It’s a natural desire to want to eat healthy—to nourish your body with the nutrition it needs to feel good. But then actually figuring out how to eat healthy, or healthier, isn’t always so clear or intuitive. In fact, it’s really freaking confusing sometimes.
First off, there are a lot of opinions and information (and misinformation) out there, so it’s hard to know what to listen to. And diet culture has skewed a lot of our thinking about what healthy eating advice should sound like—often pushing restriction and prescriptive rules that don’t take into account the personal, cultural, and socioeconomic factors that influence what a healthy diet looks like for any one individual. Connected to that is the assumption, largely fueled by fatphobia, that healthy eating is synonymous with eating to lose weight.
In other words: If you’re a little lost on how to eat healthy, it’s not you. So we looked to 11 R.D.s from a variety of backgrounds, personally and professionally, for their best tips on healthy eating that are flexible and empowering, instead of rigid and punishing. They shared practical pieces of advice that can make it easier for people to enrich and diversify the nutrition in their diets and make their own delicious, satisfying meals—as well as, just as important, cultivate a more peaceful and enjoyable relationship with food and eating. Take the tips that speak to you, and add them to your very own one-of-a-kind healthy eating toolbox.
1. Say no thank you to one-size-fits-all diets.
“Diet culture is inherently homogenizing with its wide, sweeping health recommendations and generic weight loss prescriptions. Not only are we incredibly diverse on a nutritional level, we’re exponentially more complex on a health level. So if someone is telling you they discovered the right diet for most bodies, you can take that as a signal that this is not based in science and it is probably going to take you further away from yourself.” —Lindsay Birchfield M.S, R.D., L.D., health and body activist and dietitian at Creating Peace With Food and Rooted Heart Health Care
2. Make a list of your values and look at how well your relationship to food aligns with them.
“This is something I talk about with every client, because it’s so insightful for understanding our motivations and behaviors. Some examples of important values might be: open-mindedness, honesty, respect, or kindness, among many others. Try to connect your actions around food or eating to your values to see whether they uphold them or not.
For example, if you value honesty but you aren’t being honest with yourself about your food preferences, there is tension there that may be harming your relationship with food or your long-term well-being. Additionally, if you value respect yet you are not respecting your body’s energy needs or cravings for certain foods, you may notice some opportunities to make changes. If you attempt this, be sure to stay grounded in a place of non-judgment; this exercise is intended to cultivate curiosity only without inflicting further guilt or shame for what you might uncover in the process.” —Cara Harbstreet, M.S. R.D. L.D. of Street Smart Nutrition
3. Include social and cultural connection in your experience of eating.
“If your idea of healthy eating only focuses on the nutrient density of foods and you find yourself thinking about food all day long, even when you believe you’ve eaten enough, you may be missing one or all of these key ingredients: pleasure, satisfaction, and social connection. Expand your definition of healthy eating by including these key ingredients into your meal choices whenever possible.
Try scheduling a Zoom meal with friends or family while you reminisce on the good times. Recreate your favorite childhood meals to bring back fond memories and a pleasurable eating experience. Or for variety and comforting nostalgia, incorporate recipes and ingredients from your culture into your meals.” —Ayana Habtemariam, M.S.W., R.D.N., L.D.N., nutrition therapist and certified intuitive eating counselor
4. Find adjectives to describe your food besides “healthy” and “unhealthy.”
“Get creative with how you describe or think about your food. Typically, we’re used to thinking about food in organized categories like healthy or unhealthy, good or bad. But these labels can promote either an all-or-nothing pattern (where you think you shouldn’t have certain foods if they aren’t considered healthy or good) or a cycle of guilt and shame if you enjoy foods you consider less nourishing.
Instead, I encourage you to get as creative as you can with how you describe your food. Make a list of as many descriptive words (spicy, savory, crunchy, melty, etc.) as you can. This can point you toward your true food preferences versus the food rules you absorbed from diet culture.” —Cara Harbstreet, M.S. R.D. L.D.
5. Make sure you’re actually eating enough throughout the day.
“The most important aspect of healthy eating is whether you’re eating enough. Sounds basic, but so many people are going long stretches of time without eating during the day, either because it’s the latest diet fad, or because they get wrapped up in what they’re doing.You’ll feel much more alert and energized if you’re eating something every three to four hours or so throughout the day.” —Rachael Hartley, R.D., certified intuitive eating counselor and owner of Rachael Hartley Nutrition
6. Rely on convenient chef’s helpers to speed up cooking.
“Maximizing your time in the kitchen is so important, especially as we all are navigating uncharted waters. Using basic items like triple-washed and bagged greens or pre-chopped veggies cuts prep time in half. And brands like Brooklyn Delhi or Saffron Road have incredibly flavorful simmer sauces that bring life to any dish in under five minutes. A close friend just brought me some of the Brooklyn Dehli achar sauces, and I am a new convert—and the ingredient list is amazing.” —Maya Feller, M.S., R.D., C.D.N. of Brooklyn-based Maya Feller Nutrition, Good Morning America nutrition expert, and author of The Southern Comfort Food Diabetes Cookbook: Over 100 Recipes for a Healthy Life
7. Try mindful eating, even if just for a single bite.
“Practicing mindful eating can help us reclaim some of the joy of eating, and allows us to discover our actual food preferences. Mindful eating is turning attention to the senses—the sight, smell, feel, and taste of a food. To eat mindfully means we take the time to really experience the foods we eat.
I always recommend people start small, with just one mindful bite! So…to start, take a few deep breaths as you prepare to really taste your food. Take a moment to notice the color, the smell, the texture, and just take one bite. Take your time letting it sit on your tongue, chewing slowly, allowing your taste buds to take it all in. That’s all you need to do. You might notice that the food tastes different when you actually allow yourself to taste it.” —Erica Leon, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N., nutrition therapist and certified eating disorder registered dietitian
8. Focus on including more foods, not taking foods out.
“Think about foods to add in rather than take out. It’s very popular and on-trend to want to consistently remove foods or food groups (like carbohydrates or fruit), but that will only make most people feel as though they are ‘obsessive’ with food. You can still eat what you like, but maybe think about adding some veggies on top of your pizza or on the side for balance, for example. I had a client who loved instant ramen noodles. I told her to keep the noodles, but add in some protein for staying power (such as grilled chicken, tofu, or beans) and throw in some chopped spinach and bell peppers for veggies. Adding in, not taking away.” —Shana Minei Spence, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N., founder of The Nutrition Tea
9. Add more of dietitians’ favorite f-word to your diet.
“Fiber is integral to gut health. Not only is fiber responsible for keeping you regular, but it’s also integral to helping your body colonize its good gut bacteria. Adding fiber-rich foods to your daily routine can be quite simple. Try an ancient grain like bulgur (which has almost 30% of the D.V. for fiber) or barley.” — Maya Feller, M.S., R.D., C.D.N.
10. Don’t worry so much about “eating the rainbow.”
“We often feel like we need to make our plates super colorful by adding veggies, but so many veggies aren’t necessarily colorful. I think it’s time to rethink that. Even if your plate is super monotone, don’t worry—add the veggie that goes with the dish and will complement it. For example, I grew up eating Dominican meals, where we have a lot of root veggies such as yuca, yautia, and malanga. Not colorful at all, but loaded with nutrition. If you can, try new and different veggies, regardless of color.” —Dalina Soto M.A., R.D., L.D.N., bilingual dietitian and founder of Nutritiously Yours and Your Latina Nutrition
11. Go for more regular ol’ veggies over trendy superfoods.
“If you just do one thing, add more vegetables. Just regular vegetables. The majority of Americans don’t meet the recommended daily intake for vegetables. And while it’s fun to explore superfood powders and special drinks for better health, simply adding an extra cup of an everyday vegetable like roasted broccoli to dinner can help move the needle in a positive direction.” —Marisa Moore, M.B.A., R.D.N., L.D., culinary and integrative dietitian
12. Skip the “healthy version” and eat the food you’re actually craving.
“There is no need to compromise your taste buds with ‘alternative’ foods because we are told these are healthier—chickpea cookie dough, cauliflower anything, black bean brownies. When we are told we can’t have the real thing or feel that we have to ‘healthify’ everything, we then tend to think about those eliminated foods solely and think that we’re obsessed with or addicted to food. Instead, give yourself permission to eat the foods you like, including the foods you crave.” —Shana Minei Spence, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N.
13. Seek out phytonutrients. (Ya know, plants!)
“Phytonutrients are chemical compounds produced by plants, and are known to be beneficial to humans because they include antioxidants, which help protect the body from free radical damage. Fruits like blueberries are an excellent source of phytonutrients—blueberries contain anthocyanins and flavanols, which have been heavily researched for their cardioprotective capabilities. They can be enjoyed fresh or frozen and added to both sweet and savory meals. Or spice up your meals with garlic and onions. When stored properly, they have a long shelf life.” —Maya Feller, M.S., R.D., C.D.N.
14. Eat if you’re hungry—even when it’s not “mealtime” yet.
“Your body is not on a timer. Eat when you are hungry. I’ve heard of some people being hungry mid-morning, but thinking that they shouldn’t eat because it’s not officially lunch time. If you are hungry at 11 a.m., know that it’s okay to eat. Our bodies and their needs change daily (due to hormones, movement, activity, etc.). So just because you ate at 1 p.m. yesterday does not mean there is anything wrong with you if you need food earlier today. We are not robots or machines that go off of an autopilot, we are indeed human.” —Shana Minei Spence, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N.
15. Batch prep grains and veggies and mix and match them throughout the week.
“This is a practical tip that makes it easy to build meals throughout the week without repeating the same recipe five times. Cook rice or quinoa and roast vegetables in bulk so you can easily add your favorite protein for a quick lunch or dinner bowl during the week. Mix and match to keep it interesting—toss the roasted vegetables onto pizza one night and serve alongside salmon the next. I also like to boil a batch of eggs at the beginning of the week to use for snacks and breakfast throughout the week.” —Marisa Moore, M.B.A. R.D.N. L.D.
16. Create some new food traditions for yourself.
“Food is strongly tied to memories and experiences, but when our eating habits have been strongly driven by diets or dieting, we tend to lose those traditions. Think back to some of your positive memories with food and see if you can either recreate them or replicate them in new traditions. This might be as simple as selecting a new recipe once a week to developing an entirely new way of celebrating major holidays. This can be an empowering and fulfilling way to celebrate food beyond its nutrition capacity and create a new food culture that doesn’t involve dieting or restriction.” —Cara Harbstreet, M.S. R.D. L.D.
17. Use fresh herbs liberally.
“The oils naturally present in fresh herbs like basil, parsley, and oregano add lots of flavor. Two tablespoons of fresh basil deliver about 25% of the Vitamin K you need in a day. And fresh parsley is not just a garnish—it’s a great source of vitamins A and C and an excellent source of Vitamin K. (Over 75% of the D.V. in one tablespoon!) Add fresh herbs generously to salads, make herbed vinaigrette to drizzle on fish, or add them to water.” —Marisa Moore, M.B.A., R.D.N., L.D.
18. Keep ingredients for go-to pantry meals in stock.
“Keep ingredients on hand for a couple of tasty and nutritious pantry meals. That way, on days you don’t have a chance to go to the grocery store or don’t feel like cooking anything complicated, you’ve still got options. My favorite is pasta tossed with canned chickpeas and frozen spinach sautéed with lots of onion, garlic, and chili flakes.” —Rachael Hartley, R.D.
19. Delete or mute your tracking apps.
“This is one of the simplest yet most challenging tips. We can grow reliant on apps to guide eating decisions, but that creates a false sense of safety. That’s why it can feel so precarious to consider deleting them. This is one of the most important steps to reconnecting with hunger and fullness and learning to trust your body.” —Cara Harbstreet, M.S., R.D., L.D.
20. Eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner foods whenever you darn well please.
“Lose the labels. Ever notice how easily we categorize food into ‘breakfast/lunch/dinner’? This line of thinking can hold you back. A part of you is saying an ‘I can’t…’ story, like ‘I can’t eat this for breakfast.’ Some of my favorite breakfasts look more like lunch—a piece of hearty toast with mayo, tomato, basil, salt and pepper, for example. Likewise, cheesy eggs wrapped in a tortilla with any veggie I have on hand is a fast dinner go-to for me. Then I’ll add in sides of fruit or my favorite bowl of cereal or dessert, depending on my cravings.” —Rebecca Scritchfield, R.D.N., author of Body Kindness
21. Roast frozen veggies for an easy, crispy side.
“I love frozen veggies. They can be super affordable and last a while in the freezer. My fave thing to do is to load up on frozen brussels sprouts, green beans, broccoli, peas and carrots, and just throw them into dishes to add flavor and texture. The air fryer is my favorite kitchen gadget, so I roast a lot of these veggies in there tossed in olive oil, garlic salt, and Parmesan cheese. Or you can roast them in the oven until golden brown. Such a crowd-pleaser and super quick to make. ” —Dalina Soto M.A., R.D., L.D.N.
22. Meal prep regularly, but be chill about it.
“Have a reliable meal prep routine to avoid overthinking, which can lead to a downward spiral of unhelpful stress and anxiety around eating. And be flexible in what you consider a ‘good enough’ meal prep effort, given your time and money resources. For example, I try to set a 30 minute timer on Friday nights and have a notepad at the ready. I open up my refrigerator and freezer, toss the moldy stuff to compost, quickly prep any fresh vegetable that may be on its last leg (usually by sautéeing, roasting, or making a quick base for chili or soup), and chop up any fruit to freeze and use later with baked oatmeal or smoothies.
After that sprint, I usually have several ideas for the next set of meals and favorites to restock. The time I invest in less-than-perfect prep ahead pays off in dividends when I’m cruising through a busy week and all I need to do is reach for something that’s practically prepped and get it on the plate. This actually gives me time to eat mindfully and enjoy the taste too!” —Rebecca Scritchfield, R.D.N.
23. When in doubt, put some fruit and nuts on it.
“Add fresh fruit to a scoop of gelato or sorbet, or fresh fruit and nuts (like almonds or peanuts) to a scoop of ice cream for additional fiber and protein to help keep you feeling more satisfied. I personally love adding mango, berries, and sliced almonds to my sweet treat. And I love blending granola and nut butter into my fruit smoothies. You get a mix of healthy fats and more fiber which will help keep you full for a longer period of time. It is also perfect for an on-the-go breakfast.” —Yasi Ansari, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and Assistant Director of Performance Nutrition for UC Berkeley Athletics
Quotes have been edited for length and clarity.