10 October, 2017
5 No-Recipe Weeknight Dinners This R.D. Swears By
Weeknight dinners create stress for even the most Zen among us. While it seems as though meal planning should be simple, especially with endless #mealprep inspiration and thousands of recipes available with just a quick Google search, the reality of busy weekends and weeknight time constraints can make homemade meals a little bit tricky.
As a registered dietitian, I constantly have clients asking for healthy, low-maintenance dinners—something they can quickly throw together, that takes advantage of whatever food they have on-hand. While healthy eating is my forte, elaborate, multi-step recipes are not.
Amanda Baker Lemein
I always build my meals around the following: a high-fiber carbohydrate source, lean protein, and vegetables.
This formula covers the bases of a healthy meal, and is built around foods with high satiety levels: fiber, protein and healthy fat. Fiber helps draw in water to provide a feeling of fullness, and keeps your digestive system moving; protein molecules take the longest for your body to fully break down; fat is denser than other nutrients (carbohydrates and protein have 4 calories per gram, whereas fat has 9 calories per gram), and so it leaves the stomach at a slower rate than other nutrients, which means you feel fuller for longer. The formula doesn’t explicitly call for fat because it’s often already included in the protein source, in cooking oils and sauces, and in garnishes like avocado, nuts, or cheese.
I make sure all of my meals contain a palm-sized serving of protein, a half-cup serving of a fiber-rich carbohydrate, and an unlimited amount of vegetables. I use healthy fats to cook my food, or as a garnish.
When thinking of meals as a formula, portion plays a critical role in the equation. You don’t need to weigh and measure everything, but you should be able to eyeball correct portions sizes. A 3 to 4-ounce protein serving will be about the size of your palm, and a single serving of healthy carbs includes things like a half-cup of grains or whole grain pasta, a slice of 100-percent whole wheat bread, or a small potato. The amount of healthy fats in your meals will vary, since you’ll often use oil to cook your food, and some protein sources have more fat than others. If you’re topping your meals with fat-rich ingredients like cheese, nuts, or avocado, you’ll probably only need a couple of tablespoons. Finally, try to fill at least half of your plate with vegetables, since they add fiber and nutrients without adding many calories, which helps prevent overeating.
Amanda Baker Lemein
An important note here: Calories aren’t bad, they’re what give you the energy to do…well, everything. You don’t have to count calories to maintain a healthy weight, but you do need to be eating the right number of calories for your body. Depending on your body and your activity level, you might need different portion sizes than the ones mentioned above. Eating mostly healthy foods like the ones we’re talking about here and listening to your body’s hunger and fullness cues is a great way to maintain a healthy weight without actually counting calories. If you’re more numbers-oriented, or if you think tracking your food is helpful, you can use this calculator to figure out about how many calories you need per day, or the Super Tracker from the USDA to keep track of your food intake.
At the simplest level, this formula can mean eating a serving of protein with a small side of carbs and a big scoop of vegetables. But, it’s also endlessly customizable and allows for as much creativity as you feel like putting in.
Below are a few of my favorite examples of recipe-less dinners that are more interesting than, say, a piece of meat with a scoop of rice and a pile of broccoli. I’ve included my go-to ingredients as suggestions, but the whole point is that you can and should use whatever ingredients you love or have on-hand. Use these for inspiration until you get the hang of building your own meals without a recipe. Once you feel comfortable with the formula, there’s really no limit to the kinds of meals you can throw together.
Easy Vegetarian Tacos
Protein and fiber-rich carb: ½ cup canned black beans (look for BPA-free package)
Fiber-rich carb: 2 whole corn tortillas
Vegetables: 2 cups shredded romaine, 1 cup chopped vegetables (I use onions, bell peppers, and tomatoes), 2 tbsp salsa
Healthy fats: 1 tsp olive oil, ¼ medium avocado, 2 tbsp shredded cheese
In a large skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat. Sauté chopped vegetables. Add black beans. Warm tortillas in the microwave between two damp paper towels. Smash avocado onto tortillas and top with some of the bean and vegetable mixture, plus cheese and salsa. Make a salad with the romaine, remaining bean and vegetable mixture, and remaining cheese and salsa.
Per serving: 368 calories, 13 g fat (5 g saturated), 49 g carbs, 10 g sugar (0 g added sugar), 16 g fiber, 17 grams of protein
Helpful hint: Whatever vegetables you decide to use, chop them into pieces that are all roughly the same size—that way they’ll cook evenly, instead of some getting too soft while others are still raw in the center.
Greek-Style Chicken Salad
Protein: 3 oz cooked chicken breast
Fiber-rich carb: ½ cup cooked farro
Vegetables: 1 to 2 cups baby spinach, 1 cup chopped vegetables (I use cucumbers, tomatoes, and red onion)
Healthy fats: 2 tbsp chopped olives, 1 tbsp crumbled feta, 1 tsp olive oil
Extras: Lemon wedge, dried oregano
Toss spinach and chopped vegetables with olive oil, oregano, olives and feta. Drizzle with lemon juice. Cut chicken into bite-sized pieces. Top salad with chicken and cooked farro.
Per serving: 421 calories, 13 g fat (3 g saturated), 49 g carbohydrate, 11 g sugar (0 g added sugar), 12 grams of fiber, 35 g protein
Helpful hint: Bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts are better for meal prep, since they stay more moist and tender after a few days in the fridge than boneless, skinless breasts. To cook them: Season the breasts on all sides with salt and pepper and put them skin side-up on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Roast in a 375° oven until the chicken is cooked through and a thermometer inserted into the center of the breast reads 165° (about 40 minutes for a medium-sized chicken breast). Let the cooked chicken breasts cool, then store them whole, with the bone and skin still on, in an airtight container in the fridge. Only remove the bones (and skin, if you don’t want to eat it) right before you cut and eat the chicken, to preserve as much moisture as possible.
Protein: 4 oz extra-firm tofu
Fiber-rich carb: ½ cup cooked brown rice
Vegetables: 2 cups chopped vegetables (1 use peppers, onions, snap peas, and broccoli)
Healthy fats: 1 tbsp olive oil
Extras: 1-2 tsp Sriracha or red pepper flakes
Heat half the oil oil in a large skillet. Add tofu and sear on all sides. Set tofu aside on a plate. Heat the remaining half the oil in the skillet. Add chopped vegetables and cook until soft. Add soy sauce and Sriracha or red pepper flakes, and stir together to coat. Add tofu and lightly toss everything together. Serve tofu and vegetables on top of cooked brown rice.
Per serving: 463 calories, 22 g fat (3 g saturated), 51 g carbs, 13 g sugar (0 g added sugar), 9 g fiber, 21 g protein
Helpful hint: The best way to sear tofu is to add it to hot oil in a hot pan, then let it sit for about 2 minutes per side without touching it at all. That way, you’ll get maximum browning without breaking the tofu apart too much. It also helps to cook the tofu and vegetables separately and combine them at the end, since tofu is super delicate and will crumble if you toss it too much.
Protein: 1 large egg
Fiber-rich carb: 1 slice 100-percent whole wheat or sprouted grain bread
Vegetables: 1 cup sliced cremini mushrooms, ½ cup chopped onions, 1 to 2 cups arugula, ½ cup chopped cherry tomatoes
Healthy fats: 2 tsp olive oil, 2 tbsp crumbled feta
Extras: Cooking spray, lemon wedge
Coat a large skillet with cooking spray and place over medium heat. Sauté mushrooms and onions until soft. In a non-stick skillet, make a scrambled, over-easy, or sunny side-up egg. Spoon mushroom and onion mixture onto the bread, and slide cooked egg on top. Make a side salad with arugula, tomatoes, feta, olive oil, and a squeeze of lemon.
Per serving: 342 calories, 19 g fat, 27 g carbs, 5 g fiber, 17 g protein
Helpful hint: Mushrooms have a ton of water that gets expelled when you cook them. Because of this, you don’t want to put too many mushrooms in a pan at once, since all that moisture can cause them to steam and turn to mush, instead of getting brown and crispy. If your mushrooms don’t fit in a single layer in your skillet, cook them in two (or more) batches.
Quick Pasta Toss
Protein: 1 chicken sausage (nitrate/nitrite-free)
Fiber-rich carb: ½ cup cooked whole wheat pasta
Vegetables: 2 cups chopped vegetables (I use bell peppers, onions, tomatoes, and zucchini), ½ cup no-sugar-added marinara sauce
Healthy fats: from the chicken sausage
Extras: Garlic powder, oregano, basil, and red pepper flakes, to taste
Coat a large skillet with cooking spray and place over medium heat. Sauté chopped vegetables until soft, adding garlic powder, oregano, basil, and red pepper flakes if you want. Add sliced chicken sausage and cook until browned on both sides. Add marinara and cooked pasta, toss together, and cook until everything is hot.
Per serving: 423 calories, 16 g fat (3 g saturated), 51 g carbs, 21 g sugar (1 g added sugar), 10 g fiber, 20 g protein
Helpful hint: Tempeh, a fermented soy product that has a grainy texture and tastes a little bit nutty, is a great vegetarian protein option for pasta. Crumble it up and use it the same way you would use ground turkey or ground beef.
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