Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Q & A: Quick, Light Dinner Ideas

Ann M. from Cherry Hill, NJ, wrote to me in need of some 'light dinner' advice:

"My husband and I are in our mid-60's, both still working, work out at the gym and try to eat healthy. We have decided that a light dinner before heading to the gym will work best for us. I need ideas for light dinners I can make during the work week. Any suggestions?"

Here's my hopefully helpful answer:
People interpret the word "light" in many different ways when it comes to food. Light can mean low fat, low sugar, low salt, low cholesterol, or light and fluffy like an omelet. To answer this question, I will define "light dinner" as: a meal that is approximately 300-400 calories, low in fat, and won't feel like a lead lump in your stomach after eating.

The lead lump part is especially important if you plan to eat this dinner as a pre-workout meal. Not knowing Ann, I'm not sure what she's doing at the gym. A general rule of thumb is to give yourself at least two hours when eating prior to working out. Digestion is key to avoid stomach cramps or embarrassing gasat the gym. It also depends on what type of workout you'll be doing. I'm a runner and I would never eat a meal, light or otherwise, even two hours before running. Only a small snack of about 200 calories or less, with a two hour window, will allow me to have a trouble-free run. But if you're going to be lifting weights or some brisk walking on a treadmill, then a light meal two hours prior should be okay. The key thing to remember is every intestinal tract has it's own reactions to different foods. Get to know what your body can handle.

Now, on to the dinner suggestions! I won't give step-by-step recipes. I'm an amateur cook and wing it with cooking times and measurements. First, some suggestions if preparing lighter dinners at home:
  • Grilled chicken salad: Use thin cut chicken breasts, lightly season with pepper, salt (optional), onion powder, garlic powder, and paprika. Throw them on an indoor/outdoor grill or skillet on the stove (don't forget the olive oil spray). For the salad part: buy bagged lettuce so that the prep is done for you. Cut up 1-2 large tomatoes, cucumber, red peppers or any raw veggies your heart desires. Sprinkle in 1/4 cup low-fat shredded cheese (or 1/2 cup if making for two people) or cut 4 small slivers (2 for each of you) of avocado for some heart-healthy fat. Throw the grilled chicken on top. Add some light dressing, although I'm a bigger advocate of making your own with approximately 2 tsp olive oil and a vinegar of your choice (red wine, balsamic). Use as much vinegar as desired. Viola! Substitution: Instead of chicken, use chunk light tuna, beans (kidney, garbanzo, cannellini), or a microwaved chicken or veggie sausage (look for less than 200 calories per link). Warning: beans may have an adverse effect on your gastrointestinal system when working out!
  • Have a vegan night - Veggie burger: Buy frozen veggie burgers such as Morningstar Farms, Garden Burger or Boca Burger brands (my personal favorite is Morningstar Farms Tomato & Basil Pizza Burger). Cook in microwave or on stove top. Throw on two slices of whole grain bread or try the Arnold's 100% whole wheat sandwich rounds. Add some sliced tomato and lettuce, maybe a dash of ketchup. On the side, have a tossed salad or microwave some frozen veggies of your choice.
  • Light 'n easy fish night: There are so many ways to do fish quickly and easy. I'll pick one of my favorite recipes. Take ~3/4 pound piece (for two people) of fresh wild salmon. If the piece is thick enough, you can do this in a pan on the stove, grill or in your oven. If it's on the thinner side, I recommend sticking to a baking dish in the oven. Sprinkle fish with seasonings, such as pepper, dash of salt (optional), garlic and onion powder. In a small bowl, mix ~1-2 teaspoons honey with ~2 TBSP Dijon mustard (taste test to get to the right proportion to your liking). Spread this mixture on the salmon. Spray baking dish with olive oil, drop salmon in and bake ~20-30 minutes at 400°. Microwave a small (~4 0z.) red or Yukon gold potato (don't forget to wash and stab it lightly with a fork first). If desired, use 1 tsp of real butter or 1 TBSP of a light butter. Microwave frozen veggies of your choice. If this is before a workout, keep to a 4 oz piece of salmon. Salmon is high in protein and heart-healthy fats, which means it will take longer to digest and may bother your stomach in a high-intensity workout.
  • Carbohydrate Boost - Pasta Primavera: Boil some pasta - it can be whole wheat, white (yes, I am an advocate of white pasta if eaten in moderation and you're exercising regularly) or those hybrid-type pastas such as Barilla Plus. You can use a jar marinara sauce such as Amy's Organic, or you can pop open a can of crushed tomatoes. I like the ones that have Italian flavorings added, such as basil and garlic. The canned tomatoes will almost always be lower in calorie and feel "lighter" than jar sauces because they are basically just tomatoes with no added oil or added sugar. Heat sauce or tomatoes separately. Microwave some veggies and be sure to drain the water) and toss into your pasta. Add sauce. Sprinkle with some Parmesan cheese and red pepper flakes (if you're a hot & zesty-type person). If this is before a workout, I would recommend a 1/2 cup of pasta with lots of veggies. Also, white pasta is best before a workout because it will give you a quick source of energy. Whole wheat pastas are higher in fiber which is usually a good thing, but you don't want to eat high fiber before working out.
Even faster hints when you're in a pinch for time:
  • Pick up a rotisserie chicken from your grocery store. Discard the skin. Pull off pieces and add to a salad, or make a chicken salad sandwich using light mayonnaise or light honey mustard salad dressing.
  • Buy some whole grain wraps (no more than 200 calories per wrap). Spread 2-3 TBSP hummus, add lettuce, tomato, roll up and off you go!
  • Breakfast for dinner: cook 1-2 eggs, thrown on two slices of whole grain toast with 1 slice of low-fat cheese, lettuce and tomato.
There are so many other ideas! This is a good starter list. You can substitute foods in many of these suggestions to change it up a bit. For example, instead of pasta and veggies, you can do brown rice and veggies. Finally, always plan ahead. If you're making a turkey loaf one night for dinner, make it big enough to have leftovers the next day. The leftover turkey loaf could be used in a sandwich or ground up into pasta.

I hope this gives you some ideas Ann. Stay tuned for more quick and easy breakfast, lunch and dinner ideas!

Image from: http://snagwiremedia.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/07/salmon-dinner.jpg

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