Some Assembly Required: No-Sweat Summer Meals


The last thing you want to do at the end of a hot summer day is stand in front of the stove, stirring something, or fire up your big oven. It’s summer, for Heaven’s sake! There are other things we’d rather be doing. There are movies to see and swimming pools to dive into. And the higher the mercury climbs, the less energy we seem to have for preparing dinner.

Sounds like a job for (drum roll, please) … convenience foods! But many convenience products add a heap of calories, fat grams, and sodium to your daily nutritional totals. Besides, to many of us, these products just don’t taste as good as freshly prepared meals.

What’s the answer? I like to call it “some assembly required” — not so much cooking as putting together a meal, using some of the better-for-you convenience products. We’re still whipping up a “made-fresh” meal, but without spending too much time in the kitchen.

None of the following tips or recipes calls for using the big oven, though some involve the toaster oven or microwave. Both appliances are great for summer because they let us cook without heating up the whole kitchen.

10 Tips for No-Sweat Summer Meals

1. Frozen pesto is one of my all-time favorite convenience products (I like Armanino Pesto, from the freezer section. It’s made with canola oil, which is high in healthy omega-3 fatty acids and monounsaturated fat, and has a bit less fat than other brands). Use it as a dressing for hot or cold pasta, a spread for gourmet sandwiches, or a sauce for fish (see recipe below). Just keep your serving to about a tablespoon, because each tablespoon has 47 calories and 4.5 grams of fat.

2. Using the outdoor barbecue keeps the kitchen cool, and all you need is a piece of meat or fish (or some vegetables) and a good sauce or marinade. Any bottled, reduced-fat vinaigrette can serve as a quick marinade. Keep in mind that meats and poultry should marinate for at least two hours while fish and veggies only need one hour.

3. The sandwich, the epitome of easy-assembly food, makes a great summer dinner entrée. Think beyond peanut butter and jelly and try some new sandwich ideas! Choose whole-grain breads and reduced-fat fillers and spreads whenever possible. Double up on the lettuce and tomato to boost the nutritional value and fiber.

4. Prewashed salads in a bag are great, especially when they go on sale. Just cut (the bag), dump (it in the bowl), and drizzle (the dressing). I like to spruce them up by tossing in canned beans (, black, edamame, or garbanzo, rinsed and drained); more veggies; cubed or shredded reduced-fat cheese; and cooked, shredded lean beef or pork, skinless chicken breast filets, or shellfish; fruit; toasted nuts; and/or fresh herbs.

5. Preboil or grill a few ingredients in the morning or the night before, and they’ll be chilled and ready to assemble into a cool dinner dish when you get home from work. For example, boil pasta in the morning, let it chill all day in the fridge, and a pasta salad can be yours in just a few more minutes. Toss in some light bottled salad dressing or a couple tablespoons of olive oil and whatever other ingredients you desire (chopped tomato, lightly cooked vegetables, cubed reduced-fat cheese, sliced lite salami, drained olives, etc.) Use whole-grain pasta or a whole-wheat pasta blend, and you’ll get more fiber and phytochemicals, too.

6. Dash to the supermarket deli for a whole rotisserie chicken or some sliced roasted turkey. Suddenly, you have your featured ingredient for salads and sandwiches (either meat) or quesadillas and enchiladas (the chicken). The turkey is ready to go, and it only takes five minutes to remove the chicken’s and shred or cube the breast and thigh meat.

7. It’s a wrap! Start with a soft tortilla (choose higher-fiber, no-trans fat tortillas when possible) and lightly coat the top with light cream cheese, Dijon mustard, sun-dried tomato pesto or green pesto, or light mayonnaise. Layer on lean sandwich meats, vegetables, and sliced or shredded reduced-fat cheese, roll, and you’ve got dinner wrapped up.

8. Make quesadillas for dinner, and you’ll only need your stove for a few minutes. Experiment with filling ingredients and garnishes. Try some of these options:

  • Roasted chicken
  • Cooked shrimp
  • Mango or roasted garlic salsa
  • Reduced-fat cheese
  • Roasted vegetables
  • Beans (try fat-free refried beans)
  • Avocado strips
  • Jalapeno jelly

9. Microwave nachos make a fun and light dinner, if you use reduced-fat or low-fat tortilla chips and top them with beans, extra-lean meats, reduced-fat cheese, and chopped tomatoes and other assorted vegetables. Prepare your plate of nachos, then microwave on high for a couple of minutes. Dab a dollop of salsa or fat-free sour cream on top.

10. Toast up a mini pizza. Spread bottled pizza or marinara sauce on pita bread, flatbread, tortilla, or a bagel cut in half (the more fiber your “crust” contains, the better). Top with shredded, reduced-fat cheese and any vegetable or lower-fat meat. Pop into the toaster oven, and cook at 400 degrees until the cheese melts.

‘Some Assembly Required’ Recipes

Insalata Caprese (Pasta Salad)

Journal as: 3/4 cup starch with 1 teaspoon fat + 1/2 cup vegetable without added fat + 2 ounces low-fat cheese

If you boil the pasta in the morning, drain, and let chill in the refrigerator, all you have to do is toss the ingredients together and dinner is served!

4 cups cooked whole-grain pasta blend, cooled
2 cups ripe cherry or grape tomatoes cut in half
8 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/3 cup lightly packed fresh basil leaves, cut or torn into bite-size pieces
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt to taste
Ground black pepper to taste
16 slices reduced-fat salami, quartered (optional)

  • Place all the ingredients in a medium serving bowl and toss to blend well.
  • Cover and chill in refrigerator until ready to serve.

Yield: 4 servings

Per serving: 360 calories, 19 grams protein, 42 grams carbohydrate, 14 grams fat (5.5 grams saturated fat, 7.1 grams monounsaturated fat, 1.2 grams polyunsaturated fat), 24 milligrams cholesterol, 6 grams fiber, 195 milligrams sodium. Calories from fat: 35%.

Toaster-Oven Pesto Salmon

Journal as: 1 serving lean fish with sauce

1 1/4 pound salmon filet, cut into 4 pieces
1 lemon, halved
2 tablespoons white wine (or substitute non-alcoholic beer)
2 tablespoons pesto (I like Armanino Farms frozen pesto), thawed
2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts (optional)

  • Cover the toaster oven pan with foil, and then coat the foil with canola cooking spray. Place salmon filets, skin-side down, on the foil-lined pan.
  • Squeeze one of the lemon halves over the salmon, then drizzle the white wine over it. Let it marinate for 15 minutes while you preheat the toaster oven’s broiler.
  • Spread 1/2 tablespoon of the pesto over each serving of salmon. Broil until fish flakes and flesh is opaque and light pink (about eight-10 minutes per inch of thickness, depending on your toaster oven; cooking time was about 15 minutes total with my toaster oven). The pesto will form a nicely browned crust.
  • Cut the remaining lemon in thin slices. Garnish each salmon piece with toasted pine nuts (if desired) and a couple of lemon slices.

Yield: 4 servings

Per serving: 230 calories, 29 grams protein, 2 grams carbohydrate, 11 grams fat (1.8 grams , 3 grams monounsaturated fat, 3.6 grams polyunsaturated fat), 79 milligrams cholesterol, 0.2 grams fiber, 111 milligrams sodium. Calories from fat: 46%.

California Roll Wrap

If the popular California Roll type of sushi were a sandwich, this is what it would be. I used fresh crab meat because it was on sale, but use imitation crab if you prefer.

Journal as: 1 serving sushi + 1slice bread

3 tablespoons light cream cheese
3 tablespoons fat-free sour cream
4 green onions (the white and part of the green), chopped (about 1/4 cup)
1/2 pound fresh crabmeat (free of bones)
Pepper to taste
6 whole-wheat 8-inch tortillas (or the tortilla of your choice)
1 cucumber, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon wasabi powder, combined with 1 tablespoon cold water
1 large avocado, quartered, pitted and sliced

  • Add cream cheese, sour cream, green onions, and crab to food processor and pulse until well blended (about five seconds). Add pepper to taste.
  • Soften the tortillas by wrapping in a slightly damp cloth and microwaving on HIGH for about a minute.
  • Spread one-sixth of the crab mixture on each tortilla. Then top each with about 12 thin slices of cucumber. Spread a small line of the wasabi mixture down the center of each tortilla (use more or less depending on your taste). Top the wasabi with the avocado slices.
  • Fold one end of each tortilla up toward the center, then continue to roll until you have a wrap (with the avocado in the center of each wrap).

Yield: 6 wraps

Per wrap: 200 calories, 13 grams protein, 26 grams carbohydrate, 7.5 grams fat (1.8 grams saturated fat, 3.4 grams monounsaturated fat, 1.2 grams polyunsaturated fat), 42 milligrams cholesterol, 4 grams fiber. Calories from fat: 30%.