Back to School Dinners to Keep Weight Off

Originally posted in Bradford Today's Ask the Nutritionist column on September 01, 2019.

In her weekly column, Bradford West Gwillimbury licensed nutritionist Nonie De Long offers solutions for busy weekday dinners to keep the weight off.

Dear Nutritionist,

I enjoyed your recipe suggestions last week. I’ve never heard of bento boxes before and my kids liked the idea and so we picked out boxes together and got started. So far so good! My problem is managing dinners when the kids play sports and have band practice. I just can’t think what to cook that’s fast so I’ve ended up doing take out a lot. Other nights I do our traditional rice and veg with dahl or some meat in sauce because I know how to cook that but I know the rice makes me put on the weight. I’ve lost weight this summer and don’t want to gain it all back again! Do you also have recipes for healthy quick weeknight dinners? 

Thank you!  Amani

Dear Amani,

I hear you! This was the hardest time for me to manage my son’s diet when he was at home. After battling rush hour traffic and being on my feet all day, the last thing I wanted to do was cook a meal from scratch. But with a kid who was gluten, dairy, sugar, and preservative intolerant, the options were limited! As a result, I got really good at it! I’ll share some of my solutions - one of which is South Asian (my favourite food by the way)!

With mothers working outside the home now, really, who has time to stay home and cook healthy food from scratch? But convenience / take out foods are loaded with unhealthy fats, excess sodium, highly processed starches, and sugars. And despite selling the “there’s veggies on it so it’s ok,” the standard take out pizza fare isn’t any better. But I have a hack for that, too!

Let’s jump right in.

The first thing you can do to make your life easier is make a 7 day meal plan. You can then do this again once you master the first one, to add variety. So at that point you have 2 meal plans of 7 days each, and are only eating the same meal every 2 weeks. That’s enough variety for anyone. 

Let’s start with 7 days. It may seem cumbersome at first, but when we ritualize changes they stick. And this is the secret every fitness guru knows about weight management that we commoners seem to miss - you need to have a plan to succeed! This is especially so in an environment that is laden with overly processed convenience food everywhere you turn.

I will suggest a few recipes that make week nights easy, to get people started. You can supplement them with other ones if they suit you better. But you will need a plan and a grocery list. This grocery list will be a royal pain to generate at first, but you will put it on your phone and thereafter, you can get the same groceries every single week (or 2 once you’re on a biweekly schedule). 

That alone makes life so much more manageable - you know exactly what you are getting and where to get it. And, if you take advantage of the order online services grocery stores now offer and have a butcher for the meat, you can order and just pick up. There’s an hour or more of time saved and you do not have to walk through aisles and be tempted by foods you’re trying to avoid, or worse, wrestle with kids putting things in the cart that you really don’t want in the house!

Next - and this is key to your busy routine success - when you buy your groceries you will spend about 1-2 hours doing meal prep for the week. If this is totally overwhelming I offer inexpensive classes online where I go through this weekly to demonstrate. Clients who sign up get a menu plan and grocery list in advance so they can be prepped for the class to cook together. It ends up being a lot of fun.

Doing the meal plan prep may seem like a huge chunk of your weekend, but you’ve just saved at least an hour shopping. And during the week you will save another hour running around after take-out or trying to get groceries and figure out what to eat. So a meal plan is really very efficient. 

I find it’s a nice early Sunday afternoon ritual and I do it with music or audiobook/ podcast and a bit of kombucha or dry wine or sangria. I often talk to friends on the phone while I prep and sometimes we do it together on the phone or in person. This short time spent organizing ensures you have all your ingredients (and a few dishes) prepped for your meals in advance, making weeknights a breeze. 

So on to some suggestions!

Homemade Tortilla Pizzas: These are a much healthier version of pizza that take about 10 minutes to make - if you cut up your ingredients and shred the cheese on the weekend when you get your groceries. (Home shredded cheese is much healthier and fresher.) These are made with a very thin crust, low carb flat bread I get called Protein Up. There are a variety of flavours. The kids may be able to handle more carbs than you and you could make theirs with a standard soft flour tortilla or whole wheat tortilla. If someone in the family is gluten-free, you can also use gluten-free tortillas.

The toppings you choose are completely up to you! My favourite is spinach, pesto, sundried tomato, artichoke, and feta or goat cheese. The great thing about these is the kids don’t have to agree on toppings and you don’t end up having anyone picking things off. It also puts the prep into each person’s hands, which makes things faster and gives the kids cooking skills that will stay with them for life. The key to this coming out right is to pre-bake the tortillas first. The entire recipe is done in less than 15 minutes. And if you pair it with a bag of dole’s premixed salad kits (greek or italian have less sugar than others), you have an easy, fresh meal. 

Fish Tacos: This is a great, delicious, gluten-free recipe if you use corn tortillas. If you want to go low-carb it’s way easy to hack by just putting the ingredients in a bowl and eating it like a salad. And there’s no loss of flavour or texture in doing that with this recipe!

The only things to make ahead for this are the salsa, guacamole, and mango salsa, if you want them. Click on each for links to recipes. The salsas are better if they sit in the fridge a few days, so making ahead is perfect, and this gives you dips for your bentos! The entire dish takes only 15 minutes to whip up once that part is done. 

If you’re not into making salsa by hand, try adding chopped red onion, pressed garlic, and finely diced cilantro (optional jalapeno finely diced) to a jar of store bought salsa (always get the unsweetened kind). Let this sit in the fridge a few days and you will be amazed how delish it is! 

For anyone who has a family member who’s dairy intolerant, I substitute goat or sheep cheese and coconut or homemade cashew milk for cream. 

Pasta Bolognese: This is a meal pretty much every person I’ve ever met likes. It can be made much healthier by using whole wheat or high fibre pasta for the kids and shirataki spaghetti noodles for you. These are found in Asian or specialty stores and they are a very good texture with no taste and zero carbs! The shirataki only need to brought to a boil to freshen them up, so it’s a 5 minute meal if you make your bolognese sauce ahead. 

You can put whatever you like in your Bolognese sauce, but the foundation should be a sugar-free, good quality tomato sauce. I like the Classico brand, but you can also just used canned pureed tomatoes and add your own oil and spices. I cook all my other ingredients (onion, carrot, garlic, sweet pepper, spinach, ground beef, spices) before adding the tomato sauce to simmer and reduce. Many people use ground veal or pork and celery in this, but it’s really up to you.

Instead of serving parmesan cheese as a topper, try nutritional yeast. It’s very high in B vitamins and it’s a very close substitute for that cheesy flavour. Serve with another pre-made salad mix with a higher quality Italian or homemade oil/ vinegar dressing. I add baby tomatoes, olives, and red onion with a feta dressing to make this a nice greek salad. 

Again, your pasta prep on the day of is super quick. Any leftover pasta sauce can get frozen for a quick heat up the next time you make this dish, so making double or triple will save you time and work going forward!

Chicken Korma with Parboiled Brown Rice: Before you moan and eyeroll about the disgusting stickiness that is most brown rice, let me tell you about a very well kept secret. Uncle Ben’s Instant Brown Rice. I am not kidding. This stuff is perfectly formed, long grain rice that retains its texture while taking only 10 minutes to cook! And, unlike basmati, any idiot can do it right.

Brown rice is known to be more nutritious, higher in fibre, and lower glycemic than white rice, owing to the bran, while parboiled rice is low glycemic and retains the nutrients, at the same time as being more palatable and easier to prepare. New research shows that cooking the rice with coconut (or possibly ghee or olive) oil and then refrigerating it overnight changes the starch and lowers the glycemic index even more. That means a modest portion of this staple food can be part of a low-carb diet when prepared this way. 

You can also do cauliflower rice for yourself, if you want to stay ultra low-carb or keto. I’ve included links on how to make it. 

Again, if you make extra korma and freeze it, you’re ahead of the game for the following weeks. 

Some other suggestions I have for weeknights are make ahead chaplee kabobs with green beans, and turkey breast protein-up wraps with lettuce, and cranberry mayo, with a broccoli salad. These are just a few of the recipes I share in my meal prep meetup.

If all this sounds overwhelming, I urge you to remember you have to make something. At least having a plan will make sure they are good meals and you’re not eating out. You will know exactly what you are eating on each day, and so will the kids. This predictability really helps. While it may be a lot to get done the first few weeks, within a month you will get very good at your meal plan and you can add another week of recipes to it to make sure there is no boredom. And making it a habit will do more to get you into your skinny jeans than any amount of time spent at the gym!

OMG all this food writing is making me hungry! Until next week!

Namaste! Nonie Nutritionista

Nonie De Long is a registered orthomolecular nutritionist with a clinic in Bradford West Gwillimbury, where she offers holistic, integrative health care for physical and mental health issues. Check out her website here.

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