While breakfast and lunch are often consumed alone or on the go, dinner is the most likely to be a group activity. That means it's very often more fraught with social conventions, family patterns, end-of-day exhaustion and other distractions than any other mealtime. But it's also a really important meal to get right.
As part of our ongoing series on meal mistakes we all make (see also: snacks and brunch), we asked nutrition experts Lawrence J. Cheskin, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center and Melissa Lanz, founder of The Fresh 20 to share their top advice for avoiding the biggest mistakes we make when we do dinner.
1. Making it the biggest meal
"Think of when you need the calories," says Cheskin, adding that it's most certainly earlier in the day when you're expending more energy. The USDA counsels that dinner should add up to about 450 and 625 calories, based on a diet of 1,800 to 2,300 daily calories for women and 2,000 to 2,500 calories for men. But some nutritionists and experts think it can be much less than that -- as little as 20 to 25 percent of daily calories.
"Nutritionally, dinner should be a light, well-portioned meal that is under 500 calories," says Lanz. "Unfortunately, most Americans use dinner as their main source of food for the entire day and over indulge."
2. Placing serving dishes on the table
"It encourages over-eating," says Lanz. "Portion your plates at the stove and wait at least 10 minutes before you go for a second helping. Often, the diversion of talking together after dinner can reduce loading up in a second plate."
3. Grazing in front of the TV
Many diners don't make their mistake at the dinner table, but on the couch: Post-dinner snacking or snacking in place of eating a complete meal can be perilous if accompanied by mindless activities like watching TV or surfing the web.
Cheskin says this is the biggest problem he sees in clinic. "[It's] the mindless eating while attached to a screen of some sort. I like to get people to separate the eating from other activities."
4. Keeping salt on the table
Having the seasoning around could lead to a sodium overload. Instead, stock your table with other, flavorful spices. "Try fresh black pepper and other dried herbs instead. A sprinkle of dried oregano or thyme can flavor a meal without added sodium," says Lanz.
5. Going out to eat too much
"I recommend no more than once a week," counsels Cheskin. Restaurant meals tend to be higher in calories, with hidden salts, fats and sugar. Fast food, Cheskin adds, is out of the question.
6. Grabbing that dessert
Routinely finishing with a sugary dessert is a way to add excess calories for tradition's sake, not for satiety. What's more, that spike in blood sugar could keep you wired -- or even wake you up in the night.