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How to serve quick and healthful meals

August 24, 1999|By Lynn F. Little

What do you do when the clock says it's time to eat?

a. stop at a fast-food restaurant on your way to wherever you have to be next;
b. Pick up items from the grocery store or deli on your way home from work;
c. Pull an "emergency" meal from your freezer and reheat it;
d. whip up a little something from your well-stocked pantry;
e. serve a main dish from your slow cooker; or
f. any of the above, depending on how much planning you've done ahead of time.

All of the above choices are acceptable ways to serve quick, healthful meals. Which answer you choose will depend on your time schedule, food budget and planning. Every choice has a cost, either in hours and minutes or in dollars and cents. Every choice has a health consequence. Your choice will vary with how far ahead you plan.

The easiest way to serve a healthful meal is to use the proportions suggested by the Food Pyramid. Start at the base and work your way to the top. Choose one or more grain products. Add one or more vegetables and fruits. Add one or more dairy products. Add a meat or protein source. And, if desired, add small amounts of fats, oils, or sweeteners to enhance the overall flavor.


Every meal requires some preparation time. It may be in the form of shopping for ready-to-eat foods on your way home, assembling a slow cooker or oven meal ahead of time, or stocking your freezer or refrigerator with ready-to-heat items during a weekend cooking marathon.

Think about your past week. You probably needed meals that were ready to eat now, soon, or in 30 to 60 minutes. Consider these possibilities:

* Base a meal on carry-in foods and supplement as needed with items from your pantry to match the Food Pyramid recommendations.

* Serve lasagna or another oven meal started by the family member who arrives home first.

* Serve a slow cooker-based meal that you assembled earlier in the day.

* Assemble a chef's salad from your refrigerator and/or the deli and produce aisle at your favorite store.

* Base a meal on planned leftovers.

Heat leftover meat or poultry in barbecue or spaghetti sauce and serve with hard rolls or pasta.

* Stir-fry pre-sliced or chopped vegetables, meat and/or poultry; add Oriental seasonings and serve with rice, or add Mexican seasonings and serve in tortillas.

* Microwave/bake potatoes and top with your choice of vegetables, meats, poultry and sauces.

* Reach for a ready-to-heat sauce or cream soup from your pantry or freezer and serve with any of the dozens of pasta shapes; add vegetables and meat, as desired.

* Make chili using canned beans, tomato sauce and pre-cooked meat.

When planning meals, focus first on the grain and cereal products from the base of the Food Guide Pyramid. They are nutritious, economical and available in an incredible variety.

Start with:

  • Bagel
  • Cornbread
  • English Muffin
  • French Bread
  • Noodles, spaghetti
  • Pasta (any shape)
  • Pita bread
  • Pizza crust
  • Tortilla (corn or wheat)

Choose a topping:

* Broccoli slaw, meat/poultry/fish, cheese, low-fat salad dressing.

* Scrambled eggs or cooked meat and salsa.

* Chili and low-fat cheese.

* Tomato-based sauce, chopped vegetables, herbs.

* Low-fat creamed soup or 8 ounces light cream cheese plus 1/4 cup skim milk, cooked vegetables.

* Poultry, mushrooms, herbs.

* Stir-fry beef/poultry, onion, peppers, broccoli, carrots, soy sauce.

* Black or red beans, onion, ham, chili powder.

* Shredded or ground cooked meat, barbecue sauce.

* Serve your favorite oven meal. If possible, prepare more than you'll need for one meal and refrigerate or freeze the rest in meal-size packages.

* Prepare a soup or stew based on potatoes, chicken or stew meat. Make biscuits, muffins or a ready-to-bake yeast bread and serve with a vegetable omelette or scrambled eggs.

A well-organized kitchen is your best time-saver. Keep your cupboard, refrigerator and freezer stocked with healthy staples such as these:

In the cupboard:

* Spaghetti, macaroni and other pasta.

* Ready-to-heat sauces and reduced fat/sodium soups.

* Rice, barley, lentils, split peas.

* Canned fruits, vegetables, beans, tuna.

* Canned and bottled fruit and vegetable juices.

* Salsa, seasoning and sauce mixes, and other condiments.

In the refrigerator/freezer:

* Fresh and frozen vegetables, baby carrots, pre-torn salad greens.

* Tortillas, pita bread, pizza crusts, bagels, ready-to-bake rolls, whole grain bread, English muffins.

* Cheese, yogurt, cottage cheese, milk, eggs.

* Fresh and frozen fruit and fruit juices.

* Frozen chopped onion and green pepper.

* Cooked ground meats; sliced meat or poultry; fish.

* Skinless, boneless chicken and/or turkey breasts.

* Cooked pasta, rice, bulgur, barley.

Healthy foods can be incorporated into all cooking styles. Your task is to match your menu plan to your time schedule and stock your cupboards, refrigerator, and freezer with the supplies that will allow you to serve a healthy meal in the time you have available.

Maryland Cooperative Extension programs are open to all citizens without regard to race, color, sex, disability, age, religion or national origin.

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences extension educator for Maryland Cooperative Extension, Washington County.

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