Did you know you can enjoy your favorite foods while keeping health in mind?
Mmhmm! Cheat day meals can be healthy and crave-worthy thanks to nutrient-rich ingredients.
Ahead, find the best healthy cheat meals and snacks, including healthier versions of classic cheat day foods.
What's a "Cheat Day?"
A cheat day includes foods or items not usually in your diet plan. Typically, they are a form of indulgence, containing calories, fat, or sugar counts higher than what you’d usually consider “healthy.”
Most diet and health experts generally encourage loosening the reigns and enjoy a “cheat meal” occasionally. Many people plan to have a single cheat meal, one cheat day a week, or simply consider special occasions as cheat days to afford themselves some flexibility.
Cheat day taps into one of the essential aspects of healthy eating: enjoyment. Instead of viewing a cheat day as giving into temptation, emphasize the aspect of enjoyment. Truly savoring smaller portions of your favorite foods can help you tune into your body’s response and prevent you from going overboard anytime you crave. And if approached from a vantage point of enjoyment instead of feeling “out of control,” cheat day may even support your weight loss efforts.
Like any diet practice, cheat days can be taken to the extreme and become unhealthy, countering common health goals. To allow room for your sweet tooth now and then, a popular approach to cheat days is the 80/20 eating pattern, where you engage in healthy eating patterns 80% of the time and give yourself some flexibility for the remaining 20%. You want to leave some room for flexibility without inviting every meal to become a cheat meal.
Healthy Cheat Meals
Cheat meals really can be the best of both worlds. Check out these delicious and nutritious cheat day ideas, with plenty of healthier options for swapping ingredients if you don’t want to take a break from your eating pattern entirely.
Due to excess refined grains and sugars, many don’t consider pancakes the healthiest way to start the day. For cheat day, one easy way to make these craveable flapjacks more nutrient-dense is by replacing refined flours (simple carbs) with whole grain or nut-based varieties (more complex carbohydrates).
Drizzled with syrupy goodness, waffles are also a popular cheat day breakfast. And keto-curious or not, enjoying a “chaffle”—aka a “cheese waffle”—can be a more savory way to tap into a cheat day.
Instead of drowning your waffle in puddles of syrup, try turning this savory dish sweet with naturally sweet-tasting ingredients, such as cinnamon.
Surprised to see a shake on this list, let alone at breakfast? A shake’s smooth and creamy texture can make waking up even more accessible on cheat days and every day.
Instead of excess creams and sugars, use frozen bananas for the base of a chocolate banana protein shake. Adding chocolate protein powder, dark chocolate, and dairy will make this shake worthy of a cheat day while providing plenty of nutrients.
Pulled Pork Sandwiches
By nature, BBQ isn’t considered the healthiest or most balanced eating style. This makes it an obvious option for a cheat day, even though there are plenty of sneaky ways to take BBQ to a healthier level.
Making homemade BBQ sauce and pulled pork can almost instantly make it more nutritious, since homemade varieties usually contain less sugar than store-bought or restaurant counterparts.
Loaded Baked Potato
Beyond being a comfort food for many individuals, baked potatoes often get a bad rap for being high in starches and piled too high with toppings. However, potatoes are nutritious and filling, and baked potatoes can be part of a balanced diet.
For a mid-day meal, enjoy baked potatoes with your favorite toppings, including shredded cheese, homemade bacon bits, sliced green onions, and sour cream—or a dollop of herbed Greek yogurt if it suits your fancy.
Soup is another oft-criticized dish since many soup varieties are cream-based and can contain excessive amounts of saturated fats. For the ultimate comforting cheat day meal, try healthy broccoli cheddar soup made with healthy fats like olive oil.
Not a broccoli fan? No sweat! Try creamless cream of cauliflower soup made with surprisingly few ingredients.
Mac n' Cheese
Macaroni and cheese is a classic cheat day meal. It’s versatile since it can be both a side dish and a full-on meal.
King Ranch chicken mac is something to swoon over, with just enough melted butter and cheese. It also provides ample protein and can be kid-friendly if cheat day includes time with your kiddos.
Instead of limiting sliders to game days or bar food, indulge as part of your cheat day! Philly cheesesteak sliders are tasty without being too over-the-top.
Using Hawaiian sweet bread for the bun makes this slider drool-worthy. However, you can also omit the bun to make the meal low-carb.
Sloppy Joes may remind you of school lunch, but their slightly tangy, slightly sweet taste creates a flavor fit for cheat day. Even better, healthy Sloppy Joes can be created with everyday pantry staples. This makes them perfect for a cheat day when you want to keep cozy at home.
The next few cheat day picks are for fans of Mexican food. Although technically a separate cuisine, Tex-Mex versions of familiar favorites have turned popular Mexican dishes into comfort foods. And the best taco toppings can turn the average taco into the perfect cheat day creation!
Another favorite for fans of sizzling flavor, traditional chicken fajitas are as easy to make as they are delicious. Create this abundant cheat day meal from the comfort of your home with all the toppings your heart desires.
Not a fan of fajitas or tacos? Try burritos instead!
A chicken burrito bowl packs the flavor and satisfying nutrients like protein and fiber. ease. Plus, any leftovers can be tossed into a tortilla for leftovers so that you can enjoy your cheat day meal more than once.
Burgers are maybe the most recognizable cheat day meal and arguably the poster food for “unhealthy” eating. Fortunately, there are many ways to make foods like hot dogs and hamburgers more healthy, such as substituting lettuce leaves for the bun.
Another classic cheat day meal is pizza, and with nearly endless topping combinations, it’s easy to see why people have fond feelings about this familiar favorite. Enjoy pizza on a cheat day without derailing your health goals by starting with a cauliflower crust or eggplant base.
Chicken wings are too good to limit to tailgating, appetizers, and special occasions. Serve up a platter of chicken wings for a cheat day, and rest assured that as a type of white meat, wings generally have less saturated fat than dark meat.
Since cheat day is often associated with indulgence, “fancy” foods like filet mignon often appear on the menu. Nothing says melt-in-your-mouth like a perfectly pan-seared filet mignon served alongside satiating sides like mashed cauliflower or potatoes and roasted vegetables.
Affectionately referred to as “chicken parm,” chicken parmesan is another cheat day favorite, thanks to a generous coating of cheese on top. Healthy baked parmesan chicken can help make a cheat day rewarding without racking up calories.
If you’re a fan of Italian food or even just carbs, pasta probably makes the top of the list for cheat day foods. From spaghetti and meatballs to lasagna to pasta marinara, there are plenty of tasty ways to partake in pasta as part of your indulgent day.
Like Mexican and Italian cuisine, popular Asian dishes also make their way into a cheat day. Pad Thai, teriyaki chicken, beef and broccoli, and potstickers are everyday takeout items that can be made healthier at home.
Searching for a dish that embodies both cheat day and comfort food? Look no further than the humble casserole. Many layered dishes, like casseroles, are villainized for including layers of less healthy ingredients.
Options like eggplant parmesan casserole contain plenty of nutrients while providing the comfort you’ve come to know and love from layered dishes.
Tuna noodle casserole is another home-style favorite and includes lots of omega-3 fatty acids from the tuna. These healthy fats can keep you feeling full while also curbing unwanted cravings.
Healthy Cheat Snacks
If you fully embrace a cheat day, these sweet and savory healthy snacks can keep you full and fueled for whatever the day brings.
Fries & Tots
Instead of potato-based favorites, healthify fries and tots for your next cheat day. While fried or deep-fried foods carry considerable health concerns, air-fried foods are a healthier way to achieve this craveable texture.
Chips & Guac
While filling up on chips and guacamole before a meal is usually discouraged, they can make a healthy and filling snack during cheat day. Easy guacamole can be created in a jiffy, and the protein and healthy fats in the avocado can keep you feeling full between meals.
A charcuterie board may seem too fancy, but it may do just the trick to satisfy your hunger and cravings on a cheat day. Nothing says abundance like a platter full of your favorite foods!
There’s no wrong way to create your cheese board: pair your favorite combinations of cheese, crackers, nuts, seeds, dried fruits, and other bite-sized treats. Think outside the box and include both sweet and savory options.
Surprisingly, popcorn is a whole grain; you can consume quite a bit while keeping calories relatively low. Calories can lurk in added salt and butter, so keep things simple with plain popcorn, olive oil, herbs, or a subtle sprinkle of your favorite powdered seasonings.
Peanut Butter Cups
Like cheat days and sweet treats, chocolate and peanut butter just work. Homemade Reese's peanut butter cups are delicious, decadent, rich, and require only a few pantry staples. They keep calories low while keeping satisfaction levels high.
Even if ice cream isn’t part of your normal routine, enjoying a bowl on a cheat day is almost obligatory. It may come as a surprise, but creamy confections can be made with healthy ingredients that make you feel your dessert is too good to be true.
For example, guilt-free strawberry gelato is made with protein-rich Greek yogurt, and avocado ice cream is made creamy with healthy fat-containing avocados. You can even add fun mix-ins, like chocolate chips and mint extract, to jazz up your next healthy ice cream bowl.
Another indulgent favorite often consumed on a cheat day is brownies, sometimes eaten straight from the pan! Healthy and fudgy brownies utilize avocados and coconut sugar to create a dessert that lands lower on the glycemic index for individuals hoping for blood sugar-friendly foods for their cheat day snacks.
Healthy Cheat Day Ideas: Final Takeaways
When viewed and practiced healthily, cheat days can help you enjoy food while accomplishing your fitness and health goals. Sneakily healthy ingredients can create the best of both worlds—delicious, nutritious dishes!
Remember to savor the meal, focus on smaller portions of your favorite foods, and enjoy textures and flavors to make the most of cheat day meals and snacks without going overboard.