The weeknight dinner dilemma

On the Chowhound discussion boards, there’s a lengthy, ongoing conversation about what’s for dinner. One person this past week was having Vietnamese beef salad over noodles. Someone else was making quesadillas. And quite a few people were serving leftover chili, beef stew or braised pork.

Of all the challenges involved in eating more healthfully, the dilemma of what to have for dinner on a weeknight surely ranks near the top. When the Reser’s Fine Foods blog asked readers last fall to name some of the biggest obstacles, the responses sounded familiar: Picky children. Picky spouses. Lack of time. Competing priorities. The struggle to keep the menu from becoming monotonous.

One woman wrote, “My biggest challenge is getting something healthy on the table in a reasonable amount of time – and also having the ability to multi-task while making dinner! So much to do in the evenings, with so little precious time!” For someone else, it was the difficulty of coming up with and sticking to a meal plan. “I mean, days you don’t have what you need, or want what you have, or are just too tired to try,” she wrote.

Far easier to resort to fast food or a restaurant meal that’s on the table in minutes, with a minimum of effort.

So what’s wrong with having a takeout dinner or restaurant meal every so often? Nothing, really. The real issue is when it becomes the default strategy night after night.

A few years ago a study was published that tracked 3,000 healthy young adults for 15 years. The findings were interesting and probably not all that surprising: After 15 years, those who frequented fast-food restaurants more than twice a week had gained 10 extra pounds and had a two-fold greater increase in insulin resistance, putting them at risk of type 2 diabetes.

To get an idea of what’s in those fast-food meals, here are some statistics, courtesy of the FDA: A biscuit, egg and sausage breakfast sandwich contains around 37 grams of fat. A regular-sized double hamburger contains 32 grams of fat. The recommended daily allowance: 67 grams, which means consuming even one of these menu items can use up half of your dietary fat allowance for the whole day.

Sodium is another culprit. For most people, the major source of salt intake isn’t the salt shaker; it’s processed foods that are high in sodium. But consider how hard it might be to cut back when a meat combo submarine sandwich can contain more than 1,600 milligrams of sodium, or a single large cheeseburger with bacon has 1,300 milligrams. The recommended daily allowance? For healthy people, it’s 2,300 mg per day. For those who are 51 and older, African-American or who have high blood pressure, diabetes or kidney disease, the recommendation is 1,500 mg a day or less.

Wanna get really, really specific? A couple of weeks ago, Men’s Health magazine published a list of the “20 worst foods in America.” Here’s the list, which names names, provides calorie counts and suggests dining alternatives that are more palatable.

According to multiple studies, there’s really no substitute for meals prepared in your own kitchen. When you make it yourself, you can exercise far more say over how much fat, cholesterol, salt and sugar ends up on the dinner plate. Put another way, one of the eating-related behaviors that has been shown to make a difference is how often – or how seldom – we eat out.

A study that appeared in the Preventing Chronic Disease journal a few years ago surveyed 4,300 American adults about weight loss, weight loss maintenance and eating patterns. The results indicated that those who didn’t eat at fast-food restaurants were more likely to be successful at losing weight than those who reported eating fast food twice or more a week. Because this study looked only at weight loss and weight-loss maintenance, the findings are limited. But the authors point out, “Data on consumption of foods away from home suggest that when dining out, people eat more food, higher-calorie food, or both. Therefore, dining behavior is a potentially modifiable contributor to caloric intake and weight control.”

In other words, it’s something we can change. Other studies have found similar benefits for people who need to control how much sodium and/or sugar they consume.

How to make weeknight dining less of a dilemma? Kathleen Zelman of the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic offers some of her own solutions:

My strategy for quick and easy dinners starts in the grocery store. The produce bins in my refrigerator are always full. In addition to fresh fruits and veggies, I load the refrigerator with low-fat yogurt, fat-free half-and-half (a cooking trick I learned from our “Recipe Doctor” Elaine Magee), a variety of cheeses, hummus, eggs and skim milk.

Depending on what is on sale, I stock my freezer with items such as pork and beef tenderloin, salmon, tilapia, boneless chicken breasts, and lean ground round. When I get home from the market, I divide these foods into portions for two so I can easily defrost them a few hours before dinner. Also in my freezer is a supply of whole-wheat rolls, ciabatta rolls, Lean Cuisine dinners, chicken pot stickers (I toss them into chicken broth with mushrooms and scallions to make soup), and bags of frozen veggies.

Staples in my pantry include cereals (Kashi Go Lean Crunch and Special K are our favorites), brown rice (Uncle Ben’s ready rice), whole-wheat blend pasta, canned petite diced tomatoes, Mandarin orange segments, sweet potatoes, nuts, a variety of canned beans, soup, coffee and assorted teas (my afternoon pick-me-up).

I’m one of those people who cooks on weekends for the week ahead. The down side of this is that it takes planning. The up side? Well, in the freezer right now are single-serving containers of lentil stew with turkey sausage and carrots, and a pan of pasta shells stuffed with spinach and low-fat ricotta. Another strategy that seems to work well in our household: having a repertoire of weeknight meals to fall back on that are fast, taste good and require minimal energy to make.

LiveStrong.com has several specific ideas on its website for simple weeknight dinner options, low-carb menu suggestions, diet-friendly dinners, and even several useful tips for how to plan a dinner menu (take one week at a time; vary the menu to keep it interesting; get input from the rest of the household on their likes and dislikes).

Two of the most often-cited resources: Cooking Light and Everyday Food. And when I Googled “healthy weeknight meals,” I came up with more than 400,000 websites ranging from the Food Network to Eatingwell.com.

Yes, it takes time, energy and organizational skills to come up with weeknight meals that can easily be prepared at home. But with all the resources available to help, it doesn’t have to be a continual dilemma.

Image credits: Photo, Wikimedia Commons; logo, Troy Murphy, West Central Tribune