At the end of a busy day, it can be tempting to rely on fast food or prepackaged meals to get dinner on the table quickly. You can resist that temptation with the right combination of lean meats, starches and veggies in easy low-calorie dinners that taste great and don't take hours to prepare.
To keep calories down, choose lean, skinless meats and use a cooking method that requires little extra oil, such as grilling, baking, or sauteing. Fortunately, these methods are usually quick and require minimal effort as long as you keep the cuts of meat thin and the seasonings simple. Good meat choices include white meat chicken and turkey; lean fish such as tilapia, cod and flounder; shellfish such as clams, oysters, scallops, shrimp and lobster; and lean beef.
Potatoes can be part of a low-calorie dinner. High in vitamin C and potassium, a medium-sized potato only has about 110 calories. Some easy low-calorie ideas for potato side dishes include an oven-roasted potato and vegetable medley with olive oil and herbs; potato salad made with half plain yogurt and half light salad dressing; a baked potato topped with sauteed veggies and light honey mustard dressing; and sauteed potatoes with mushrooms, onions and broccoli.
One-half cup of brown or white rice contains about 100 calories. Brown rice contains more fiber, vitamins and minerals than white rice, but can take at least twice as long to prepare. If you're tight for time, many supermarkets stock quick-cook versions of both white and brown rice. Keep control of calories by mixing your rice with equal parts of finely-chopped sauteed veggies; canned or frozen peas, carrots or corn; or your favorite canned or frozen beans. Add flavorful dried seasonings or stir in a tablespoon of creamy dressing If you're using frozen veggies, season them to bring out their flavor.
Serve a salad with a light dressing before the main course. Make it interesting -- try a garbanzo bean and spinach salad one night, a Greek salad the next and green bean and tomato salad after that. Fill up half the main course plate with veggies. Most fresh vegetables are easily sauteed, roasted or steamed, and, according to studies by the University of Illinois Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, canned and frozen vegetables can be nutritionally comparable to those bought fresh. The less starch a vegetable has, the fewer calories it has. Leafy greens have the fewest calories, while corn and beans have the most.
Pasta dishes are simple to make. The trick to low-calorie pasta is to include more veggies than pasta and use oils, cream sauces, fatty meats and cheeses sparingly.
Substitute veggies for about half of the pasta you might normally use. For a cold pasta dish, this could mean tossing in extra fresh veggies, such as spinach, tomatoes and carrots, as well as some canned beans. For a hot pasta dish, add generous amounts of sauteed or roasted veggies, such as broccoli, squash or mushrooms. Finally, dress cold pasta dishes with a tangy vinaigrette or a light version of your favorite creamy dressing, and use a tomato sauce or chunky marinara for a hot pasta dish. On hot dishes, forgo heavy cheese sauces and thick melted cheese toppings. One-half tablespoon of shredded Parmesan cheese contains only 40 calories and goes a long way toward adding flavor.