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Quick and Healthful Dinners

  • Peter Jaret
  • Posted March 11, 2013

The key to preparing a nutritious dinner in a limited amount of time is planning ahead. "When 4 o'clock in the afternoon rolls around, most people have no idea what they'll have for dinner," says physician and professional chef John LaPuma, who runs a program at Alexian Brothers Medical Center in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, called CHEF -- for cooking, health, eating, and fitness. "Unfortunately, most of us tend to grab the first thing we can find when we're getting hungry, which is usually fast food." At the end of a long, hard day, an empty cupboard and a growling stomach can make the words pepperoni pizza spring to mind. Yet you don't have to settle for quick and greasy. A few simple tips can help you get a delicious, nourishing meal on the table in less time than it would take for the pizza delivery guy to arrive. Try the following tactics.

Cook for more than one meal

When you have an hour to make something special, double the recipe so you'll have enough to refrigerate or freeze for another dinner. Many casseroles taste even better reheated. The same goes for stews (try using lots of vegetables and only a few ounces of lean meat) and hearty soups; the ingredients seem to meld more fully over a day or two. Put together lasagna in your largest baking pan, so you'll have plenty of leftovers to freeze; to make it lean and extra healthful, skip the meat, load it with spinach and zucchini, use low-fat or nonfat ricotta, and consider substituting whole wheat noodles for the white kind.

Keep a well-stocked cupboard

With the right ingredients handy, you can easily throw together a terrific meal without having to shop. Essentials include pasta, rice, potatoes, onions, garlic, a variety of canned and frozen vegetables, canned beans, tomato sauce, olive or canola oil, and cheese. One example: While the water for your rigatoni or penne boils, dice an onion and peel a few garlic cloves, and saute them in a few drops of oil. Then heat some spaghetti sauce in the microwave. If you zap a package of frozen broccoli, too, you'll turn basic noodles into pasta primavera.

Take advantage of convenience foods

Prewashed salad greens and bags of baby carrots make it easy to add vegetables to any meal. And don't hesitate to use frozen veggies. Sure, fresh vegetables generally taste best and look most appealing. But they haven't necessarily retained more vitamins and minerals than the freezer versions. Either way, the trick to limiting nutrient loss is using fast cooking methods, so microwave your spinach or steam it briefly on the stove. Another useful item is canned soup; read labels to find ones with less sodium, little fat, and plenty of veggies, or check out the lines of delicious vegetarian soups (such as hearty ham-free split pea) at your local health food store.

Time your recipes

It's easy to overestimate how long it takes to prepare a dish -- especially if you chop up the vegetables, pause to put clothes in the washer and water your houseplants, then return to the kitchen to finish up. The next time you fix one of your favorites, watch the clock, don't stop until you're done, and write the total time (prep plus cooking) beside the recipe for future reference. Organize recipes by how much time they take. You may discover you have more options than you'd realized.

Let someone else do the cooking

Some evenings you simply don't have the time -- or the will -- to make dinner. Luckily, more and more businesses -- local restaurants as well as large supermarket chains -- offer well-made and wholesome prepared meals, from vegetable lasagna to roasted chicken. Check out the fare, with an eye to fat content and a balance of food groups; then make a list of your top choices. Work some fiber into the meal by accompanying your selection with a loaf of whole grain bread or, if you're ordering Thai food, for example, cook some brown rice while you're waiting for the delivery. Also add at least two vegetables; you can get there with a simple salad of greens and tomatoes, steamed cauliflower and green beans, or some raw carrot sticks and a bowl of frozen peas zapped in the microwave. Don't forget a colorful fruit salad for dessert -- even if it's just a sliced banana, a few fresh apple chunks, and water-packed canned peaches.

When you have half an hour to make dinner, try out one of these four quick and healthful recipes:

Comforting Cauliflower Casserole

(Time: 25 minutes)

Here's a delicious -- and more nutritious - take on macaroni and cheese. Chop a head of cauliflower into bite-size pieces. Add the cauliflower and your favorite pasta to a large pot of boiling water. (A one-pound package of pasta generally serves five or six people.) Cook until the noodles are tender, usually about 10 minutes. Drain and pour into a pasta bowl. Stir in two tablespoons of olive oil. Then add pepper, grated parmesan cheese, a bag or can of corn, and some chopped black olives. Toss and serve with a salad or steamed carrots.

Speedy Soup and Sandwich

(Time: 30 minutes)

Believe it or not, you can create a zesty homemade vegetable soup in almost no time. Saute a chopped onion and some garlic in olive oil in a two-quart pan. Add a cup of canned low-sodium broth, two cups of coarsely chopped fresh or canned tomatoes, a can of beans, and a cup of fresh, frozen, or canned corn. If you have any suitable veggies in the crisper, toss them in. Dust lightly with pepper. For sandwiches, choose a truly whole grain bread (check to see that whole is the first word in the ingredients list) and make sure the fillings include lettuce, tomato slices, and other veggies (bottled roasted bell peppers are a scrumptious addition). To wean yourself from mayonnaise, which is loaded with fat, purchase a few intriguing styles of mustard.

Mexican Fiesta

(Time: 20 minutes)

All you need are taco shells, a cup or two of chopped lettuce (choose romaine or red leaf over iceberg), a coarsely chopped tomato, canned black beans, a jar of salsa, and grated reduced-fat Monterey Jack cheese. To lower the meal's fat content, use heated corn tortillas instead of taco shells, which are stiff because they've been fried. Or you can make burritos using flour tortillas from a package that proclaims "No lard." Jazz up your burrito with a handful of frozen corn zapped in the microwave. If you like tofu, add a few small cubes.

Hasty Homemade Pizza

(Time: 30 minutes)

Thanks to premade pizza crusts, available in most grocery stores, concocting a pleasing pizza is a breeze. Spread the crust with tomato sauce, then go wild with the vegetables. Great combinations include onions and sweet red peppers, wilted spinach and black olives, and corn and sliced tomatoes. If you're craving meat, add some reduced-fat pepperoni or extra-lean ground beef sparingly for flavor. Finish the pie with a light sprinkling of low-fat mozzarella cheese, and cook according to the instructions on the package. Serve with a salad of mixed greens.

Further Resources

Roberta Larson Duyuff, MS, RD, CFCS, The American Dietetic Association's Complete Food and Nutrition Guide. Chronimed Publishing, 1996, 1998.

References

Roberta Larson Duyuff, MS, RD, CFCS, The American Dietetic Association's Complete Food and Nutrition Guide. Chronimed Publishing, 1996, 1998.

American Medical Association, Good Food That's Good For You: Good Nutrition at Every Age

American Academy of Pediatrics, Nutrional Needs of School-Age Children

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