Faster-Than-Takeout Dinners

Whip up a weeknight meal quicker than you can pick one up.

From the WebMD Archives

Well, folks, I did what I often do on weeknights around 5 p.m.: I called my husband at work and asked what he had for lunch. Is this some type of obsession I have for him (or food)? Not exactly. It's my way of deciding at the last minute what to make for dinner. You see, if he had tacos for lunch, I rule out all things Mexican. If he had a sandwich, anything deli-like is off the list.

Yes, I often decide what to cook for a weeknight dinner mere minutes before the troops converge on my kitchen. I know it's tempting to do the takeout thing on weeknights, but bear with me. I think you'll find that some of my "faster- than- takeout" dinner ideas (below) are just what the "Recipe Doctor" ordered.

It may seem like takeout is faster than cooking. But if you break it down minute by minute, it isn't that much more convenient than a fast homemade dinner. Just last night, I called in a takeout order to a restaurant chain. Here's how the time went from that moment on:

7:30 p.m.: Cycling class ends and I place the order on my cell phone. The restaurant tells me the order will be ready in 15-20 minutes. So I drive there; it's about 10 minutes away.

7:55: I pay for the food, after parking and then getting through the line at the restaurant.

8:10: I arrive home and start unpacking the dinners.

Total Time: 40 minutes

Total Cost for family of 4: $35 (that's with my two teen daughters getting the kids' meal, my husband and I splitting an entrée, and a $1 tip for the nice lady at the front desk).

OK, so now you're thinking, "Well, of course it took 40 minutes; she went to a full-service restaurant. That's why drive-through fast food is the ticket on a weeknight." Well, I tried the fast-food route and it did improve my time -- but not by much. Here's the breakdown of my fast-food drive-through experience:

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6:10 p.m.: I pick my daughter up from the dance studio. I haven't had the chance to go to the supermarket, and last I checked, there was next to nothing in the fridge. So I'm thinking fast food is the way to go. We drive 10 minutes to a part of town we fondly refer to as "fast-food row."

6:28: Other families must have the same idea, because it takes us eight minutes to get to the intercom and order our dinner.

6:32: We pay for our food and head home.

6:42: We're home and unpacking dinner.

Total Time: 32 minutes

Total Cost for family of 4: $20 (includes 4 chicken sandwiches, 4 side salads from the dollar menu, and no drinks).

So now you're thinking "32 minutes? What can I cook in 32 minutes?" Read on.

Faster-Than-Takeout Option 1: The Potato Bar

I discovered this awesome weeknight dinner option one day when I decided to use that 5-pound bag of potatoes sitting in the corner of my kitchen, and I've never looked back. We do this about every other week. Fitting for a family with an Irish name, don't you think? Here's my timeline for a potato bar dinner (see more specifics in the recipe below):

Starting Time: 6:05 p.m.: I threw four potatoes into my microwave/convection oven and set it to sensor cook for "hard vegetables." Then I preheated the oven to 400 degrees (I'll explain why later). I ran to the grocery store while they were cooking and bought a few items I was missing (shredded, reduced-fat sharp cheddar cheese; fat-free sour cream; and green onions). When I got back, the potatoes were tender and the oven was preheated. I rubbed a wee bit of canola oil on the outside of each potato, set them on a baking sheet, and let the outside crisp up a bit in the oven for 15 minutes.

I opened the bag of cheese, put a spoon into the nonfat sour cream container, chopped the green onions, and set out the pepper grinder and whipped butter and less-fat margarine (either has less fat per tablespoon than stick butter or margarine). I even had time to steam a little broccoli and sauté some pre-sliced mushrooms, in case anyone wanted to get a little fancy with their potato.

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About 20 minutes after I got home from shopping, I was yelling, "Dinner's ready!" Then we all sat down at the table to enjoy our personalized potatoes. I will definitely be repeating "Potato Bar Night" in weeks to come (that 5-pound bag of potatoes is now a 2 1/2-pound bag).

End Time: 6:40 p.m.

Total Time: 35 minutes (20 minutes if you don't crisp the potatoes in the hot oven)

Total Cost for a family of 4: $12

Faster-Than-Takeout Option 2: Pick-a-Pasta Night

It takes most types of pasta about eight minutes to cook -- pretty handy on a busy weeknight. I always have ravioli or tortellini in my freezer, along with dried pasta in my pantry, and I end up serving a pasta dish at least once a week.

If you try this option, try to find a whole-wheat blend or multigrain pasta that your family likes to up your fiber intake. You can choose from several convenient sauces, too -- bottled marinara, frozen or bottled pesto sauce, all in various flavors. You can even toss up a main dish pasta salad using a light bottled vinaigrette dressing.

Starting Time: 6:30 p.m. Start water boiling in large saucepan for the pasta. Meanwhile, prepare whatever ingredients you will be featuring in your pasta dish. If you'll be serving your marinara sauce with a healthier sausage (like less-fat, diagonally sliced turkey polska kielbasa) start cooking it in a nonstick skillet coated lightly with canola cooking spray. If you'll be adding cooked shrimp, diced tofu, or shredded chicken instead, get it ready now.

When the water boils, add the pasta noodles (like Barilla Plus Angel Hair) and set your timer for seven or eight minutes (or whatever the package directions say). While the pasta cooks, prepare your side dishes: micro-steam the veggies and wash and cut the fruit.

Drain the pasta, then put it back in the saucepan, and add whatever sauce you're using (straight from the jar) along with your meat or meat alternative. Stir, cover the saucepan, and heat your pasta mixture for a couple of minutes over LOW heat. Serve with veggies and fruit.

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End Time: 6:50 p.m.

Total Time: 20 minutes

Total Cost for a family of 4: around $15 (depending on choice of sauce, pasta, meat, fruit, and vegetable).



Faster-Than-Takeout Option 3: Nacho Night

Here's the timeline; more specifics are in the recipe below.

Start Time: 6:15 p.m. Open a can of fat-free refried (or vegetarian) beans and heat it in a pan with a couple tablespoons of taco seasoning (available in packets at your grocery store).

6:18 p.m.: Start getting the rest of your toppings ready. You might try:

Shredded, reduced-fat cheese (Jack, cheddar, or a mixture of both)

Chopped green onions

Chopped tomatoes

Ortega canned chili peppers, chopped

Fat-free sour cream

Bottled or fresh salsa

6:22 p.m.: Arrange a serving of reduced-fat tortilla chips on a microwave-save plate. Top the chips with spoonfuls of the beans, a blanket of cheese, then whatever veggie-type toppings you're using. Microwave on HIGH for a minute. Garnish with sour cream, salsa, or similar, then repeat with remaining servings.

End Time: 6:28 p.m.

Total Time: 13 minutes

Cost for a family of 4: Around $13.

2 More Options

Here are a couple of more faster-than-takeout ideas to take you through the rest of the week:

  • Soup & Sandwich Night. Choose a high-quality canned soup (like Amy's brand or certain Wolfgang Puck varieties that aren't too high in fat) or any other brand that tastes homemade. Heat this in a saucepan while you put together a sandwich (hot or cold).
  • Stir-Fry Night. Use a great stir-fry recipe as your base, and add or delete ingredients based on what you have leftover or in the fridge. Try this Easy Mu-Shu recipe on for size, then check out two other Faster-Than-Takeout recipes below.

Easy Mu Shu

Journal as: 1 cup vegetables without added fat + 1 slice bread + 1 serving lean meat without added fat

OR 1 cup hearty stew OR 1 cup entrée salad with meat, poultry or seafood with light seasoning OR 1 frozen dinner light, pasta or rice dish with fish.

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I literally pulled this dish together in 10 minutes!

1 tablespoon canola oil

16 ounce bag Asian stir-fry veggies (available at Whole Foods and other stores)

2 teaspoons minced bottled garlic

2 cups meat or substitute of your choice (try frozen, cooked, tail-off shrimp that's been thawed; shredded roasted chicken or pork; or diced tofu)

3 cups shredded Chinese or Napa cabbage, packed (or substitute regular cabbage)

2 large eggs, beaten with 2 teaspoons water (you may use 1/4 cup egg substitute in place of one of the eggs)

3 tablespoons bottled hoisin sauce (available in most supermarkets)

6 flour tortillas

  • Start heating the canola oil in the middle of a nonstick wok or large nonstick frying pan or skillet. Add the bag of vegetables and the garlic; stir-fry for about 2 minutes.
  • Add the meat or tofu and the cabbage; stir-fry for about 2 more minutes. Push the vegetable mixture around the sides of the wok or pan to make a 4-inch wide opening in the center.
  • Pour the beaten eggs into the opening and let cook there for a minute. While you're waiting, grind some black pepper lightly over the top. Start tossing the mixture together to finish cooking the eggs (about 1 minute more). Drizzle the hoisin sauce over the top of the mixture and toss to blend well.
  • Soften tortillas by heating briefly in the microwave. Place some of the vegetable mixture into center of each tortilla and roll up like a burrito. Repeat with remaining tortillas and vegetable mixture.

Yield: 6 servings

Per serving (with shrimp): 283 calories, 18.5 g protein, 35.5 g carbohydrate, 7.8 g fat, 1.3 g saturated fat, 163 mg cholesterol, 6 g fiber, 460 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 25%.

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Baked Potato Bar

Journal: as 1 cup "hearty stews, chili, bean soup" OR 3/4 cup "starchy foods without added fat" + 1 oz "low-fat cheese."

Potatoes:

4 medium russet potatoes with a couple of fork punctures in each

About 1 teaspoon canola oil

Toppings:

About 1 cup shredded, reduced-fat sharp cheddar cheese

About 1/2 cup fat-free sour cream

4 green onions (the white and part of the green), chopped; or 1/4 cup chopped chives

Black pepper to taste

2 cups broccoli florets, steamed (optional)

4 strips crisp turkey bacon, broken into bits (optional)

Mushroom slices, sautéed in wine or broth (optional)

  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place potatoes into microwave/convection oven and set it to sensor cook for "hard vegetables" (or microwave on HIGH for about 10 minutes or until tender). Rub a little oil on the outside of each potato. Set them on a baking sheet and let the outside crisp up in the hot oven for 15 minutes.
  • Set out all of your potato fixings on the table along with the baked potatoes (options include shredded cheese, sour cream, green onions, black pepper, broccoli florets, crisp turkey bacon broken into bits, sautéed mushrooms, etc.).

Yield: 4 servings

Per serving (including cheese, fat-free sour cream, and green onions): 250 calories, 13 g protein, 38 g carbohydrate, 5 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 3.5 g fiber, 183 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 18%.

Deluxe Microwave Nachos

Journal as: 1 cup entrée salad with "starchy foods, light salad dressing" + 1 slice bread + 2 ounces low-fat cheese OR 2 cups "hearty stew, chili, bean soup."

1 can (16-ounce) fat-free or vegetarian refried beans

2 tablespoons taco seasoning (from packets such as Lawry's)

About 1 1/3 cup shredded reduced-fat cheese (Jack or cheddar or both)

4 green onions (white and part green), chopped

2 ripe tomatoes, chopped

Small can of chopped Ortega chili peppers

1/2 cup fat-free sour cream

1/2 cup bottled or fresh salsa

About 8 cups reduced-fat tortilla chips

  • Open the fat-free refried (or vegetarian) beans and heat in a saucepan with a couple tablespoons of taco seasoning. Stir and cook until blended and beans are nice and soft (about 2 minutes).
  • Prepare the rest of your toppings: open a bag of shredded, reduced-fat cheese; chop green onions and fresh tomatoes; open a can of chili peppers; put a spoon into the container of sour cream, and in the jar or tub of salsa.
  • Arrange a serving (about 2 cups) of reduced-fat tortilla chips on a microwave-safe plate. Top with spoonfuls of beans, cheese, and sprinkles of green onions, tomatoes, and chili peppers, as desired. Microwave on HIGH for about 1 minute. Place a dollop of sour cream and salsa in the center of the plate and serve.
  • Repeat with remaining servings (each takes about 1 1/2 minutes to assemble and microwave).

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Yield: 5 servings

Per serving: 450 calories, 22 g protein, 66 g carbohydrate, 11.5 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 18 mg cholesterol, 13 grams fiber, 800 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 23%.

Recipes provided by Elaine Magee; © 2006 Elaine Magee

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© 2006 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.

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