Dinner Tips for Fast Weeknight Meals

What's for Dinner?

A dietitian's own strategies for fast weeknight meals.

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

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.

Grocery Smarts

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.

I am no Rachael Ray, but here are some of my favorite meals that I whip up in less than 30 minutes:

Quick Meal No. 1: Greek Salad Wrap and Brown Rice Salad

For the Greek Salad Wrap, load up tortillas and then roll them up for a refreshing vegetarian entree. Into your whole-wheat tortillas, place:

  • Fat-free feta cheese
  • Sliced cucumbers
  • Chopped tomatoes
  • Hummus
  • Sliced olives

Drizzle with salt, pepper, red wine vinegar, and olive oil, then roll and serve.

For the Brown Rice Salad, mix the following ingredients, toss, then chill or serve at room temperature:

  • Small can of Mandarin oranges, drained
  • Uncle Ben's brown ready rice, cooked and cooled
  • Toasted, slivered almonds
  • 1/2 to 1 package of broccoli slaw
  • Ginger salad dressing to taste

Quick Meal No. 2: Chicken Breasts

Your menu for this meal includes:

  • Grilled chicken breasts
  • Baked sweet potatoes (you can make these ahead of time and reheat in the microwave)
  • Mixed salad greens with goat cheese, pears, and toasted pecans with light balsamic vinaigrette
  • Ciabatta rolls with a few teaspoons olive oil for dipping

If you think ahead, defrost the chicken breasts, then lightly pound to tenderize them, and toss them into a Ziploc bag with some light salad dressing or a mixture of citrus juices plus a few herbs.

If you haven't marinated the breasts, baste them with barbeque or grilling sauce before grilling. Slow-roasted sweet potatoes are so sweet and delicious they need nothing more than a sprinkle of salt and pepper.

Quick Meal No. 3: Roasted Pecan Salmon

This menu for this healthy meal includes:

  • Roasted pecan salmon
  • Grilled asparagus
  • Steamed new potatoes with parsley and a dollop of fat-free sour cream
  • Mixed greens with avocado, grape tomatoes, black beans, and a light dressing

This is a company-worthy menu, but salmon is so readily available, so healthy, and freezes so well that we eat it at least once a week. Here are some other ideas for salmon or any fish: Top with a salsa, or make a teriyaki or balsamic glaze to pour over the fish after it is cooked.

Quick Meal No. 4: Grilled Port Tenderloin

Here's the menu for this speedy but satisfying meal:

  • Grilled pork tenderloin
  • Sugar snap peas (you can steam or microwave)
  • Couscous with veggies
  • Caesar salad with chopped apples and a light dressing

As with the chicken, you can defrost the pork tenderloin ahead of time and marinate it in a teriyaki or any kind of light salad dressing. Otherwise, baste it with equal parts honey and mustard or a store-bought marinade before you grill.

For the couscous, I saute whatever vegetables I have on hand (mushrooms, red peppers, and squash are a yummy combination) and toss into the couscous when cooked. Voila! Another easy meal.

Quick Meal No. 5: Pasta With Vegetables

This just might be the fastest and easiest option of all:

  • Pasta with veggies and optional meat
  • Broccoli slaw salad with toasted sesame seeds, slivered almonds, scallions, Mandarin oranges, and a light vinaigrette.
  • Whole-wheat rolls

For this weekly empty-the-vegetable-bin dish, I toss a variety of lightly steamed veggies with pasta or Israeli couscous (pearl pasta). Sometimes I also add leftover chicken or fish. Then I top with a little goat, feta, or Parmesan cheese. The sauce is either a simple drizzle of olive oil or a dry-packaged sauce (such as Knorr garlic cream sauce) that I make with skim milk and no any extra fat.

Published February 16, 2006.

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