protein—or more—and adds omega-3 fatty acids, which boost mood, help reduce inflammation in the body, and may help with weight loss (and a 2014 analysis found that we don’t get enough omega-3 fatty acids in our diets). Second best choice is grilled chicken, another lean protein that will save fat and calories over bacon and cheese.
Instead of: Meat and cheese sandwich on a roll with mayo
Try: Meat or cheese sandwich open-faced on whole grain bread with mustard, lettuce, and tomato
Benefits: Eliminate one source of animal protein to halve your saturated fat. Swapping out half the bread—and choosing whole grain over white—cuts out around 15 grams of carbs and doubles fiber, which can help lower blood sugar and cholesterol. Dropping mayo for mustard saves saturated fat. If you add hummus instead, you also get more flavor, protein and fiber; add guacamole instead and you get heart-healthy fats and fiber. Lettuce and tomato add phytonutrients plus extra fiber, so you’ll feel fuller longer.
Instead of: Creamy tomato soup
Try: Black bean soup with a dollop of low-fat Greek yogurt
Benefits: Ditching the cream base halves the calories, and beans add tons of filling fiber plus antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. “Beans are pulses, and studies show that people who eat them tend to weigh less and have smaller waistlines,” Sass says. Switching up the cream for a scoop of Greek yogurt still delivers calcium but without all the saturated fat.
Instead of: Beef burrito on a flour tortilla with sour cream
Try: Bean burrito bowl with veggies and salsa
Benefits: Ditching the flour tortilla saves up to 350 calories and 58 grams of processed carbs. Pick beans and veggies instead of beef to lose the heart-clogging saturated fat in red meat and score a major boost in both filling fiber and vitamins (beans are one of the highest-fiber foods you can eat). With salsa over sour cream, you get extra nutrients for fewer calories and less fat.
Instead of: Sushi with spicy mayo
Try: Sashimi with wasabi and miso soup
Benefits: Sushi is made with white rice, which offers little nutrition for its 29-gram carb, 133-calorie per quarter-cup price tag. Spicy mayo can add 99 calories and a whopping 11 grams of fat per tablespoon. Sashimi is just the fish—with all its lean protein and omega-3 fatty acids. Top it with wasabi, which is anti-inflammatory and certainly clears the sinuses. Pair it with a small bowl of miso soup; studies from Cornell University show that people who begin a meal with broth-based soup get fuller faster and eat less overall.
Instead of: Meatloaf made with ground beef
Try: Meatloaf made with ground turkey, mushrooms, and pureed spinach
Benefits: Turkey has less saturated fat than beef (choose at least 93% lean); the veggies add moisture, flavor, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber, and allow you to eat less meat. When you mix pureed baby spinach into the ground meat, you won’t even taste it.
Instead of: Pepperoni pizza on white-flour crust
Try: Veggie pizza on cauliflower crust
Benefits: A cauliflower crust replaces white processed carbs with veggies, upping fiber and other nutrients. Cruciferous veggies are also anti-cancer and heart-healthy, protecting the branches of blood vessels against buildup of plaque. Save on saturated fat by skipping meat toppings (or try a vegetarian “pepperoni”—just watch the sodium) and swapping out some of the mozzarella for smaller amounts of a more flavorful cheese like Parmesan.
Instead of: Spaghetti with beef meatballs
Try: Zucchini noodles with turkey meatballs (plus oats) and added veggies
Benefits: Switching from beef to turkey saves saturated fat, as does displacing some of the meat with rolled oats (use them as you would bread crumbs), suggests Lauren Slayton, RD, author of The Little Book of Thin ($14; amazon.com). Make sure to use a low-sugar tomato sauce. “Zoodles” replace carb-heavy pasta with a fresh vegetable that has vitamins, minerals and filling fiber. If you can’t live without real pasta, mix in noodles made with whole wheat, black beans, quinoa, or almond flour, for more fiber and fewer carbs. Top with flavorful veggies of your choice—try bell peppers, broccoli, tomatoes, mushrooms.
Instead of: Fried chicken
Try: Chicken dredged in almond or chickpea flour and baked
Benefits: You’ll save mega calories and carbs and get some added nutrients and fiber. Baking instead of frying slashes calories and prevents the formation of certain cancer-causing compounds which may develop when cooking with oil at high temperatures.
Instead of: Pork stir-fry with store-bought sauce
Try: Shrimp stir-fry with homemade sauce
Benefits: Lose the high-fructose corn syrup and sky-high sodium by making your own super-easy stir-fry sauce: 1 Tbsp. rice vinegar, 1 Tbsp. orange juice, 1/2 tsp. minced garlic, 1/2 tsp. grated ginger, and 1/8 tsp. crushed red pepper (or to taste). Shrimp has way less fat than pork and boasts inflammation-fighting omega-3 fatty acids. Use frozen shrimp to make this dish super fast and super cheap!
Instead of: Potato chips
Try: Roasted chickpeas or edamame
Benefits: Whole chickpeas or edamame, roasted in the oven with a bit of vegetable oil spray and sea salt until they’re crunchy, make a delicious, savory snack that boasts more fiber and vitamins than any chip. Not in the mood to DIY? Try The Good Bean Sea Salt Flavor Crispy Crunchy Chickpeas ($16 for 18 ounces; amazon.com) or Seapoint Farms Dry Roasted Edamame ($21 for 12 4-ounce pouches; amazon.com).
Instead of: Crackers
Benefits: Popcorn is a whole grain, while crackers—even those made from whole wheat or ancient grains—are a processed food. And because popcorn is filled with air and fiber, it’s very filling, delivering long-lasting crunchy satisfaction. (Use salt sparingly.)
Instead of: Cheese and crackers
Try: Cheese and apple slices
Benefits: You lose the refined carbs of the crackers, which will just turn into sugar in your body, and gain instead a fiber- and vitamin-rich whole food with its own natural crunch and sweetness.
Instead of: Fruit-flavored gummies
Try: Dried fruit or low-sugar fruit leather
Benefits: Trade in artificial colors and flavors and added sugars for real fruit or low-sugar fruit leather and you’ll ditch near two-thirds of the calories, two-thirds of the carbs, and over half the sugar, and gain filling fiber and vitamins. (Keep the portions small—about the size of a golf ball.)
Instead of: Granola bar
Try: Trail mix made with nuts, seeds, unsweetened dried fruit, and/or dark chocolate chips
Benefits: Though homemade trail mix may have more fat than a bar, it’s heart-healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fat from nuts, which also provide long-lasting energy from protein, something you won’t find in a bar that’s primarily oats or puffed rice. You’ll also lose the added sugars many granola bars are loaded with. Just stick to a handful of trail mix (about 1/4 cup) because the calories add up.
To lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you consume, which inevitably means one thing: portion control. But you’re not necessarily doomed to a growling stomach until you reach your goal.
Portion control doesn’t mean you have to eat tiny portions of everything, says Lisa Young, author of The Portion Teller Plan: The No-Diet Reality Guide to Eating, Cheating, and Losing Weight Permanently. You don’t want to feel like you’re on a diet, but you have to eat fewer calories.
Here are 14 easy ways to cut portions, trim calories, and lose fat without counting the minutes until your next meal.
1. Start with a glass of H2O – Drink 16 ounces (a big glass) of water before you eat, suggests Dawn Jackson Blatner, author of The Flexitarian Diet. Filling your belly with water will naturally make you less likely to overeat, she says. Plus, some symptoms of dehydration may actually be what’s causing your rumbling belly, so sipping some water before you eat may eliminate your “hunger” altogether.
2. Wear form-fitting clothes – We’re not suggesting you squeeze into pants that are too tight. However, wearing an outfit with a waistband or perhaps a jacket with buttons can serve as a tool to prompt you to slow down and assess how you feel during your meal, says Young. As your clothing begins to feel a little snugger, it may keep you from going back for seconds.
3. Bulking up your meals with veggies is one easy way to cut calories while filling you up fast. Spinach, for example, can be used as a sandwich-topper or can add fiber and nutrients to pasta and stir-fries, says Blatner. Other ideas to eat more veggies: swap in mushrooms for half the ground meat in most recipes, make oatmeal more filling with diced apples, and use a whole-wheat pita in place of bread so you can stuff it with more veggies.
4. The color of your plate may influence how much you eat, according to a 2012 Cornell University study. The researchers discovered that when a plate and the food on it had a low color-contrast (like pasta with Alfredo sauce on a white plate), people at a buffet served themselves 22% more than when there was a higher color-contrast (like pasta with red sauce on a white plate or pasta with Alfredo sauce on a red plate).
The study conclusions suggest that if you want to eat less, select plates that have a color contrast to the food you’re eating for dinner. Or if you want to eat more healthy foods, like a bigger salad, eat greens from a large green plate or bowl!
5. Rethink the way you use grains and starches. Take a breakfast parfait, for instance: instead of starting with a granola base, fill your cup with yogurt and then sprinkle just a tiny amount of granola on top for the crunch you crave. Making a stir-fry? Load up your plate with veggies and a serving of lean protein, then add a quarter cup of brown rice.
6. Dim lights and listen to relaxing music to set the tone for a more leisurely meal, suggests Blatner. Taking your time while eating increases enjoyment and decreases portions, she says. Remember to chew slowly, put down your fork between bites, and sip water to make your meal last longer.
7. Here’s another way to slow down your eating: munch on foods that require shelling, peeling, or individual unwrapping, suggests Blatner. Oranges, edamame, and pistachios in their shells are healthy options.
8. When you sit down with a bag of chips, do you really know how many you’re eating? Researchers from Cornell University sought to answer this question in a study and found that people ate 50% more chips when they were given no visual cues as to how large a portion should be. So if you buy a bag of pretzels or tin of nuts that contains 10 servings, divide the contents of the container into 10 smaller baggies ahead of time.
9. Before you dive into your entree, have some soup. Though it may seem counterintuitive to add more to your meal, research shows that starting a meal with soup may help you reduce your overall calorie intake. In a 2007 study, people who ate soup before their lunch entree reduced their total calorie intake by 20%. Your best bet: a broth-based soup, preferably with veggies to help you feel full from the natural fiber, says Young.
10. In a Cornell University study published in the journal PLoS One, researchers observed people at two separate breakfast buffet lines that featured the same seven items: cheesy eggs, potatoes, bacon, cinnamon rolls, low-fat granola, low-fat yogurt, and fruit. One line presented the foods from healthiest to least-healthy, while the other line had the order reversed.
Regardless of which line they passed through, more than 75% of diners put the first food they saw on their plates; the first three foods they encountered in the buffet made up two-thirds of all the foods they added to their plate. So take a stroll around the buffet or dinner table before you serve yourself, suggests Young.
11. It’s okay to have a cocktail with your meal if that’s what you really want, but keep it to one glass and enjoy it slowly, suggests Young. To trick yourself into believing you’re having more, pour your drink into a tall, thin glass. A 2005 study published in the journal BMJ revealed that practiced bartenders who poured what they thought was a shot of alcohol (1.5 ounces) into a short, wide glass poured 20% more than when the glass was tall and thin. Add extra ice to your drink to make it look like even more!
12. Turn off the TV and put your smartphone away while you eat. A recent review of studies found that people who watched television during meals tended to consume more than those who ate without any distractions. And for you office dwellers? Consider taking your lunch break away from your desk — in an American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study, people who played computer solitaire while having lunch felt less full at the end, and went on to eat more food later in the day than those who didn’t play the game.
13. Turns out that even food experts aren’t so savvy about eyeballing portion sizes. In a Cornell University study, 85 nutrition experts gathered for an ice cream social to celebrate the success of a colleague. They were randomly given either a small or large bowl, or a small serving scoop or large serving scoop. Then, the nutritionists were asked to complete a brief survey while the study researchers secretly weighed their bowls.
Those given the larger bowls served themselves 31% more without realizing it, while those who used the larger scoop unknowingly served themselves 14.5% more. Moral of the story? Dish up your own food with a small utensil onto a small bowl or plate, and chances are you’ll eat less.
14. Many people have trained themselves to expect a sweet treat at the end of a meal, says Blatner. Swap in a new, healthier ritual after meals to signal that you’re done eating. She recommends brewing a flavorful decaf tea like peppermint, cinnamon, chocolate, or one of your favorite fruity varieties for low- or-no-calorie sweet-tooth satisfier.