When planning a low calorie diet for the family, we must take into account certain rules that, if applied on a regular basis, could decrease the number of calories ingested and increase the quality of the meal. We often think about a good dinner as a combination of a main dish and some added-on side dishes, in an attempt to increase the amount of vegetables and create variety in the diet.

The thought is right, initially, but we may end up liking those side dishes so much that we eat less of the main part of the meal, and what we have added is just a few hundred calories to the meal and some pounds to our waistline. Instead, get used to eating only one item at a time, which will provide fully balanced nutrition at the end of the day, if you do it right. Children, especially, are prone to load up on potatoes and rice, leaving behind the protein part of dinner.

I am not a fan of calorie counting but, as an example, one serving of mashed potatoes (1 cup) can add as much as 240 calories to a meal. One cup of cooked rice can approach 150 calories.

Think about dinner as a meal you are going to plan in advance, something you can also prepare in advance and put in the freezer until ready to eat. A good example would be a good bowl of lentil stew. It is easy to make, and we can include some other nutrients to its preparation to add flavor and texture.

Lentil Stew for a Family of Four:

• ½ lb of dry lentils. The best ones are the “pardilla” variety. They are dark and small, and they tend to feel softer to the palate when cooked.
• 1 small chicken breast
• 1 medium carrot
• ½ medium onion
• 1 garlic clove
• 2 tsp of paprika or Spanish Pimenton*
• Olive oil

Cut the onions, garlic, and carrots into small pieces and sauté in about 4 tablespoons of olive oil. When the onions are transparent and soft, add the lentils, stirring and mixing in. Immediately add water to cover the lentils and cook slowly until the lentils are soft. It takes about 45 minutes to one hour, depending on the quality of the lentils. Cut the chicken breast into very small cubes and brown in olive oil. Add two teaspoons of paprika or Spanish Pimenton to the chicken. Pour chicken into the lentils, and simmer for an additional 10 minutes. Add salt to taste.

This dish can be prepared in advance and frozen.

*Pimenton is a grated form of dry red pepper typical of Spain. It is similar to Mexican Paprika, but the taste of Pimenton is much more intense, bringing out the flavor of the dishes in a more powerful way.

Dinner should consist of one serving of this lentil stew. Nothing else. The adults in the household, or older children with a bigger appetite, may want to start with a green salad and end with a piece of fruit. But a toddler may decide to eat only the stew and still have a perfect dinner.

Children eat more quality food when they are not given a lot of options. What is for dinner? Just a plate of lentil soup. If your child likes soft textures, put the stew in the blender and mix for a few seconds. If he likes the stew, but doesn’t like the harder texture of chicken contrasted with the softness of lentils, he may end up separating the pieces of chicken. No problem, next time cut the chicken even smaller, or skip it all together. After all lentils are 25% protein!

By creating one-dish meals, your meal preparation time will be cut in half while still providing top nutrition. Try it!

About the Author

Dr. Katalenas

Dr. Katalenas is a pediatrician and owner of The Pediatric Center of Round Rock and the author of the book "The Step Up Diet: From Scratch… The Quality, Quantity, and Timing Solution to Childhood Obesity", a guide to healthy cooking and eating for busy families.