Real-life healthy dinners (for real people with real busy lives)

At the end of a long workday, my husband and I will often trade texts figuring out who will pick up the kids at my mother’s, and who will deal with dinner. Thankfully, we’re equal partners in all responsibilities (except spider-killing, which is strictly Hubby’s job) and dietary preferences. We’re both health-conscious foodie types. We want good food that’s good for us.

An unvarnished look at family dinner

The kids, on the other hand… I’m not sure how this happened, but we somehow raised creatures with tastes vastly different from ours, and each other. We’ve never tried to cook an evening family meal that everyone would eat, because such a meal does not exist. Instead, we stock up on parent-approved kids’ faves that they can essentially get for themselves, or that can be prepared with minimal time and fuss, on a moment’s notice. And we try to all eat in the same room, at sort of the same time.

Do our kids eat as healthfully as we do, or we would like them to? No, but they eat healthfully enough, they’re developing well, and that’s fine. On a “good” night, their dinners may consist of: an apple with cinnamon/a yogurt/a bag of pea puffs for my five-year-old daughter, and scrambled eggs with cheddar/pita bread/a fresh peach for my seven-year-old son. On a “bad” night, it may be a warmed-up blueberry pancake with extra blueberries and extra butter for my daughter, and bacon (lots of bacon) for my son. This is entirely okay with us. As a matter of fact, it’s incredibly liberating to let go of the idea that we always need to eat exactly the same thing, and that it has to be perfectly healthy. After all, Hubby and I enjoy pizza and wings sometimes, too!

Here’s a practical approach to striking a balance

What matters is what we all eat most of the time, and most of the time, we’re eating a healthy combo of fruits and veggies (we eat mostly fruits and veggies, all week), lean protein, and healthy fats.

So, dinner.

Hubby and I rely heavily on frozen foods. Not pre-prepared, store-bought frozen meals, but rather frozen veggies galore, veggie burgers, and tofu “chik’n.” The pantry is stocked with quick-cooking quinoa and brown rice, canned and bottled accompaniments for different-themed meals (like Kalamata olives, sundried tomatoes, and hearts of palm for a Greek salad; sliced water chestnuts and baby corn for a stir-fry; salsa for a southwestern meal). We always keep various nuts and seeds on hand (cashews, almonds, pine nuts, pepitas, sesame and sunflower seeds, for example), as these can be added to a salad or stir-fry for extra healthy fiber/protein/fat. We make sure we’re always stocked up on condiments like sesame oil, soy sauce, ground ginger and cilantro, olive oil, various vinegars, broths, and wines for cooking. In the fridge, there’s almost always romaine lettuce, onions, peppers, lemons, limes, and cherry tomatoes (all of which last awhile and can be used in many types of recipes). And of course, tons and tons of fruit, yogurts, and cheeses of all kinds.

Thus prepared, we always have ingredients for our go-to, quick and easy dinner repertoire.

Here are some basic healthy dinners we really do eat on a regular basis

So-Quick Southwestern Salad

  • Two or three black-bean veggie burgers (there are several brands, usually in the frozen foods aisle)
  • A heart or two of romaine lettuce
  • Tomatoes (a bunch of cherry tomatoes, or a regular tomato or two)
  • A lemon and/or a lime
  • Salt/pepper to taste
  • Olive oil
  • Pepitas (toasted, or not), a good handful or two

How we do it: Get home from work, drop various and sundry backpacks and bags, ask kids to feed cats.

  1. Grab veggie burgers from freezer and throw in toaster oven to bake or broil.
  2. Wash lettuce and tomatoes, shred/cut, and throw in a salad bowl.
  3. Juice lemon/lime over the mix.
  4. Then sprinkle olive oil, salt and pepper, and pepitas over, and toss.
  5. Tell partner to set table and get drinks (water, wine, whatever).
  6. Help the kids get their dinners together and move salad bowl, kids, and all food to table.
  7. Pull burgers out of toaster oven (don’t forget to turn it off, as we have) and either serve mixed in, alongside, or on top of salad.

You can obviously vary this as much as you like. You can top with some salsa, shredded cheddar, and plain Greek yogurt if you want, too. The point is, this meal is fast (we can get this prepared and on the table in under 10 minutes) and it hits all the high points: vegetables, healthy protein, healthy fats, no processed carbs.

Here’s another idea to try:

Really Fast Asian Stir-Fry

  • A bag of soy-based chik’n (many forms and brands, usually found in the frozen foods aisle)
  • A bag or two of frozen veggies of your choice
  • A can or two of Asian-style veggies like sliced water chestnuts
  • Sesame oil
  • Soy sauce
  • Ground ginger if you have it
  • Cashews or sesame seeds

Directions: See above about getting home and getting kids together.

  1. Pull out a wok or a large frying pan, set on stove, and turn on heat. Let it heat while you get other ingredients out.
  2. When hot, add about a tablespoon or two of sesame oil, then soy chik’n.
  3. Cook and stir until hot and browned, then dump your veggies right on top, soy sauce (a teaspoon or two), ginger (a teaspoon or so), stir it all up, and cover.
  4. Let it heat up for a few minutes, stirring occasionally.
  5. When hot, throw in cashews or sesame seeds (a handful or so, toasted or not), and serve.

Again, you can vary this to suit your taste. You can always use fresh veggies. You can add spicy sriracha sauce or teriyaki sauce. If you like rice with your stir-fry, there is microwave brown rice that is very fast. (Pro tip: we will often simply reheat brown rice that we’ve made earlier and frozen.) The point is, again, that this is a recipe that’s fast as well as healthful. Make extra and have it the next night, or take it to work for lunch!

Looking for a healthy breakfast recipe? Check out my other blog post.


  1. Royce Hull

    What bp reading is appropriate for a person who has a level of 55 gfr and is stage 3 for kidney disease .

  2. akearns

    Some excellent recipes, what a shame you are in favour of killing spiders, as they are beneficial to us by eating small insects and bugs in our homes and they end up as a meal for small birds.

  3. Kathy McKee

    Thanks for the helpful suggestions for those of use who do not have the time or expertise to read all the latest scientific studies and who like ordinary, real food. I appreciate your real life, practical suggestions and am glad to say we’ve moved towards dinner salads consisting of mostly vegetables and a little added protein (although ours is fish or chicken). Next step is to figure out lunch! Any suggestions are welcome.

  4. Koen

    You can put spiders outside instead of killing them.

  5. Laurel Kirchner

    Given the amount of research on the dangers of consuming soy, I am surprised you recommend using a soy-based meat substitute.

    • Monique Tello, MD, MPH
      Monique Tello, MD, MPH

      Hi Laurel, I presume you’re referring to early concerns about soy isoflavones, which are plant estrogens, and that they may have adverse biological effects on the body. Upon reviewing the primary scientific literature on soy and cancer/ thyroid disease risk (published peer-reviewed articles on Pubmed through November 2017), as well as our frequently referenced online medical textbook Uptodate, I am reassured. There has been quite a lot of solid research on this topic, and science has concluded, at this point, that soy poses no health risk to the vast majority of individuals. The biggest risks are to those with allergy to soy and soy products. Generally, there may be benefits, especially in reduction in risk of breast and prostate cancer, though seems more research is needed.
      There are numerous articles and reviews, here is one citation and summary for you to review:
      Nutrients. 2016 Nov 24;8(12). pii: E754.
      Soy and Health Update: Evaluation of the Clinical and Epidemiologic Literature.
      Messina M1.
      Author information
      Soyfoods have long been recognized as sources of high-quality protein and healthful fat, but over the past 25 years these foods have been rigorously investigated for their role in chronic disease prevention and treatment. There is evidence, for example, that they reduce risk of coronary heart disease and breast and prostate cancer. In addition, soy alleviates hot flashes and may favorably affect renal function, alleviate depressive symptoms and improve skin health. Much of the focus on soyfoods is because they are uniquely-rich sources of isoflavones. Isoflavones are classified as both phytoestrogens and selective estrogen receptor modulators. Despite the many proposed benefits, the presence of isoflavones has led to concerns that soy may exert untoward effects in some individuals. However, these concerns are based primarily on animal studies, whereas the human research supports the safety and benefits of soyfoods. In support of safety is the recent conclusion of the European Food Safety Authority that isoflavones do not adversely affect the breast, thyroid or uterus of postmenopausal women. This review covers each of the major research areas involving soy focusing primarily on the clinical and epidemiologic research. Background information on Asian soy intake, isoflavones, and nutrient content is also provided

  6. Dave Drake

    This menu is certainly better than the usual western diet that is loaded with salt, fat and sugar. However, the inclusion of cheeses of all kinds along with olive oil is not considered “healthy” by most diet researchers who know what those two ingredients can do to your heart and, if you are male, to your prostate gland. So, to get real healthy look into the cookbook…”Forks over Knives”. It has plenty of great tasting, easy to prepare, whole food type dishes. And you will really be helping your body!

    • Monique Tello, MD, MPH
      Monique Tello, MD, MPH

      I love Forks Over Knives, as well as their recipes! I also love olive oil and cheese. I think if one uses small amounts of olive oil (or other healthier oil) for sauteing, and some cheese for sprinkling, with the bulk of the diet being vegetable matter, one will be just fine.

      • Dave Drake

        Glad you like Forks Over Knives. My experience tells me that chefs love olive oil because it allows a very quick stir fry, but it’s not needed. Stir frying using water and veggie broth will achieve the same result. Also, for cheeses, there are plenty of substitutes for the cheesy flavor that you like. One of them is nutritional yeast. Add it to a sauce made with cashews, balsamic vinegar and garlic and you’ve got an awesome condiment. Cheers, Dave Drake

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