What's for Dinner?
A dietitian's own strategies for fast weeknight meals.
By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
It's late afternoon; I'm busy working in my office, and have no idea what I am making for dinner tonight. Sound familiar?
I wish I was one of those people who spend Sunday afternoons prepping and freezing dinners for the week. But frankly, after a long week, cooking is the last thing I want to do. Sundays are my day of rest.
Now that both of my children are off at college, I only need to prepare dinner for two. Luckily, my husband is happy to eat whatever I put in front of him and, more important, he does the dishes!
In my house, we always try to eat healthy food and keep the calories in check. I never put butter on veggies, and "fried" is a foreign word in my kitchen. Meals are straightforward and simple because it takes less time, and because we would rather enjoy a glass of wine or a scoop of low-fat ice cream instead of a fancy cream sauce.
My strategy for quick and easy dinners starts in the grocery store. The produce bins in my refrigerator are always full. In addition to fresh fruits and veggies, I load the refrigerator with low-fat yogurt, fat-free half-and-half (a cooking trick I learned from our "Recipe Doctor" Elaine Magee), a variety of cheeses, hummus, eggs, and skim milk.
Depending on what is on sale, I stock my freezer with items such as pork and beef tenderloin, salmon, tilapia, boneless chicken breasts, and lean ground round. When I get home from the market, I divide these foods into portions for two so I can easily defrost them a few hours before dinner. Also in my freezer is a supply of whole-wheat rolls, ciabatta rolls, Lean Cuisine dinners, chicken pot stickers (I toss them into chicken broth with mushrooms and scallions to make soup), and bags of frozen veggies.
Staples in my pantry include cereal (Kashi Go Lean Crunch and Special K are our favorites), brown rice (Uncle Ben's ready rice), whole-wheat blend pasta, canned petite diced tomatoes, Mandarin orange segments, sweet potatoes, nuts, a variety of canned beans, soup, coffee, and assorted teas (my afternoon pick-me-up).
In the Kitchen
My favorite equipment for quick meals includes the grill, grill pan, microwave, and toaster oven. Most fresh veggies are simply washed and lightly steamed in the microwave, followed by a squeeze of fresh lemon and a sprinkle of lite Cajun seasoning. The exception -- asparagus, red peppers, zucchini, and eggplant are pure perfection when grilled on the barbeque or in the grill pan. Grilling these vegetables caramelizes the natural sugars so they melt in your mouth. I have converted many a veggie-hater with these grilled delights.
Meat, poultry, and fish used to be considered the center of the plate, but in my house, they are treated more like side dishes. The easiest and quickest way to prepare meats and seafood is on the grill, in the grill pan (during inclement weather), or in the toaster over.
I am also a huge fan of the store-bought rotisserie chicken. I used to roast chickens until I discovered how inexpensive and delicious they are straight from the grocery store (Costco is my favorite). For just the two of us, we get at least two meals from one chicken. One night, we eat roasted breasts. Then, I pull off the remaining chicken and either toss it into a pasta dish; serve it cold over a bed of broccoli slaw; or make a fruity chicken salad with red grapes, slivered almonds, and light mayo, plus a touch of honey and tarragon.
We enjoy small portions of our entrees and fill our plates with vegetables and a whole-grain side dish. And dinner would be incomplete without some kind of side salad! I usually have field greens, romaine lettuce, and a bag of broccoli slaw on hand. Sliced fruit, dried cranberries, Mandarin oranges, canned beans, nuts and a little cheese are typical salad add-ins. Dressings are homemade or store-bought light vinaigrettes or Caesar. Sometimes, I just add a little water to the bottle of dressing to lighten it and make it go further without adding extra calories.
My goal is to make sure the pantry, freezer, and refrigerator are always stocked for quick and easy meals. I try to prepare five meals a week; the other nights we go out to eat, order in pizza or Chinese food, or nosh on leftovers. I sometimes make big pots of split pea or vegetable soup and freeze portions for future meals, but most days, we enjoy quick, healthy meals that are a cinch to prepare.