Easy Ways to Create a Plant-Based Summer Menu

The calendar may not officially say “summer” but that summertime vibe is definitely here. Somehow summertime seems to be less scheduled than other months of the year. This lack of structure can unknowingly impact your eating plan. You may find yourself on vacation, taking a long weekend, running out the door to a baseball or soccer game every night, or just sitting on the porch more often. So what happens to dinner? It likely is eaten on the run, or worse, at the concessions stand.

A little bit of planning ahead can make the most of the nights that you have to run out the door. Side dishes are usually the most time-intensive part of the meal to pull together. Choose a night of the week (or perhaps a Sunday evening) when you do have time to mix up 2 batches of side dishes to have ready when the time-crunched nights hit.

The bonus here is that you’ll be adding more plants to your diet. You can pair any of these with grilled chicken, fish, or steak, or even eat some of these as a main dish. To keep the meal plant-based, focus your plate on the whole grain-vegetable side dish, with smaller portions of meat.

Here are a few simple ideas for do-ahead dishes:

  • Potato salad. Potatoes are rich in potassium. Boil up some small red potatoes (they cook more quickly, saving time) and try adding Greek yogurt instead of mayo for a richer, more nutrient-dense salad. Cook 2 pounds of red potatoes, cool slightly then add ¼ cup mayonnaise, ½ cup plain Greek yogurt, 2-3 tablespoons of fresh, chopped dill (or 2 teaspoons dried), chopped chives, shredded carrots, a pinch of salt, and ground pepper.
  • Grilled veggies. These are simple enough to do anytime, but if you grill a big batch some ahead, they will be ready in the fridge and will only need to be reheated or added to a salad. Green beans, asparagus, eggplant and zucchini slices (about ¼ inch thick) are all quick to grill. Lightly toss the cleaned vegetable with some olive oil and your favorite fresh or dried herbs (I love Herbs de Provence). Place onto hot grill for about 5 minutes, turning half way through cooking. You can also use a grill pan for this – spray it with cooking oil, and place tossed veggies onto it.
  • Pasta or Grain salad. This is such a great thing to have ready in the refrigerator since the healthy options are endless. A grain salad mixed with a vinaigrette (oil with vinegar, lemon or lime juice, and herbs or spices) keeps for about 5 days in the refrigerator too. You can chop and add those grilled vegetables to it, or a rinsed can of beans (garbanzo, black beans, cannelloni beans), chopped tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, fresh peas, or chopped bell peppers. Add the veggies to pasta  (any type – try whole wheat or tricolor), rice, or orzo.
  • Use More Whole Grains: Try adding whole grains like farro, or barley to salads in place of pasta. Farro is an ancient Italian grain that cooks in 20 minutes (similar to method for lentils). Or try quinoa or freekeh, both high protein. Freekeh is an ancient grain made from green (young) wheat, and is quick to prepare. Lentils are also nutrient-rich and easy to cook. Add 1 cup lentils to 4 cups boiling water, cover, reduce to simmer and cook for 20 minutes. You can freeze cooked lentils in zippered freezer bags for later use. 
  • Make use of frozen vegetables. While summer is a great time for farmer’s markets, when you are in a time crunch, items such as frozen bell peppers and onions, or cubed butternut squash, can be real time savers. Sauté butternut squash with a chopped onion in olive oil, and then mix it into a cooked grain like barley or farro. Add a few dried cranberries, and toss. 

Spend a little bit of time making a big batch of a healthy side dish you love, and you’ll have more time to enjoy a meal when you are too busy to cook.

Even if you have nowhere to go, it’s nice having something ready in the refrigerator so you can take a night off from cooking. Dine al fresco, and enjoy your summer evenings.

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