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Healthy Tips

How to Plan Healthy Weeknight Meals

Tips for Hassle-Free, Home-Cooked Meals

Dinner is often the meal that requires the most time and effort to prepare, which is why it is vital to have at least some of the prep work out of the way before dinnertime arrives.

One common hurdle is not having the right food available in the kitchen, which makes ordering takeout or snacking much easier than eating a home-prepared meal. Sometimes the problem isn’t lack of food, but lack of time or desire to cook after a long day. This is where meal prep can help.

“To consistently eat a healthy and balanced diet, you need to fit in time for some meal prep,” says Colleen DeBoer, MS, RD, LDN, CDE, a clinical dietitian with Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital. “This will help gear you toward success.”

Here are dietitian-approved strategies to help you enjoy healthy home-cooked meals, even on busy nights.

Grocery shopping is crucial.

Do your grocery shopping on a designated day and time of the week. Prepare a grocery list and stick to it.

Batch cooking is key.

Make large batches to have for dinner, enjoy as leftovers for lunch and dinner the next day, or freeze for a later time when you’re not able to meal prep.

Recommended batch-cooking meal ideas include:

  • Soups, stews and chili
  • Casseroles
  • Lasagna (use ground turkey or just vegetables for healthiest versions)
  • Roasted vegetables
  • Cold salads (including broccoli, pasta, tuna and chicken salads)
  • Homemade sauces
  • Shredded chicken breast made in a slow cooker (for inclusion in several meal options, such as chicken tacos, burrito bowls, salads and wraps)

Mix and match.

To ensure you have your ingredients for a healthy and balanced dinner, plan a few combinations from the categories below and add necessary items to your grocery list. You may also want to batch cook a collection of items before your week begins.

  • Protein: Choose skinless poultry, fish, beans/legumes, tofu and eggs. Options recommended less often include lean beef, pork and lamb.
  • Vegetables: Stock up on frozen vegetables. When you buy them fresh, pre-cut for easy snacking and cooking during the week. Fill half of your dinner plate with non-starchy vegetables.
  • Whole grain or starchy sides: Select brown rice, quinoa, farro, barley, bulgur, whole grain bread, whole grain pasta and starchy vegetables. Aim for a portion that fills no more than a quarter of your plate, or about the size of your fist.
  • Oil/healthy fats: Olive oil is preferred over other vegetable oils for cooking. Cook less often with butter.
  • Your favorite seasoning combination: Experiment with various seasoning combinations or purchase pre-made mixtures.

Stock up on dinner staples.

Keep your cupboards and freezer stocked with items that can make a meal when you’re not able to meal prep:

  • Frozen vegetables
  • Frozen protein sources (shrimp, fish, chicken, ground turkey)
  • Legumes (canned black beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils)
  • Dry grains (brown rice, quinoa, barley, bulgur, farro)

Recycle the simple recipes you love.

Create a collection of easy, healthy and balanced dinner recipes that you can tweak from week to week.

  • Stir fries: Add grilled, roasted or sautéed chicken, fish or tofu and vegetables over brown rice, quinoa or another grain.
  • Vegetarian bowls: Mix beans, lentils, chickpeas (or pasta made from these ingredients) with steamed vegetables. Toss with olive oil and grated parmesan, nutritional yeast or feta cheese.
  • Roasted sheet pan meals: Add your choice of vegetables, protein (such as tofu or cubed chicken), olive oil and your favorite seasoning combination to a cookie sheet and bake.

Kick-start your meal prep with the following recipe for a healthy dinner any night of the week.

Download How to Plan Healthy Weeknight Meals