Yikes! You've just looked at the clock and realized that dinnertime is fast approaching. You're already exhausted from the day's labors, and you still have to walk the dog, pick up the kids from dance class, finish that report due first thing tomorrow... You'd love to sit down to a healthy, home-cooked meal, but your stomach is growling and that take-out pizza menu is looking very tempting.
But wait just a minute. Before the dinnertime crunch convinces you to blow off your dietary resolve, wrap your mind around an important concept: "Healthy" doesn't have to mean cooking from scratch, and "quick" doesn't have to mean scarfing down artery-clogging fast food.
Whether you're a seasoned cook or a kitchen-phobe who doesn't own a cookbook, you can make healthy, quick dinners at home. Two dietitians, who balance career and nutrition demands themselves, are on your side. Elizabeth Ward, MS, RD, lives in Reading, Mass., has three children aged 4 to 7, and is the author of several books on nutrition including Healthy Foods, Healthy Kids. Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD, lives in Atlanta and is an American Dietetic Association spokeswoman as well as a WebMD Weight Loss Clinic dietitian.
A Healthy Grocery List
Ward and Zelman agree that healthy, quick, and homemade dinners start with having the right ingredients on hand. Keep these items in your pantry, refrigerator, or freezer:
- Pasta (Zelman prefers whole-grain, Ward says regular is fine for a family)
- Pasta sauce (but watch out for fatty Alfredo versions)
- Canned beans
- Canned tuna fish, packed in water, not oil
- Canned vegetables -- the ones you like and will eat
- Canned fruits
- Rice, couscous, and packaged mixes for dishes like tabouli
- Lower-fat, lower-sodium soup (Healthy Valley is one brand)
- Bread, preferably whole grain
- Peanut butter
- Pancake mix
- Prewashed and cut fruits and vegetables (buy them this way in a bag or from a salad bar, or do it yourself as soon as you get home from the store)
- Cherry tomatoes
- Baby carrots
- Prewashed salad greens, stored in their original bags after opening
- Precooked, grilled chicken slices
- Cheese (look for lower-fat versions or strongly flavored cheeses that let you use less)
- Low-fat milk
- Low-fat salad dressings
- Pastas such as ravioli and tortellini
- Chicken and turkey (boneless, skinless pieces are healthiest and quickest)
- Frozen diet entrees
- Frozen soup
- Cheese pizza
The Chicken and the Egg
Ward and Zelman are big fans of ready-to-eat rotisserie chickens, found in almost any grocery store. "Most of the fat has dripped off it," says Ward, "although I do pull off the skin."
"I rely a lot on rotisserie chickens," says Zelman. "One night I'll have it with a baked potato and salad. The next night, I'll pick it off the bone and make a pasta dish. I'll throw a handful of frozen peas and canned, diced tomatoes into the pasta sauce. Or I might use the leftover chicken to make a Caesar salad."
Zelman says she always keeps a few packages of pre-cooked grilled chicken strips in her freezer. "They're expensive, but fast. I stock up when they're on sale. It's a quick defrost."
Closely related to chicken is the egg, another favorite of dietitians. Omelets are a great catchall for leftovers like vegetables, chicken, and salsa, but even plain versions offer good nutrition. "If you've got eggs and low-fat cheese and milk, you have a meal," says Zelman. "Maybe serve it with some canned fruit."
"I love Weight Watchers and Lean Cuisine frozen dinners," says Zelman. "I'll add vegetables to a macaroni and cheese entrée, and I always add a side salad or roll because often it's not enough to eat." She advises reading the nutrition labels: "I aim for 300 or fewer calories."
"You can have that take-out...as long as you exercise a little restraint."
She has other ways of beefing up the nutrients in prepared foods, such as adding extra vegetables to canned soup and extra beans to canned chili. And she dresses up plain salad greens with fruit and small amounts of shredded cheese and nuts.
Ward likes the Near East packaged mixes, such as tabouli and couscous. "People think of them as side dishes, but I turn them into a meal by adding chopped, leftover chicken and a lot of tomatoes and serving them on a bed of greens," she says.
Cereal is a dinner staple for many singles, and it's perfectly healthy, as long as you watch the sugar and fat content and use low-fat milk. "Breakfast cereal and fruit and skim milk, there's nothing wrong with that," says Zelman.
Ward says her family has breakfast for dinner once a week: Pancakes or waffles with a side of fruit plus milk. It's a hit with her family, and what the kids don't know is that she sometimes adds wheat germ and an extra egg to the pancake mix. "That's stealth nutrition." She keeps waffles in the freezer for nights when she's really short on time. (Of course, dieters should skip the extra butter and be sparing with the syrup. Try fruit, applesauce and/or low-fat yogurt for a healthy and delicious topping.)
Dinner for the Desperate
But what about those nights when the larder is empty and even a few minutes in the kitchen is too much? Guess what? You can have that take-out after all, as long as you exercise a little restraint. Zelman says she orders a cheese or veggie pizza: "I have one or two pieces and a side salad, and it's not a bad meal."
Ward says her family orders pizza once a week. "I make a really big salad to go with it and always have fruit and milk, which works in the nutrition we need and cuts down on the amount of pizza we eat."
Speaking of pizza, Ward often buys pre-made crusts and lets her kids make their own. "They just like cheese," she says. "For my husband and myself, I sauté leftover chicken with garlic and add artichokes from a jar or olives." While acknowledging that most of us need to cut back on fat intake, she's not a big fan of low-fat cheese. She points out that if you use a very flavorful cheese like sharp cheddar, a small amount -- four to five ounces -- will satisfy.
Ward's favorite last-minute dinner is a spinach pie she buys at Trader Joe's specialty grocery store. "It has a ton of spinach with cheese in phyllo dough. I make rice to go with it. When my husband sees it, he knows I've had absolutely no time."
Food for Thought
There are many cookbooks and web sites that can provide inspiration for planning and preparing healthy, quick dinners. The Meals in Minutes Cookbook by the American Heart Association is a good place to start.