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The Meal Deal : They should be eaten, not skipped. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, that is. And planning them isn't as tough as you may think. : Think Ahead About Supper

March 30, 1998|FELICIA BUSCH | Special to the Times

What's for dinner at your house tonight? If you're like most people, you don't have a clue until it's time to wrap up your workday. But even if you have nothing planned, you can still whip up a healthy meal if you keep just a few basic ingredients in your refrigerator, freezer and pantry.

Always have on hand fresh fruit, greens for salads, baby carrots, onion, low-fat or skim milk, cheese, eggs and basic condiments like mustard, catsup, jam and salsa. If you don't have time or won't make time to prepare salads, purchase premixed bagged salads in the produce department.

Your freezer can be a treasure chest of ingredients for future meals or a graveyard of forgotten, unidentifiable foods. Label and date everything you stash. If you're so inclined, keep a running list of what's stored so you'll know your options at a glance. Best basics include skinless chicken breasts, extra lean ground beef, assorted plain vegetables, whole grain breads and rolls, bagels and juice concentrates. In place of the chicken breasts and ground beef, vegetarians can store garden burgers in the freezer and "silken" tofu, which is vacuum-packed, in the refrigerator.

Pack your pantry with lots of pasta, rice (brown, white and quick cooking), potatoes, spices and herbs, olive oil, canola oil, vinegars, whole grains (oats, barley), canned legumes, tomato sauce and canned fruit. Don't forget the basics like salt, pepper, flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and cornstarch.

Do some planning--it really will save you lots of time. After spending years planning meals for others, I never dreamed I'd do it for myself. But the simple truth is, if I don't plan for dinner, what my family and I eat is far less nutritious than when I spend a few minutes jotting down a menu.

Turn your meal-planning instincts upside down. Remember those divided plates used in the school cafeteria? They're an excellent tool for allocating just how much of each food to eat. Instead of focusing on the meat of the meal ask, "What grain should we have tonight--potatoes, rice, pasta?" That should fill the largest section of your plate. Then, add generous amounts of fruits and vegetables for the other two sections. Modest amounts of meat and skim milk round out the meal. Use only as much sugar or fat as required for good taste.

Since dinner is usually the main meal of the day, it's the one at which you usually need to have foods from all the food groups on your plate.

Recycle your best efforts. While variety is the foundation of good eating, you don't have to invent new menus nightly. Use index cards to keep track of family favorites and after a while, you'll have enough ideas to shuffle through months of meals without monotony.

Any time you plan, think about how each food can do double duty for another meal. Fresh green beans tonight can reappear in tomorrow's salad. Choose a slightly larger roast than usual and use the rest for stir-fry later in the week. Bake extra potatoes for dinner, and stuff them with vegetables for an easy microwave lunch.

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Registered dietitian Felicia Busch routinely plans meals for her family, which includes her husband and three young boys in St. Paul, Minn. She heads a nutrition communications consulting business that works with national restaurant chains, food companies and grocery stores to promote healthful food options for consumers.

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Adding Some Nutrition to Convenience Foods

Here are some easy nutritional fixes for convenience foods:

* Add fresh peppers, mushrooms and onions to jarred spaghetti sauce for fiber and nutrients.

* Top frozen pizza with chopped fresh tomatoes and your favorite veggies before heating.

* Toss in extras, including diced carrots, peas or corn when preparing packaged rice blends.

* Serve fresh fruit and vegetables as extra side dishes when eating frozen microwave dinners.

* Add a bag of ready-to-eat leafy salad greens and a loaf of crusty whole-grain bread the next time you opt for deli foods.

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Fast and Easy

Here are some easy nutritional fixes for convenience foods:

* Add fresh peppers, mushrooms and onions to jarred spaghetti sauce for fiber and nutrients.

* Top frozen pizza with chopped fresh tomatoes and your favorite veggies before heating.

* Toss in extras including diced carrots, peas or corn when preparing packaged rice blends.

* Serve fresh fruit and vegetables as extra side dishes when eating frozen microwave dinners.

* Add a bag of eady-to-eat leafy salad greens and a loaf of crusty whole-grain bread the next time you opt for deli foods.

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