Chefs and a dietician share tips for healthy, on-the-go meals.
By Patrick Mott | Photos by Jody tiongco
You’re in the middle of your evening commute, and you are hungry. It was one of those days when every square on your day planner was obliterated in red ink, and food—never mind healthy food—was not a part of it. You gobbled a granola bar for breakfast in the car, skipped lunch, inhaled the remnants of a break room bagel at 2 p.m., and now your thoughts are turning to the contents of the home fridge. And it’s not a pretty sight: some rapidly-turning Chinese takeout, a tub of cookie dough ice cream and a bottle of New Year’s Champagne that didn’t make the cut. Not exactly the makings of a Dinner of Champions. So it’s off to the local fast food emporium for yet another meal that will peg the fat-and-calorie meter. It doesn’t have to be this way.
“People are crazier-busier than ever,” says Evelyn Tribole, a registered dietitian and author with a practice in Newport Beach. “We’re not necessarily seeing [people eating] more fast food, but it might be more of an issue of skipping a meal or just kind of saying ‘forget it,’ and then eating whatever. People have a genuine desire to improve their health, but what happens is they have these really great intentions and want to prepare a good meal when they get home but their energy levels don’t match the reality. They are too tired to make a meal. The issue, I find, isn’t nutrition knowledge [but] the obstacle interfering with someone wanting to eat healthier.”
The keys to overcoming that obstacle, agree many Newport Beach chefs and nutrition professionals, might boil down to two easy-to-accomplish goals: Simplify and plan ahead. Healthy meals are most often the simplest and quickest to prepare, and keeping the necessary ingredients on-hand need not involve daily trips to the supermarket or a fully packed refrigerator or pantry. We gathered the best ingredients from top local pros on how to assemble regular meals with the maximum health benefits and the minimum fuss.
Take a few minutes before the week begins and think about what you’d like to eat for the next three days. Be realistic about the time and effort it will take to prepare. Then punch a shopping list into your iNotes and head to the supermarket.
“We get so caught up in our lives, but we still have to eat three meals a day,” says Matt Tobin, executive chef of True Food Kitchen. “So you want a game plan: what you want your meals to look like, what you want to have, when you want to eat out, how much you want to eat, whether you’ll be by yourself, what you have time for. That’s going to give you the framework and the blueprint for better eating.”
For example, if you don’t want bananas for breakfast the first few days of the week, buy them when they’re less than ripe, Matt says. “And when you’re ready, they’re ready.”
Ingredient No. 2: A Stock of Supplies
There’s a short list of items that Bluewater Grill Executive Chef Brian Hirsty says he always likes to keep in his larder, particularly when his wife calls on his culinary expertise.
“Once in a while my wife will look at the cupboard and there might not be much there, and she’ll say, ‘You’re a chef—make something.’ And sometimes I’ll come up with the best things, and usually it’s working with your basic cupboard stock,” Brian says.
“As far as produce items, you always want to have some fresh garlic that holds up really well and doesn’t go bad, some fresh onion, and it can never hurt to have some potatoes lying around because they hold up well. All of those items are good to add into dishes, and they’re easy to use. I always keep dried pasta because it’s one of the easiest things to create a meal out of. And rice as well. You can make all kinds of skillet stir-frys with cooked rice, or I make side dish casseroles like risotto with green beans and a little Parmesan cheese. Between rice and pasta, you can build a meal with just about any protein.”
Other essentials in the chef’s kitchen: salt, pepper, olive oil, dried thyme and basil. “[These] tend to work well with a variety of foods,” he says.
Both Matt and Brian advocate buying certain items in bulk—chicken and hamburger, for instance—and freezing it in individual portions in plastic bags. “Sometimes people will buy things in bulk and not freeze them, or they’ll stick the whole darn thing in the freezer and then when they go to use it they look at it like it’s some kind of dinosaur in their freezer,” Brian says. “It’s going to take two days to defrost.”
Even foods as common as carrots can do double and triple duty, Matt says. “If you can buy in bulk, you can get more than one use out of what you’re buying. If you buy a bag of carrots at the beginning of the week, you can sauté them in olive oil as a side dish, cut them into sticks and save them in the fridge for a healthy snack, and then use the ends and pieces and little bits to throw in a pot and make vegetable stock or soup. You can really get mileage out of them.”
It’s important to use the fresh ingredients like produce sooner than later, he notes, since fresh vegetables start to lose their nutritive value after about three or four days.
Ingredient No. 3: A Dollop of Preparation
Many a dinner has defaulted to corn flakes due to fear of (real or imagined) complex cooking technique. This fear can make certain dishes “unapproachable” to some people, says Matt. “They think that there’s all of this prep and cookery involved, and you’ve got to wash all the pots and pans. One thing I do at home: If you have a vegetable you have to blanch off, who says you have to blanch it and saute it in two different pans? Fill your saute pan with water, give it a real quick blanch—10 to 20 seconds—then it’s nice and tender and ready to eat. Then dump the water out of there and dry it off and it’s perfectly fine to use that as your saute pan for the exact same carrots that are sitting in the colander. You’ve just consolidated a couple of steps and a couple of pans and cut your work in half.”
And if you want to use only the microwave oven, that’s great, Evelyn says. “There are all kinds of things you can microwave: a sweet potato, some wonderful vegetarian chili, or just leftovers.” Another of her preparation time-savers is pre-cut and washed salad greens in plastic bags.
Breakfast: Once thought of as little cholesterol grenades, but now hailed as one of nature’s perfect foods, eggs are fine two or three times a week, says owner and chef Sal Maniaci of Sapori Ristorante. For a light and healthy first meal of the day, he suggests eggs, blueberries or other fresh fruit, and whole wheat or rye bread.
“Breakfast doesn’t have to be a big ordeal,” says Evelyn. “Peanut butter on wheat toast with a sliced banana is fine.”
Snack: A yogurt parfait is a favorite of Evelyn’s. Sal loves a simple hard Italian cheese such as Parmesan with some fresh fruit, and sometimes carrot or celery sticks with almond or peanut butter. Matt often makes himself a trail mix consisting of almonds, walnuts, diced apple and Manchego cheese. “If you want a little texture and crunch,” he says, “it doesn’t get any easier than that.”
Lunch: If you’re brown bagging it for lunch, Evelyn says planning is key. “I say hats off to the brown baggers because they’re starting with a plan. But the issue I find with a lot of brown baggers is that they don’t open the bag. They think what’s in there is going to be the boring same old, same old. Fixing that can be as easy as adding a nice cheese to the sandwich, or including a little dark chocolate to make things more interesting.”
Lunches on the job can be greatly improved by packing them in an insulated container, says Brian, to preserve them as cold or hot. Some of his favorites: leftover diced chicken or turkey with green onions, cashews, salt and pepper and mayonnaise as a salad or on a croissant. Or a turkey salad with apples and walnuts with a quick reduction of sherry and tarragon.
Dinner: It doesn’t have to be candlelight and roses. It doesn’t even have to be standard dinner fare, and can often be made in advance and refrigerated or frozen. “But it does have to be something you enjoy and look forward to,” Evelyn says. “It could be a homemade lasagna or chili recipe.” And if it needs to be tweaked a little bit in order to be healthy, that’s really easy to do with a lot of recipes. She adds: “Also, don’t think of dinner as being a certain kind of meal. One of the easiest things to do would be some kind of sandwich, for example. Maybe turkey on whole grain bread with avocado, and a salad, and you’ve got a balanced meal right there.”
If you’re planning a Mediterranean-style dinner, Sal suggests the rule of thirds: one third each of carbohydrates (pasta), protein (poultry, meat or fish) and vegetables. “That’s the secret,” he says. That, and keeping the pasta or rice serving at about two ounces, and the protein serving about the size of the palm of your hand.
Brian loves poached salmon with a simple cucumber or other relish accompaniment, such as garlic and fresh dill, or red onions and tomatoes. And if no wine for poaching is available, water will do, and the dish will be ready in about 10 minutes.
The pros all agree on one point when it comes to keeping your daily diet good-tasting, good for your health, good for your pocketbook and easy on your time and effort: All you need are a few key ingredients. Start with a few minutes of planning, throw in a couple of quick shopping trips each week, add a handful of versatile ingredients, plus a dash of imagination, and you’re well on your way. NBM
Healthy Restaurant Choices
You’ve been good all week. Your meals have been balanced, regular and lean, even creative. But now you’re off to a fine local restaurant for dinner with friends. Is all that healthy eating about to be undone?
Not if you’re willing to do a bit of sleuthing, and perhaps some substitution. And there are many restaurant dishes that are simply naturally healthy.
Sal Maniaci, owner and chef at Sapori Ristorante in Newport Beach, sings the praises of the typical Mediterranean diet (check out his recipes on OCinSite.com).
“The Mediterranean diet has been proven to be quite healthy because of the freshness of the products that we use—fresh tomatoes, olive oil, fresh fish, garlic,” he says. “Very wholesome foods, and it’s been going on for centuries, and the people who eat that diet have very little heart problems. It’s a diet that combines carbohydrates like fresh-made pasta with fish, meat, chicken or vegetables, all of which are staples of the Mediterranean diet. And fresh fruit—you can always finish the meal with fresh fruit. So you have a great combination of ingredients and nutrients.”
Not sure about the ingredients in a restaurant menu item? Ask, says Matt Tobin, the executive chef of True Food Kitchen in Newport Beach.
“Knowledge is power,” he says. “You should never feel you’re putting someone out or imposing by asking the chef, ‘What’s in here?’ It may be an allergy concern or it may be a dietary concern, but anybody who’s not willing to share with you what they put in their food has got something to hide, and that’s an issue. Empower yourself with more information. If everything’s on the up and up and they’re honest, they would want to brag to you about it, like I do.”
Stay away from cream sauces, advises Bluewater Grill Executive Chef Brian Hirsty. “If I have a choice of something with olive oil or that’s tomato- or vegetable-based, I’ll go with that. Cream sauces have their applications, but in many contexts they’re kind of passe because people are eating healthier.”
Still, says Newport Beach registered dietitian Evelyn Tribole, don’t deny yourself a treat for the sake of denial. If you’ve been eating well and looking forward to an In-N-Out Double-Double burger all week, enjoy.
“If you make it forbidden,” she warns, “the next time it won’t be a Double-Double, it’ll be a Quad-Quad.”