Cooking a healthy, low carb dinner can feel overwhelming and tedious at the end of a long day, especially if you aren’t set up with easy ingredients and a familiar, low maintenance cooking method.
There are a lot of reasons to justify grabbing takeout on the way home from work, but cooking your own low carb dinner made with whole foods can be very easy — not to mention delicious.
I love cooking my own meals, but I don’t enjoy spending my evening on overly complicated recipes calling for a multitude of ingredients and tons of time.
Instead, I keep it simple, fast, and full of a variety of flavors. This is a boon to my blood sugar management and overall health with type 1 diabetes (T1D).
Let’s take a look at this easy way to cook a variety of healthy dinners quickly and with minimal prep work or fancy cooking skills.
This is an important place to start, as well as a touchy subject for some. At the end of the day it really comes down to what feels sustainable and appropriate for you.
For the average American, eating under 100 grams of carbohydrates per day is a dramatic low carb effort. For people with T1D, it’s become more complex. The rules of thumb are now roughly as follows:
- Moderate, lower carb: under 100 grams of net carbohydrates per day
- Low carb: under 50 grams of net carbohydrates per day
- Ketogenic/Bernstein diet: under 20 grams of carbohydrate per day
Note that the term “net carbohydrates” refers to subtracting dietary fiber from the total carbohydrate quantity to determine the carbohydrates that will affect blood sugar.
For the sake of this article, we’re focused on achieving lower or low carb eating by avoiding starchy vegetables and grains at dinner, but still sometimes including some “higher carb” whole food vegetables, like carrots.
Personally, I’ve followed strict low carb and lower carb diets throughout my 21 years of living with T1D. I’ve come to conclude a few personal beliefs about what a healthy diet with T1D looks like to me:
- Eat mostly real food.
- The end.
All sarcasm aside, my only nutrition requirement today is that 80 to 90 percent of my diet (three out of four meals) every day consist of whole, real food ingredients.
I eat fruit daily. I eat dessert almost daily. I eat vegetables (including the starchier ones like corn and peas) three meals a day. I save my more processed or starchy carbohydrate choices for dessert indulgences.
If it’s a real food item and I can figure out the amount of insulin I need to cover it after eating once or twice, then it’s good for me.
Eat real food. It’s that simple. Strawberries aren’t the devil just because I need to take insulin for them.
The approach to cooking low carb dinners focuses on real ingredients while avoiding the starchiest plants like potatoes, yams, and grains.
There are two things that make this part of my diet so incredibly easy:
- Cook protein (anything from steak to tofu) in an air fryer.
- Cook vegetables in a steam and sauté method that requires no extra water (which makes veggies feel and taste like mush), yet only requires a teaspoon of oil.
I’m not a big fan of meticulous recipes. This approach to cooking healthy, whole food dinners is flexible and basic.
It means you can swap in any types of vegetables and any type of meat, adjusting merely the exact temperature or minutes without changing the methods and overall time it takes to complete.
Let’s take a closer look.
In my opinion, you need an air fryer. And no, it’s not just for making french fries.
An air fryer is a huge part of my “cook low carb dinners quickly” strategy — especially for cooking meat. Here’s why:
- It heats up so much faster than an oven.
- It manages to keep meat juicy while still giving it an “off the grill” flavor.
- It’s extremely easy to clean.
- You can get a decent one for about $60 to $80.
- It cooks meat fast.
- No flipping or stirring necessary.
- You can also cook vegetables in it (corn on the cob turns out perfect).
I truly use my air fryer several times a day. I also never bother to “preheat” it; that’s never mattered.
Examples of things I cook in my air fryer
- Chicken. It usually requires preheating the oven and then baking for 25 to 30 minutes. In an air fryer, chicken can be done in 12 to 20 minutes depending on the size of the meat.
- Breakfast sausage. I use it to cook these in the morning without ever having to worry about it burning on one side. Just “set it and forget it.” Seriously. Four minutes at 400°F (204°C) in the air fryer and it’s done. Works well with my daughter’s hot dogs, too. So easy.
- Steaks. I cook steaks in less than 8 minutes. They come out perfectly every time. No flipping.
- Hard-boiled eggs. You don’t need to sit around and wait for water to boil. Just lay a few eggs in the air fryer basket and set to 250°F (121°C) for 16 minutes or 300°F (149°C) for 12 minutes.
- Tofu. Drain the water from the tofu container. Cut the tofu into cubes. Lay them spaced out in the air fryer, set for 375°F (190.5°C) degrees for 15 to 20 minutes, and VOILA! The most appetizing tofu you’ll ever meet in your life.
Not to mention homemade meatballs, crunchy “fried” chicken, wings, drumsticks, burgers, diced-up chicken sausage, Italian sausage, veggie burgers… you can cook anything. (Except bacon — what a mess!)
You can always open the air fryer and check on your food during the cooking process. If it’s not done, just close it back up and it continues cooking.
I truly don’t cook meat in the oven anymore unless I’m making a huge batch of meatballs or a Thanksgiving turkey. I use my air fryer every single day, multiple times a day.
This method of cooking vegetables is a combination of what’s so great about steaming (it softens vegetables without added fat) and sautéing (it gives them a crisper touch and better flavor than steaming).
First, keep a good stock of vegetables in your fridge that don’t rot quickly. This means you can buy a good amount of these veggies on Sunday and use them in meals for the entire week. I keep a good supply of these vegetables in my fridge each week:
- bean sprouts (a great replacement for pasta)
- broccoli (frozen bag works well too)
- carrots (buy the bag of presliced to save time on chopping)
- summer squash
- green cabbage (higher in carbs than lettuce)
- purple cabbage (higher in carbs than lettuce)
- peas (frozen bag)
Then, choose three of these vegetables (plus an onion or scallion for flavor) and place them in a large pan that comes with a tight lid, and follow these steps:
- Drizzle 1 or 2 tsp. oil (olive, coconut, avocado, etc.) on the veggies. Toss or stir quickly to ensure the oil is spread across the pan a bit.
- Cover and turn the heat to medium high (or #7 on the stovetop dial).
- Stir vegetables after 5 minutes, then cover again. (Water from the vegetables will serve as a steaming source while the lid is on.)
- After 5 to 8 minutes, when you can pierce the vegetables with a fork, remove the lid and stir regularly, every minute or so. This will sauté the vegetables, giving them a crispier appearance and flavor.
- Sauté for another 5 minutes, approximately.
- Turn off the heat.
- Add your preferred salt and seasoning mix (you can use a premixed blend from the store or keep it simple with salt and pepper) or your favorite low carb dressing or sauce.
Fill half your plate with vegetables and add your protein. So easy!
Note: You can use CalorieKing to get a rough estimate of the carb count in your meal. Most of these combinations will add up to fewer than 20 grams of net carbohydrates. (Also, a reminder that green and purple cabbage contain more carbohydrates than you might expect.)
Salt isn’t the enemy. If your diet consists of mostly real food that you prepared yourself at home, the only sodium in your diet will largely be what you put in it.
However, keep in mind that if you’re using a variety of fun herbs and spices on the vegetables, you might want to keep the meat seasoning more simple, or vice versa.
Another critical detail to consider — if your diet has previously been filled with a lot of heavily processed and packaged items — is to give your taste buds time to adapt to the taste of whole foods.
For example, you don’t need to add much teriyaki sauce to broccoli for it to taste good. Try to let your taste buds rebuild their appreciation for the pure taste of whole foods.
Spice tips for vegetables
Using a flavor-packed Himalayan pink salt plus other herbs and spices means your taste buds can reconnect with the true flavors of vegetables rather than heavy condiments.
If you’re new to seasonings, I recommend starting with some of the premixed seasonings in the baking aisle of your grocery store. Some of them may contain a little bit of sugar, but the amount that actually ends up on your plate is going to be minimal.
Here are a few easy combos to get you started:
- salt + paprika + celery salt
- salt + thyme + rosemary
- garlic salt + Italian herb blend
- salt + Parmesan cheese + celery salt
- salt + Parmesan cheese + paprika
Spice tips for meat
I must confess I’m pretty obsessed with A.1. Steak Sauce, which is primarily sweetened and flavored by raisins. A sprinkle of flavorful Himalayan pink salt goes a long way too.
Here are some easy ways to spice meat:
- Dry rubs. These are basically just a seasoning blend rubbed or rolled onto meat before cooking.
- Low sugar condiments. There are so many on the shelves today that you can brush onto meat before and during cooking.
- Make your own. Use herbs and spices plus allulose for sweetening to make your own low carb seasoning blends.
- Olive oil and salt. Brush and sprinkle on meat before cooking.
Keep in mind there are different ways you can apply spice depending on your preference. With chicken drums or thighs, for example, you can put seasoning into a bowl and gently press or roll the meat in the bowl before placing in the air fryer.
For meat that’s cut or cubed before cooking, you can toss the meat bits with seasoning in a bowl, or wait until they’re cooked and plated to sprinkle seasoning on top.
Now let’s piece together a few of my favorite meals using the air fryer and steam/sauté methods.
You’ll usually get the meat going first since that part takes the longest. While the meat is cooking, you can chop and cook your veggies. I’m not specifying quantities here, because the idea is that you can adjust according to your needs. You do not need to break out the measuring cups and spoons to make easy, delicious veggie and meat dishes.
- Italian sausage (choose turkey-based versions for lower fat options)
- bean sprouts
- sliced onion
- sliced carrots
- Parmesan cheese
- garlic salt
- Place Italian sausage in the air fryer.
- Cook for 15 minutes at 350°F (176.6°C). Check to confirm it’s cooked before serving by slicing one sausage open.
- While the meat is cooking, cook veggies per steam/sauté directions above.
- Once everything is cooked, add Parmesan cheese, salt, and garlic salt to the vegetables.
- Slice the sausages, then plate, serve, and enjoy.
What also pairs well with this dish is a favorite of mine, this lower-carb edamame pasta.
Chicken Thighs and Zucchini Medley
- chicken thighs
- Caribbean Jerk blend
- sliced onion
- sliced zucchini
- sliced carrots
- Coat one side of each chicken thigh with Caribbean Jerk blend.
- Place chicken thighs in air fryer for 20 minutes at 375°F (190.5°C).
- Add veggies to a frying pan, and cover with lid.
- Cook per steam/sauté directions above.
- Plate, serve, and enjoy.
Chicken Apple Sausage and Bean Sprout Medley
- Slice the sausages into bite-sized chunks.
- Place in the air fryer and cook for 15 minutes at 350°F (176.6°C).
- Place the veggies into a frying pan.
- Cook per steam/sauté directions above.
- Add Himalayan pink salt and Parmesan cheese to the veggies.
- Plate, serve, and enjoy.
Steak, Onions, Sprouts and Yellow Squash
- chopped onion
- chopped yellow squash
- bag of bean sprouts
- 1–2 tsp. olive oil
- Himalayan pink salt
- Place steaks in the air fryer for 15 to 20 minutes (depending on how well you want them cooked) at 375°F (190.5°C).
- Chop the onion and yellow squash.
- Add onion, squash, and bag of bean sprouts into a frying pan with olive oil.
- Cover with lid and cook per steam/sauté directions above.
- Add Himalayan pink salt to the veggies and steak.
- Plate, serve, and enjoy.
Low Carb ‘Fried’ Chicken
- chicken thighs or chicken tenders
- low carb flour (chickpea, almond, or coconut)
- 1–2 whisked eggs
- low carb breadcrumbs
- your favorite chopped veggie combo
- Cut up chicken thighs or tenders into finger-food chunks.
- Put chicken chunks into a large zip-close bag.
- Add 1/2 cup low carb flour to the bag and shake until chicken is coated.
- Add 1 whisked egg to the bag (add another egg if necessary) and shake until chicken is coated.
- Add low carb breadcrumbs to bag and shake until chicken is coated.
- Dump into the air fryer basket.
- Cook at 350–375°F (176.6–190.5°C) for 15–20 minutes.
- Steam/sauté your veggies using the directions above while the chicken cooks.
- Enjoy the chicken with your favorite dip of choice.
Truly, cooking your own low carb dinners isn’t that complicated, and it certainly doesn’t have to be time consuming.
But you do need to keep a good supply of veggies in the fridge or freezer, and stock a fun variety of seasonings, herbs, spices, and lower carb condiments to create extra flavor.
It’s a learning process. Give yourself freedom to experiment. Forget the Martha Stewart rulebook of recipes, and be patient.
Really, it’s all about simply mixing veggies with protein sources and adding some delicious spice!