How to Make a Quick & Healthy Weeknight Dinner

Fresh quinoa salad in the bowl
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You know the drill — you arrive home late after work. You’re tired. You don’t feel like cooking. Usually this means you end up having cereal for dinner, or hitting the drive-through on the way home, or just eating a container of ice cream and calling it a night. But I promise, if you have just a few things on hand you can throw together a really simple, quick and nutritious meal with little to no effort. Here’s how!

First, your base. Choose one to go on your plate:

  • For warm meals, one huge handful of fresh baby spinach — pop it in the microwave for 1 minute on high to wilt it.
  • For cold meals, one huge handful of fresh salad greens, any kind.

Second, choose one of the following and put a serving (½ cup cooked) on your plate:
A good idea for this step is to make a big batch of grains one night so you have it on hand the rest of the week. Another option? Uncle Ben’s 90 Second Brown Rice — it’s awesome.

  • Brown rice
  • Barley
  • Quinoa
  • Whole wheat pasta
  • Any other whole grain

Now add 1/2 cup of any of the following cooked beans to your plate:
This will add fiber and protein to keep you full! I recommend canned beans — they are so easy. Just drain and rinse them! Alternately, if you have leftover cooked meat in the fridge (or canned meat/tuna), you could use that instead.

  • Cannellini beans (great with pasta)
  • Black beans (great with rice, quinoa, barley)
  • Kidney beans
  • Chickpeas or lentils (good with anything)
  • Etc.!

Time to add some veggie power — anything you have on hand:
This will add nutrients and a lot of volume to your meal, keeping you full longer.

  • Cooked or fresh broccoli
  • Chopped peppers
  • Steamed zucchini and/or squash (great with pasta)
  • Chopped or cooked carrots or celery
  • Cooked string beans
  • Etc.!

Top with a little fat (choose one or have both):

  • 1 to 2 tablespoons of cheese (cheddar, feta, goat, etc.)
  • ¼ of an avocado

And finally, a sauce! Choose one depending on your theme:

  • Salsa (for Mexican-inspired meals)
  • Marinara (pasta) sauce
  • Balsamic vinaigrette (I like Newman’s Own brand of balsamic vinaigrette — go for the regular version as low-fat dressings often just have more sugar/salt/preservatives added).

To get you started, here are a few of my favorite combos:

Mexican Mess
Base of microwave steamed spinach or fresh greens
½ cup cooked brown rice or quinoa
½ cup black beans
Chopped peppers and tomato
¼ an avocado
2 Tbsp. shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1/3 cup salsa, any kind

Quinoa Chickpea Salad
Base of fresh greens
½ cup cooked quinoa
½ cup chickpeas
Chopped veggies — peppers, carrots, cucumber, etc.
¼ an avocado
1 Tbsp. feta cheese
2 Tbsp. Balsamic vinaigrette

Simple Veggie Pasta
Base of steamed spinach
1/2 cup cooked whole wheat pasta
1/2 cup cannellini beans
Zucchini + squash, steamed in microwave
1/2 cup marinara sauce

Another variation of this if you like tuna is to make my Cold Tuna Pasta Salad or Tuna & Veggie Pasta Salad. Both are delicious and really simple — they use canned tuna!

I hope you guys find this post helpful the next time you arrive home with no idea what to make for dinner! The key is to include a lot of volume from veggies to help keep you full, and to make sure you add some form of protein — either beans or a lean meat/seafood.

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Anne Danahy
Anne Danahy, MS, RDN, is a wellness dietitian and nutrition communications consultant who specializes in women's health and healthy aging. She blogs at Craving Something Healthy. Follow her on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest.