The ‘Core Four’ Foods You Should Always Mix and Match for a Quick Healthy Dinner

Photo: Getty Images/tetiana
To my dismay, there's no perfect formula for a quick healthy dinner. Dreaming up healthy meal ideas often involves improvising with the ingredients you have on hand, but Nutrition Stripped blogger McKel Kooienga, MS, RD, a member of the Well+Good council, says that all good-for-you dishes share four elements in common.

Kooienga's The Method program (set to launch next week) names the Core Four foods you should use to compose each and every plate: healthy fats, protein, non-starchy carbohydrates, and starchy carbohydrates. "Overall, when you create meals with this macronutrient balance, you're creating a meal where nutrients are more likely to be properly absorbed (such as fat-soluble vitamins and antioxidants with healthy fat), blood sugars can become more stabilized, the meals are very versatile and flexible," she says.

Because even the most well-balanced dishes require that extra je ne sais quoi, Kooienga's new program offers an added "Optmizer Option," for the dips, condiments, garnishes, dressings, sauces (like this cheesy, "liquid gold"), herbs, and spices. Adding this component to the Core Four tips the scale to make dinner go from "yum" to "DAMN." (Once you do this, Kooienga calls it the "Foundational Five.")

In its simplest form, a Core Four meal might include wild rice, chicken, green beans, and almonds, but there's more than enough room to get creative. Need proof? Check out Kooienga's recipe for a quick healthy dinner:

Fall Core Four Grain Bowl

In this recipe, the dressing contains the healthy fats, maple tempeh is the protein, quinoa is the starch, and roasted butternut squash is the non-starchy carbohydrate.

Dressing (healthy fat)

Serves 4

• 1/2 cup toasted walnuts, roughly chopped
• 3 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
• 1 Tbsp water
• 1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
• 1/2 knob ginger, finely grated
• Zest from 1 lemon
• 1 small shallot, minced
• 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
• 3/4 cup avocado oil
• Salt and pepper to taste

1. Combine all ingredients and emulsify with oil.

Maple Tempeh (protein)

• 16oz organic tempeh, cut into slices about 1/2-inch thick
• 1/3 cup maple syrup
• 1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
• 1 clove garlic, minced
• 1/2 Tbsp fresh thyme
• 1/2  Tbsp fresh sage
• 1/8 tsp ground cayenne pepper
• Salt and pepper to taste

1. For the glaze, combine maple syrup, olive oil and fresh thyme and minced fresh sage, cayenne pepper, salt and pepper to taste.

2. Cut tempeh into pieces and toss in glaze.

3. Roast until glaze begins to caramelize.

Quinoa (starchy carbohydrate)


• 1/2 cup per serving

1. Cook quinoa low sodium vegetable stock. Salt and pepper to taste and fluff before plating

Kale salad (non-starchy carbohydrate)

• 2 to 3 cups raw organic kale
• 1/2 cup watercress
• 1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
• 2 tsp extra virgin olive oil
• 1 tsp kosher salt

1. Cook quinoa low sodium vegetable stock. Salt and pepper to taste and fluff before plating

Butternut squash and pears (starchy carbohydrate and optimizer option for flavor)

• 1 large butternut squash, approximately 3lbs
• 2 large Bosch, D’anjou, or Williams pears

1. Cut squash in half and remove the skin.

2. Drizzle with olive oil and lightly salt and pepper.

3. Halve pears, de-core, and roast along with squash at 450 degrees until tender and caramelized.

Inspired? Here's how a dietitian navigates the aisles of Trader Joe's:

Dessert, you ask? Try these 10 low-glycemic (but highly delicious) options, or this ube yam pie

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