What Is the Best Time to Eat Dessert?
For some people it might be better to eat dessert before dinner.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard nutrition recommendations for the best time to have dessert — or even whether or not it’s okay to have fruit after meals. As a dietitian, I am always left questioning these blanket recommendations because they don’t take into account factors like medical history, unique health needs, medications and physical activity. While it’s not my philosophy to give patients hard-and-fast rules like “Eat dessert no later than 5pm,” so many of the patients I worked with tell me about their dessert guidelines. Many of these guidelines are self-imposed rules associated with dessert, like it can only be enjoyed after having a “healthy meal” or they require physical activity after eating sweets to “balance things out.”
In my experience, restricting desserts or seeing them as special treats can lead to an increased urge for that food. Giving yourself unconditional permission to eat helps to normalize dessert and eventually helps you tune into which desserts you enjoy the most, how much is enough to satisfy you, and what time is the best time to enjoy that dessert. That process looks different for everyone, which is why I would never recommend time restrictions around food. With that being said, there are some general nutrition guidelines that can be helpful in figuring this all out.
Aim for Three Complete Meals a Day
Eat at least three complete, satisfying meals consistently throughout the day. Desserts should not replace meals, but you may find yourself eating dessert for dinner if you haven’t had enough food throughout the day. This can impact timing around dessert and how much of it you enjoy. By eating three whole meals a day, you can pay closer attention to what your body is telling you as it relates to dessert.
You Don’t Have to Wait Until After Dinner
It’s common practice to order dessert after dinner when going out, but what if you actually want something sweet before dinner or you don’t want it at all? Really tune into what your body wants and use that as a guide. There have been so many times where I felt like I should have dessert after dinner, either because it’s available to me or because that’s what’s socially expected. When eating intuitively, you may find you're having dessert at different times or sometimes not at all, which is totally okay.
Listen to How You Feel After You Eat Dessert
For some people, it may not feel so good having dessert after a heavy meal or right before bed. If you experience digestive issues or find that your sleep quality is negatively impacted eating dessert after a certain hour, consider giving your body a couple of hours to digest before going to sleep. Experiment with what timing allows you to enjoy the dessert without physical discomfort. Perhaps you wait a bit longer after a meal before diving into dessert or you enjoy dessert as a snack in-between meals to allow for easier digestion. If you have a chronic condition like diabetes, it's important to talk with your healthcare provider about how to approach dessert in a way that works for your body.
Dessert should be something to savor and celebrate without guilt or compensatory behaviors. I encourage you to create your own guidelines (with a healthcare provider, when necessary) around dessert that take into account your unique needs and preferences.
As a registered dietitian/nutritionist and Certified Diabetes Educator, Wendy Lopez, MS, RDN, CDCES is passionate about accessible and culturally relevant nutrition education. She is the co-host of the Food Heaven Podcast, and the co-founder of Food Heaven, an online platform that provides resources on cooking, intuitive eating, wellness and inclusion. When not working on creative projects, Wendy also provides nutritional counseling and medication management to patients with diabetes.
*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.