Advice for better sleep typically focuses on evening habits like limiting electronics and keeping bedrooms comfortable, but there’s one important aspect you might be overlooking: dinner.
You’ve heard that you are what you eat, but what you eat may also affect how you sleep. In fact, you could be on the most comfortable mattress in the world but if you eat the wrong thing before trying to snooze, you can still spend your night tossing and turning.
Certain nutrients are required by the body to carry out daily functions, including hormone regulation and neurotransmitter production when it comes to sleep. Other foods can impact physical comfort, affecting slumber by boosting your heart rate or causing indigestion.
The more we learn, the more significant the role of nutrition in sleep appears to be. Read on to see how diet and rest connect and what to eat at to nourish your body for more efficient sleep.
What Makes a Meal Good for Sleep?
While the relationships between sleep and nutrition are still being explored, there have been quite a few studies showing some interesting information worth considering. According to current research on diet and sleep, here’s what makes a snooze-supporting dinner:
- It’s nutrient-rich. A large study of data on people’s diet and behaviors found several nutrients associated with better sleeping habits. People who slept both too little or too much were more likely to be deficient in things like alpha-carotene, lycopene, folate, thiamin, phosphorus, vitamins C and D, selenium, iron, zinc, dodecanoic (lauric) acid, theobromine, magnesium, choline, and potassium.
- It includes variety. In the same study, normal, healthy sleepers ate the widest variety of foods. And, it makes sense as the more fruits, veggies, grains and proteins you eat, the larger scope of nutrients your body has access to.
- It’s lean. Too much fat is associated with sleeping less. Fried foods and other high-fat meals may contribute to indigestion, and they’re also linked with other conditions like high blood pressure which can further impact rest. Choose lean proteins at dinner, skip fried foods, keep oils minimal.
- It’s balanced. Research shows that people on special diets (like low-carb, low-protein, low-calorie or high salt) are more likely to have sleep problems or abnormal sleep durations. For example, one study found that eating high glycemic index foods (specifically jasmine rice) four hours before bed had a positive effect on sleep, so cutting carbs completely at dinner may not be the best move if you have trouble sleeping.
- It’s easy to digest. Foods like peppers, heavy meats, fibrous beans and for some people, dairy and cruciferous veggies, can all cause bloating and indigestion that makes settling into bed uncomfortable. ”To find out what foods are triggering worse sleep for you, consider keeping a food log for a few days.” recommends dietitian nutritionist Carlene Thomas RDN. “Avoid cutting out entire groups of food completely, just because they’re on a ‘list’. If broccoli doesn’t bother you, have at it!”
- It’s not stimulating. Dinners should not include a lot of sugar or any caffeine sources, since both can leave you overly energized or alert. One study also says spicy food is a bad move, as it may raise body temperature and keep you from getting drowsy (body temperatures generally drop early in the sleep cycle).
- It’s not too small or too big. Skimping on calories is linked with more sleep problems, and going to bed hungry isn’t a comforting feeling. On the other hand, stuffing yourself too close to bed is also unwise as your body may not be ready to wind down come bedtime. Keep portions moderate and listen to your body.
13 Simple Dinners to Cook Up Better Sleep
Based on the nutrition principles associated with healthier sleep, evening meals should include a variety of produce, as well as lean protein and healthy carbohydrates. Going too light or too rich during nighttime meals could keep you up at night, so balance is key.
Here are 13 simple meal ideas that incorporate whole foods rich in sleep-supporting nutrients. Most of these ideas can be made in 30 minutes or less, and utilize easy-to-find ingredients.
Veggie Marinara + Pasta
Marinara sauces are simple to make from scratch, and the cooked tomato base packs a ton of lycopene. Sauté onion and garlic and give it a boost with minced carrots for alpha-carotene and portobello mushrooms for vitamin D and calcium. Add a large jar of tomato purée or crushed tomatoes, and season with a splash of balsamic vinegar and basil. Partner with whole grain, or even bean-based pasta, and add ground turkey or chicken sausage for a protein boost to make a balanced, complete meal.
Seared Cod + Kale Orzo
Pacific cod is rich in B vitamins and minerals like selenium and choline, making it a popular mild tasting fish. Pan sear or broil it (instead of breading and frying) to keep dinner light. Sauté shredded kale with garlic, cooked whole wheat orzo and a squeeze of fresh lemon to make a nutritious, filling side with smart carbohydrates.
Taco Rice Bowls
Choose a lean protein like chicken, ground turkey, or black beans and season with a low-sodium spice blend. While the meat cooks, make some jasmine rice, and toss it with a little lime juice and zest, then top with cilantro once done. Serve with a simple pico de gallo salsa, sliced avocado, and shredded red cabbage for a full spectrum of sleep-supporting, delicious nutrients.
Deli Turkey Wrap
When time is of the essence, wraps and sandwiches are always a handy option. Use a low-sodium turkey deli meat or slice up a rotisserie breast. Turkey packs tons of minerals and vitamins, and is one of the top proteins for sleep. Wrap it up in a whole-grain tortilla or flat bread, and pack it with baby greens, tomatoes, and your other favorite veggies. Dietitian nutritionist Carlene Thomas RDN recommends whipping out a box grater or mandolin to make different textures and shapes to keep things interesting. But if you’re prone to indigestion, one thing to skip is hot peppers or spicy condiments. Pair with a side salad or baked chips or sliced fruit.
Roasted Salmon + Veggies
Wild salmon is well-known as a superfood, and it’s also good for sleep with loads of vitamin D and selenium. Roast carrots, cauliflower and brussel sprouts in lauric-acid-rich coconut oil to maximize sleep, and serve with brown rice (frozen is great and quick) for a healthy carbohydrate.
Turkey Burgers + Sweet Potatoes
Lean ground turkey brings a bevy of good-night minerals, and it’s also pretty affordable. Make simple patties with a little minced onion and herbs, and cook in a pan or on the grill. Dress with dark leafy greens and tomato. Roast chopped sweet potatoes in a little coconut oil and smoked paprika for about 30 minutes for an added boost of alpha-carotene, potassium, and healthy carbs.
Grilled Cheese + Tomato Soup
A 2005 study from the British Cheese Council suggests Red Leicester, Brie and Cheddar could contribute to positive dreams. Amongst the 200 participants, no one reported nightmares following cheese consumption, possibly debunking the old wives’ tale. Pair brie with basil and tomato, cheddar with apple or mushrooms, or leicester (for apparently nostalgic dreams) with a tangy chutney. Go easy on the butter (or swap it for coconut oil), and partner with a light, low-sodium tomato soup.
Quinoa Salad + Walnuts
Quinoa brings phosphorus, potassium, lutein, and zeaxanthin along with other minerals, healthy carbs, and protein. Cook some up and toss the cooled quinoa with chopped tomatoes, baby greens, olives, dried currants, corn, scallions and walnuts. Complete the meal with a drizzle of citrus or berry vinaigrette. Want to add more protein? Add a hard-boiled egg, grilled chicken or salmon.
Whole-Grain Cereal + Milk
Want to keep dinner small? Embrace your inner eight-year old and pour yourself a bowl of cereal. The carbs in cereal help keep you sated at night and milk provides a few vitamins. Just make sure you’re choosing a lower-sugar whole grain variety, and maybe munch on a few carrot sticks and brazil nuts, too. Opt for almond or coconut milk if dairy gives you stomach troubles.
Savory Chicken Soup
Soups are always comforting, and they can also be simple ways to get in healthy veggies and a little hydration boost. Start by sautéing garlic, onions and carrots, then toss in chopped mushrooms. Add in a low-sodium broth, chopped fresh tomatoes, and any other veggies you fancy. Towards the end, add chopped cooked chicken (leftover baked chicken or rotisseries work great) and a couple handfuls of shredded kale or spinach. Serve with crusty bread or over whole grain pasta to make a chicken noodle-like soup.
Veggie Stir Fry
Veggies bring a wide spectrum of sleep-supporting vitamins and minerals. Grab a pre-cut mixed bag of veggies like peas, broccoli, carrots, and baby corn from the produce or freezer aisle. Start by sauteing a little garlic and ginger in safflower or sesame oil. Brown some cashew nuts or minced chicken if you’d like, then flash sauté until your veggies are al-dente. Dress with a little soy sauce or teriyaki and serve with jasmine rice or a small portion of linguine or rice noodles.
Who wants to wait until the weekend for tasty breakfast foods? Besides, eggs and whole grains can both be great for evening meals, too. Just opt for lighter selections like scrambled or poached eggs, oven-roasted potatoes, and fresh turkey sausage. Balance it out with some sautéed spinach, tomato or avocado. Waffles or pancakes could also work, but partner them with almond or peanut butter rather than sugary syrup and consider making them with whole-grain flour.
Too hot to cook? Make a rainbow-worthy veggie platter with what you have at home, or head to your grocery’s salad bar for a quick and satisfying dinner. Carrots, celery, grape tomatoes, blanched broccoli, snap peas, jicama, and cucumbers are all refreshing go-to’s. Add in some hummus and pita wedges to fill you up, and some boiled eggs or a handful of nuts for a protein boost.
Find yourself with a sweet tooth late at night? Fret not — there’s also sleep-friendly dessert options. Trail mix with nuts and dark chocolate, a banana, kiwi fruit, crackers, and peanut butter, or even a low-sugar yogurt with nuts and seeds also provide dreamy ways to indulge without the empty sugar rush.
What meals or foods do you find help you snooze best at night? Have any other tasty dinner ideas using sleep-friendly fare?
This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.