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How to Create a Healthy Dinner System

How to Create a Healthy Dinner System

How to Create a Healthy Dinner SystemPhotos by Lindsey Johnson

Given the choice between a healthy dinner and a not-so-healthy one, in theory most people will choose healthy. In practice however, usually after a long day, it can be hard to muster up the wherewithal to steam veggies, cook quinoa and track down a perfect protein. Sometimes all you can do is make “dinner” out of a bowl of cereal—or, you know, leftover holiday candy. (No judgment.)

There’s definitely a light at the end of the weeknight dinner-fail tunnel; it will simply cost you a little bit of time on the weekend. But if you can commit to a few hours of prep, low-maintenance cooking and cleanup on Saturday or Sunday, Weeknight You will be so grateful Weekend You came to her dinner rescue.

This is a tried-and-true plan of attack I’ve found to be pretty sustainable. Of course there are nights where the siren song of not-so-healthy convenience food is just too overpowering, but having a contingency plan for busy nights makes choosing the healthy option infinitely easier. When meals are already waiting in the fridge or freezer, it makes the occasional cereal (or pizza delivery) dinner more of a once-in-a-blue-moon splurge than the norm.

Step 1: Kitchen Inventory

What healthy ingredients do you already have in the house? A bag of bulk beans, a couple servings worth of grains? Do you have a stockpile of frozen veggies, or some CSA produce to use up? Make a list of what you have on hand.

Healthy Dinner System Equipment
Also consider what equipment you have. Prepping ahead of time is much easier if you have at least one of or two of these:

  • Slow cooker
  • Rice cooker
  • High-quality blender (I use a Ninja to puree/mash vegetables and beans)
  • Roasting pans
  • Baking dish
  • Stock pots
  • Food processor
  • Electric mixer

If you don’t have some of those things, not to worry. Just keep in mind that making beans and rice, for example, will take longer and use up two stove burners if you don’t have a slow cooker and rice cooker.

Glass or BPA-free plastic containers will also help you keep your meals organized, portioned and easy to track down in the fridge or freezer. Plus, you can heat them up right in the storage container if you want.

Step 2: Make a Plan

How many nights will you be home this week? How many people are you feeding? Figure out how many meals you need to create, and what you can feasibly do with the ingredients you already have on hand—or what you have some of the makings of. Plan to make at least three different dishes, ideally ones you can mix and match in different configurations, and aim for different textures and flavors. If you have an abundance of something—or just want to simplify your shopping—think of different ways you can use one ingredient. Have a bounty of carrots from the farmers market? Make a pureed soup with some and use the rest in a roasted-veggie salad.

Healthy Dinner System Ingredients
Here are some essentials that lend themselves to making ahead and ideas for how to use them.

Grains: brown rice, quinoa, millet, wheat berries, whole wheat pasta
Tip: I’ve never had good luck freezing pasta, but grains do nicely
Use in: salads, tacos, casseroles, meal bowls, soups

Whole or pureed legumes/pulses (dried or canned): kidney beans, chickpeas, black beans, adzuki beans, white beans, pinto beans, lentils
Tip: If you don’t have a pressure cooker, you can prepare dried beans in a slow cooker and freeze them for later
Use in: salads, tacos, meal bowls, soups

Other proteins: Sliced tempeh or tofu (roasted/baked), non-meat loaves, seitan
Tip: You can purchase baked tofu or use our recipe to make your own
Use in: sandwiches, salads, tacos, meal bowls

Roasted or sautéed veggies: carrots, beets, sweet potatoes, potatoes, kale, squash, cauliflower, mushrooms, green beans, etc.
Tip: I don’t recommend preparing broccoli in advance as it gets a little soggy and smelly in the fridge; delicate veggies like pea pods may get soggy as well
Use in: sandwiches, salads, casseroles, meal bowls, soups

Pureed or mashed cooked veggies: cauliflower, potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, squash, rutabagas, turnips
Use in: casseroles, meal bowls

Nuts and seeds (raw, quickly sautéed or roasted): walnuts, pecans, almonds, cashews, sunflower, sesame
Use in: salads, meal bowls, tacos

Sauces and condiments (homemade or store-bought): marinara (or use canned diced tomatoes), vinaigrettes, salsa, tahini, hummus, cashew cream, hot sauce, mustard, pesto, curry sauce
Tip: I like to make some simple dressings in mason jars ahead of time. Go with healthier store-bought sauces or dressings, or just make your own using olive oil and vinegar or lemon juice.
Use on: everything!

Step 3: Go Shopping

After you’ve figured out what you want to make, put together a list of ingredients you need to supplement what you have at home. If you’re afraid of veggies spoiling before you can get to them, or if you want to simplify your prep even more, stock up on some frozen ones you can quickly add to your dinners while heating them up. Or grab sweet potatoes (they have a long shelf life and can be easily baked or microwaved) and/or an inexpensive bag of hearty greens you can stir or toss into meals throughout the week.

Step 4: Cook Like Crazy

I usually set aside a Saturday or Sunday afternoon (my “take care of stuff around the house” time) to do prep and advance cooking. If you’re making something in the slow cooker, it should be started earlier, but it can mostly just do its thing while you’re enjoying your weekend.

Normally I’ll have quinoa or rice in the rice cooker, veggies or tempeh roasting in the oven, beans (which I’ve soaked overnight) in the slow cooker, and perhaps a simple soup on the stove or a casserole in the oven. While everything’s cooking, start cleaning up, get your storage containers ready, and make room in the fridge! (Put anything you think you might not eat in the next few days in the freezer, just to be safe.)

The more you do this, the faster the whole process will go. You might even end up with enough overflow meals in the freezer to tide you over an extra week.

Step 5: Time to Eat!

What a busy day! Good thing you have all this healthy food ready to go. You can assemble your meals when you store them, or separate things out and mix and match as you go. Throw some roasted mushrooms and tempeh on mashed rutabaga; toss pesto into pasta with sautéed veggies, heat up a bowl of chili with a side of quinoa, quickly simmer garbanzos and roasted cauliflower in a curry sauce…you get the idea.

How to Create a Healthy Dinner System
Consider keeping a few of these items on hand to tie your pre-prepped meal together.

  • Bread, tortillas or lettuce leaves for sandwiches and wraps
  • Fresh herbs for garnish and seasoning
  • Lemon or lime juice
  • Cheese or nutritional yeast
  • Vinegar and oil
  • Sour cream, yogurt or cashew cream
  • Slaw mix for a fresh, crunchy veggie topping or an easy side salad
  • Extra greens for side salads, or to throw into soups, sandwiches or meal bowls
  • Avocados
  • Eggs

Dinner is done! How amazing does that feel? And if you need a little more inspiration, here’s a meal idea made with this healthy dinner system. Over the weekend, you’ll want to prepare the quinoa and dressing, marinate the tempeh and cube the sweet potatoes. When you’re ready to eat, all you’ll have to do is spend a few minutes cooking the sweet potatoes and tempeh and dinner is done!

Quinoa with Tempeh, Sweet Potatoes and Tahini-Miso Sauce

Marinated tempeh, sweet potatoes and quinoa combine to make a healthy dinner for two.
Total Time: 25 minutes
Servings: 2 servings


  • Juice of 1 lime
  • 1 tablespoon tamari or soy sauce
  • 1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
  • 1 8-ounce package tempeh, cubed
  • 1 teaspoon avocado oil or other cooking oil that you have on hand
  • 1 medium sweet potato peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 1 1/2 cups cooked quinoa
  • 2 tablespoons roasted cashew pieces

For the Tahini-Miso Sauce:

  • 2 teaspoons tahini
  • 1 teaspoon white miso paste
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • 2-3 teaspoons rice or coconut vinegar to taste

For serving:

  • 2-3 cups baby spinach or greens
  • Sriracha for drizzling


  • Whisk together the lime juice, soy sauce, and sesame oil in a shallow dish; add the tempeh cubes to the dish and toss to coat. Set aside.
  • Heat a non-stick skillet to medium-high, then add the avocado oil. Add the cubed sweet potato. Cook, turning the sweet potatoes often, until golden brown and tender, 5-10 minutes. Transfer the sweet potatoes to a medium bowl, along with the quinoa, and keep warm.
  • To the same skillet, add the tempeh cubes and any liquid from the marinade that wasn't absorbed. Cook the tempeh on all sides until golden brown and crispy. Add the quinoa and sweet potatoes back to the skillet and fold in the cashews. Remove from heat.
  • In a small bowl, whisk together the tahini, miso, and water until smooth. Add vinegar to taste. Set aside.
  • To serve, arrange the baby spinach on two plates and divide the quinoa mixture onto the spinach. Drizzle with the Tahini-Miso Sauce and Sriracha.
Craving more veg-friendly recipes? Shop our collection of vegetarian and vegan cookbooks!

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  • Reply
    January 15, 2015 at 2:20 pm

    I always mean to cook ahead, plan the menu etc etc but I NEVER do – thank you for this post – I needed a step by step system!!

  • Reply
    Nina at
    January 15, 2015 at 3:45 pm

    Great tips on weekly meal planning! If only you could tell me how generate more time on the weekends?! Lol! Thanks!

  • Reply
    Rochelle Haupt
    January 16, 2015 at 5:11 am

    I absolutely love this post! I always keep beans and chickpeas in the freezer for those lazy weeknights, but consciously prepping a few dishes before the week starts is even better. I guess it all boils down to clever time management which we so often neglect to do. Thank you for the inspiration;)

  • Reply
    Liz @ Floating Kitchen
    January 16, 2015 at 10:45 am

    Love this post! A really well stocked pantry is so important! This salad is right up my alley! Love it!

  • Reply
    January 16, 2015 at 1:26 pm

    I just did this last weekend, and it made getting ready for work such a breeze (prepping my breakfasts and lunches, so I can avoid the take out and vendors they bring in). I’m definitely a fan!

    • Reply
      Dana Raidt
      January 22, 2015 at 12:13 pm

      Good for you! It just gets easier every time you do it, too 🙂

  • Reply
    Andrea @ Vibrant Wellness Journal
    November 18, 2015 at 2:34 pm

    This is such a great tutorial! I’ve already shared it with my meal-challenged friends!

  • Reply
    Stella @ Stellicious Life
    May 13, 2016 at 10:57 am

    Thanks for the great post, seems the key to success is planning well ahead.

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