As the temperature rises, the last thing you probably want is to spend lots of time in a hot kitchen preparing dinner, especially if you live in an apartment. That's why I wind up ordering in food and dining out more in the summer than during the rest of the year. However, there are other solutions for enjoying meals without much (if any) stove-slaving, and those options can be much easier on your waistline and wallet. By taking advantage of your freezer, microwave and stovetop, you can quickly make plenty of healthy dinners.
Freezer. It might seem crazy to buy frozen veggies in the summer when they're abundant in the supermarket and farmers markets. However, if you're like many of my patients, it seems that food shopping sometimes falls by the wayside in July and August due to crowded social calendars. As a safety net, buy frozen, and you'll never wind up veggie-less. I love the pouches of vegetables designed to be steamed in the microwave because they're super easy to make – no washing, slicing or cleanup necessary. To make the healthiest choice, avoid veggies with cheese or sauce added.
In addition to buying frozen veggies and resisting the urge to stick your head in the freezer to cool off on those 95-degree days, you might also want to stock up on frozen meals as another "just in case" option. And before you make a skeptical face, understand that frozen meals have come a long way since they were called "TV dinners" and Hungry Man seemed to be the most popular. When choosing a brand, use these guidelines:
- First and foremost, you must read the Nutrition Facts panel on whatever product you're considering. Don't be fooled by claims like "organic" and "natural" because they don't necessarily describe best choice.
- Check the calories. Believe it or not, lower in this case is not always better. Too few calories can leave you hungry and set you up to overeat later in the day. I suggest between 300 and 400 calories for a meal.
- Make sure the portion you're eating is for only one serving.
- Unfortunately, almost all processed foods add too much salt. Look for low-sodium versions if possible, or at least meals that don't exceed 800 milligrams.
- Fat is OK, and it will help in terms of satiety, but watch out for too much saturated fat. Ideally, you want less than 4 grams per serving.
- The more fiber, the better. Shoot for products with a minimum of 3 to 5 grams per serving.
Microwave. In the summer, a microwave can be your best friend because it doesn't heat up the kitchen like your oven does. And besides the frozen veggies and meals, many other foods cook easily and with very little cleanup required.
- Fish cooks well in the microwave. I especially like to make salmon in a microwavable container by adding just a little water, cooking for around seven minutes and then squeezing a bit of lemon on top. Another plus is that your kitchen won't smell of salmon, for those of you who find that to be a problem.
- There's nothing like a simple "baked" potato to use as a base for a meal, and you can create it right in the microwave. I love to add black beans, lots of veggies and a single fried egg on top with a dollop of low-fat sour cream.
- Keep your cupboards stocked with beans, and when you're ready to serve, heat them up alone and serve as a side dish or toss them into your favorite pasta sauce.
- Whole grains are another cupboard must-have, and new microwavable packaging makes them super easy to cook.
- If you can buy veggies fresh, do so. Simply slice and steam.
Stovetop. I'll use my stovetop even when the temperature outside rises, but only to make dishes that require very little prep and cooking time.
- It doesn't take long to cook whole wheat pasta from start to finish. To make a super quick meal, I use a can of low-sodium lentil soup as a sauce and then add lots of veggies. A sprinkle of Parmesan seals the deal.
- Another quick cooking grain is whole wheat couscous. If you don't want to buy the rice pouches, there is really nothing quicker and easier than couscous. Add some to your steamed salmon, and then pile on the veggies.
- Saute shrimp or thin strips of chicken with a little olive oil and garlic, and enjoy with a whole grain of your choice. Again, add plenty of veggies.
- Nothing beats eggs for dinner when you're too tired to cook. Go for scrambled or poached eggs or an omelet with whole-wheat toast and – you guessed it – lots of veggies. You can even make your own healthy version of fried rice by quickly sauteing your rice with egg whites, spices and black beans.
Bottom line: Enjoy your summer. Make time for exercise, eat healthy and wear plenty of sunscreen. Time goes so quickly that before we know it, we'll be trying to figure out what to cook when the temperature drops below thirty.
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Keri Gans, MS, RDN, CDN, is a registered dietitian/nutritionist, media personality, spokesperson, and author of The Small Change Diet. Gans's expert nutrition advice has been featured in Glamour, Fitness, Health, Self and Shape, and on national television and radio, including The Dr. Oz Show, Good Morning America, ABC News, Primetime, and Sirius/XM Dr. Radio.