The best way to prepare healthful meals in a hurry is ultimately the way that best suits you: your pantry, your cooking methods, and your style. Here are several simple, versatile strategies that can help you put quick, nutritious meals on the table night after night. You'll also find hundreds of quick, healthful recipes at our Light and Healthy Recipes page.
The nutritional value of vegetables varies dramatically based in large part on their color. Including at least three colors will give your meal visual appeal as well as a variety of nutrients. Make a one-pot pasta primavera: Add some chopped vegetables during the last couple of minutes of cooking the pasta, drain, and toss with a healthy drizzle of olive oil, salt, freshly ground pepper, and a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese. Or saute some onions and bell peppers in olive oil in a large skillet while the pasta cooks; add some marinara, heat until warmed through, and then toss with the pasta. Drizzle your favorite vinaigrette over leftover roasted or rotisserie chicken just before serving to give it a new dimension. The same trick also works wonders with fish or pork (or even with vegetables) when you don't have the time to marinate.
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Leftover takeout noodles or rice from last night's dinner is a great start for tonight's supper. Stir-fry some broccoli and shrimp, then add the leftovers and a drizzle of soy sauce and other desired flavorings, and you have a one-pot meal in a flash.
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Since breakfast is hailed as the most important meal of the day, why not have it twice? A vegetable omelet with whole-grain toast, a poached egg atop salad greens, or a fried egg on an English muffin with sliced tomato can be quick and unexpectedly satisfying.
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Salad greens offer convenience and nutrients. Upgrade from iceberg-lettuce salad mixes to darker salad greens, such as spinach, arugula, and mesclun, for maximum nutrition, particularly energy-enhancing B vitamins. Add a protein such as canned light tuna, turkey or chicken, or beans for an almost-instant meal.
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To keep rice from getting boring, try a different variety. Nutty brown rice comes in all shapes and sizes, including fragrant basmati. Enhance its flavor with grated lemon zest and fresh herbs, such as cilantro or flat-leaf parsley, or a small handful of nuts, which can spruce up rice's nutrition as well as its appeal. Or try whole-grain couscous or quinoa in place of rice.
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Streamline your favorite healthy recipes by looking for shortcuts. Some steps can be done in advance or tweaked to cut back on the number of pans used, minimizing last-minute prep, multitasking, and cleanup. Pesto (homemade or store-bought) can be tossed with pasta, stirred into cooked grains such as rice, barley, or quinoa, or spooned over cooked chicken cutlets and roast chicken. Salsa also works well with virtually any protein or grain.
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Little touches matter. Even the simplest meal can seem more special when it's presented on your favorite dishes, accompanied by candlelight or music, and lingered over rather than rushed.
Wendy Bazilian is a doctor of public health and a registered dietitian. She is a coauthor of "The SuperFoodsRx Diet" (Rodale; 2008).