6 Steps to a Healthy Weeknight Dinner
A well-balanced meal
As a registered dietitian, I hear so many of my clients say there aren't enough hours in the day. So I developed a simple six-step program that teaches how to build a nourishing meal. By stocking your fridge and pantry and doing a bit of advance prep, you can throw together a healthy and satisfying supper. Here's how.
Step 1: Choose a green base
Want a hot meal? Place 1 cup packed fresh baby spinach on each plate. Microwave on high, uncovered, until wilted, about 1 minute. For a cold dinner, place 1 cup packed fresh salad greens on each plate. Try mixed greens, baby kale or arugula.
Why it's great: Green vegetables add volume and fiber to your meal without loading on the calories. Plus, spinach is high in antioxidants and iron, and dark leafy greens are a good source of vitamins A, C and K, as well as potassium.
Step 2: Add a complex carb
Go with 1/2 cup (about the size of a billiard ball) of a cooked whole grain, such as brown rice, barley, quinoa, whole-wheat pasta, farro, bulgur or millet. Or use a cooked starchy vegetable, like fresh corn, potatoes or winter squash.
Why it's great: Whole grains and starchy vegetables contain fiber, which not only fills you but also improves your digestive health and may even lower cholesterol and control blood sugar.
Step 3: Pick a lean protein
Add a 1/2-cup chopped portion or a piece about the size of a deck of cards. Try one of the following foods:
• Grilled or roasted skinless chicken
• Cooked lean ground turkey or beef
• Canned or pouch-sealed tuna
TIP: Chunk light tuna tends to have less mercury than solid white.
• Canned or pouch-sealed salmon
TIP: Buy wild-caught salmon if possible. Research has shown that farm-raised salmon can be higher in potentially harmful contaminants.
• Hard-boiled eggs
TIP: Cook eggs over the weekend so you have them on hand all week. Keep them in their shells in the fridge until you're ready to use them.
• Canned beans, such as cannellini, black or kidney beans or chickpeas
Why it's great: Including protein in your meal is essential because it increases satiety. Protein is also crucial for maintaining strong hair and nails, repairing tissues, building enzymes, and hormones and forming muscle. Have leftover cooked steak, fish or pork loin? Feel free to use it. You can also mix and match: If you want meat and beans, for example, have a half portion of each.
Step 4: Add more vegetables
Use any you have: broccoli or cauli-flower, bell peppers, zucchini or yellow squash, carrots, celery, green beans, peas, cucumber, asparagus or onions.
Why it's great: Vegetables supply you with filling fiber and a host of vitamins and minerals, as well as color and texture (a plus if you're feeding kids—studies have shown that children respond well to variety). If you have leftover cooked vegetables or odds and ends (a bit of shredded carrot, half a chopped zucchini), toss them all in. The greater the assortment, the wider the array of nutrients and the more interesting the dish will be to eat. Keep plenty of vegetables in the freezer so you always have them at the ready.
Step 5: Toss in a little fat
Add two of the following to each plate:
• 1 Tbsp. cheese, such as shredded Cheddar, crumbled feta or fresh goat cheese
• 1/4 avocado, sliced or cubed
• 1 Tbsp. chopped nuts or seeds, such as pistachios, slivered almonds, sunflower seeds or pumpkin seeds
• 1 Tbsp. oil. Olive oil is always a great choice, but hemp, flaxseed and walnut oils are good sources of healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
Why it's great: Like protein and fiber, a bit of fat will help keep you full longer, making your meals more satisfying. You also need fat to enable your body to absorb fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. You already know to limit saturated fat (found in animal products) and avoid trans fat (in some processed foods) in favor of unsaturated fat (found in plant-based foods and oils, fatty fish and nuts), which helps improve blood-cholesterol levels, decrease inflammation and reduce the risk of heart disease.
Mediterranean pasta salad
Zucchini, baby spinach, whole-wheat pasta, chickpeas, artichoke hearts, black olives, tomato, basil, oregano, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, Dijon mustard, goat cheese, salt and pepper
Try this recipe: Mediterranean Pasta Salad With Whole-Wheat Pasta
Tuna and vegetable pasta salad
Baby spinach, whole-wheat pasta, chunk light tuna, peas, hummus, guacamole, lemon juice, dill
Try this recipe: Tuna and Vegetable Pasta Salad
Healthy taco salad
Salad greens, quinoa, pinto beans, grilled or roasted chicken, bell peppers, avocado, sharp Cheddar, salsa, cilantro, salt and pepper, hot sauce (optional)
Try this recipe: Healthy Taco Salad
Sweet potato-black bean bowls
Baby spinach, sweet potatoes, black beans, tomato, bell peppers, cheese, cumin, cinnamon, marinara sauce
Try this recipe: Sweet Potato-Black Bean Bowls
Step 6: Top it off with a simple sauce
Try any of these: • 1/2 cup salsa• 1/2 marinara sauce• 2 Tbsp. salad dressing
TIP: Skip low-fat and fat-free dressing—they often have extra sugar and/or salt in place of the fat.• 1/4 cup guacamole• 2 Tbsp. pesto
Note: If you're using guacamole or a sauce that uses oil, such as a vinaigrette or pesto, also count it as one of your healthy fats in step 5.