These beautiful and easy plant-based dinners are perfect for the times you don’t want to spend hours heating up the kitchen.
To be honest, spending way too long in the kitchen making dinner is one of my favorite things … but life is busy, kids come home from school or adventures hungry, and sometimes even a lover of leisurely cooking needs to throw something together quickly. Summer brings this out even more, as heating up a house with the broiler and burners a-blazing all night does not do one’s energy consumption any favors.
In learning to embrace – and even celebrate – quick healthy meals, my family and I have come up with quite a few favorites; we call them our slow-quick dinners. Many are just ideas – if you know your way around the kitchen you can improvise from here; if you’d like more structure, a quick Google search should turn up some good recipes.
1. Quinoa or couscous pilaf bowls
While one is a nutrient-packed whole grain and one is a pasta, I’d be more inclined to go for the whole grain – quinoa. (One can also add riced cauliflower to couscous to give it a nutrient boost.) Both make for a quick lovely base to build a meal upon. Cook the quinoa or couscous, place in large bowls, and stir in (or layer) chick peas, cucumbers, dried fruit, nuts, goat cheese, pomegranate seeds and cilantro. Or go southwestern, like in the photo above, and add corn, beans, avocado, onion, tomatoes, cilantro, and a good squeeze of lime.
2. Pasta with tomatoes
This no-cook tomato sauce is so simple and so delicious. Simply dice tomatoes, let them sit for 15 minutes with olive oil, a little salt, and a few cloves of garlic sliced in halves to flavor it all. Meanwhile, make some pasta, drain and toss it with the tomato mix and all its juices, removing the garlic if big hunks of raw garlic are not your thing. Season with salt and pepper, top with parmesan, fresh mozzarella or goat cheese if you want, garnish with any fresh herbs you may have on hand. Note: We make this with bean pasta and it tastes great; it is also delicious with zucchini noodles.
3. Cheese + fruit
My kids ask for this pretty frequently in the summer, because: Cheese and fruit. We gather up whatever cheeses we have, slice up whatever fruit is on hand, add nuts, olives, whole-grain crackers, lettuce leaves, baguette, et cetera and spread it all out on cutting boards … then dig in with our hands.
4. Kind-of pizzas
Making pizza dough is fun. Buying raw dough pre-made at the store is easy. Using tortillas, flatbreads, English muffins, baguettes, focaccia, ciabatta, or whatever savory flour product you have around is so easy it’s silly. Take bread, add tomato sauce (or sliced fresh tomatoes if you have those instead), add cheese, top with toppings, pop in the oven quickly, eat.
5. Leftovers picnic
OK is this cheating for a dinner idea? Maybe, but in the name of reducing food waste and a really easy dinner, this is gold. Do this on nights when you have more than one meal’s leftovers starting to take up fridge space. Put it all out, add a fresh salad if needed, commence feasting.
6. Toast, glorious toast
Kind of like the pizza concept, but toast is much trendier! For many ideas, see my ode to toast here: 20 things I love to put on toast.
7. Fruit salad
Cool, sweet, refreshing – fruit salad is the perfect summer meal. Add Greek yogurt and nuts for protein, top with sprigs of fresh mint or basil to make it all pretty.
8. Avocado soup
On the hottest summer nights, this cold creamy soup is like a gift from the gods and goddesses. This makes a gigantic batch that can be easily scaled down – or left in the fridge overnight for tomorrow’s leftover picnic. I make crispy baked corn tortillas brushed with olive oil for dunking and serve it all with salsa.
Ingredients: 3 ripe avocados / 1 cup Greek yogurt / 2 cups vegetable broth / Jalapeño, more or less depending on heat / salt to taste / lime juice to taste
9. Method: Pit and peel the avocados. Place them in a blender with the other ingredients, and puree until smooth. Chill in the refrigerator until cold. It’s so good.
10. Zucchini lasagna
“Lasagna” may be a stretch in describing this dish, but squash napolean doesn’t sound so hot either. Regardless, this raw dish skips the hot gooey tradition and swaps it with: Thinly sliced zucchini (tossed in olive oil with salt and pepper) in place of the pasta, layered with sliced tomatoes, pesto, and ricotta cheese. Make it loose and rustic, and taste the layers of summer on your plate.
11. Cool bean bowls
My kids are really into bowls, and we like to put all the ingredients out and build our own. For warm summer nights, a bowl of steaming beans may not have much appeal, so we make it more of a bean salad kind of thing with cold or room temperature beans. Various additions can include: Rice, cheese, avocado/guacamole, lettuce/greens, raw vegetables, leftover vegetables, salsa, Greek yogurt, sour cream, herbs, etc.
12. Kitchen sink salad
Take bowl, add greens, top with all the various tidbits in the fridge that go together – mixed chopped vegetables in the crisper, hard-boiled eggs, nuts, fresh fruit, dried fruit, beans, avocado, herbs, whatever. Toss with olive oil and vinegar
13. Faux tuna salad
This one always freaks us out because it tastes so much like real tuna salad. Like, it’s uncanny. Mash cooked chick pea roughly (either pulse in a food processor or just do it with a knife or pastry cutter). Add your favorite tuna salad ingredients. That’s it. I recommend going classic with mayonnaise, lots of celery, pickle, lemon, salt and pepper.
For more chick pea ideas, see: 20 things to do with chick peas.
Oh the glorious panzanella. This bread and tomato salad is like the best summer sandwich in the world, all mixed up and served in a bowl. In its simplest configuration, cubes of day-old bread are tossed in olive oil with some garlic, salt, torn basil and a bunch of chopped tomatoes — and let to sit just long enough for the flavors to permeate and the bread to soften while still retaining some texture. It is so good. From there, anything can happen: Onions, bell peppers, cucumbers, olives, cheese, capers, and vinegar are all popular additions. Toss in some fresh mozzarella or animal protein, if you swing that way.
15. Slow cooker summer soup
While a slow cooker is the darling of cooler seasons, it can be put to work in the warmer ones as well. Swap hearty soup recipes for ones featuring summer’s stars, like corn, zucchini, eggplant and tomatoes.
16. Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe
This classic Roman dish is so simple! And so delicious. It is basically just pasta, cheese, olive oil, salt and lots of pepper; but it’s in the method where the magic happens. I was making it as an easy homemade macaroni and cheese stand in long before I knew it was a thing – which is to say that it can be beloved by kids and grown-ups alike. I have seen recipes for it that take a few days, but that need not be the case.
17. Put an egg on it
In which you take just about anything, put it on a plate, and top with a poached or fried egg. This is a perfect way to dress up leftover risotto, mashed potatoes, couscous, pasta, pilaf, grilled vegetables, vegetable purees, et cetera.
18. Modern Taco Salad
I wrote about this earlier when discussing no-cook meals: Before the advent of the chain restaurant goopy taco salad housed in a ginormous fried tortilla bowl, legions of moms in the 1970s were churning out suburban versions comprised of tortilla chips, iceberg lettuce, grated cheese, kidney beans, salsa and French dressing. Fortunately, there’s a happy medium between the two. Skip the extreme Doritos and select some nice wholesome tortilla chips, mix with your favorites greens and canned beans (or leftover beans made from scratch). From there, let your imagination (and the contents of your refrigerator) be your guide: Avocado, seitan, grated cheese, tomatoes, onions, cabbage, peppers, olives, cilantro, the kitchen sink, etc. Toss it with a smidge of olive, lime, and some salsa for a piquant finish
19. Turkish breakfast
Dinner for breakfast, with a twist. Traveling in Greece and Turkey, I fell in love with the odd (to me) array of ingredients that were presented for breakfast. But I think this makes for a glorious summer evening meal as well. It goes something like this: Hard boiled eggs, olives, feta cheese, fresh tomatoes, plain strained yogurt, honey, bread and butter, all spread out on the table. Add plates, dream of the Aegean sea.
20. Have a house salad
We have our own “house salad” that never fails, as a side dish or even a meal. We usually have the ingredients on hand, and can toss it together in a matter of minutes. Having a reliable go-to meal that is primarily healthy (but a little indulgent) has been a saving grace at my home. Ours includes the following, with adaptations when needed: Endive, fresh tomatoes, avocado, fresh mozzarella or burrata, a big handful of hulled pumpkin seeds, and all tossed with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, lemon zest, and sea salt. It sounds kind of random, but it is salad alchemy that is more than its parts. Discover your own house salad and see how happy it will make you!
21. Leftovers tart
I am so smitten with this idea that I wrote a whole story about. The gist: Add leftovers to pie dough, bake, eat. For the “quick” part, you can make a big batch of dough at once and freeze portions for later use; or use frozen puff pastry; or use a store-bought healthy pie dough if you’re not handy with flour.
See it all here: Make a lovely savory tart with leftovers
22. Caprese salad
This is like the house salad but stripped to its core: Fresh tomatoes and mozzarella, olive oil, a drizzle of balsamic, some fresh basil, and hello, heaven. Add a whole grain pilaf or some hearty whole-grain bread and you’ve got a beautiful summer meal.
23. Wonky caprese salad
In which one replaces the fresh tomatoes of a classic caprese with another fruit. Think fresh mozzarella layered with sliced peaches, apricots or plums, cantaloupe or watermelon. It’s very light, but it is so scrumptious and refreshing, it’s perfect for those really hot days when you barely feel like eating.
24. Cheese grits bowl
Do you love grits? Or polenta? Then make it summery by cooking a pot, stirring in a little cheese, and plopping it in bowls. Let it cool a bit, and then add any number of summery things on top: Cool ratatouille, salsa, caponata, tapenade, fresh tomatoes, corn fresh off the cob, raw zucchini ribbons, cucumbers with avocado, tofu, or any animal protein you don’t mind eating.
25. Greek salad
If your diner food go-to order was Greek Salad for too many years, it may have been a while since you’ve had one – but they should be revisited. That crisp cool combination of romaine, feta, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, olives and oregano is really hard to beat!
26. Adventures in grilled cheese
It used to be that grilled cheese meant two slices of squishy white bread and an anemic slice of cheese product toasted in-between. But the grilled cheese sandwich has definitely grown up. Try hearty bread, even ones with fruit and nuts; go adventurous with the cheeses by adding feta, blue, brie or other. Add tomatoes, avocado, dill pickles, pickled vegetables, slaw, kimchi, sauerkraut, sliced apple or pear, chutney, spicy mayonnaise, or whatever other ingredients. The sky is the limit and a big quick and messy sandwich stuffed with surprises and gooey cheese is a revelation.
27. Cabbage sesame noodles
This came together in a moment when I was having a very odd clash of wants: Cold sesame noodles and cole slaw. The result – sesame noodles with thinly sliced cabbage standing in for the noodles proper – satisfied both needs, and it’s become a staple in the summer kitchen ever since. I wrote about the recipe here.
28. Egg salad or hummus with endive
At my house, we have almost completely replaced crackers with endive leaves. They are the perfect little boat to scoop things up with, and add a crisp bite and an extra vegetable to snacks and meals. My kids love egg salad, and it’s made for endive – I use happy eggs and avocado oil mayonnaise with sea salt and a generous dash of curry powder. Hummus is perfect here, too.
29. Salad sandwich
Can’t decide between a salad or a sandwich? Have a salad sandwich! It’s the best of both worlds. Take a nice wide slice of ciabatta, baguette or hearty whole-grain bread, toast, and top with a big tangle of greens, a little cheese or nut cheese, and dress with olive oil and lemon. We can even call it a salwich.
30. The gazpacho clan
It wouldn’t be a story about warm-weather eating without mentioning cold tomato-y gazpacho soup. That said, gazpacho is so predictable that it may border on boring. But not to worry! Why? Because this:
- 1. Watermelon and Tomato Gazpacho.
- 2. Watermelon Fennel Gazpacho
- 3. Green Grape and Almond Gazpacho
- 4. Spicy Cherry Gazpacho with Basil
In the end, there are probably as many quick dinners to make as there are cooks in the kitchens across the globe. But hopefully this is a good start. If you have some go-to ideas, we’d love to hear about them in the comments