Dinner at Home

When dinner is home based, you need a game plan to pull together a team of nutritious foods. The following tips can help you plan for and prepare wholesome dinners without much time or effort—with little or no cooking. The recipes in part IV offer additional tried-and-true menu suggestions.

Tip 1. Don't arrive home too hungry. One prerequisite for successful nighttime dining is to eat a hearty lunch plus a second lunch or afternoon snack. Irina, a busy stockbroker, experimented with my suggestion to eat a heartier lunch plus a preexercise snack before her 5:30 p.m. kick-boxing class. In one day, she discovered this food enhanced her energy for exercise and transformed her 7:00 bowl of ice cream for dinner into a bowl of salad. A substantial lunch supports less fatigue in the afternoon, higher-quality afternoon workouts, more physical and mental energy to prepare a nourishing supper, and a greater ability to cope with the day's stresses.

Tip 2. Plan time to shop for food. Good nutrition starts in the grocery store. By stocking your kitchen shelves and freezer with a variety of wholesome foods that are ready and waiting, you will be more likely to eat a better dinner. Kirsten, a 24-year-old dental assistant, used to spend most of her food budget in restaurants on the way home from work because at home she faced bare cupboards and an empty refrigerator. Although she liked to cook, she rarely did so because she simply didn't plan the time to grocery shop. Plus, she got discouraged by meats and vegetables that often spoiled before she got around to cooking them.

I advised Kirsten to enter into her day planner a time to food shop. She kept that appointment and was then able to stock her freezer with individually wrapped chicken breasts, lean hamburger patties, turkey burgers, and frozen vegetables—particularly vitamin-rich broccoli, spinach, and winter squash. Freezing does not destroy a food's nutritional value, so frozen foods provide quick nutrition with less fuss and waste than fresh items do. The frozen broccoli provides far more nutrients than the wilted, five-day-old stalks that Kirsten occasionally dragged from her refrigerator. Once she had stocked her kitchen with frozen foods and other staples, Kirsten discovered that she liked to come home for dinner.

I always stock basic foods that won't spoil quickly. On days when I arrive home to an empty refrigerator, I can either pull together a no-cook meal or quickly prepare a hot dinner. Some of my standard menus include these items:

  • English-muffin pizzas
  • Stoned-wheat crackers, peanut butter, and milk
  • Lentil soup with extra broccoli, leftover pasta, and a tub of yogurt
  • Refried beans, salsa, and cheese rolled in a tortilla and heated in the microwave
  • Tuna sandwich with tomato soup
  • Oatmeal cooked with low-fat milk, banana, and almonds My standard ingredients include the following:

Cupboard

Refrigerator

Freezer

Spaghetti

Salsa

Low-fat cheese

English muffins

Rice

Minced clams

Shredded mozzarella

Bagels

Potatoes, white

Tuna

Low-fat cottage cheese

Multigrain breads

Potatoes, sweet

Spaghetti sauce

Low-fat yogurt

Strawberries

Wheat crackers

Canned salmon

Low-fat milk

Blueberries

RyKrisp crackers

Kidney beans

Eggs (omega-3)

Winter squash

Pretzels

Refried beans

Oranges

Spinach

Wheaties

Soups (lentil, tomato)

Baby carrots

Broccoli

Oatmeal

Peanut butter

V8 juice

Chicken breasts

Almonds

Raisins

Orange juice

Ground turkey

Bananas

Canned peaches

Tortillas

Extra-lean hamburger

When creating a meal from these staples, I choose items from three of the five food groups, using carbohydrate as the foundation for each meal. The following are sample 650-calorie, 60 percent carbohydrate, well-balanced meals with no cooking. The portions are appropriate for an active woman who needs about 1,800 to 2,000 calories per day; a hungry man may want more.

Menu 1:

Menu 2: peanut butter

Food group

crackers with tuna

and raisin sandwich

1. Grain

8 stoned-wheat crackers

2 slices multigrain bread

2. Protein

1/2 can tuna with 1 tbsp light mayo

2 tbsp peanut butter

3. Fruit

1/4 cup raisins

4. Vegetable

12 oz (350 ml) can V8 juice

10 baby carrots

5. Dairy

1 cup fruit yogurt

1 cup low-fat milk

Food group

Menu 3: pizza

Menu 4: burrito

1. Grain

2 English muffins

2 tortillas

2. Protein

(cheese)

1 cup vegetarian refried beans

3. Fruit

1 cup orange juice

Canned peaches

4. Vegetable

3/4 cup spaghetti sauce

Salsa

  1. Dairy 1/2 cup grated mozzarella cheese 1 cup low-fat cottage cheese
  2. Dairy 1/2 cup grated mozzarella cheese 1 cup low-fat cottage cheese

Tip 3. Eat more than just plain pasta at a meal. For active people, pasta in any shape (spaghetti, ziti, twists, whatever) is without question a very popular and easy-to-cook meal. Although carbohydrate-rich pasta does provide muscle fuel for your body's engine, pasta is a marginal source of vitamins and minerals (the "spark plugs" needed for top performance). Whole-wheat pastas offer a little more nutritional value, but wheat and other grains are better respected for their carbohydrate value than their vitamin density. Even spinach and tomato pastas are overrated; they contain very little of the vegetables. Pasta becomes a nutrition powerhouse when it is topped with any combination of the following:

  • Tomato sauce (fresh or from a jar)
  • Spinach and garlic sauce
  • Vegetables (broccoli, spinach, or green peppers from the freezer)
  • Canned beans, cottage cheese, or tuna for cook-free protein

Tip 4. Plan cook-a-thons. Lauren, a 53-year-old high school teacher, enjoyed cooking on the weekends when she had the time. She always created a big batch of something on Sunday so it would be waiting for her when she arrived home tired and hungry after work and workouts. She preferred convenience to variety and thrived on beans and rice for a week, then lasagna the next week, split pea soup the third, and so on. When Lauren couldn't face another repetitious dinner, she cooked something else and put the leftovers in the freezer.

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