When Dawn Jackson Blatner was studying nutrition, the future national media spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and author of “The Flexitarian Diet” would prepare food to feed friends coming home from a late night at the bars.
But instead of the typical late-night-regrets grub of pizza and French fries, Dawn served up dishes like tofu shepherd's pie. “My friends loved it and were very encouraging,” she says, laughing about her healthy late night treats.
A devotee of eating well since childhood, no one in her family was surprised when she became a dietician. “I grew up thinking you should do for a career what you do in your spare time,” she says.
This longtime passion has since fueled her achievement of a resume that includes consulting on nutrition for the Chicago Cubs and serving on the advisory board for Fitness magazine.
She's also been named “Chicago's Most Quoted Dietitian” by Crains Magazine, “One of Chicago's Elite Females” by the Chicago Sun Times, and “One of the Best Nutritionists in the Country” by Fitness magazine
We asked Dawn to share her favorite tips for eating well – aside from recommending ample amounts of omega-3-rich seafood – and indulging in the occasional guilty pleasure.
What wellness principles do you live by?
The bottom line for me is “When you are good to your body, it is good to you.” For that reason, I don't eat on the run—I always eat meals and snacks served on a plate and seated at a table.
I also think you shouldn't have to cut foods from your diet. Sure, certain foods shouldn't be consumed regularly, so I moderate my intake of things like sweets or alcohol by enjoying them only with other people.
Another principle I try to follow is to dine out only for social reasons, not for convenience or laziness.
If you could change one thing about the American diet, what would it be?
I wish Americans ate more produce! Nine out of 10 don't eat enough fruits and vegetables, which are loaded with disease-fighting nutrients.
They are also the key foods to maintaining a healthy weight, as they are satisfying and filling with very few calories.
Convenience is one of the pillars of eating in this country, so the prep required of most produce is where it gets tricky. I tell clients to cut up broccoli, cucumbers, bell peppers, etc., and keep an everyday veggie tray at eye-level in the refrigerator. You have snacks on-hand, and for days after work where you're super tired, you're ready to roll with a quick stir-fry.
What do you view as the biggest obstacle to healthy eating?
Time. None of us have enough of it in a day so preparing healthy meals and snacks has to be quick and simple to be realistic.
Everyone needs a few default meals that are easy to throw together. I also depend on healthy convenience foods like frozen brown rice, rolled oats and boxed salad greens.
What influenced your choice in meals today?
I try to balance all my meals with the 25/25/50 meal ratio of grain, protein and produce. You don't have to eat less to be healthy—you have to eat the right ratio, as it all goes off at different times, in terms of the fuel your body needs. Grains will give an energy boost, protein has staying power, and produce fills you up.
For breakfast, I had coffee with sprouted whole grain toast topped with almond butter and sliced apple. Lunch was a collard green burrito with black beans, brown rice and guacamole.
And for dinner, I had a homemade grilled whole-grain crust pizza topped with beet greens—they taste bitter raw, but once cooked, they turn sweet—and red onions from the farmer's market with a big salad and glass of red wine.
Five ounces of red wine is considered the sweet spot for women. More or even less is not so great, so I bought all new glasses at a thrift store to get the right size.
[Editor's note: Needless to say, rather than wheat for the 25% starch portion of Dawn's plan, gluten-intolerant folks and celiac sufferers would choose gluten-free starches such as beans, corn, rice, millet, quinoa, teff, and pure, potato, yams, and wheat-free buckwheat flour.]
What food is your Achilles' heel?
Nuts and nut butters are my weak link. I love them and can definitely over do it on the portions. I keep the nuts chopped in the freezer so they are easy to use as a condiment, but harder to mindlessly munch. I also keep a tablespoon measure near my jars of nut butters as a reminder to keep amounts in check.
What dish do you prepare the most for yourself?
Soups and salads, as they help me stay full and feel healthy. They tend to be a bit recycle-esque, as I'm very good at using whatever leftover ingredient is in the house.
The key to a good salad is having one treat in the mix, such as candied nuts or guacamole. Then I'll toss in canned fish, sliced fruit, or use a mandoline to shave vegetables, like cauliflower.
The key to a great soup is a hand-blender – I puree half of it and stir the rest back in to make the soup thick instead of watery.
How do you unwind?
Of course, eating right, regular exercise and getting enough sleep help manage my overall stress levels. But I also unwind by having a drink with my husband or watching reality TV.
It's important to have non-food-related guilty pleasures. Otherwise, you'll look to food to fill certain voids. I can feel myself losing IQ points when I watch the Real Housewives of New York City or Orange County, but they're my escape.