Meal Planning 101

meal planning 101 | Lighten UpFriends often ask me how I find the time to cook four nights per week with our busy schedules. My secret? Weekly meal planning! I have a love-hate relationship with meal planning, but trust me, a few minutes of prep time will save you time, money, AND calories in the long run! Every weekend, I curl up with my coffee and iPad and scroll through my recipe boards. I jot down the recipes that I want to make for the week, along with the necessary ingredients, which essentially forms my food shopping list.

My criteria for recipes:
1. Frozen, pre-packaged meals do not equal dinner (…I’ll make an exception if I’m really in a pinch)
2. Cooking time for weeknight recipes should not exceed 25 minutes
3. Meals should be as nutritionally-balanced as possible (although the occasional mac and cheese never killed anyone…)

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Citrusy Mexican-style Quinoa

citrusy mexican-style quinoa | Lighten UpQuinoa may be my new favorite go-to side dish for a number of reasons:
1. It’s super easy to make — just like pasta, all you need to do is boil water!
2. It’s called a “superfood” for a reason. Quinoa is a seed that is actually a complete protein because it includes all 9 essential amino acids. As if that wasn’t good enough, it’s also cholesterol-free and gluten-free!
3. It takes on whatever flavors you put into it…that means endless possibilities for quinoa recipes!
4. It can be used a million different ways and is a perfect make-ahead meal. Cook up a big batch and have it for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. I love bulking up my salads with quinoa for lunch!

I was hosting dinner for some friends and knew this would be a tasty side dish — it’s so refreshing thanks to the fresh fruit and veggies and has a deliciously Mexican spin because of the cilantro and lime. If you’re looking for a quinoa-based main course, check out the original recipe here. Because I wanted to serve this as a side dish, I swapped out the chicken and added more veggies. The oranges and red pepper add the right amount of sweetness and the avocado is the perfect amount of creaminess. One key element to flavorful quinoa is the “dressing.” I loved the citrusy flavor of the dressing, which is just lime and orange juice mixed with olive oil, honey and cilantro. If you’re not a cilantro fan, just leave it out — you’ll still get the bold citrusy flavors from the dressing. The quinoa was light and refreshing, and because it keeps so well in the fridge, we had plenty of leftovers for the week (aka quinoa salad, see pic below!)
citrusy mexican-style quinoa | Lighten Up

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Skinny red, white & blue parfait

skinny red white and blue parfaitIt’s hard to believe that the fourth of July is right around the corner…the summer is flying by! We’re trying to enjoy every second by hitting the pool and beach, going to our favorite outdoor bar, and eating outside as often as we can. With July 4th coming up quickly, I wanted to create a “skinnier” dessert that was still patriotic, so I made my lightened-up seltzer cake and layered it with fruit and whipped cream…so easy and perfect for your Independence Day BBQ! About 1/16th of the cake itself clocks in around 140 calories — super reasonable for dessert, even when you add in the fruit and lite whipped topping!

This recipe is great with light-colored cake (white, yellow, butter, or funfetti) to add to the red, white and blue theme. I listed out the filling ingredients to create one parfait, but keep in mind that the cake will make enough to fill multiple mason jars or parfait glasses (likely 6-8, or more depending on how much cake you use in each). I added a tropical twist to the recipe by adding sweetened coconut flakes, because they make everything taste like summer! If coconut is not your favorite flavor, simply leave them out. The sweet cake combined with the creamy lite whipped topping and tart fresh fruit is the perfect combination for a summer dessert — fresh and light with enough sweetness to satisfy any sugar craving! Happy 4th of July!

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Creamy tomato pasta with kale & mushrooms

creamy tomato pasta with kale and mushroomsPenne a la vodka used to be one of my all-time favorite Italian restaurant menu items to order. I say “used to” because while it’s so rich, creamy and insanely delicious, it’s also (very unfortunately) insanely high in calories. So, once I found this out, I swore off vodka sauce altogether. Fast forward to the invention of Pinterest…of course I found a creamy tomato pasta recipe reminiscent of penne a la vodka that claimed to get its creaminess from Greek yogurt! Sign me up!

Since we usually have one vegetarian night a week, I thought this would be the perfect sauce for pasta and veggies. I swapped out the penne and shrimp for linguine and dark leafy greens to bump up the “healthy” factor. When you add the protein from the Greek yogurt and whole wheat from the pasta, this is an all-around deliciously good-for-you dish! If you’re gluten-free, just use your favorite packaged gluten-free pasta. The sauce is decadent and creamy, and the hearty veggies add enough bulk and flavor to keep you satisfied, without the meat or fish. Plus, it’s ready in under 30 minutes — another weeknight dinner recipe to add to your collection!
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Grilled Peaches with Cream Cheese & Cookie Topping

grilled peaches with cream cheese and cookie topping | Lighten Up!BBQs, after-work frozen yogurt runs, toes painted with neon polish, and the freshest fruit — oh, how I love summertime! Peaches will be in season soon and popping them on the grill makes for an unexpected and elegant dessert. While we have access to an outdoor grill, I find that it’s much easier to use a grill pan indoors (especially if it’s raining!) Grilling the peaches brings out their natural sweetness and those beautiful grill marks make this an impressive dish to serve to guests. The peaches stay on the grill for about 5-7 minutes, until those grill marks start to appear. The filling is quick to whip up and adds the perfect amount of sweetness, creaminess and crunch to satisfy your sweet tooth. This dessert feels indulgent but since we’re really just jazzing up amazing piece of fruit, it’s light on calories!

I happened to have leftover sweetened cream cheese and sugar cookies, so this dessert took no time to whip up. I mixed cream cheese with powdered sugar and vanilla to sweeten it up, then put a dollop in the center of each peach half (where the pit used to be), plus a crumble of cookie on top. If you’re gluten-free, just substitute a gluten-free cookie and you’re good to go! To make this dish even more figure-friendly, you could swap out the cream cheese for Greek yogurt mixed with honey as the filling. So refreshing and delicious, my hubby (the fruit-for-dessert-guy) asked for seconds! Happy summer entertaining season!

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Individual Chocolate Fruit Pizzas

individual chocolate fruit pizzas - Lighten Up!There’s something about this recipe that takes me straight back to my days at camp. We had ‘Carnival’ day every summer and one of my favorite activities was the “make your own cookie” booth. It was my opportunity to glob on as much frosting and as many gummy bears, M&Ms and sprinkles that would fit on a single cookie. The make-your-own-cookie booth was a total camper ‘fan favorite’ and let me tell you, it’s just as much fun now!

This recipe is a more civilized, adult version and it’s super easy and so delicious. Instead of baking a giant pizza, I decided to spread the wealth and created individual single-serve cookie pizzas…mostly so that the hubby and I would have leftovers! I “cheated” and used store-bought sugar cookie dough, but you could just as easily make your favorite sugar cookie recipe and use it as the crust. The “pizzas” are topped with a creamy, sweet cream cheese frosting and a healthy dose of tart summer berries. Then, because I couldn’t leave well enough alone…they’re topped with a sprinkle of chocolate chips and a drizzle of chocolate sauce (or a puddle, if you’re like my hubby). These cookie pizzas can be made for any occasion (I sense a red, white & blue version coming soon) and the best part is that they’re totally customizable! My inner party planner is dying to create a make-your-own-cookie-pizza bar at our next BBQ. Guests can choose their favorite toppings, from fruit to chocolate to sprinkles!

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Chickpea Avocado Smash

chickpea avocado smashNew lunch idea alert! Bored of the same old salad or sandwich for lunch every day? I know I am. There are only so many salad combinations that I can come up with each week! Who knew that mixing avocado and chick peas could result in such a delicious protein?! Avocado chick pea smash is a fantastic substitute for those heavy mayo-laden salads that we typically see at lunchtime – tuna salad and egg salad. In this case, the chick peas provide the protein while creamy avocado steps in nicely for the mayo. Protein + healthy fat = lunchtime winner! Not to mention that this recipe is gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan and vegetarian!

No fancy equipment needed! I start by smashing the chick peas in a bowl with the back of a fork. Press the fork down and against the sides of the bowl to crush the chick peas. You’ll end up with a chunky mixture of chick peas.
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