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December 13, 2018

A Peek Inside a Dietitian’s Pantry, Part II — Erin Burke, MS, RDN, LDN

By Erin Burke, MS, RDN, LDN

A few weeks ago, I shared what I keep in my pantry. To go along with that, I thought it would be helpful to talk about my favorite meals to put together with those ingredients. These meals are super flexible and could be fixed in a variety of ways. I will share some options to incorporate some fresh foods as well.


Pasta gets a bad rap. It is high in carbohydrate and can be calorie dense, but I find it to be way too affordable and convenient to write it off that quickly. I always pair it with 93% lean ground beef or precooked chicken and a bag of steamable veggies for a well-balanced meal. See below for my minimal-mess process:

1. Brown the beef or heat the chicken in a large pan. Once cooked through, add a jar of pasta sauce and bring to a slow simmer.

Hint: drain the beef on a plate with paper towels and then add back to the pan before adding the sauce to cut down on fat content

2. While the sauce is simmering, cook pasta according to package directions.

3. While pasta is cooking, steam vegetables in the microwave.

4. If I have a little extra time, I like to heat the meat and sauce in a large cast-iron pan, top with cheese, and bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit until cheese is brown and bubbly. Switching to the broiler at the end also works in a pinch!

Variations: Roast some fresh veggies to go alongside. I may stop at the store to grab pre-chopped veggies like brussels sprouts and pop them in the oven before I do anything else. Alternatively, mix a bag of spinach into the sauce while it simmers for some extra veggies. Precooked chicken sausage (like Al Fresco brand) would also work well here.


Enchiladas used to seem too elaborate when I would plan meals; however, I had some leftover chicken one day and this meal took me twenty minutes to throw together. I don’t claim these to be authentic by any means, but it gets the job done fast and they were a hit!

1. Heat precooked chicken in a non-stick pan. Add some frozen, sliced peppers and onions and toss with taco seasoning (to taste) and water (according to package directions). If you do not have chicken on hand, try drained and rinsed, canned beans.

2. Spoon chicken and veggie mixture on whole-wheat tortillas and roll. Place in a large, glass baking dish sprayed with non-stick spray.

3. Top each with canned enchilada sauce and shredded cheese.

4. Finally, transfer to the oven and bake until heated through and cheese is bubbling. Again, my favorite shortcut is to turn on my broiler for this step.

Variations: No enchilada sauce on hand? Try using canned diced tomatoes with chilis, salsa, or tomato sauce mixed with taco seasoning, garlic and onion powder. They all work! You can also add any vegetables you have, whether they are fresh or frozen – just be sure to defrost first.


The instructions for the enchiladas can also be used for tacos; rather than filling tortillas and baking, move the filling to a platter and create a build-your-own taco bar.

If I have some time in the morning, I will set up my crockpot with chicken breasts and a jar of salsa (such as this: I will then stop and pick up fresh veggies from the store salad bar on my way home to use for toppings. My favorites are shredded carrots, cabbage, diced onions, and tomatoes.

Variations: Try buffalo or barbecue chicken tacos – simply replace the salsa in the example above with buffalo or barbecue sauce. Fish tacos are another easy option. Fish defrosts quickly under running water and white fish, such as cod or grouper, bakes in the oven in about 15 minutes. Canned and rinsed beans or fat-free refried beans are a quick-and-easy meatless option.

Flatbread or Tortilla Pizzas

Making pizza out of pantry staples sometimes requires some creativity. I try to keep pizza sauce on hand, but at the same time I hate opening the jar for one meal since I never use the whole thing. So, I get creative with different flavors! The other day I made a white pizza base topped with a shredded cheese blend, arugula, pecans, and a drizzle of balsamic fig dressing I found in my fridge. It was delicious!

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. If using a thin tortilla, crisp in the oven for 2-3 minutes before proceeding. Flatbreads are sturdy enough to top right away.

2. Spread flatbread with your base. I use spray olive oil or low-fat cream cheese and garlic for a white pizza base, or pizza sauce for a classic flavor. See below for some variations.

3. Add your toppings, such as cooked chicken or ground beef, turkey pepperoni, chicken sausage, diced veggies, greens, nuts, etc.

4. Heat in the oven until cheese melts and starts to brown. Pair with a side salad.

Variations: Try any of the following flavors: barbecue sauce, buffalo sauce, reduced-fat ranch or honey mustard dressing, salsa, canned tomatoes, stir-fry sauce, etc. Pizza is simply a vehicle for your favorite sauces and flavors!


Stir-fries can be an easy, one-pan meal if you plan it right! I am home early enough, I can put a big batch of rice in my rice cooker. I will freeze any leftovers in freezer bags for future use.

1. Heat precooked chicken in a large pan. Steam a bag of stir-fry veggies in the microwave (I shorten the bag time by a minute or so). Drain veggies and add to the pan with the chicken.

2. Add your favorite stir-fry sauce to the pan and simmer until heated through. If I don’t have rice cooked, I will microwave a bag of instant brown rice at this time to pair with it or defrost rice from my own freezer.

Variations: Instead of stir fry sauce, flavor with soy sauce and sesame seeds. If you don’t have chicken, use the veggies and rice for the base, and then fry an egg or two to add on top. I like to top with a drizzle of sriracha at the end!

Final Tips

  • Make inspiration accessible. I keep a running list of meals that are fast, easy, and/or tasty in a binder in my kitchen. This saves time and energy trying to decide what to make. I like paper lists, but Pinterest and lists in your phone notepad work well too.
  • Get creative and keep an open mind. If you do not have exactly the ingredients needed, is there something you can substitute? This may take some practice and patience. I may find myself googling “enchilada sauce substitute” or “homemade enchilada sauce”, for example. Think outside the box.
  • Cooking is not an exact science. If I am not sure what temperature to cook something at, I will google it and see what the most popular cooking temperature is (how did we ever get by without the internet?) It usually works out! And if not, PB&J it is.

Many of the patients I work with get caught up in the idea that a healthy, balanced meal needs to come from fresh, made-from-scratch ingredients. Don’t get me wrong – I love chopping, sautéing and simmering. However, most nights this is unrealistic, and unrealistic expectations are often what cause us to fear change in the first place. It’s the little changes – like adding a bag of spinach to your pasta – that build a sustainable, healthy lifestyle.
Are you looking for additional support, accountability, and coaching to help you reach your health and wellness goals this holiday season? Reach out to Avance Care specialty services to schedule a consultation with a licensed dietitian by calling (919) 237-1337, option 4.

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