Cooking Basics: Suggestions for Quick Dinners

We’ve worked our way through breakfast and lunch, and now it’s dinnertime. I said last week that lunch can be challenging mostly because you either end up spending a lot of money or else you end up scratching your head staring at the cupboards in the morning, deciding what to bring. Well, dinner may make you feel the same way. What do you eat? What if you’re short on time? What if you live alone or what if you have a spouse and four kids to feed?


Dietitians tend to encourage their patients to “plan ahead.” That means arming yourself with a shopping list every week as you march to the grocery store. It also means poring through cookbooks, healthy eating magazines, or the Internet to find recipes and meal ideas to make for the upcoming week. And I’ll guess that many people really do these things. I know that I try to, but like everybody, life sometimes gets in the way. It’s now Wednesday night and you have no idea what to fix for dinner. The easy way out is to keep a supply of frozen meals on hand; either that, or order take-out. But we know the pitfalls of doing this all the time.

So, like other dietitians, my best advice is: Plan ahead. Maybe you don’t write out menus for the next seven days (and if you do, kudos to you!), but what you can do is make a list of the kinds of dinner meals that you like. Yes, you may have to look at recipes, either in books or on Web sites, or perhaps you may want to start subscribing to a healthy cooking magazine. Wherever you look, find a few recipes that seem to appeal to you and then try them.

I have a notebook filled with recipes that I’ve ripped out of magazines or printed from a Web site. I try them out, often on the weekends, and see how I like them. If I don’t like them, they go in the recycling bin. By now, I have a pretty extensive collection and I know which ones are among my favorites. Sometimes I can’t decide what I want to make, but I know I have my trusty notebook to give me ideas. I encourage you to do the same.

If you have the right cooking tools and ingredients on hand, bite the bullet and give that recipe a go. Build up your own collection and have several recipes that you’ve mastered and that you actually like! If you live with others, get them involved. Our country is in the midst of an obesity and diabetes crisis, and some health experts attribute these problems to the fact that people don’t know how to fix healthy meals. Many children have no idea how to cook. So teach your kids or teach your spouse and prepare meals together.

Need dinner ideas that are relatively quick? Here are some suggestions:

  • Scrambled eggs or an omelet made with spinach and chopped tomatoes, served with whole-grain toast.
  • Shrimp primavera made with whole-grain pasta. Sauté shrimp and add fresh or frozen vegetables. Mix into pasta and top with spaghetti sauce and a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese.
  • South-of-the-border salad: Start with a bed of whatever greens you like (such as green leaf lettuce). Top with shredded cooked chicken, steamed corn, avocado slices, black beans, a sprinkling of crushed lower-fat tortilla chips, and then a dressing of oil, vinegar and lime juice.
  • Speaking of shredded chicken, take advantage of the grocery store’s rotisserie chicken. Sure, you can make that your meal with sides of veggies and potato, but experiment a little. For example, make a barbeque chicken sandwich by mixing shredded chicken with barbeque sauce. Top onto a whole-grain roll and add a dollop of light ranch dressing. Serve with coleslaw (with an oil and vinegar dressing).
  • Whip up a quick black bean soup: Heat up a cup of salsa in a pan for a few minutes. Stir in two cans of drained black beans. Add a can of chicken broth. Then, with an immersion blender (another kitchen must-have) or in a food processor, blend up the soup until you get the consistency that you want. Add more chicken broth if desired. Heat all the way through, then serve topped with a squeeze of fresh lime juice and a dollop of light sour cream.
  • For comfort food, make a meatloaf using lean ground beef (or half ground beef and half ground turkey breast). Mix in some finely chopped onion and bell pepper, plus whatever seasonings you like (go easy on the salt). Serve with oven-baked sweet potato fries or couscous, plus your favorite vegetable (oven-roasted asparagus is great).

The possibilities are endless!

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  • Judith dePonceau

    These are good recipes. Easy and not full of ingredients I won’t have, like fresh herbs and esoteric spices. The only thing is, the sodium content might be high in them if care is not taken. Salsa, black beans, store cooked chicken, ranch dressing, barbecue sauce. Canned beans with no salt added can be found. One brand of marinating sauce for barbecuing now has reduced sodium. With the others, not so easy, so amounts must be limited. Or limit the salt in other meals and snacks for the day.

  • acampbell

    Thanks for pointing that out, Judith. The sodium can be adjusted, as you said, by using lower-sodium or no-sodium ingredients. Also, rinsing canned beans in a colander can help to greatly reduce the sodium content. Glad you like the recipes!

  • Bill Russell

    The nutrition facts on the recipe on the home page is in doubt. Angie Sharp’s “Cinnamon-nutmeg custard” calls for a half cup of granulated sugar which USDA says contains 100 g carbs. When allocated to 6 servings, that would be over 16 g carb per serving, but the site says only 13g. It dims my faith in the mag.

  • Diane Fennell

    Hi Mr. Russell,

    Thanks for your comment. I’m looking into this and will get an answer for you as soon as possible.

    Thank you for your interest in Diabetes Self-Management!

    Diane Fennell
    Web Editor

  • BK CDE

    I already knew in my mind how I would adjust the sodium in these recipes as I do it all the time. I make my own salsa salt free so that is not an issue. I buy salt free chicken and beef broth granules to have on hand for cooking. I would look for boneless, skinless chicken breasts made without added brine solution and microwave it to add to recipes if desired. I admit finding chicken without some salt added is a challenge. I noticed this weekend that Costco has a brand of frozen chicken breasts without added salt. As Amy pointed out, drain and rinse canned food to remove a good share of the salt. There are some low sodium varieties of spaghetti sauce that are pretty good, but can’t say I have ever seen low sodium salsa. No salt added diced tomatoes are readily available though so you could put together some frozen seasoning vegetables with those, add some garlic powder to substitute for salsa in cooking. It can be done and still taste pretty good if you let your taste buds get used to less salt.

  • acampbell

    Hi BK,

    Thanks for sharing these helpful tips. A few words about salsa: some brands are not high in sodium. Check out Chi Chi’s and Newman’s Own (they contain between 105 and 150 milligrams per 2-tablespoon serving). Of course, the sodium can add up once the serving size increases! Salsa lovers may also want to try making their own. It’s easy to do. Check out for some salsa recipes.