We eat several meals a day partly because the meals provide energy we can use throughout the day. But we use different kinds of energy at different times of day. If you eat three meals, it is useful to think of them as having three different objectives.
Breakfast is about action. Eating breakfast helps you make the transition from resting to activity, from dreaming to problem-solving. Accordingly, it is the one meal where quick energy matters the most. For most people, breakfast doesn’t have to be big at all, but it should contain a touch of sugar to get you started and enough starch, fiber, and fat — it doesn’t take a lot — to keep you going through the morning.
If you skip breakfast, you can expect a slow start to the activity of the day. You may not really get anything done till after lunch, and with the deficit of energy from the morning, you are likely to overeat for the rest of the day. Get to breakfast bleary-eyed, and a breakfast that is mostly sugar and caffeine can seem like a good idea, but this is not much better than skipping breakfast; it will get you going but provides energy only for the first hour or so. Eating a heavy breakfast, too large or with too much fat or protein, also slows down the transition from rest to activity — after a big breakfast, most of your brain goes back to sleep. Don’t let the vision of a “hearty” breakfast fool you — a breakfast should not contain more food energy than you will actually burn off between breakfast and lunch unless you are in a hurry to gain weight.
Lunch is the meal that is most closely tied to your purpose in life, or at least your major goals of the day. Even if you eat most of your meals at home, there is a good chance that you eat lunch out in the world somewhere near all the things you are doing. Likewise, lunch is the meal you are most likely to eat with some of the people who are involved in the things you are doing. With all the activity around you, it can seem natural to eat lunch quickly, but it is better to relax and enjoy lunch, if only for a few minutes. If you must eat lunch in just five minutes, eat less than you really want.
Lunch is also the most individual meal of the day, especially when it comes to the food you choose. What you are doing should determine the shape of your lunch. For example, on a day when you are doing manual labor, you will get more done if you eat a large lunch of energy foods and if you take your lunch break at a time when your legs and back could use a break anyway. But if you will be sitting at a desk and doing detailed work all afternoon, a smaller lunch that includes traces of brain foods (basically mixed sugars and fatty acids) will help you work more accurately. Or, if you are in the middle of making tough decisions, it could be a reason to put off lunch until later.
While breakfast and lunch are the meals that get you ready for what you are doing during the day, supper is the meal that gets you ready for the night. Most healing takes place during the night. Accordingly, supper is the meal where nutrition matters the most. Getting all the different nutrients that food can offer at supper can help you heal more completely that night. It’s a way to assemble all the building blocks that you’ll use to put your cells back together overnight.
To let your body concentrate on healing, eat low-inflammation foods at supper. Almost anything you eat is inflammatory or acidizing to a small extent, but some much more so than others, and supper is a good time to minimize high-inflammation food like white sugar, coffee, and alcohol. That’s especially important at supper. During the day, inflammation is irritating; at night, inflammation takes away from your ability to heal.
If you can possibly manage it, eat supper early in the evening. My suggestion is to “eat before eight” because that’s a catchy phrase that is easy to remember and the title of a song I wrote on the subject, but many experts say it is better to finish eating before 7 p.m. You don’t really start healing until after supper is digested, so eating early gives you more time for healing. When you must eat later, eat less. When I eat supper after 8 p.m., my objective is to eat just enough that I can get to sleep.
For similar reasons, it is important for supper to be a feel-good occasion. The most important thing I can suggest is simply never to have arguments at supper. Arguments are unfortunate at any meal, but they are especially problematic when the meal is supper. Just don’t discuss any subject that could turn controversial at the supper table. Even a small argument can be as irritating as a cup of coffee. The irritation slows down both digestion and healing. I realize that dinner-table arguments are a cliché of Americana, but I can assure you that they are completely avoidable. Don’t discuss the problems of the day at supper, but instead use the time to focus on subjects that feel comfortable, or that you can feel grateful about. When you are hungry and have food to eat, it is only natural to feel good, and if you just go with that element of human nature, you can have a peaceful supper regardless of what has happened during the day.
When you think of breakfast, lunch, and supper as three distinct occasions that fit in different parts of your day, it is easier to pick the right food and the right approach for each meal. That way, each meal provides the kind of energy you need for what you are doing at that time of day. If you have never experienced what it is to get the full benefit from three meals in a day, try it for a few days, starting with eating supper before 8 tonight. You may be surprised at how good you can feel and how much you can get done.