For many people, a perfect day of eating is as common as a perfect game for a major league pitcher -- and about as easy to achieve. The day might begin with good intentions -- a hearty yet healthy breakfast followed by a nutritious mid-morning snack. But at some point in the day, it inevitably goes awry. There's that leftover bag of barbecue potato chips from the weekend cookout and those two bowls of the kids' Fruity Pebbles you eat while watching "Law & Order." Regardless of the culprit, hunger, opportunity and boredom conspire to render the day's eating decidedly imperfect.
There is an easier way.
Experts agree that the key is having a plan and sticking to it. Eating frequently throughout the day -- every three to four hours -- and eating the right foods at the right times make it easier to achieve a perfect day of eating, which can be the first step toward a healthy diet.
The biggest mistake people make with regard to breakfast is skipping it.
Breakfast : Gearing Up Your Metabolism
You've heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. But why is breakfast so important? According to Molly Kimball, a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant based in New Orleans, the first meal of the day gets your metabolism working after hours of being essentially shut down during sleep.
"You don't have to eat breakfast as soon as you wake up, but you should try to eat within the first two hours you're awake," she said.
The perfect breakfast is one that combines complex carbohydrates, a lot of protein and a bit of fat. A bowl of oatmeal topped with berries and skim milk -- along with two slices of crisp center-cut bacon -- fits the bill perfectly. Oatmeal is pure whole grain. A 1/2-cup serving packs about 27 g of complex carbohydrates, providing a steady dose of slow-burning energy. In addition, you get 4 g of dietary fiber, which digests slowly, making you feel full longer, and 5 g of protein. A 1/2 cup of mixed berries adds 35 calories along with flavor, fiber and vitamin C. Nutritionists consider berries a super food due to their high levels of antioxidants, which are associated with a lower risk of certain cancers, urinary tract health and healthy aging.
Kimball said the perfect breakfast has 10 g or more of protein. It takes twice as much energy for the body to process protein than carbohydrates or fat, so the additional protein in the morning pays metabolic dividends. You can dial up the protein in the oatmeal with a splash of skim milk -- 1/4 cup contains 2 g of protein -- and two slices of crisp center-cut bacon. Center-cut bacon has 30 percent less fat than regular bacon; two slices cooked crisp contain 5 g of protein and just 50 calories and 3.5 g of fat.
Vegetarians can skip the bacon and get the same amount of protein by stirring a tablespoon of no-sugar peanut butter into their oatmeal. The peanut butter will also provide 8 g of healthy fat to maintain the feeling of fullness longer.
The biggest mistake people make with regard to breakfast is skipping it. According to research published in the July-September 2007 issue of "California Agriculture," skipping breakfast or eating a small breakfast is related to increased obesity.
For people with a strict "coffee only" policy when it comes to morning consumption, Kimball recommends a compromise: Make a shake with low- or no-sugar protein mix, using cold coffee for the liquid.
Late-Morning Snack: A Protein Boost
If hunger returns in the late morning, it's a good idea to address it rather than allowing yourself to become ravenous and risk overeating at lunch.
Nicky Schmidt, president and clinical director of Women & Men's Nutrition and Weight Control Centers of Louisiana, said a small snack that packs a lot of protein is the perfect way to tamp down mid-morning hunger.
"You want something protein-rich, like a cheese stick," Schmidt said. "It will satisfy your craving and boost your energy level."
A late-morning cheese stick -- common varieties include cheddar, Colby and string cheese-style mozzarella -- delivers 5 to 8 g of protein and about 100 calories, which should be just enough to zap your hunger until lunchtime.
Lunch: A Balancing Act
Packed with potential pitfalls, lunch is when many a perfect day of eating falls apart. You can conquer lunch easily by following a few simple rules.
The ideal lunch combines lean protein, fiber-rich complex carbohydrates and a small amount of healthy fat. Sometimes the obvious choice is the perfect choice -- the humble sandwich, a lunch-counter staple.
Kimball said a sandwich with about 3 oz. of lean meat like sliced turkey, ham or roast beef and a slice of Swiss cheese on whole-grain bread, dressed with lettuce and tomato, is a perfectly balanced lunch. Instead of mayo, mash up half an avocado and spread it on for 14 g of healthy fat and 6 g of fiber.
This "perfect" sandwich weighs in at 460 calories with 26 g of protein and 35 g of carbohydrates, 11 of which are dietary fiber. By replacing the meat with a second slice of cheese, vegetarians still get 20 g of protein and only add 20 additional calories to the total. The sandwich is easy enough to make at home, but you could also order something similar at a deli or restaurant. Just be careful not to stumble into a common lunch pitfall -- the sides. Skip the fries and the creamy potato and macaroni salads. Kimball cautions against doubling up on carbs in any meal. So if you're having a sandwich, the bread is your carb for that meal. Supplement it with a side salad dressed and low-fat vinaigrette dressing.
Afternoon Snack: A Carb & Protein Combo
In the late afternoon, energy dips and hunger returns. Have a small snack that combines complex carbs to stabilize your energy level with a little protein to keep you feeling full until dinnertime.
"A quesadilla made with reduced-fat cheese melted onto a whole-wheat tortilla is a good option," Kimball said. Making one at home couldn't be simpler. Take a 100 percent whole-wheat tortilla, 8 inches in diameter. Top with 1 oz. of reduced-fat shredded cheddar cheese. Heat in the microwave for 20 to 30 seconds, then fold and eat. It has about 200 calories, 11 g of protein and 3 g of fiber.
Dinner: Bon Appetit!
When the dinner bell rings, the quest for perfection is almost complete.
The perfect dinner is loaded with nonstarchy veggies like broccoli, asparagus, cauliflower, beets or any of the leafy greens -- served raw, steamed, roasted, grilled or sauteed with minimal oil.
"When you look at your plate, 50 percent of it should be vegetables," Schmidt said.
Protein should be roughly the size of the palm of your hand and low in fat. Choose a lean cut of beef -- like flank, sirloin or filet -- skinless chicken breast, pork tenderloin or seafood.
Kimball advises against eating carbohydrate-rich foods in the evening, but understands that the thought of a carb-free dinner is too much for some to bear. If that's the case, just go light on the carbs.
"If you're going to have carbs with dinner, have just 1/2 cup of brown rice, whole-wheat pasta or potatoes," she said. "By keeping it to a 1/2-cup serving, you're only adding 100 calories to your meal."
Your complete meal should include a 4 oz. fillet of salmon -- grilled for about five minutes on each side and seasoned with a pinch of salt, a shake of black pepper and a squeeze of lemon. Fill half your plate with broccoli and red bell pepper that you've chopped roughly, tossed with 1 tbsp. of olive oil, salt, pepper and lemon juice, and roasted in the oven at 400 F for 20 minutes, stirring halfway through. If you feel the need, you can also have 1/2 cup of brown rice mixed with chopped tomato and fresh basil and touch of grated Parmesan cheese.
The total? 550 calories, 35 g of protein, 41 g of carbohydrates and 9 g of fiber.
Vegetarians can enjoy a version of this meal by replacing the salmon with another protein. Chop half an onion and saute in 1 tsp. of olive oil until the onion is translucent. Add a minced garlic clove and cook another minute. Toss in a medium tomato, roughly chopped, and a splash of white wine. Wait a minute and add 1 cup of canned cannellini beans. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper. Let it simmer for five minutes, remove from heat and stir in a handful of fresh basil, roughly chopped. The meal's calorie count won't change. You'll lose 9 g of protein, but you'll add 12 g of fiber. Beans also stimulate the production of the hormone cholecystokinin, a natural appetite suppressant that aids in weight loss.
Late-Night Snack: Sweet & Petite
For some, the right to have something sweet at night is sacrosanct. If that describes you, don't deny yourself -- just keep the calories low.
A piece of fresh fruit might be all you need to satisfy your sweet tooth, Kimball said, but you might also enjoy a single-serving cup of sugar-free pudding.
"With the single-serving cups, there's built-in portion control, so you'll be less likely to overeat," Kimball said.
The sugar-free pudding cup adds just 60 calories to your daily total and is a perfect end to your perfect day of eating.
What Bread Should I Buy?
If you believe what's printed on the packaging, every brand of sliced bread is the greatest thing since sliced bread. They all claim to be "natural" and "wholesome" and full of whole grain. According to Kimball, the true story is not on the front of the bag. It's on the back -- in the nutritional info and the ingredients.
First, check the nutritional info for fiber content, which is usually listed as "Dietary Fiber" or simply "Fiber." Kimball recommends only purchasing bread that contains 2 to 3 g of fiber per serving or more. Foods with high-fiber content take longer for the body to digest, which requires more energy. So after eating high-fiber foods, you feel full longer and your body actually burns more calories processing the food. A high-fiber diet can also reduce your risk of diabetes and heart disease.
Then check the ingredients. Kimball said to buy bread that lists "whole wheat" or "whole grain" as the first ingredient. Avoid any bread that includes "enriched flour," which is just another term for refined white flour. It will leave you feeling hungry soon after you eat it.