Testing the Harvard 6-Week Plan for Healthy Eating: Making dinner a winner

The focus of Week 4 in the Harvard Medical School 6-Week Plan for Healthy Eating is to “Make Dinner a Winner.” Our two testers, Helen and Tonya, describe the virtues of eating dinner at home, how to eat healthy in restaurants, and the value of doggie bags.

Helen Hoart

Dinner—these days it’s my favorite meal. I’m usually at home for dinner and it gives me a chance to catch up with my husband in a relaxed, leisurely manner. What a contrast to the old days when my three children were still at home and dinner was squeezed in between after school activities and homework.

Business dinner challenge: Last week turned out to be a very busy week with business travel and meetings and many restaurant meals. Business dinners are challenging when you’re trying to steer a healthy eating course. There were really good tips for restaurant eating in the 6-Week Plan (page 30), and I followed every one during my marathon restaurant dining week.

When I knew what restaurant I was going to, I checked the menu online beforehand. This gave me time to think about the healthiest options (and to practice saying, “Can I have that grilled and have the sauce on the side?”). All the restaurants had fish on the menu. My first choice was always grilled fish, and as long as I skipped the heavy sauces I was fine. I ordered first—that way I wasn’t influenced by anyone else’s order. (You know the drill: Well, Mary is having fried calamari, I think I’ll have some too!) I started with a salad (dressing on the side) or sometimes skipped the appetizer altogether.

I avoided the bread basket. That was particularly hard for me because I love bread. And when restaurants serve wonderful crusty bread with olive oil, I feel like I’m in heaven. But one piece is never enough for me. Better to skip the bread until my will power gets stronger. When given a choice, I asked for double veggies rather than a veggie and potato or rice. None of the restaurants offered healthy alternatives like sweet potato or brown rice. When will restaurants be more sensitive to health conscious diners? Probably when the eating public demands healthier choices. I kept visualizing the illustration on page 26 of the report, which showed half the dinner plate filled with vegetables, one-quarter with lean protein, and one-quarter with whole grains. And that brings me to serving size.

Portion-control strategy. Portions at most restaurants are huge. When my entrée arrived, I immediately cut the fish or chicken in half, moved half over to the side of my plate, and tried to forget it was there. I wasn’t completely successful with this tactic. Still, I never ate the entire piece. Finally, I drank plenty of water during the meal. That helped offset overindulging in the wine that was inevitably served with each dinner.

Tonya Phillips

I read in the 6-Week Plan for Healthy Eating that Americans consume almost 80% of their calories away from home. Dinner is the focus of Week 4 in the plan so I decided I would eat all dinners at home for the entire week. This required a little advanced planning. Dashing out of the house before my favorite Chinese restaurant closed was not an option this week; neither was fried chicken and French fries. So I shopped on Sunday for ingredients to make five healthy at-home dinners.

Monday and Tuesday I had sautéed boneless skinless chicken breast with mixed vegetables. I added lemon, garlic, and a splash of white wine for flavor. Grilled salmon and a garden salad was Wednesday’s dinner. Thursday I had a fresh spinach salad topped with grilled chicken. I was a little naughty on Friday and splurged on chicken wings, roasted potatoes, and broccoli. Instead of frying the wings, I roasted them to extra crispy. I closed my eyes while eating the wings and convinced myself that they were fried. On Saturday, I went out for dinner and immediately wrapped half of my entrée in a doggy bag to keep my portion size small. That leads to my next topic.

Small plate, small portion. In addition to my five (somewhat) healthy dinners at home, I used the tips in the 6-Week Plan to practice portion control. I love my everyday dinner plates because they are large and fit comfortably on my lap—making it easy to eat on the sofa in front of the television. During week 4, I made a point of using smaller plates. This forced me to eat smaller portions. It also shifted me to the table.

Instead of eating with my fork in one hand and the remote in the other, I dusted off the kitchen table and ate dinner without any distractions. The 6-Week Plan warns that if you eat while distracted you will consume more without realizing it. Pacing myself while eating also helped with portion control. I focused on what I ate and how much I ate. I noticed that I didn’t have that full feeling in my stomach which makes me sluggish after speed eating.

Instead of juice or soda, which are full of sugar, I washed down each meal with a tall glass of water. Week 4 was much easier than I anticipated. Next week I try to conquer snacks, so wish me luck!

Tonya Phillips (left) is the Product Marketing Manager at StayWell Consumer Health Publishing. Helen Hoart (right) is President of StayWell Consumer Health Publishing. StayWell is the publishing management agent for Harvard Health Publishing.

Join the fun and learn to eat healthfully with the Harvard Medical School Six-Week Plan for Healthy Eating.


  1. Anonymous

    healthy lifestyle is a great attitude to live well.

  2. Tom Green

    some great tips on eating, will try them out

  3. naya

    I wonder how can you both stop calling your appetite to eat more… Two thumbs up for you. Everytime I’m out for dinner or meals I alwasy go crazy. I always order more than my abs can hold. But luckily, I still have the alarm that I don’t finish all the foods.

  4. Paul

    I look forward to more reporting of you. A lot of “fun” will continue.

  5. holly holt

    I like Helen and Tonya’s very practical approach and the tips. I also like how honest they are about the challenges. It’s really refreshing. Thanks and keep up the good work.

  6. stacey cook

    Real progress. Like the idea of looking up the menu ahead of time and the switching out cooking styles with foods you love already. Super practical tips that work.

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