Dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner Shares Her Smartest Food Swaps

Plus, her smart strategies to help your entire family eat healthier.

Dawn Jackson Blatner, who goes by D.J., has always been interested in nutrition. “I drew wisdom from my parents about healthy changes we can make to our diet when I was young; then I went to college and became a dietitian to learn all I could about food,” she says. The Chicago-based registered dietitian and certified sports dietetics specialist is the author of The Superfood Swap, worked as the head dietitian for the Chicago Cubs for 10 years (she even has a World Series ring!), and won the hit reality T.V. competition on ABC, “My Diet Is Better Than Yours.

Blatner’s main philosophy as a dietitian is helping clients create healthy habits, and give them attainable ways to stay motivated. She helps them develop a new way of thinking to stop self-sabotage. She also encourages people to start with things they want to change, instead of things they have to. “Focusing on change that is complicated or feels like a drag is a recipe for failure,” she explains. “Going from the couch to marathon training or spending many hours on meal-planning sets you up for feeling overwhelmed, and leads to inaction — and possibly even  injury. It’s far better to keep change simple. Start with a few basic habits, then add more complicated stuff after each win.” 

She shares some of her best advice on improving your nutrition with Thrive.

Thrive Global: What is your morning routine? How do you set your day up for success?

Dawn Jackson Blatner: Morning time is magical to me. I love mornings because they set the tone for the whole day. I wake up and say to myself, “Today’s going to be a great day.” I learned this mantra from a wake-up call I got at a resort about 15+ years ago. It was such a positive way to start the day, I knew I wanted to incorporate it into my everyday life. Then I have a mushroom coffee and spend time meditation or reading. I love having a cup of mushroom coffee with either spiritual reading or a guided meditation (I use the app Insight Timer). After that, I work out. Exercise is medicine for me. It helps shift my negative energy, pumps up my creativity, and sets me up for a more focused and productive day. I do a mix of H.I.I.T. classes with weights, and jogging outside or on a treadmill. No matter the exercise, I must have good, high-vibe music!

TG: What are your go to healthy meals?

DJB: My best trick is using the 2-2-2 Meal Planner. The key is that you only pick two breakfast, two lunch, and two dinner ideas with a couple of snacks each week. You eat on repeat. And the following week, you pick other ideas. It simplifies and streamlines shopping, prep, and cooking each week. It’s a game-changer. Unlike overwhelming meal planning and preparation, this is totally doable! My meals typically look like:

Breakfast: Avocado toast with an egg, or peanut butter oatmeal with  berries

Lunch: Tahini twister or a burrito bowl

Dinner: Guac and greens tacos, or a kale pizza with salad

TG: What are some easy food swaps?

DJB: I wrote a whole book on swaps. I love swaps because it means you don’t have to live without the things you love. You can lean in to what you are craving, but just make it with better-for-you ingredients. Here are just a few of my favorites: 

Tacos: Since I’m a big taco fan, I swap taco-seasoned ground beef to taco-seasoned lentils.

Pizza: I’m also a big pizza fan, so swapping thick crust to sprouted whole grain tortillas makes for a delicious weekday pizza party!

TG: How do you stay hydrated? 

DJB: I drink tons of things besides plain water! I can get a good six cups of plain water each day, but I need to have lots of options to hit my water intake goals. I love things like mushroom coffee, dandelion herbal coffee, hot lemon water, mint tea, ginger tea, cinnamon tea, sparkling water, and even plain hot water. 

TG: Any solutions for stress eating?

DJB: Managing stress eating is all about changing the tempo. Stress feels fast, panicked, and anxious, and that’s what stress eating feels like, too. So the fix is to slow down the heart rate and slow down the speed of eating. Do that with three rounds of deep breathing before eating, and taking exaggeratedly small bites and chewing each mini mouthful at least 15 times. It’s harder to stress eat when you are feeling more relaxed. 

TG: What are some easy, small things we can do to improve our nutrition?

DJB: My favorite is to keep an everyday veggie tray in your fridge. Most people love to snack on veggie trays at parties, so why not mimic that fun every week in your own fridge! It helps you snack on more produce, and you can use those veggies in recipes throughout the week, too.

TG: How do you get re-inspired when you have a lull in your health and nutrition habits?

DJB: Aside from fitness, I get into life lulls! Usually, lulls are just code for “I’m bored.” Set aside time to try something new, learn something new, talk to someone new, etc.

TG: How do you sneak in movement throughout the day? 

DJB: Walk as a means of transportation! I’m saying not just for fun, but to actually get from point A to point B. A few years ago, I moved to a location where I could sell one of our cars and walk to more meetings and events. I’ve had to invest in cute walking shoes! Also, take walking meetings instead of coffee meetings! I was recently invited for a coffee meeting, and said I’d love to meet, but we’d need to do the meeting on side-by-side treadmills instead. 

I used to only jog, but realized I was feeling weak doing everyday things like carrying groceries, so over the past couple of years, I’ve added weekly weight training classes to my routine. 

TG: You’ve said you like to stretch during the day. How does it help you?

DJB: Stretching during the day is a great way to reawaken and energize the physical body, which I find can give my focus and creativity a quick boost. I love a modified sun salutation using an office chair or a happy baby stretch if I’m in an appropriate outfit.

Here are some quick stretches I do throughout the day: moving head side to side, opening and closing your mouth to relieve a stressed-out jaw, raising and lowering shoulders, sticking your chest out, or getting up with a reach up to the ceiling on your tiptoes.

TG: Have you ever fallen off the fitness wagon?

DJB: Fitness is a big piece of my life for physical health, but even more so for my mental well-being. I love how positive and energized I feel afterwards. However, I have fallen out of the habit during times of injury or illness. Even for someone like me who enjoys exercise, it can be hard to get back into a routine. To get back into it, I remember this: habit first, effort later. Meaning, just get into the habit of putting on exercise clothes on and showing up! Don’t worry at all about pushing yourself or sweating. I have found that if I begrudgingly just show up for 14 days, the joy of exercise and the habit comes back.

TG: How do we move more and sit less?

DJB: Calendar effect! I do whatever is in my calendar. So if you want to move more and sit less, it has to be scheduled: daily exercise, stretch breaks, extra time buffered into walking meetings, everything. 

TG: How do you prioritize when you have an overwhelming amount to do?

DJB: I make a list before I go to bed, numbered in order of due dates and importance. The next day, I wake up knowing in what order to start working. I love having direction from the very beginning of my workday.

Single-tasking is another one of my favorite tips for adding less stress and more joy into my daily work life. I used to be a chronic multi-tasker. My business coach bought me a 45-minute sand-timer and challenged me to start only doing one thing at a time and then switch when the sand-timer runs out. Practicing was hard at first, but now I realize that single-tasking is a joy-cultivating behavior that helps me feel a million times less overwhelmed.

TG: What are a couple of quick and easy ways we can encourage our family to be healthier?

DJB: Be a role model. Behaviors are contagious! If you start enjoying healthy foods, it will rub off on everyone. Just give it time.

Involve everyone. Let everyone get a chance to pick what they want for one dinner each week, even if it’s something like chicken nuggets that can be made with better-for-you ingredients and rounded out with veggies. 

Have fun with it. There is no need to force feed boring, healthy food that tastes like cardboard or grass. Turn all your family favorite foods into better-for-you options by doing swaps!

TG: How do you stay focused?

DJB: Music. I listen to special music to alter my brain waves to be more focused and productive. I love using the app called Focus at Will. For each task, I play 45 minutes of the focus music and then I take a break.

Hats: I find wearing a hat works almost like blinders on a horse! It helps me tune into what’s in front of me.

Daily task lists: I love leaving a sticky note on my desk the night before so I know exactly what I’m going to be doing for the day. I number it to make sure I’m staying true to my priorities. 

TG: How do you keep technology from taking over your life? And kids? Do you set up tech boundaries?

DJB: I am a work in progress on this! The two boundaries I practice: no phone at the dinner table — and this one is harder for me — no checking email or social media right when I wake up. My husband changed to an alarm clock to keep the phone totally out of the bedroom. It’s so inspiring, but I still haven’t made that switch!

TG: When you are traveling, do you have any small tips or tricks to move your body on a plane, or if you are on a business trip?

DJB: For travel, I have three tricks. Right after a hotel check-in, find the gym. You’re more likely to go if you have already visited. Research at least one healthy place to eat that’s near the hotel before you get there! Have a go-to, basic food travel kit. I like to travel with apples, roasted garbanzo beans, oatmeal packets, nut butter packets, and a water bottle.

TG: How do you sleep? What is your winddown routine?

DJB: I’m a great sleeper when I exercise and stop my caffeine intake by noon.  If I have trouble sleeping, I write down any worries so I can address them in the morning instead of fixating on them all night. I also use a sleep mask, relax my face/jaw, and use deep 4-7-8 breathing to fall asleep. I usually sleep from 10:30 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. There are some variations but for the most part I stick to this most weekdays and weekends.

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