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Easy, Healthy, Weeknight Meals

By Kari Hartel, RD, LD
Program Coordinator, Cooking Matters, Operation Food Search

Eating healthy, affordable, delicious meals during the week can be particularly difficult given how busy we all are these days. Between work, family responsibilities, household chores, and maintaining healthy relationships with friends and family, there is often little time to plan, shop for, and prepare healthy meals on weeknights. However, with a few tricks and a little planning, you can enjoy delicious, filling, affordable meals without spending too much time at the grocery store or in the kitchen during the week.

Plan, Plan, Plan Ahead

A crucial step toward enjoying healthier homemade meals throughout the hectic workweek is planning ahead. On your least-busy day of the week, write out a week’s worth of menus so when the frenzied workweek starts, you won’t have to think too much about what to make for dinner. Plan out “recipe frameworks” as opposed to exact hard-and-fast recipes. For example, plan a veggie and protein stir-fry for dinner on Monday, a roasted turkey and veggie supper on Tuesday, a soup for Wednesday, and so on. Then, use whatever veggies, whole grains, and lean proteins you have on hand to fill in the blanks of the framework. Go ahead and cut up a variety of veggies, cook up some whole-grains and lean proteins, and have them ready to quickly throw together for your weeknight meals.

Cook Once, Eat Twice
One way to cut your time in the kitchen in half is by “batch cooking”. Batch cooking is the practice of preparing numerous portions of a handful of meals and then storing them away in your fridge or freezer to eat later. You can cook up a huge pot of soup and freeze individual portions, or bake an entire chicken in the oven and then use the meat in your recipes throughout the week.

Use One Ingredient across Several Meals
Rather than having to gather new ingredients for each meal, plan several of your meals throughout the workweek around one main ingredient, such as lean chicken, ground turkey, beans, brown rice, or whole-wheat pasta. For example, if you cook up an entire chicken (cheaper than buying chicken breasts that have been deboned, deskinned and cut into even portions) you can use all of the meat for a variety of dishes over a couple days. Buying certain items in bulk (and freezing what you will not cook right away) can sometimes save you money on certain ingredients.

Take Advantage of the Butcher Counter
Many grocers these days provide numerous free services at the butcher counter that will make your life so much easier. For example, slash your prep time nearly in half by asking the grocery store to cut up, season, and cook your meat, poultry, or fish for you. This way, you can take the cooked protein home and add it directly into whatever dish you are having for dinner.
Another convenient, healthy, time-saving trick to have up your sleeve is to purchase a rotisserie chicken. You can use the chicken parts for myriad recipes. Shred up the chicken (remove all of the skin to avoid all of that heart-harming saturated fat) and add in some non-fat Greek yogurt, chopped veggies, and seasonings for a yummy chicken salad.

Avocado Pesto Grilled Cheese
Adapted from Food Heaven Made Easy
For one serving:

  • 2 slices of 100% whole grain bread
  • 1/4 cup of raw spinach
  • 1/8 Hass avocado
  • 1 ounce of mozzarella cheese
  • 1 tablespoon of pesto

Directions:

  1. Spread the pesto on each slice of toast.
  2. Layer with cheese, spinach, and avocado.
  3. Grill for 5-7 minutes OR if using the stovetop, cook sandwich on each side with the lid on for 3-4 minutes.

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