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Clock made with two carrots as hands on a white plate, with rice and seeds for numbers.
Clock made with two carrots as hands on a white plate, with rice and seeds for numbers.

The Best Times to Eat

Strive for Consistency in Your Meal Timing

When the clock strikes noon, are you headed to lunch hungry because you haven’t eaten breakfast? Do you fast all day long, waiting to eat a large dinner?

Audra Wilson, MS, RDN, CSOWM, CSCS, a dietitian at Northwestern Medicine Metabolic Health and Surgical Weight Loss Center at Delnor Hospital, says the key to avoiding overeating because you are overly hungry is to plan when you will eat. Set yourself up for mealtime success with these tips, and learn why eating your meals at regular intervals throughout the day can help you manage dramatic hunger pains and mood swings.

What time should you eat?

Breakfast

Breakfast is all about breaking the fast of a night without eating. It also sets the stage for your nutrition for the entire day and gives you the energy you need to face what the day will bring. Starting the day on an empty tank can leave you feeling drained and reaching for foods that may not be in your meal plan by mid-morning. Plan to eat breakfast within an hour of waking. This way, your breakfast doesn’t blend into a mid-morning snack or grazing followed closely by lunch.

Lunch

Lunch should be about four to five hours after breakfast. For example, if you ate breakfast at 7 am, eat lunch between 11 am and noon. If it is not possible for you to eat lunch until 2 pm on a particular day, then plan a snack in between those two meals.

If you need to eat a snack, include a mix of protein, carbohydrates and fat. For example, eat a low-fat cheese stick with an apple, or one to two cups of vegetables with one-fourth cup of hummus. The goal is to prevent becoming overly hungry between meals.

Dinner

Many people tend to overeat at dinner because they have not eaten enough throughout the day. Dinnertime should follow the same schedule as your earlier meals, making sure there is no more than  four to five hours between lunch and dinner. Some people will need to eat a snack between lunch and dinner because eating dinner at 4 or 5 pm is not always realistic.

What about time-restricted eating?

Weight management strategies can help reduce the risk of developing long-term health issues, such as heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes. These strategies include diets where you aim to eat fewer calories than you burn in a day. There are also diets where you eat only during a specified time frame. Until recently, few studies have compared the effectiveness of these strategies, which can be hard to maintain for many people.  

In the 2023 study co-authored by Shaina Alexandria, PhD, assistant professor of Preventive Medicine in the Division of Biostatistics at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, a time-restricted, eight-hour eating window was compared to calorie counting for weight management. At the end of the study period, the scientists found that time-restricted eating for weight loss was as effective as calorie restricting. 

Wilson explains that it can be difficult to stick to any type of restrictive diet in the long term. She says that choosing a weight management path is personal and best decided with the guidance of a dietitian who can work with you to ensure you are meeting your nutritional needs.

“There is no single formula that works for everyone,” Wilson says. “Your plan has to be sustainable for life, not only in the short term.” She adds that you also need to consider individual goals like enhancing physical performance or weight loss after childbirth, which require attention to specific metabolic needs and energy demands.

What to Do If You’re Not Hungry

Many people say that they aren’t hungry at certain meal times, especially for breakfast. If you frequently skip breakfast, you have trained your body not to send hunger signals at that time because they have long been ignored. Your body needs energy in the morning, so fuel it accordingly.

If you begin to re-introduce breakfast daily, your natural hunger cues will return. Breakfast can be as simple as a protein shake, hard-boiled eggs with fruit, or whole grain toast with peanut butter or almond butter. Eat a breakfast that includes protein so that you can stay energized through lunchtime.

Not enough time to eat?

It’s easy to fall into the habit of rushing through your meals or eating on the go, but you should make it a practice to sit down and take time for meals. You digest your food better and enjoy your meals more — the tastes, textures and smells — when you slow down and focus on what you are eating. This habit is necessary for your overall well-being.

Keep a consistent eating schedule as much as possible so that your body knows when to expect breakfast, lunch and dinner. If your schedule varies every day, have healthy snacks on hand for times when a meal needs to wait. Bring a cooler in the car or store food in the refrigerator at work. If you work the afternoon shift or overnight shift, the same eating routine rules apply — eat your meals between four and five hours apart.

With a little mealtime planning and preparation, you can balance your nutrition throughout the day and prevent the hunger that leads to overeating at meals, which can eventually lead to weight gain.