Cooking Basics: Suggestions for Quick Dinners

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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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