4 Secrets to Simple Home-Cooked Meals

From the WebMD Archives

Making dinner at home is a great way to stay fit and trim. When you’re the cook, you have control over what goes in your food, which means you can make sure that what you’re eating is healthy.

Make it easier on yourself by breaking meal prep down into these simple steps.

1. Plan Ahead

Plan the week's menus by consulting favorite recipes, cookbooks, grocery store sales, and coupons, and looking to see what ingredients you have on hand.

Try to include at least one new recipe and plan to use your leftovers. For example, serve a roasted chicken from the supermarket one night, then use the leftovers in a chicken noodle soup, quesadilla, taco, wrap, pita sandwich, or entree salad the next night.

Before heading out in the morning, think about the dinner plan in case it requires defrosting or tossing ingredients into a slow cooker for a meal that's ready when you walk through the door.

2. Think Big

When you’re making a favorite meal, double the recipe so you cook once and eat twice. Another time saver: Cook double the protein and use it the following night in another recipe.

Use big-batch recipes for hearty soups made with whatever veggies you have on hand. Freeze some of it for another time.

3. Keep It Simple

Use MyPlate as a guide. Fill three-quarters of the plate with fruits, veggies, and whole grains and the fourth quarter with lean protein. You can include low-fat dairy in the meal (think cheese, skim milk, or yogurt).

At least once a week, make a vegetarian meal centered on beans, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, eggs, nuts, and seeds. Try this breakfast-for-dinner idea: Make a vegetable cheese omelet, fruit salad, and whole wheat toast -- or hide the whole wheat bread as French toast and top it with fresh fruit.

4. Stock Up

A well-stocked kitchen saves time, money, and provides the basics for quick, easy meals. Here are some examples of what to always keep handy

In the refrigerator:

  • Dairy: skim milk, fat-free and low-fat Greek yogurt, fat-free half-and-half (alternative in cooking), assorted cheeses, light sour cream, and light mayonnaise
  • Fruits: lemons, limes, apples, oranges, and grapefruits. Also, seasonal fruits such as blueberries, strawberries, peaches, mangoes, and melons
  • Veggies: assorted mixed greens, avocados, baby carrots, mushrooms, peppers, and tomatoes, along with fresh picks such as asparagus, green beans, broccoli, and sugar snap peas
  • Juices: orange, grapefruit, light cranberry, and low-sodium tomato
  • Eggs, butter, and trans-fat-free soft margarine
  • Hummus


In the freezer:

  • Meats: boneless skinless chicken breasts, pork tenderloin, salmon, shrimp, ground turkey breast, and lean beef
  • Assorted frozen vegetables: spinach, corn, green beans, and mixed vegetables
  • Shelled edamame
  • Assorted frozen fruits: blueberries, mango, peach, strawberries
  • Breads: whole-grain rolls, whole wheat pizza crusts or pita bread
  • Low-fat frozen desserts: frozen yogurt, fruit bars
  • Healthy frozen dinners

In the pantry:

  • Bananas
  • Onions, garlic, sweet potatoes
  • Pickles, olives, light salad dressings, bottled marinades
  • Fruit preserves
  • Extra virgin olive oil and canola oils
  • Assorted mustards and vinegars
  • Low-sodium beans -- black, kidney, garbanzo
  • Assorted fruits in their own juices
  • Low-sodium chicken and beef stock
  • Low-sodium soups
  • Tomato sauce, whole tomatoes
  • Water-packed tuna
  • Canned artichoke hearts
  • Canned olives
  • Whole grains: pasta, couscous, brown rice, crackers, cereals, and oatmeal
  • Treats: simple cookies, high-protein granola bars
  • Nuts and natural-style nut butters

Simple Throw-Together Meal Ideas

Serve your family low-fat milk and fruit for dessert along with these easy, kid-pleasing meals:

  • Create your own pizza using whole grain crust, tomato sauce, part-skim mozzarella cheese and a variety of toppings including beans, spinach, mushrooms, lean meat, peppers, onions, artichoke hearts, and pineapples.
  • Hearty soup can be whipped up by adding frozen veggies and beans to a box or can or prepared soup. Serve it with a side salad and a whole grain roll.
  • Frittata filled with leftover vegetables, potatoes -- or whole grains, lean meat, and cheese -- paired with a cup of vegetable soup or a salad and a whole grain roll.
  • Tacos stuffed with lean protein or beans, shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, shredded low-fat cheese, and salsa in a corn tortilla.
  • Spaghetti sauce mixed with 100% ground turkey breast or lean ground beef on whole wheat pasta, side salad, and a roll.

Keep It Safe and Clean

You will definitely find thermometers in all compartments of my refrigerator and freezer to ensure safe temperatures. If you don't already have one, I highly recommend purchasing a thermometer that can be easily hung from a wire shelf or attached to the side wall, and is visible when you open the compartment doors.

Be sure to keep your refrigerator and freezer clean by wiping up spills and debris whenever they happen. This will minimize bacterial contamination to fresh food. Once a week, wipe the interior down with a mild bleach solution to keep it sanitized.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Elaine Magee, MPH, RD on August 19, 2014
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