Some Assembly Required: No-Sweat Summer Meals

Tips and recipes to help you keep your cooking cool

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD

The last thing you want to do at the end of a hot summer day is stand in front of the stove, stirring something, or fire up your big oven. It's summer, for Heaven's sake! There are other things we'd rather be doing. There are movies to see and swimming pools to dive into. And the higher the mercury climbs, the less energy we seem to have for preparing dinner.

Sounds like a job for (drum roll, please) ... convenience foods! But many convenience products add a heap of calories, fat grams, and sodium to your daily nutritional totals. Besides, to many of us, these products just don't taste as good as freshly prepared meals.

What's the answer? I like to call it "some assembly required" -- not so much cooking as putting together a meal, using some of the better-for-you convenience products. We're still whipping up a "made-fresh" meal, but without spending too much time in the kitchen.

None of the following tips or recipes calls for using the big oven, though some involve the toaster oven or microwave. Both appliances are great for summer because they let us cook without heating up the whole kitchen.

10 Tips for No-Sweat Summer Meals

1. Frozen pesto is one of my all-time favorite convenience products (I like Armanino Pesto, from the freezer section. It's made with canola oil, which is high in healthy omega-3 fatty acids and monounsaturated fat, and has a bit less fat than other brands). Use it as a dressing for hot or cold pasta, a spread for gourmet sandwiches, or a sauce for fish (see recipe below). Just keep your serving to about a tablespoon, because each tablespoon has 47 calories and 4.5 grams of fat.

2. Using the outdoor barbecue keeps the kitchen cool, and all you need is a piece of meat or fish (or some vegetables) and a good sauce or marinade. Any bottled, reduced-fat vinaigrette can serve as a quick marinade. Keep in mind that meats and poultry should marinate for at least two hours while fish and veggies only need one hour.

3. The sandwich, the epitome of easy-assembly food, makes a great summer dinner entree. Think beyond peanut butter and jelly and try some new sandwich ideas! Choose whole-grain breads and reduced-fat fillers and spreads whenever possible. Double up on the lettuce and tomato to boost the nutritional value and fiber.

4. Prewashed salads in a bag are great, especially when they go on sale. Just cut (the bag), dump (it in the bowl), and drizzle (the dressing). I like to spruce them up by tossing in canned beans (kidney, black, edamame, or garbanzo, rinsed and drained); more veggies; cubed or shredded reduced-fat cheese; and cooked, shredded lean beef or pork, skinless chicken breast filets, or shellfish; fruit; toasted nuts; and/or fresh herbs.

5. Preboil or grill a few ingredients in the morning or the night before, and they'll be chilled and ready to assemble into a cool dinner dish when you get home from work. For example, boil pasta in the morning, let it chill all day in the fridge, and a pasta salad can be yours in just a few more minutes. Toss in some light bottled salad dressing or a couple tablespoons of olive oil and whatever other ingredients you desire (chopped tomato, lightly cooked vegetables, cubed reduced-fat cheese, sliced lite salami, drained olives, etc.) Use whole-grain pasta or a whole-wheat pasta blend, and you'll get more fiber and phytochemicals, too.

6. Dash to the supermarket deli for a whole rotisserie chicken or some sliced roasted turkey. Suddenly, you have your featured ingredient for salads and sandwiches (either meat) or quesadillas and enchiladas (the chicken). The turkey is ready to go, and it only takes five minutes to remove the chicken's skin and shred or cube the breast and thigh meat.

7. It's a wrap! Start with a soft tortilla (choose higher-fiber, no-trans fat tortillas when possible) and lightly coat the top with light cream cheese, Dijon mustard, sun-dried tomato pesto or green pesto, or light mayonnaise. Layer on lean sandwich meats, vegetables, and sliced or shredded reduced-fat cheese, roll, and you've got dinner wrapped up.

8. Make quesadillas for dinner, and you'll only need your stove for a few minutes. Experiment with filling ingredients and garnishes. Try some of these options:

  • Roasted chicken
  • Cooked shrimp
  • Mango or roasted garlic salsa
  • Reduced-fat cheese
  • Roasted vegetables
  • Beans (try fat-free refried beans)
  • Avocado strips
  • Jalapeno jelly

9. Microwave nachos make a fun and light dinner, if you use reduced-fat or low-fat tortilla chips and top them with beans, extra-lean meats, reduced-fat cheese, and chopped tomatoes and other assorted vegetables. Prepare your plate of nachos, then microwave on high for a couple of minutes. Dab a dollop of salsa or fat-free sour cream on top.