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The Dos and Don'ts of Cheat Meals, According to Nutrition Experts

Indulging in that bacon cheeseburger can be healthy — if you do it right.

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Dietitians say one indulgence won’t make or break a mostly healthy menu. Fedorovacz / Shutterstock
Dietitians say one indulgence won’t make or break a mostly healthy menu. Fedorovacz / Shutterstock

Though nutrition can be highly personalized, one thing most of us share is the urge to let loose every now and then. Whether that’s an ice cream cone on a hot summer day or a plate of fried chicken at a family picnic, sometimes the call of the craving is just too hard to deny. Whether giving into these cravings helps or hurts you in the long run is largely a matter of how you approach it. So, I turned to the pros — nationally recognized registered dietitians — for the top do’s and don’ts for staying in control of cravings.

DON'T DO THIS WHEN YOU CHEAT

1. Don't get consumed by guilt

Like most of the dietitians I turned to, Patricia Bannan, MS, RDN, Nutrition Expert in Los Angeles, CA isn’t fond of the term ‘cheat.’ According to Bannan, “It feeds into the concept of foods being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or worse, relates your food choices to you as a person being ‘good’ or ‘bad.’”

To avoid eating monstrous portions of your favorite foods, try a small version every day and take the time to enjoy it.

To avoid eating monstrous portions of your favorite foods, try a small version every day and take the time to enjoy it.

People often tell me about that critical voice in their head that judges them for overeating. I always advise them to dial that voice down. I’ve said it before but it’s worth repeating: When you take a wrong turn, your GPS doesn’t judge you. Instead, she gently reminds you to take the next U-turn. Bannan offers this gentle reminder: “There are certainly times when people overeat unhealthy foods and feel emotionally and/or physically bad afterwards. The other extreme can be when people deprive themselves completely of all foods they consider ‘bad,’ like ice cream, French fries or chocolate, and then unnecessarily lack enjoyment in their diet or eventually overindulge. It’s really your total diet and total lifestyle that matters.”

In other words, let go of the guilt and return to healthier choices at your next eating occasion. One indulgence won’t make or break a mostly healthy menu.

2. Don't turn a cheat meal into a cheat day, week or month

“While I’m not a fan of the word ‘cheat,’ I think it’s perfectly fine to occasionally indulge. Just do it smartly. Choose one thing you really want, whether it’s ice cream or a pina colada, but don’t give yourself excuses to turn the one indulgence into a whole day or week of overindulging!” advises Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition in Jersey City, NJ.

Another way to look at this: Have the French toast at brunch, but then steer yourself toward a luscious summery salad at your next meal. After all, when you drop your smart phone and crack the screen, you don’t take the next chance to hurl it across the room. Apply that thinking to your menu. Have what you want, but don’t hurl yourself into an all-out unhealthy day (or more) of eating.

3. Don't go into an indulgent meal all-out starving

If you know you’re heading to happy hour, a seasonal barbecue or brunch with friends, it’s helpful to plan smartly. Though you should want to eat with your dining companions, you shouldn’t want to wolf down the first thing you see — and everything else in eyesight. If I’m brunching at 11 AM but I’ve been up since 8 AM, I might munch on a banana or a bowl of berries before heading out. That way, I can make better choices from the menu, opting for, say, avocado toast with a poached egg instead of a stack of pancakes with whipped cream.

An invitation to happy hour might call for a small piece of cheese with some sliced peppers or a side of grapes, allowing me to share the heaping plate of nachos rather than dine on them solo. And speaking of happy hour, remember that booze lowers your inhibitions so stick with one beer, glass of wine or low-sugar cocktail so that you stay in charge of your choices.

DO THIS INSTEAD

1. Do indulge your cravings

All of the pros I consulted with want you to enjoy your cravings. Kaleigh McMordie, RDN from Lubbock, TX has this sage advice: “I think the best food to conquer a craving is the food you are craving.” Like others, McMordie doesn’t believe in cheat meals or going cold turkey on some of your favorite foods. “Denying your body what it really wants often leads to either obsessing about the food, or continuing to eat and seek out foods that won't ever satisfy you. Either one can lead to over-eating.”

I view cooking and eating as an act of love. It’s a beautiful expression to cook someone a meal or break bread with friends. This translates well to the concept of mindfulness and allowing yourself to eat foods you love. In other words, having a fresh, hot, small batch doughnut — a personal favorite of mine—on rare occasions is treating myself with loving kindness. Having one each day is not a loving act, since it isn’t treating myself with care. This example also illustrates what most dietitians know—that some treats are totally worth it, while others are just ‘meh.’ If you’re going for it, make sure it’s worth it!

I think the best food to conquer a craving is the food you are craving.

I think the best food to conquer a craving is the food you are craving.

2. Do pinpoint what you're craving and make it healthier

Have a hankering for something chocolatey? Or maybe you’re craving something cheesy or creamy? Take note of what it is you’re really after and then try a subbing something that provides some of the same qualities, suggests Jackie Newgent, RDN, Culinary Nutritionist In Brooklyn, NY. “These grilled hummus quesadillas make a delightful and satisfying pick in place of their extra-cheesy counterpart,” she says.

3. Do create a buffer when you indulge

This is my way of both having a plan and getting back on track. If I know I’m heading to a pool party or boardwalk adventure, I’ll eat lighter meals both before and afterwards. If lunch is particularly heavy, I may not need a snack that day. And I’ll stay tuned to my body — when it’s hungry and when it’s full — so that I’m naturally managing portion sizes of my not-so-healthy meal. I’m not talking about being restrictive here. It’s more about being mindful of your choices. For me, that means if I have more French fries than normal, I balance that out by eating heaps of in-season produce in the form of summery, satisfying salads, layered with whole grains and quality proteins.

“Eat what you crave, just make it with wholesome foods instead of overly processed C.R.A.P. (Chemicals, Refined sugar & flour, Artificial stuff, Preservatives). "

“Eat what you crave, just make it with wholesome foods instead of overly processed C.R.A.P. (Chemicals, Refined sugar & flour, Artificial stuff, Preservatives). "

4. Do have a small treat every day (really!)

To avoid eating monstrous portions of your favorite foods, try a small version and take the time to enjoy it, suggests Chef Julie Andrews, RDN, from Madison, WI. “That means removing any distractions (TV, driving, talking, reading) while you eat, chewing slowly and paying attention to your senses (smell, touch, taste) in order to fully enjoy the treat,” she says. “When you mindfully eat, you may be surprised to find you only need a few bites to be fully satisfied.”

I take this to heart by enjoying a small bit of dark chocolate or a favorite frozen treat each day. Andrews offers her Carrot Cake Cookie Sandwiches as another example of a small but super-satisfying goodie. If blondies are your thing, Sara Haas RDN, LDN, Chicago-based Culinary Dietitian suggests whipping up a batch of her White Chocolate Chip Blondie Sandwich Bites. Not only are they sized just right, but they’re also made with some whole wheat flour — a touch that brings some nutrition to the party. And who can resist The Best Banana Pudding served in small, individualized mason jars?

5. Do find some better swaps

As I said, none of the nation’s top dietitians were in favor of denying yourself some food pleasures. Instead, they all suggested enjoying small treats that won’t derail your healthy eating goals. Dawn Jackson Blatner, RDN in Chicago, IL has what I think is one of the best pieces of advice! “Eat what you crave, just make it with wholesome foods instead of overly processed C.R.A.P. (Chemicals, Refined sugar & flour, Artificial stuff, Preservatives). Tacos! Pizza! Ranch! Sweets! All our favorites have a superfood version!” I could not agree more! Her Superswap Strawberry Shortcake recipe is a stunning example of how to enjoy this summer staple.

These summery treats are also made with real food ingredients. “My Chocolate Chunk Blueberry Smoothie takes less than 5 minutes to make and satisfies my craving for a frozen treat in a healthier way,” says Bannan. Gorin’s no added sugar banana-based “nice cream” also fits the bill. You’ll see that each of these pack in produce, which boosts the nutrition factor considerably. And though it has a touch of sugar, McMordie’s Homemade Roasted Strawberry Ice Cream is a fresh, wholesome version that will win you over.

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