You know the feeling all too well – it has been a frantic day, you have barely had time to use the bathroom let alone eat anything substantial and now it is 9pm, and you find yourself at home, tired and hungry.
As modern life places more and more demands on our time and as work days get longer and longer, it is not surprising that the evening meal is often enjoyed after 8 each night. For our bodies, this is not good news as it means that the bulk of our calories are consumed during the second half of the day, the time that we tend to be relatively inactive as we socialise, relax or sit in front of the television. The side effect of this is often gradual weight gain, especially if our late night meal options are quick, heavy meal choices such as Thai takeaway, pasta, toast or breakfast cereal.
While it may not make a whole lot of sense that eating the same foods as you usually would, just later at night would make weight control more challenging, it comes down to the fact that the human body is programmed according to a 24-hour, circadian rhythm. This means that our metabolism and hormones are programmed to do their work in the day when humans are active, and then store, build and recover at night when we rest, sleep and regenerate. In real life terms this means that in order to keep our metabolism, or the body’s ability to burn calories at its best, ideally we will eat most of the calories we need during the day, and then allow our bodies to have 10-12 hours without food overnight. When it comes to dinner, this means ideally we should try and consume our last meal of the day by 8pm at the latest.
For many of us though, this is just not possible and as such we need strategies to achieve the right balance between a full and busy life, a social life outside of work and good food choices to keep our bodies in the best shape possible. So, here are some tips to point you in the right direction and make some better choices when you do find yourself searching for dinner after a very long day.
1) Swap your meal times
If you regularly find yourself eating dinner after 8pm each night, it may be worth swapping your evening meal to lunchtime and then enjoying a lighter snack in the evening. Great lunchtime meal options include leftovers, a stir fry with noodles and lean protein, a large meat and salad sandwich or a hot meal from a local café or pub which includes vegetables and that will keep you full and satisfied for 4-5 hours.
2) Know your best quick options
There is a big difference between choosing a high fat curry and Pad Thai from your local Thai or ordering stir fry vegetables. It is crucial to remember that any meal you purchase away from the home will contain at least 200-300 calories more than the same meal you would prepare at home thanks to the extra oils, sauces and condiments. So, if you do find yourself relying on quick meals purchased on the go, make a concerted effort to choose lighter menu options. Grilled fish with salad, BBQ chicken with salad or plain vegetable dishes are some of the better choices.
3) Prepare an extra meal and freeze it
There is nothing worse than arriving home hungry and having no decent meal options on hand. To avoid this scenario entirely make a concerted effort to prepare a soup, stir fry or baked vegetable dish that you can keep in the fridge or freezer for a quick yet healthy late night meal. Just as importantly, keep a supply of tinned soups, tins of beans , tuna or salmon and at least 1-2 salad vegetables that can be converted into a quick, yet nutritious meal in no time.
4) Keep a couple of frozen options on hand
Sure, we know that fresh is always best but there are a number of frozen meal options that are quite sound nutritionally and yet allow for a nutritious meal to be heated in no time. Frozen salmon fillets, chicken breasts and numerous vegetable options can literally be put in the oven and ready in less than the time it takes to shower. And nutritionally they will give you at least 200-300 calories fewer than if you had resorted to take away food options. Another great option for busy people is to order some ready to go meals from a home delivery service and keep on hand for late night dinners. While these options are more expensive, the quality is much better and often works out the same price as you would spend if you were buying all your ingredients from scratch.
5) Think salad / vegetables and protein
The later you consume your final meal of the day, the lighter it needs to be. Eating heavy, carbohydrate rich meals late at night is not only related to higher body weights and a high intake of calories at night but it can also mean that you do not wake up hungry for breakfast the next day. For this reason, lighter dinner options for late night dinners include a small piece or tin of fish or eggs served with salad or vegetables. And remember, toast or breakfast cereal is not a meal!