Help me come up with ways to make my meal plan appealing!
March 22, 2010 7:19 AM   Subscribe

I recently started working with a nutritionist, and have been given a framework for all my meals, but the actual meal planning is up to me. So far, everything has been really easy to incorporate into my lifestyle except for dinners, so I am hoping that the hive mind can help me come up with some tasty ideas that fit in with the guidelines I've been given...whether they're recipes, resources for recipes, or just tips on how to turn a "grilled chicken breast" type meal into something that's actually appealing.

My dinners are supposed to consist of lean protein (poultry, lean meat, beans, tofu ... I don't eat seafood), 2 or more vegetables, healthy fat (such as olive oil), and an optional 1 cup of pasta/rice/whatever (or 1 tortilla, etc.).

The main focus has been on eliminating processed foods and refined sugars. This is tough because until now almost all my dinners have been processed foods or heavily focused on starch (frozen meals or pastas). The past week we've tried grilling and stuff...and it's ok, but boring. I don't think I can deal with eating grilled chicken breast and vegetables unless I can find a way to make them somehow REALLY REALLY TASTY without using a lot of extra fat and sugar. would you turn these guidelines into really tasty meals? Bonus points for meals that are really quick and/or easy ... I don't mind cooking if it's for something really good, but I tend not to love cooking after work.
posted by dumbledore69 to Food & Drink (25 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
For lean meat - marinade is your friend. Low calorie low salt chicken suggestions include lemon juice & herbs, or lime & coriander. Spicy: chilli and soy sauce (dilute the soy). Lemon & caper is also nice. Yoghurt & indian spices (tandoori style - bit of turmeric, bit of cumin, bit of coriander...). Pork loins go well marinated in mustard and a little beer.

Lime & coriander chicken with a baked potato and some fresh salad is a lovely meal. Chilli & soy chicken with ginger & noodles and stir fried veg similarly delicious, easy, and healthy.

For citrus based marinades, an hour is fine. For soy sauce/beer/other, you can go longer, sometimes I put the meat in the marinade (in the fridge) before going to work.
posted by handee at 7:26 AM on March 22, 2010

Stir fry thinly sliced chicken breast with some chopped onion, garlic, & ginger, and a sprinkling of Chinese five-spice and soy sauce. Steam some veg (broccoli, peppers, whatever you want) and add to the stir fry once the chicken has cooked through. Serve with noodles or rice.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 7:28 AM on March 22, 2010

Start roasting your vegetables in the oven. Most hard/medium veggies will roast great - carrots, mushrooms, bell peppers, onions, mushrooms, parsnips, zucchini, broccoli, potatoes, etc. Cut them into spears/medium chunks, put them in a bowl and toss with a little olive oil. Next is the fun part: spices. I always use at least cumin and cayenne, and sometimes add other things - you should try a few and see how you like it. But with cumin and a little cayenne, some salt and pepper, those veggies will be delicious.

Next, put the veggies in a pan in a single layer, using parchment paper or tin foil to line the pan if you want less cleanup. Roast in a 400 degree oven for 30 minutes, stirring the veggies a little every 10 minutes.

Bam. I frequently cook veggies this way if I have the time. It's incredibly easy (cut, toss, roast), delicious, and a really excellent way to fancy up vegetables. Eat them as is, or cut them up and throw them into a little quinoa or rice or whatever, add a little chicken breast... hot damn.
posted by ORthey at 7:31 AM on March 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Have you tried using some flavored oils? I'm a fan of using The Oilerie's orange olive oil to saute green beans or before roasting vegetables (as ORthey says above).
posted by bassooner at 7:34 AM on March 22, 2010

Seconding marinades. Herbs and spices are going to be key, here. Start experimenting! Get or read a copy of How to Cook Everything and/or The Flavor Bible. Both are great at telling you what goes with what. Grilled vegetables are really tasty, too, as are broiled ones. I like to take asparagus spears and toss them with a tiny bit of olive oil and some kosher salt and pepper and then bake them in a 450F oven for about 15 minutes. They get all crispy and delicious. You can do that with broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts (they may need more than 15 minutes); any cruciferous veg works great in the oven.

A slow cooker/crockpot might be good, too. If you use a low-fat stock and lots of herbs and spices you'll get a lot of flavor.

One of my favorite ways to prepare chicken is this: take about a pound of boneless, skinless chicken breasts and halve them. Put the halves between two layers of plastic wrap and pound them until they're about a 1/2 in. thick. Heat some olive oil in a non-stick skillet until it shimmers. Add the chicken breast and brown on one side. Because they're so thin you'll be able to see them cooking through on the sides. Add a couple cloves of chopped garlic, then flip the chicken to cook on the other side. When they're done, remove from the pan. Add about a tablespoon of capers and saute until fragrant. Add a couple tablespoons of fresh lemon juice, cook for a couple seconds, and then pour over the chicken. Serve with brown rice. Delicious! You can do this with pork tenderloin, too.
posted by cooker girl at 7:37 AM on March 22, 2010

My favorite meal these days is bite-sized sauteed chicken pieces cooked in Patak's tandoori paste (I add sliced peppers and onions) over a bed of rice. Reasonably straightforward, quick and tasty. Leftovers are just fine too.

(FWIW, the Patak's is OK; I can't remember the bottled tandoori paste which I really like and which begins with J. Check your local international grocery/aisle.)
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:46 AM on March 22, 2010

Seconding stir fry. Asian inspired cooking is a fabulous way to get lean meats and lots of veggies into your diet.

For simplicity's sake, you can buy meats pre-sliced into stir-fry sized pieces and vegetables as well. My preference is to buy proteins and vegetables in bulk and prep them ahead of time all at once--this is a great excuse to do something while listening to music/podcasts/watch something on my laptop and kill my work bird with the same stone I'm killing a leisure bird with.

Soy sauce, mirin, ginger, curry paste--there are so many different ways you can keep stir fry interesting by changing the flavor profile.

One cup of rice is actually quite a lot of rice, in my opinion. I make four cups for my family and usually have some leftover. Rice freezes really well (this is a useful thing to know if you would prefer to use brown rice, which can take forever to cook) and can even be purchased precooked or frozen (another useful thing to know if you prefer to use brown rice but are put off by the long cooking time). And playing around with different types of noodles is another way to keep things interesting.

Roasting a chicken is not only a really great skill to develop (people are always impressed by a really excellent roast chicken, but it's not that difficult to do) but depending on the size of the chicken and the number of people eating it, it gives you a lot of leftovers to work with. I usually do it on a weekend when time's not of the essence, and then whatever we don't have for Sunday dinner gets torn up and packed up for use later in the week, plus I make a little stock to use through the week. I use vegetables (carrots, onion and fennel are my go-to for this) as a rack for my bird, and often use the leftover roasted vegetables to thicken soups or to toss with some pasta.

Tortilla soup with leftover chicken, several vegetables, beans, and just a garnish of starches, would be a great quick and easy dinner for you to try some night a few days after you've roasted a chicken (and to make it even easier, you could just do it with the leftovers of a rotisserie chicken).
posted by padraigin at 7:48 AM on March 22, 2010

I would also try something like vegetarian bean chili- for some reason everyone thinks of chili as something that takes forever to make, but it really doesn't. Saute some veggies of your choice (I like onion, garlic, and corn- super simple) in a little (very little) bit of olive oil, then add a few cans of chili beans, kidney beans, whatever other kind of bean you want- or the equivalent if you want to soak your own beans, which takes more time but is a bit healthier. Add a can of crushed red tomatoes and chili powder to taste. Serve over rice or alone with a little sour cream and add some extra veggies on the side. Make a big batch on the weekend and refrigerate it for meals throughout the week.

Stirfry is also easy and quick to do with oil, veggies, and some kind of meat- you really don't need as much oil as most people use, especially if you add something like soy sauce or a splash of rice wine vinegar.

And my favorite asparagus recipe ever: Prepare as you normally would, snapping off and discarding the bottom part. Heat an oven to 400 degrees. Spray a baking sheet covered in foil lightly with a cooking spray like pam, then arrange the asparagus in a single sheet. Spray another light layer of Pam (or you could use olive oil), then season (I just use salt and fresh ground black pepper). Stick in the oven 3 minutes for slightly-firm asparagus or 5 minutes for softer asparagus. Simple, but SO good.
posted by kro at 7:49 AM on March 22, 2010

Herbs are your friends! One of my all-time favorite meals is simply chicken marinated in olive oil and white wine vinegar, with chopped rosemary, red pepper flakes, and garlic.

As for the vegetables -- I've made a really good rice pilaf out of rice, grated zucchini, and some chopped olive. If you make that up, you've got the vegetables right there in the rice -- add another vegetable side (sauteed spinach, maybe?) and there you are.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:51 AM on March 22, 2010

Tacos! And really, most homemade mexican-style food can be made to fit your guidelines.

Chop up a tomato and an onion, a clove of garlic and a handful of cilantro, squeeze half a lime over it and mix with some salt, and let it sit overnight in the fridge, or at least for a couple of hours.

Shred some cabbage, mix it with a few tablespoons of vinegar, the other half of the lime, and some salt, let it quick-pickle for at least half an hour.

Use ground turkey, your favorite kind of beans, chopped up lean pork or strips of chicken, or drained, crumbled firm tofu, and brown in a pan with a little oil and some garlic and onion. Add some water or broth and mix in a bunch of the following spices, to your liking: chili powder, cumin, cinnamon, paprika, any individual ground chili you like, garlic or onion powder, cilantro or parsley, fresh ground black pepper, and a little salt. (My general mixture is chili powder, paprika, onion, garlic, cinnamon, but you can go as crazy or as simple as you like.) Mix everything together and let it cook, stirring occasionally, until all the liquid has just evaporated.

Slice a bell pepper up into thin strips. In a nonstick pan (or sticky pan with a little oil) on medium heat, cook the pepper until bits of the skin get a little charred. Don't worry, it's delicious.

Assemble your tacos! Take your tortillas, which you can warm in the oven wrapped in foil at 300 for a few minutes, zapped in the microwave wrapped in a moist paper towel, or quickly heated over the stove, and apply your protein, fresh tomato salsa, crunchy vitamin-rich cabbage, and quick-roasted peppers. It usually helps to use a double layer of tortilla, but you can also just pile everything in a bowl and eat it like a salad, with oven baked tortilla strips on top for crunch.
posted by Mizu at 7:56 AM on March 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Lots of great ideas here. I wholeheartedly second the roast chicken idea. It takes very little active time, and the leftovers are fantastic in any sort of stir fry. I think meat from a roast chicken, even simply prepared with just salt and pepper, is far superior to what you get from cooking skinless, boneless, soulless chicken breast. Plus, you can make a stock from the bones that you can then use as a soup base or to flavor your stir fries. If you can't get a chicken in the oven an hour and a half before dinner, you can always roast it the night before. It will keep in the fridge a few days with no problems. Man, I think I need to roast a chicken tonight.
posted by mollweide at 8:01 AM on March 22, 2010

Honestly, don't obsess so much about how lean your meat is; if you're cooking it at home, it's going to be much more healthy than at a restaurant (where they go overboard on the salt and oil to make the meat more "savory") or the chemical waste that constitutes most "frozen meals." Very lean meat is tasteless and tough. Instead, pick good steak and cook a small amount of it with vegetables. The fat will lend the vegetables a lot of flavor, without being particularly unhealthy... and you'll enjoy your dinner a lot more.
posted by sonic meat machine at 8:04 AM on March 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oh, and as for resources for recipes, since your guidelines sound like "eat reasonable good food" and not "here is a constrained set of rules to which you must adhere!" I really suggest Bttman's How to Cook Everything and his companion books. You not only get very clear, straightforward instructions on how to use your kitchen when you may not be comfortable with it yet, but he also provides tons of alternative ways to cook nearly every recipe to make it healthier or more flavorful. His general guiding principle is, if there's a step in the recipe that can be safely ignored, take it out. So you end up getting interesting flavor suggestions with clear instructions and a general confidence that you can cook whatever it is in a short amount of time or without unnecessary work. Also, there's probably something like 15 pages on skinless chicken cutlets alone! If that's not variety, I don't know what is.
posted by Mizu at 8:05 AM on March 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Make a large baked potato (microwave it), slice it open, and fill it with broccoli and tomatoes. It's delish, very filling, low fat, lots of veggie goodness. I chop up the broc and saute it with garlic and spices, and add chopped tomato at the last minute, and heap it over the potato.
posted by iconomy at 8:05 AM on March 22, 2010

You might want to take a look at EatingWell's 500 calorie dinner menus. They pair main courses with sides (or desserts), and their whole focus is on good fats, fresh ingredients and whole grains. Here's a sample: Indian Wok-Seared Chicken and Vegetables with either brown rice or sugar snap peas and either mixed greens with buttermilk dressing or a Japanese cucumber salad.
posted by amarynth at 8:49 AM on March 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

Buy a griddle pan.

We're trying to eat more meals in my household which consist of lean meat and veggies and the griddle pan really has made the difference between meals being 'meh' and 'yum'.

Mefites love some cast iron it seems:

Jamie Oliver's griddled Tuna, Courgettes (Zucchini) & Beans is a recent addition to the yum.
posted by Ness at 8:57 AM on March 22, 2010

Do you have a George Forman style grill? If you don't I recommed it for when you don't want to fire up the huge grill, plus IMO it seems to cook things faster.

Marinade a bunch of chicken breasts and grill them all at the same time. When they are done cooking eat the one for your dinner that night and then slice the others up and put them in idividual sandwich bags or plastic containers in the fridge. Then you have a bunch of tasty cooked chicken to add to recipies or just toss on top of a salad when you don't feel like cooking. You can easily cook all your chicken for the week in one go, but I recommend only doing 4 at a time so that you still make yourself some fresh during the week to keep from getting bored.

This recipe for nacho baked chicken is really good and very easy. You can leave off the sour cream and cheese. It's the salsa that's important. Something about it leaves the chicken really juicy and tender, and the crushed chips add a really nice crunch. It also reheats well for lunch the next day or dinner later in the week, so you can cook more than one at a time. I haven't tried it yet, but I'll bet that this is amazing with homemade salsa.
posted by TooFewShoes at 9:16 AM on March 22, 2010

Stir-fry, my friend. Your dietary recommendations sound very much like classic Chinese home cooking, which is far less oily than restaurant food. A little meat, a lot of vegetables, a foundation of rice (a whole cup of cooked rice is ample). Forget those batter-coated deep-fried sweet & sour monstrosities - try some fresh and lively flavors and you'll never look back. Plus you get your meat and veggies in one dish, so you only have to cook one thing + rice and you're done!

Some favorite dishes:

Ma Po Tofu - this is my go-to dish for dinner in a hurry, needing almost no chopping
Pork with bamboo shoots in hot bean sauce - canned shoots, pork loin, quick chopping
Chicken with green peppers in black bean sauce - splurge on boneless chicken breasts if you have more money than time

Favorite classic Chinese cookbooks:

The Key to Chinese Cooking by Irene Kuo
The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking by Barbara Tropp
The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen by Grace Young

If you're new to stir-frying, either get yourself a traditional wok with a ring stand or a large flat-bottomed Dutch oven with high walls. Those flat-bottomed pseudo-woks are just annoying. Look for a wok with a long wooden handle that will keep your hand out of the blast of hot air moving up the side of the wok (little wire loop handles end up cooking your hand as well as the food). Also get a long spatula with a curved bottom edge that matches the curve of the wok.

Spun-steel woks are cheap and durable but require repeated seasoning, so you might be happier with a large stainless steel flat-bottom pot. It should have high walls because you'll be flipping and tossing the food around vigorously and it will fly right out of a normal frying pan. A Dutch oven is perfect.

One last tip: if there are any good Mexican/Central American butchers in your area, see if they have thinly sliced beef called diezmillo, or something like that, but I've seen it under other names. This is perfect for stir-frying and takes all the frustration out of trying to slice it thinly and evenly enough yourself. You want meat that's been cut across the grain into slices about 4 or 5 mm thin, less than 1/4 inch. It's usually interleaved with sheets of paper or plastic in the display case. It's the only kind of beef I buy for stir-frying any more. Yay for cross-cultural food!
posted by Quietgal at 11:01 AM on March 22, 2010

I love love love pasta, but can't deal with that much wheat in my system. Here are my tricks for having non-carb heavy pasta.

Method One: Slice zucchini and yellow squash into ribbons and saute. Use those instead of noodles. If you saute with garlic and other herbs, this is actually tastier than pasta. Top it with whatever you would normally top pasta with.

Method Two: When I really just have to have pasta, I reverse the proportions. I use a little bit of pasta to a LOT of sauce, veggies, protein what have you.
posted by stoneweaver at 11:19 AM on March 22, 2010

Another vote for a George Foreman (or equivalent) grill. Quick to cook with and simple to clean, and increasingly affordable.

Make up a large batch of 'filling' - fry up some beans, add some veg etc, then fridge it for the week and you can quickly knock up a different meal each day using the same base by changing what meat you cook up (chicken / pork / sausage / whatever) and / or how you serve the meal (rice / cous cous / pasta / burrito).

Also, a wide and varied collection of spices is good to liven up any meal.
posted by Simon_ at 12:52 PM on March 22, 2010

When I think of grilling, I think burgers! Last summer I found this recipe for Taco Turkey Burgers. I used ultra-lean ground turkey breast, and the result was amazing! One time, I started making them & realized I was out of bread crumbs. The burgers were a little harder to handle raw, but tasted the same after grilling.

My daughter hates bread of all sorts, so when I make this, she just puts the burger on a bed of lettuce & adds all kinds of veggies, a little shredded sharp cheddar, and some salsa. We ate these, like, once a week last summer.
posted by SamanthaK at 12:54 PM on March 22, 2010

I love stoneweaver's zucchini pasta idea. I'm putting that into rotation asap. Love bun-less burgers also.

We bake a big roaster chicken most every Sunday. Any leftover meat is pulled off and we use it later in the week. On Monday night our favorite show is on TV, so we usually throw together a 'Chuck n Taters' night. We use chicken, avocados, tomatoes, green onions, black beans and salsa on baked potatoes. You can use the same ingredients in shells or tortillas for tacos.

Chicken leftovers make an easy tortilla soup, just toss in lots of spices, salsa, tomatoes (fresh is best), stock, and corn (again, fresher is better.) Serve with tortillas.

I use the carcass of the chicken to make more stock. Add any carrots and onions you have around. Keeps frozen for at least a couple of weeks.

We make a chili with lots of beans. Might not fit your guidelines exactly, but healthier and leaner than all meat chili.

In the hottest part of summer we use our stove-top grill pan instead of a Foreman. We have a lot of people, and the pan holds more food. I've never been bored by a grilled pork chop/steak/turkey or mushroom burger. Add salsa or jalapenos or mustard if the marinade doesn't do it for you.

Oh, one more thing. I keep McCormick Montreal Steak Seasoning on hand and use it a lot.
posted by toastedbeagle at 2:09 PM on March 22, 2010

I've been cooking bean-based dishes lately. I made Black Beans in Mango Sauce yesterday, and it's very good - lots of flavor. Serve with a salad or steamed vegetables. It's not super quick, but you can make it ahead and eat for a couple meals.

A good fast meal is a vegetable omelet - you can use just egg whites, or one yolk, or whole eggs - whatever you/your nutritionist prefers. Cook in a nonstick pan with either cooking spray or a little olive oil. You can fill it with a whole serving of vegetables. Avocado would be a good filling (as your healthy fat), or just cook in extra olive oil. Adding some fresh basil makes it even better.

Another easy protein is baked tofu. Buy extra-firm tofu, slice it, and spread it out on a tray lined in tinfoil. Spread some kind of marinade/sauce on it - plain soy sauce is fine, you could use miso, or even bbq sauce. I actually like it plain, too. Bake at 350 for 10-15 minutes. Once it's lightly golden, turn the slices over and bake another 10-15 minutes. Then, you can chop the slices into little squares, and eat them as-is, or use them in a stir-fry; they have more flavor and a better texture (I think) than unbaked tofu.
posted by insectosaurus at 3:12 PM on March 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you've got a rice cooker you can make a fantastic chicken and rice. Marinate the chicken in some soy, mirin (or sherry), garlic and ginger. Add rice and water to the cooker. Put your chicken in the veggie steamer up the top of the cooker with some chopped shallots (keep some of the green ends for later). The chicken will cook surprisingly quickly, though if you're only cooking a single cup it'll take a little longer than the rice. Sprinkle some of the uncooked shallots on top to serve, and eat with some chilli sauce. The leftover marinade and chicken juices flow into the rice, making it very tasty.
posted by fonetik at 9:12 PM on March 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thanks so much everyone for the great responses! I marked many as best -- the ones that really gave me some new ideas. But, really, pretty much all of your suggestions were awesome, and I really appreciate them!
posted by dumbledore69 at 12:10 PM on March 23, 2010

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