Cooking a great meal off the top of your head is possible, and it can be done without any Top Chef-level skills. All you need are some non-recipes—dishes you know how to make by heart—that can be customized based on what leftovers are lurking in the fridge and what you’re craving that night.
You probably have at least one non-recipe already. Maybe it’s a stir-fry that has a different protein and veggies in it each time you make it, and you also serve over different grains. Or it’s something as simple as avocado toast, which can have a surprising number of tasty variations.
Add these five nutritionist-approved meal formulas to your regular rotation, and you’ll never fall into the rut of making the same recipe the same way every time you have it. These are so easy you’ll memorize them quickly, and soon you’ll be playing with your food and discovering your own delicious takes on them. See? Cooking can be fun.
1. Grain Bowls
“This recipe allows you to benefit from the slow-burning energy starches provide without making them the main component of a meal, which can result in carb overload,” says Cynthia Sass, M.P.H., R.D., sports nutritionist and author of the upcoming Slim Down Now: Shed Pounds and Inches With Real Food, Real Fast. “Mixing up the toppings creates a balanced ratio of carbs, protein, and fat that will steady your blood sugar and insulin levels, and leave you feeling simultaneously energized and satisfied—not undernourished or sluggish. It’s also super easy to mix things up to create new texture and flavor combos.”
2. Noodle Bowls
“I’m a pasta lover and find that adding beans and veggies to my dish helps to keep my portion in check while still filling me up,” says Keri Gans, R.D.N., author of The Small Change Diet. “I also love a meal that doesn’t require a lot of pots or pans, nor a lot of preparation or cooking time.” While the pasta cooks (any shape works), sauté the garlic in olive oil, then add the remaining ingredients to that pan. Toss everything together once it’s all ready.
“Eating quesadillas is a great way to knock out a few food groups all at once: whole grains from corn or whole-wheat tortillas, veggies, and lean protein,” says Elisa Zied, R.D. author of Younger Next Week. “I also love them because they take little time to assemble and cook, and you can use so many combinations of things, even leftover chicken, steak, or shrimp.”
“I love chili because it is hardy and filling yet uber healthy if done right,” says Keri Glassman, R.D., founder of NutritiousLife.com. “It's loaded with fiber and antioxidants from the veggies and the beans, and protein from the beans and meat, making it a super proportioned and satisfying meal.” Heat 2 teaspoons olive oil in a pot, then add the vegetables and sauté until vegetables are tender. Add meat (if using) and cook until done. Add beans, tomatoes, and spices, and cover. Let simmer over medium-low heat for 1 hour.
5. Squash Boats
“This is a fantastic way to sneak in extra veggies, which we can all benefit from,” says McKel Hill, R. D., creator of the blog Nutrition Stripped. “It’s also lower in carbohydrates, higher in fiber, and a good source of vitamins A, K, and beta-carotene.” All you have to do is cut a squash in half, remove the seeds, roast it, and then stuff it with a tasty entrée-like filling.