The United States covers some 3.8 million square miles. Turns out our taste in food ranges far and wide, too.
We partnered with Lifesum, a Stockholm-based digital health company with 30 million users, to find out what each state favors for dinner.
Not every state agreed on the same dinner plan, though. In fact, Vermont consistently remained an outlier each time. But for each group, six familiar faves kept rising to the top.
How does Lifesum work?Using tech and psychology, Lifesum can help people creates a tailored plan to help them reach their goals. Whether it’s to lose weight, build muscle, or just live a healthier life, Lifesum shows how changing small, everyday habits can transform your life. The app is available on iOS and Android.
While you might eat chicken and potatoes differently from your neighbor, the way you cook it could have a drastically different effect on your health. So instead of focusing on the details of fried vs. baked or steamed vs. sautéed, we got back to the basics.
We focused on the most popular dinners and broke down each meal into three distinct combos of carbs, protein, and veggie.
From there, we highlight the benefits of each ingredient and what nutrients they bring your body, as well as tips on how, in the future, you can make your go-to dinners the healthiest it can be.
We also spoke to Stefani Pappas, RDN, CPT, to get a few tips on these popular meals. As a clinical dietitian and nutritionist, she provides evidence-based nutrition to patients at the St. Francis Hospital’s Cancer Institute in Port Washington, New York.
Ready to dig in?
1. Rice + chicken + salad
This combo tends to look different from state to state (juicy fried chicken in the South vs. grilled with salt and pepper on the coasts), but the basics are classically American: rice, chicken, and salad (or greens).
Chicken, in its leanest form, is one of the healthiest proteins. There’s no denial that salad (sans dressing) is great for the gut, too.
However, while rice has been controversial in the weight loss area, it’s not a bad carb to include, especially if you stick with non-white rice.
A healthy serving contains…
- a great source of lean protein (chicken)
- depending on your choice, plenty of vitamin and nutrients (salad greens)
- fiber for digestion (rice)
Vary it: Black rice, found in health food stores or Asian markets, is a great pick for its sweet, nutty taste. The bran layer contains a surfeit of anthocyanins. This is the same type of antioxidants found in dark berries.
Cook it: Poach your chicken. Gently simmer whole or sliced chicken breasts in about a 1/2 cup of water with spices and herbs. It makes it more flavorful.
Try it: A recipe for chicken salad summer rolls by The View from Great Island is a quick 30-minute recipe that hits all the taste buds without skimping on variety.
2. Potato + cheese + beans
Put these ingredients together, and you’ve got the fixings of a hearty casserole. Or as some in the Southwest might say, an amazing breakfast burrito.
Cooked taters are high in vitamin C and have more potassium than bananas, but they primarily consist of carbs (paleo dieters, beware). Cheese choices run the gamut, but mozzarella and feta have the lowest amount of fat. For beans, fresh is key. Keep the canned stuff at bay — it tends to be higher in sodium.
Swap it: If you haven’t been eating salads for lunch, you might want to try cauliflower to get your vegetable serving in instead of beans (it’s also a paleo-friendly choice). Thinly slice the florets and cook them as you would green beans in the pan, boiling them in a 1/4 cup of water, and then lightly toasting in the pan.
Vary it: Skip the butter and fill a baked potato with ricotta cheese. It has a luscious light flavor and low salt content.
Try it: A recipe for black bean and sweet potato enchiladas by Cookie + Kate.
3. Bread + egg + bell peppers
They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and this combo certainly delivers from a balanced diet perspective — as long as you keep the bread to whole wheat and sprouted grains.
Ezekiel bread rules this perspective, as it has no added sugar. Just avoid it if you’re gluten-free. As for eggs, boil them, scramble them, do them sunny-side up. In the South, fried eggs are king, while fluffy egg sandwiches are popular on the East Coast.
Add it: Sliced avocado, which is full of healthy fats and vitamins, for that full Sunday brunch vibe.
Vary it: Use a variety of colored peppers. The more colorful the better: Each color packs a variety of antioxidants and health benefits.
Try it: A recipe for peppers and eggs breakfast pita by Aggie’s Kitchen.
4. Fries + beef + tomato
Here’s where the meat and potatoes come in. A Midwestern classic, the quality of this meal depends on the cut of beef. Porterhouse is considered the best because it’s actually two cuts in one — a New York strip on one side and a filet mignon on the other.
Then, of course, there’s regular ol’ ground beef (hello, burger night), popular just about everywhere. In the South, sweet potato fries are just as popular as “regular” fries. And that tomato? Well, it could be just be ketchup, but you’ll want to get the whole fruit for all its potassium, folate, and vitamins C and K benefits.
Swap it: If you’re on the keto diet, skip the fries and opt for radishes, turnips, or parsnips instead. When cooked, radishes lose their spicy flavor and taste remarkably like potatoes. Texture-wise, baked turnips and parsnip fries come pretty close to the original deal.
Remember this: If you do eat fries, remember they’re carbs. “Aim for a fist worth of them per meal, which is no more than one cup,” Pappas says. “Focus instead on whole grains that add more fiber and nutritional value.”
Try it: A recipe for a Peruvian beef and potato stir fry by Whats4Eats.
5. Quinoa + turkey + broccoli
Quinoa is fast becoming the grain of choice for diners looking for healthy variety. Likewise, turkey, being lower in calories and higher in protein than chicken, is now a go-to lean meat. And broccoli has long been the little green tree by any health-conscious eater’s side. Together, these three ingredients make for a delicious high-fiber meal and will look amazing in a bowl presentation.
Try it: Pre-chop your broccoli over the weekend to save time once you get cooking.
Vary it: Get more veggies in there by using cauliflower rice (a great source of fiber and vitamin C) instead of quinoa.
Try it: A recipe for a turkey and vegetable quinoa skillet by A Dash of Megnut.
6. Couscous + pork + spinach
From braised to roasted to barbecued, there are many ways to prepare pork. The main question remains: To sauce or not to sauce? In the South, you’ll find slabs completely slathered (North Carolina vinegar BBQ sauce is a legend). On the coasts, pork tends to be prepared more minimally, letting the meat speak for itself. That’s when its best suited for accompaniments like couscous and spinach.
Do it: Buy only lean cuts of pork. They’re just as low in fat and calories as chicken breast.
Vary it: Swap spinach for frozen veggies. “They often pack more nutritional value than fresh, since they’re frozen at peak ripeness,” says Pappas.
Try it: A recipe for spinach couscous by Chatelaine.
Wondering what to drink with your dinner? When in doubt, water.“Every cell in our body needs it, and hydration is an important component of weight management,” Pappas says. “Try to increase your water intake by two extra glasses a day: one when you wake up, another when you get home from work. Small changes can bring big results.”
Dinner doesn’t have to be complicated
Remember, dinner is just one meal of the day. You have two or four (if you count snacks) to help round out your diet. And it’s not just what you eat. Portion sizes matter, too, as do the quality of ingredients.
“Each meal should consist of a lean protein, complex carbohydrate, and lots of vegetables. In fact, fruits and vegetables should be the star at any meal. Aim to fill half your plate with them,” Pappas suggests.
For the other half of your plate, Pappas says to eat a quarter of lean proteins, such as:
Then add a quarter of high-fiber carbs, such as:
- brown rice
- whole-wheat pasta
- sweet potato
“Sticking to a simple, balanced meal is key to living a healthy life,” Pappas adds. Eat what you love, but don’t make it the only thing you eat.
Kelly Aiglon is a lifestyle journalist and brand strategist with a special focus on health, beauty, and wellness. When she’s not crafting a story, she can usually be found at the dance studio teaching Les Mills BODYJAM or SH’BAM. She and her family live outside of Chicago, and you can find her on Instagram.