There’s a lot of focus on what you shouldn’t be eating—cut sugar or carbs, stop eating [insert scapegoat food of the month]. But when it comes to health, what you add to your plate is more important than what you take away. Plus, when you focus on adding the foods that are known to promote health, the less healthy options naturally take up less space in your diet, without having to think about it.
Focus on filling your dinner plate with “whole grains, lean or plant-based protein, and lots of veggies for a big nutrition boost,” recommends Beth Stark, RDN, LDN. While there are certainly more than 10 foods we’d recommend including on your dinner plate on a regular basis (variety is an important part of a healthy diet), the following 10 foods offer some of the biggest nutritional benefits you can get.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend eating two to three servings of fish per week, and one of the healthiest options is salmon. “Salmon is like a multivitamin for your brain. It’s loaded with important brain-boosting nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids and choline, and is an excellent source of high-quality protein,” says Lauren Manaker M.S., RDN. Eating salmon is also linked to better heart health, and “fish like salmon may have a positive impact on sleep quality,” adds Manaker.
Sustainability is something to consider when choosing salmon. Manaker recommends looking for “options that have integrity by looking for the Best Aquaculture Practices certified seal.” Or, use the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Guide to find the most sustainable options.
Salmon is incredibly versatile, too. Whether you’re buying fresh or canned, our Salmon Cakes are a favorite, or try our Honey Garlic Salmon for an easy and delicious dinner. The Greek Salmon Bowl (pictured above) is a delicious dinner that’s perfect for lunch the next day too.
2. Sweet potato
While both white and sweet potatoes can be part of a healthy diet, traditional orange sweet potatoes do have a bit of a leg up, offering almost 270 percent of your daily vitamin A needs and 6 grams of fiber per cup. Other sweet potatoes—purple and white varieties—provide different phytonutrients. For example purple sweet potatoes contain compounds that may enhance healthy gut bacteria. Both orange and purple sweet potatoes may contribute to eye health as well.
They can be enjoyed in so many ways—baked, roasted, mashed, or even stuffed. They can also be used in soups, curry, casseroles, pasta dishes, and more. Check out these 25 Sweet Potato Dinner Recipes for inspiration.
Research continues to link eating plant-based proteins to an incredible number of health benefits, even if you eat some meat. “Chickpeas are a tasty and versatile addition to dinner because they contribute satisfying plant-based protein, fiber and other nutrients like selenium, iron and folate. They are also considered a low glycemic food due to their fiber and protein content, which means they help to keep blood sugar levels steady during digestion,” says Stark. They can be added to almost any dish—from main, to side, to salad—for a nutrient boost. Stark recommends swapping them in for meat in casseroles, soups, salads, and pasta dishes. But the possibilities are practically endless. Not sure where to start? Check out these Healthy Recipes That Start with a Can of Chickpeas.
Gallery: These Are Healthiest Vegetables You Can Eat, According to a Nutritionist (Redbook)
Lentils may be tiny, but they sure are mighty. Packed with plant-based protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, they offer a number of health benefits including promoting heart health and reducing risk of diabetes and certain cancers. They are also a good source of iron, which is especially important if you don’t eat much meat (these 12 iron-rich foods can also help you get your fill).
And lentils can be added to so much more than soup! Use in place of beef for a plant-forward bolognese (or go halfsies with each). Make them into lentil cakes, a burger, or meatballs. Or, try making our Chilean Lentil Stew or Squash and Red Lentil Curry.
5. Dark leafy greens
Kale isn’t the only super green. Dark leafy greens like spinach, Swiss chard, collard greens, mustard greens, and beet greens are all packed with vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that support health. While each offer a slightly different nutrient profile you can count on adding fiber, iron, folate, potassium, and vitamins A, C, and K to your diet when you eat dark leafy greens. Choose the ones you like the best and add them to soups, stews, pasta sauces, salads, grain bowls, and more! Check out our list of Healthy Greens Side Dishes for ideas for dinner this week.
Tempeh is a fermented soy product that contributes plant-based protein (more than double the amount in tofu), healthy fats, and important vitamins and minerals to your diet. It also contains prebiotics, which contribute to gut health. “Tempeh is more versatile than tofu, too. It absorbs the flavors of your dish, making it a great option for many different meals,” says Stefanie Di Tella, MScFN, RD, Owner of Fuel with Stef. Tempeh be chopped to replicate the texture of ground meat, grilled or baked in strips for a sandwich, marinated and seared on top of a bowl, or cubed and added to a stir-fry.
7. Wheat berries
If you haven’t tried wheat berries before, they are a whole grain that offer a nutty flavor and slightly chewy texture, and can be used in place of most other whole grains. A half-cup (cooked) serving offers 6 grams of fiber and 7 grams of protein, which is why they are digested more slowly than refined grains and even some other whole grains. This makes them particularly beneficial for people trying to manage blood sugar, but great for anyone who wants to avoid that post-meal energy spike and crash. Eating whole grains may reduce your risk of heart disease, improve insulin sensitivity, and contribute to a healthy gut.
8. Olive Oil
If you make one change to the way you cook, let it be using olive oil more often than other fats. “A staple in many Mediterranean dishes, olive oil is an unsaturated fat, which is linked to a number of health benefits, including reduced blood pressure and lowering LDL cholesterol,” says Di Tella. Beyond its many cardiovascular benefits, it’s also full of antioxidants and may reduce inflammation. Olive oil can be used both in cooking and for finishing a dish. A drizzle of high quality olive oil or an olive oil-based dressing can really elevate the flavor of your meal, while also boosting the nutrition. It can even be used in baking, like in these Olive Oil Chocolate Chunk Blondies, because who doesn’t love an after dinner treat?
Along with important vitamins and minerals, tomatoes provide a big dose of lycopene, a phytonutrient that is linked to lower cholesterol, reduced risk of stroke, reduced risk of cancer, and even possible protection from sunburns. Cooked tomatoes may provide more lycopene than raw tomatoes, but both offer valuable nutrients, so enjoy whichever you prefer. Better yet, eat raw tomatoes in summer when they’re in season and stick to tomato sauce and other cooked tomatoes the rest of the year.
Lycopene from tomatoes is better absorbed when consumed with fat, so drizzle some olive oil on your summer tomatoes (try our Tomato Salad with Lemon-Basil Vinaigrette). In the winter, make a tomato sauce that includes olive oil for a powerful duo (make our Quick Tomato Sauce for a fast, healthy sauce).
This humble vegetable offers a surprising number of health benefits. “Cabbage is a member of the cruciferous vegetable family that may contribute to a lower risk of various chronic diseases, including certain cancers, thanks to its abundant fiber and phytonutrient content,” says Stark. Eating cruciferous vegetables may reduce inflammation, improve gut health, and purple cabbage in particular, which contains flavonoids, may be good for your heart. (Read more about why cabbage is so good for you.) Red, green, and purple cabbage all offer a slightly different antioxidant profile, and “incorporating cabbage, in any color, is an easy way to change up the nutrients you get at dinner,” adds Stark. She recommends trying different cooking methods, too, including roasting and stir-frying. Try our Balsamic Roasted Cabbage, Sauteed Cabbage, or our Spicy Cabbage Slaw to get started.
Don’t love cabbage? Other cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts offer similar health benefits.
This list just scratches the surface when it comes to healthy foods for dinner, but it’s a great place to start! The best way to get the most out of your meal? Pack your plate with lots of plants — vegetables, fruits, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and whole grains — you’ll be guaranteed to have a nutritious meal that will satisfy.