What Does a Perfect Day of Eating Really Look Like?

Perfect Day of Nutrition

Your daily diet affects your energy, immune system, and brainpower. So we asked dietitians to guide us through 24 hours of ideal eating.

What does the perfect day of relaxation look like? We’ll leave that one up to you. (Our vote is fresh mountain air, a good book, and the company of loved ones.) But as for what the perfect day of eating looks like, we’re turning to the experts. And overwhelmingly, they recommend following the time-tested dietary patterns that developed naturally in the grape and olive fields of the Mediterranean region.

Coupled with healthy lifestyle factors like exercise and not smoking, the Mediterranean diet is the gold standard for promoting a long, healthy life. It’s also flexible. It builds meals around vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, whole grains, fish, and olive oil. You consume relatively little dairy and meat, both sources of saturated fat, and skip heavily processed foods.

This healthy eating pattern is beneficial even for young folks, but it becomes more important as you age, says Rachel McBryan, a registered dietitian in Nanaimo, British Columbia. “The Mediterranean diet has been shown to have a protective role on mortality and a correlation with a decrease in duration of hospital stays,” she says. Translation: You’ll potentially live a longer life with fewer sick days. Sounds good, right?

The Case for Eating Mediterranean

As one piece of evidence, McBryan points to a study of 4,280 women ages 60 to 80. Some were told to eat a Mediterranean diet high in extra-virgin olive oil, while others were simply told to eat a low-fat diet. After 4.8 years, those in the Mediterranean diet group were roughly 70% less likely to develop breast cancer.

A related study using the same protocol found that people on the Mediterranean diet, average age 67, had better brainpower. After about four years, those eating a low-fat diet experienced a predictable age-related cognitive decline, while those eating a diet based on plants, olive oil, nuts, and fish had slight upticks in brain function. “Both of these studies caused a lot of attention in the scientific community, because it was the first time there was evidence of food [correlating to] a reduction in breast cancer and cognitive decline,” McBryan says.

If reduced disease and improved cognitive function aren’t enough to convince you, then consider this: In a paper published in 2018, researchers in Italy ranked the diets of 5,200 people, all older than age 65, on a scale of 0 to 9. Subjects scoring a perfect 9 ate a strict Mediterranean diet. Those scoring less than 9 had higher intakes of meat, processed foods, cigarettes, and alcohol.

The study found that each single-point uptick on the Mediterranean scale correlated with a 5% lower chance of death over an 8-year study period.

Taken together, the studies suggest that a Mediterranean diet improves not just your lifespan but also your health span, or the years you spend comfortable and free from disease or frailty. “This means you can live a more active and independent life,” says Katie Dodd, a registered dietitian in Oregon, who runs a site called The Geriatric Dietitian.

Here’s what the Mediterranean diet looks like in practice. These meals are roughly designed to meet the caloric needs of a 180-pound adult, so feel free to scale up or down as appropriate. And because a perfect day of eating looks different from one day to the next — variety is a key tenet of nutritional diversity — we’ve provided two options for each meal.


Option 1: Oatmeal with toppings

Serve 1 cup of oatmeal topped with ¼ cup of sliced or chopped nuts, ½ cup of berries, and ½ cup of low-fat Greek yogurt.

Nutrition (approximate)

  • Calories: 411
  • Fat: 16 grams
  • Fiber: 12 grams
  • Protein: 22 grams

“This one-bowl breakfast combines fiber, protein, and a ton of vitamins and minerals,” says Dodd. And the scoop of Greek yogurt packs an extra punch of protein. “It’s so important to have a good protein source at each meal to maintain good muscle mass with aging,” she says.

Option 2: Scrambled eggs with veggies, toast, and a side of fruit

Combine two scrambled eggs with 1 cup of vegetables containing at least three veggies of your choosing. Serve with a slice of whole wheat toast and a side of 1 cup of two different fruits. (McBryan likes pineapple and watermelon.)

Nutrition (approximate)

  • Calories: 348
  • Fat: 14 grams
  • Fiber: 6 grams
  • Protein: 17 grams

Eggs are another convenient source of protein. “They have also been shown to help prevent sarcopenia, which is muscle decline,” says McBryan. “Sarcopenia can cause the elderly to be at a higher risk of falling due to a decline in muscle mass.”

As for which vegetables to include, a good rule of thumb is to have one leafy vegetable like spinach, one cruciferous vegetable like broccoli or cabbage, and one colorful vegetable like bell pepper.


Option 1: Plant-based salad with garbanzo beans

Toss together 2 cups of spinach, ¼ cup of tomatoes, 3 slices of cucumber, 6 olives (sliced, if you prefer), and ½ cup of garbanzo beans. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and a splash of vinegar with fresh herbs of your choice. Serve with a whole wheat roll and ½ cup of strawberries on the side.

Nutrition (approximate)

  • Calories: 767
  • Fat: 36 grams
  • Fiber: 19 grams
  • Protein: 26 grams

“This lunch combines a variety of vegetables and heart-healthy olive oil,” says Dodd. “Think of this salad as a healthy, whole-foods multivitamin.”

Option 2: Rice bowl with veggies

Combine ¾ cup of brown rice, ¾ cup of beans, and 1 cup of roasted vegetables such as sweet potatoes or cauliflower. Top with ⅓ of an avocado and ¼ cup of salsa.

Nutrition (approximate)

  • Calories: 576
  • Fat: 12 grams
  • Fiber: 24 grams
  • Protein: 21 grams

Legumes such as beans and lentils are a serious boon for your health. “In one study, higher intakes of legumes, fish, shellfish, and olive oil were a predictive factor as to how long an elderly person will live,” says McBryan. “For example, with every 20-gram increase in legumes, there was an 8% reduction in mortality.” On that note, we may very well add an extra scoop of black beans to our bowl.


Option 1: Salmon with couscous and broccoli

Bake, broil, or pan cook 4 ounces of salmon seasoned with za’atar, a spice mix that you can find in the supermarket. Serve the salmon with 1 cup of couscous and 1 cup of sautéed broccoli with garlic.

Nutrition (approximate)

  • Calories: 510
  • Fat: 11 grams
  • Fiber: 6 grams
  • Protein: 40 grams

Salmon is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, which have repeatedly been shown to improve heart health. “Research from Harvard School of Public Health has shown that older adults with high levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the blood display a 35% decrease in mortality due to heart disease,” says McBryan.

Option 2: Lemon-dill salmon with rice and green veggies

Serve 4 ounces of salmon, cooked as desired, with fresh dill and lemon. As sides, add ½ cup serving of brown rice, and 1 cup of mixed broccoli, kale, and brussels sprouts.

Nutrition (approximate)

  • Calories: 396
  • Fat: 7 grams
  • Fiber: 6 grams
  • Protein: 36 grams

Dodd, too, recommends salmon for dinner, thanks to its heart-healthy fats. (But she says tofu can work as a stand-in, if you're burnt out on fish.) Just be sure to include all the vegetables. “Adding a variety of green veggies builds the flavor, texture, and nutrition profile of this meal,” she says. “And using food for flavor, like fresh dill and lemon, can help you reduce your intake of salt.”


Option 1: Medium apple, sliced, with 2 tablespoons peanut butter

Nutrition (approximate)

  • Calories: 295
  • Fat: 16 grams
  • Fiber: 7 grams
  • Protein: 8 grams

Peanut butter is an easy way to get protein on the go. Try eating it after a workout, when your body is most likely to use it to build new muscle.

Option 2: ¼ cup walnuts and ½ cup grapes

  • Calories: 248
  • Fat: 20 grams
  • Fiber: 3 grams
  • Protein: 6 grams

“Both of these snacks contain nuts, which are a staple of a Mediterranean diet,” says Dodd. The research on nuts contributing to good health is robust: One particularly convincing longitudinal study of 119,000 participants demonstrated that people who ate nuts daily were 20% less likely to die during the duration of the study than those who avoided nuts. (Peanuts were considered nuts in the study, even though they’re technically legumes.)

The important thing to keep in mind with this meal plan is that it’s just a template. Rotate through different vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, and fish as often as necessary to meet your mood and appetite. Keep it fresh, have fun, and don’t be too hard on yourself if you slip up. It’s hard, if not impossible, to eat perfectly all the time.

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