Does this look like you when you're making dinner?
You come up with a main course, usually a meat. You pick a starch -- potatoes, rice, pasta.
At the last minute, you realize you need a side dish. So you dump frozen peas or broccoli in boiling water, or you toss bagged salad in a bowl.
If your aim is healthful, balanced and affordable, you may have missed a big chance. Again.
Dietitians see you do it. When they have clients keep food logs, they often see no fruits or vegetables during the day. And all that missed nutrition isn't being made up at night, either.
"We tend to think in food groups," says Elisabetta Politi, the nutrition director at the Duke Diet and Fitness Center in Durham, N.C. " 'Tonight, I'm going to have chicken, I'm going to have pasta.' It shows people don't think too much in terms of balance."
Melissa Herrmann Dierks, a registered dietitian and diabetes educator in Huntersville, N.C., tells clients to generally aim for 2 1/2 cups of vegetables and at least one piece of fruit a day, with a cup being about the size of a light bulb. Politi suggests more, 2 1/2 cups of vegetables for adult women and 3 cups for men, plus 2 cups of fruit a day.
"A lot of people skip breakfast or get a sausage biscuit," says Dierks. "At lunch, it's fast food or Chinese or a pizza." By the time we get to dinner, it's our last chance.
Doing bagged salad or frozen broccoli every night is a start, but you're still missing something else important: Variety.
"The bigger variety that you eat, the bigger variety of vitamins and minerals you're going to get," says Dierks.
With an eye toward affordability, variety and speed, we dug into our files of great side dishes, the ones we rely on to fill out the plate. All of them use things that are easy to add to your grocery list.
"People who spend at least 20 minutes planning the grocery list eat healthier," says Dierks. "Get those foods in the house, otherwise, you're not going to eat them."
More easy ideas
Quick-cooking brown rice. Dietitian Melissa Herrmann Dierks keeps Success brand on hand. It cooks in a minute in the microwave, and then you can add leftover grilled or roasted vegetables.
Canned fruit. Get the kind that's packed in its own juice or in a light syrup. Politi likes the idea of having some kind of fruit -- fresh, canned or dried -- at the end of every meal instead of dessert.
Roasted red peppers. Getting plenty of color on your plate is a sign you're getting variety. Many recipes call for expensive red bell peppers, but you can add a pop of red to a dish much cheaper by keeping a jar of roasted peppers in the refrigerator.
Frozen and canned vegetables. For frozen, look for quick-frozen vegetables, without butter or cheese sauces. For canned, look for low-sodium or rinse them to remove up to 40 percent of the salt.
Canned beans. They're great ways to add fiber. Make sure you rinse them to remove sodium.
> Wilted Spinach
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves minced garlic
About 1/4 cup roasted red pepper, drained and sliced (optional)
10 ounces baby spinach
Juice of 1 lemon
1/2 teaspoon salt
Heat olive oil in a nonstick skillet. Add garlic and cook about 1 minute. Add roasted red pepper, if using.
Add spinach and stir around to coat with oil. Cook 1 to 2 minutes, just until the leaves are wilted. Add lemon juice and salt and cook briefly. Serve immediately.
> Oven-Roasted Green Beans
2 pounds fresh green beans (see note)
1 large onion (see note)
8 cloves garlic (see note)
2 tablespoons olive oil
About 1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Rinse and drain the green beans. Trim off the stem ends, leaving the green beans whole.
Spread the green beans in a mostly single layer in a wide, shallow pan, such as a roasting pan or a jelly roll plan. Peel the onion and cut in thin slices. Separate the rings and scatter over the green beans. Peel the garlic cloves. (Place cloves on their side on a cutting board, place the flat side of a knife blade on each one and hit it with your fist to break the skin.) Cut each clove in half and scatter over the green beans.
Drizzle olive oil over all. Shake the pan a little to distribute everything. Place in oven, uncovered, and roast for 10 minutes. Use tongs to stir it all around. Roast for 10 minutes longer.
Remove from oven. Immediately pour balsamic vinegar over everything. Serve immediately, or cover the pan with foil and let stand up to 1 hour before serving.
Notes: You can halve or increase the amount of green beans depending on how many people you're serving. For the onion, I've used thinly sliced shallot, red onion, sweet onion or yellow onion. I've skipped the garlic, and I've even added thinly sliced fresh shiitake mushrooms (fabulous).
Yield: 8 servings.
> Freezer Edamame Succotash
2 cups frozen shelled edamame
2 cups frozen yellow corn
1 cup frozen cut green beans
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup diced yellow onion, red onion or green onion
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 teaspoon garlic powder (optional)
1/2 cup half-and-half
Place the edamame, corn and green beans in a colander and rinse under cold water to begin thawing a little.
Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat just until the foam subsides. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 3 minutes.
Add all of the frozen vegetables, breaking up chunks with a wooden spoon if needed. Raise heat to medium-high and cook about 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add salt, pepper and garlic powder, if using.
Add half-and-half and bring to a simmer. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid has cooked away but everything is still moist. Serve hot.
Yield: 6 servings.
> Seared Red Cabbage Wedges
1 small head red cabbage
2 to 3 tablespoons olive
Salt and pepper
Juice of 1/2 orange
2 to 3 tablespoons toasted chopped walnuts
Remove any outer leaves of cabbage with brown spots. Cut the head in half from the top through the core. Leaving the core in place to hold the slices together, cut into wedges about 1 inch wide.
Heat the oil in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add as many wedges as will fit in a single layer. Cook about 3 minutes. Using a flat spatula, turn each wedge over and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook 5 minutes. (The wedges may fall apart a little, but they'll still taste good.)
Remove from the skillet to a serving plate. Squeeze the orange half over them and sprinkle with toasted walnuts. (If you want, add the walnuts to the hot skillet and cook them briefly, but don't let them burn.)