How To Eat Healthy, Even When You’re Busy (3 Tips for Avoiding “Convenience” Foods)
Q: “In our family, we know a lot about how to eat right and what to do to feel or best, but we have busy lives and two small children, and it just doesn’t seem practical many times. What can you suggest to help us avoid giving in to unhealthy convenience food?” – Ashley
A: Ashley, I believe you are speaking for the masses when you ask this question! I live in a small household and I still face challenges of running out of time to cook and having to grab food on the go. So I can only imagine what it must be like to try to navigate and stick with the program with little ones running around at your feet.
Here are 3 of my go-to tips for staying on track with healthy eating when you’re busier than a beaver building a new dam and don’t have time to cook:
Have healthy meals waiting for you.
But wait, didn’t we just say that we’re busy and don’t have time to cook? Isn’t that why we’re having this conversation in the first place? I can’t fit a personal chef into my budget or schedule… Hear me out, I promise this first tip will make more sense in a minute.
You see, while you might not have time to cook a full meal for your family every night, cooking for yourself is going to be the cornerstone of staying on track with healthy eating, period. You’re going to have to do it occasionally, but that doesn’t mean you have to be standing over the stove for hours every night. The solution I’ve come up with over the years is to do what’s called “batch cooking.” Batch cooking is a method where you basically make a bunch of food, or a large “batch”, at one time and then you can eat it over the next several days or weeks. The batch cooking method can work a couple different ways:
Option 1: The first way to experiment with batch cooking is to pick a recipe you’re already planning on making. This time, however, when you go to the store, buy twice as many ingredients as you need. Double the recipe and cook twice as much of it when you’re cooking. Voila! Leftovers. Or as I like to call them “future meals”.
Now, you don’t have to eat these leftovers right away – you can bag them up and freeze them to have on hand later. In fact, I recommend this! That way you don’t have to worry about eating four meals in a row of the same thing before it goes bad.
Option 2: This option is my favorite, though it tends to require a little more time and planning at first. Option 2 for batch cooking is to pick 3-4 recipes that you know your family likes and set aside 1 day to prepare them all. You can even mix in option 1 and make double the amount of each recipe. It typically helps to use a little bit of strategy when you’re using this option for batch cooking:
Pick 1 recipe that will go in your slow cooker, 1 recipe that will cook in the oven, and 1-2 recipes that will be cooked on the stovetop. This way you can maximize your efficiency in the kitchen and get multiple meals cooking at the same time.
Just like with the first option, you’ll want to bag and freeze these meals so they’re preserved as your “future meals”. This works best if you can plan on doing it 1-2 times each month. While it’s a bigger time investment up front, you’ll be so thankful in the weeks to come when you can pull ready-made, healthy, home-cooked meals out of your freezer and have them ready faster than your family can say “What’s for dinner?”
Another take on batch cooking is to get some of your friends together and do a “food swap” – this one requires some group participation, though. Instead of cooking 4 different meals for yourself and your family, find 3-4 friends and plan a day where you each cook triple or quadruple the amount of 1 recipe. Then get together and share the goodies with each other! If Sarah makes salmon, Molly makes meatballs, and Chan makes chicken you’ll all be set with a variety of meals to feed your families. Sounds like some tasty teamwork!
2. Keep healthy snacks on hand.
Keeping healthy snacks on hand will tide you over between meal times and help save you from reaching for sugary, processed “convenience foods” that seem to jump out of nowhere and into your mouth when you’re running around. I always keep a bag of almonds or other nuts in my car, and I try to keep healthy protein bars like Epic Bars in my purse or backpack. Jerky is another great snack to have handy when you’re out and about – just make sure it’s natural and free from sugar and nitrites and contains minimal ingredients.
At home I keep healthy cracker options in the cupboard (not always strict Paleo kinds, but I try to get nut and seed-based crackers or sometimes I make my own with almond flour) and I make sure to keep foods like avocado, hard boiled eggs, and nut butter around for when I need to eat something quick and easy that’s also filling and packed with nutrients.
I make it a point to keep all these foods stocked all the time – I usually pick up a few bars, a bag of nuts, and a couple avocados every time I go to the store just because I KNOW I’ll eat them, and I’m always grateful when they’re there for me in a pinch.
And don’t forget smoothies! Smoothies can be a great option for filling in between meals – make sure you use low-sugar fruits like frozen berries (skip the banana unless you’re an athlete and need the sugar), toss in ½ an avocado, some greens like kale, chard, or spinach, stevia and chia seeds, and some protein powder and you’ve got a well-balanced snack or even a meal replacement in 5 easy minutes.
3. Pick your to-go go-to ahead of time.
We can’t always be guaranteed to have a meal waiting at home, and we can’t always have healthy snacks on hand. We’re human. And sometimes we just want to switch it up and not have to wash any dishes! In times like these, I want to reassure you that it IS possible to take a break from your normal routine and still stay on track with healthy eating.
My suggestion for these situations is to find at least 3 healthy options for takeaway food that you know are reliable and convenient. I’m so lucky to live in a town where the local burger joint down the block serves grass-fed lettuce wrapped patties, and gluten-free pizza delivery is a thing. And I also understand not everyone has these options – but believe me, there are more options out there for you than you might think! It just takes a little research and planning. When you’re picking your “to go go-to’s” it’s ideal to find something that’s either close to home or on your way to or from wherever you go each day. This makes it more convenient to choose the healthiest options you’ve sought out when you’re on the go.
Step 2, after you’ve identified your options, is to narrow down the results by looking at the menu of the cafe or restaurant and making sure they have several things you and your family can choose from. You’d be surprised at what’s on the menu if you really look. I typically find that burger places are the safest to pick from, as most of them are able to serve you the burger with no bun – get a side salad instead of fries, if it’s an option. Better yet – have them serve the burger ON the salad 😉
And Chipotle is a relatively healthy fast-food option – you can make your burrito into a bowl and skip the rice and beans and get extra veggies instead. Add guacamole for healthy fats. The suggestions for Chipotle can apply to other Mexican restaurants, too – choose the fajita option if there is one, and just don’t use the tortillas or cheese, or get a taco salad and forgo munching on the deep-fried the taco shell (if you’re prone to nibbling, make sure you dump the salad in a bowl and throw the shell away when you get home). Mediterranean resturants also tend to have great options for protein and veggies that you can choose from.
Put a little bit of thought into this tactic ahead of time and when you’re in a rush or exhausted you’ll know exactly where to go and what to order.
4. Bonus Tip: Have an “ace” in your back pocket.
We should all have 1-2 to recipes that we know how to make well that are simple, easy, and quick to throw together. While these meals would get boring if we ate them every night, they can be a lifesaver when all else fails.
The best example that comes to mind is a stir-fry – you can easily make this dish with whatever random veggies and protein you have in the fridge, and create a simple sauce with coconut aminos or Tamari sauce + garlic, sesame oil, and even some fresh ginger to bring the dish together. Other simple meal ideas that are also versatile include chicken breast with sauteed vegetables, meatballs with zucchini noodles/kelp noodles/ spaghetti squash and a simple red sauce, or pan-seared steak with roasted veggies.
As you can see, with a little planning and creativity you can create options for yourself to stay on track with healthy eating on almost any schedule. I want to emphasize that “staying on track” doesn’t mean being perfect and eating strictly organic biodynamic grass-fed Paleo all the time – it means doing your best one meal at a time while finding ways that work for YOU to incorporate healthy options and opportunities into your schedule.
Give some of these options a try and let me know what works for you and your family in your daily lives!