For many people dinner is the biggest meal of the day, and it's often when we like to reward ourselves. But how can you make sure your dinner is healthy?

You want to live a healthy lifestyle, but you've had a long day - at work or chasing the kids around - you're tired, maybe a bit frazzled and you can't wait to put your feet up.

You're hungry, yet the last thing you want to think about is how to make sure you're eating a healthy, nutritionally balanced meal.

Cooking healthy dinners needn't be as hard as it seems - you just need to build on your knowledge, and do some planning.

How Much Dinner?

It can be tempting to fill ourselves up with as much as we can eat at night-time, partly because this is the way we've been conditioned.

Many of us have grown up with parents loading up our plates and telling us we mustn't leave anything uneaten.

That kind of thinking naturally carries over into our adulthood, when it's no longer a recipe for healthy living but a recipe for disaster.

So, how much should you eat for your healthy dinners?

12WBT dietitian Georgie Moore recommends using the plate-serve approach outlined in our article on healthy lunch ideas.

"You need to fill your plate with a quarter protein, a quarter low-GI carbs and the remaining half vegetables or salad," she says.

"As a guide, a serve of meat is the size of the palm of your hand, and the thickness of your pinkie finger.

"And be careful of sauces and salad dressings, which can be high in salt, fat and sugar."

When comparing the amount you eat for dinner with the amount you have for lunch, Georgie suggests filling your plate with slightly less for your evening meal.

"Often all you're doing after dinner is sitting around watching TV or going to bed, so you won't actually need a lot of energy," she says.

Dessert or no Dessert?

While there's nothing wrong with having something sweet at the end of your meal, the problem lies in the amount of sugar and fat many desserts contain, and in portion size.

"Think calories in versus calories out," says Georgie. "Do you have you any spare calories left at the end of the day or not?"

If so, dessert can be a good place to make sure you meet all your nutritional requirements for the day.

"Try to base dessert on fruit and low-fat dairy, such as a tub of low-fat yoghurt, in order to provide nourishment as well as enjoyment, but with fewer calories," says Georgie.

"We should be aiming to have two serves of fruit a day, so a piece of fruit or a cup of fruit salad would equate to one of those."

It's best to avoid packaged desserts, even when they're labelled 'low-fat', because they often still contain a higher than average amount of sugar. Instead, make your own.

"In winter, stew some fruit and then make a crumble of oats, using almond or hazelnut meal with a little bit of milk or margarine, to go over the top," Georgie suggests.

However, Georgie recommends we aim to eat desserts only occasionally - not every day.

So, if you've grown used to having a sugary dessert with every dinner, see if you can train yourself out of that habit.

The Ideal Time for Dinner

Some people say you shouldn't eat too late in the evening, but it so very bad to eat dinner after 7pm? It's fine, so long as you don't over-eat.

"Time your meals so they're evenly spaced throughout the day, without leaving a massive gap between lunch and dinner, to avoid over-eating," Georgie advises.

She adds that a healthy snack between meals will also keep up your energy and nutrition levels and act as a stepping stone until dinner.

"You don't want to be so hungry that you eat half your meal while you're preparing it!"

Too Tired to Cook Healthy Dinners

There's no doubt that it can be hard to summon up the energy to cook dinner in the evening.

However, there are ways to make it seem less arduous until it becomes one of your new healthy eating habits that you enjoy as part of your normal routine. Try some of the following tips.

  • Plan ahead

    Set aside some time each week to sit down and plan your dinners for the following seven days. Do this when you're not hungry, and think about your lifestyle goals as you're doing it. (Also think about your lunches and snacks at the same time.)

    Then schedule in a regular time for shopping so that you don't leave it to the last minute, when you're more likely to make poor choices.
  • Cook on weekends

    If you know you're going to be working late, exercising in the evening or running around taking the kids to after-school activities, try to do the bulk of your cooking at the weekend and freeze your dinners, ready to be taken out and defrosted.

    All you'll need to do is add some salad or chop up some vegetables to accompany them.
  • Involve your friends

    If a lot of your socialising is done in restaurants, invite a friend or two over for dinner a couple of times a week, and get them to give you a hand making dinner.

    As well as giving you more say in what goes into your meal, it's a great way to bond and chat, and cooking becomes a social event in itself.
  • Involve your family

    Many kids are budding little MasterChefs and only too happy to help out in the kitchen. Others might need a bit more persuasion.

    Some might come to see cooking as an enjoyable way to spend time with one or both of their parents, some might appreciate the valuable skills they're picking up, and some might simply need to learn that there's no such thing as a free dinner!
  • Make your kitchen pleasant

    Is your kitchen somewhere you enjoy being? If not, why not? Take a bit of time to turn it into a place that you're happy to spend time in.

    Clear all clutter from surfaces and corners, and make sure the kitchen is no longer a dumping ground for bags, shoes, paperwork and so on - whether these items belong to other people or to you.

    "Put appliances and utensils in places that are logical," says Georgie.

    "For instance, if you use your blender a lot, put it in a cupboard that's easily accessible and near where it will be used. The same goes for organising your drawers. The items you use the most need to be easily accessible."

    Look at the lighting and if it's not right, make it more appealing - use soft side lamps, for example, so you don't need to rely on harsh fluorescent strips or halogen downlights.

    Make sure you have an effective task lamp, though, for reading recipes and labels, and to avoid slicing your fingers!

    Would buying flowers and placing them in a vase on the kitchen table or counter bring you pleasure? If so, add them to your weekly shopping list.

  • Change your attitude

    You may have been someone who's always seen cooking as a chore, or who only enjoys cooking rich meals, seeing them as your reward at the end of each day.

    If that's the case, it's time to change your thinking. Start by appreciating the fact that you live in a place with such a wealth of fresh produce and ingredients for you to cook nutritious meals with.

    Remind yourself that the new habits you're forming may take a little while, but that sooner or later they'll become second nature.

    Most of all, revel in the fact that what you're doing is the ultimate act of self-care and self-nurturing - your body and health will thank you for it, so learn to consciously thank yourself for it every day as well.

Healthy Eating-Out Options

Restaurants and cafes can seem like a minefield with their tempting arrays of not-so-healthy foods and sauces.

Equally, their portion sizes are often much bigger than we need. Try some of these tips when eating out.

  • See if the restaurant's menu is available online and choose your meal before you go out.
  • Choose an entrée-sized dish for your main course and bump it up with a side salad or mixed vegetables.
  • Ask for dressings and sauces to be served on the side.
  • Ask for extra vegetables or salad instead of chips.
  • Apply the 'plate' approach to portion sizes (see above) - set aside any extra and ask for it to be put in a takeaway container.
  • Learn the healthiest options for different types of restaurants.