A few years ago, I was in one of those quirky, little shops offering things rarely seen elsewhere. Among those, a magnet with a quote by Abraham Lincoln outlining his rules for living:
Don't worry, eat three square meals a day, say your prayers, be courteous to your creditors, keep your digestion good, steer clear of biliousness, exercise, go slow and go easy. Maybe there are other things that your special case requires to make you happy, but my friend, these, I reckon, will give you a good life.
The quote made me laugh, as I thought his nutrition and health rules were as vibrant and true today as they were more than 150 years ago. According to one source, a square meal is simply a substantial, nourishing meal. For many of us, however, eating three square meals a day went out with the boom box, big shoulder pads, and spiked hair. A quick cup of coffee, vending machine snacks and a big meal at the end of the day is common practice today.
My daughter, a millennial and a middle-school math teacher who works too hard to grocery shop or eat, complains she suffers from “The Hangries”, aka, A state of anger caused by a lack of food. My daughter, and probably many of her students, would likely be more courteous, less bilious, and have more energy for exercise, if they followed Lincoln’s advice to eat three squares a day.
Aside from the emotional wreckage of the hangries, scientific evidence suggests that skipping meals, gulping down sugary snacks, and maximizing calories in the evening can cause a lack of mental focus, weight gain, sleeplessness, and an increased risk of chronic disease. The US Dietary Guidelines, published in 2016, concluded, “Most of us eat too much of the things we shouldn’t and too little of the things we should.” Added sugars fall on the too much side, whether they’re sprinkled on top, mixed in, or imbibed. Replacing some added sugars with a low-calorie sweetener, like Aspartame, can free up calories for more nutrient-rich food options.
Today, rather than three squares, we can achieve the same goal by spreading it out in 5-6 small, healthy meals or snacks per day. It may be a combination of 1-3 sit-down meals with a complement of healthy snacks on the run. Plan ahead and purchase a few quick to-go-snacks you can carry in your bag or backpack; think dried fruit and nuts, yogurt, a piece of fruit and cheese, or a ½ sandwich. Assemble them the night before (or several days ahead) so they’re ready to go. Remember, your sit-down meals don’t have to be elegant or complicated. Soup and sandwich, a stir fry, or a breakfast at dinner time are all quick and easy. Sneak in some fresh fruit, whole grains, or a raw vegetable plate to round out your food groups.
There may be other things that your special case requires to make you happy but, Abe and I reckon, eating three squares [or the equivalent] will go a long way in giving you a good start.
Susan Adams MS RD is a Seattle-based dietitian serving the food, nutrition and related medical needs of the elderly. She is a former national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and regularly provides expert counsel to the Aspartame Resource Center.