One day my best friend jokingly asked if she could hire me to cook healthy meals for her. I told her sure — if she wanted to drive the five hours to come pick them up. We were just joking around, but that conversation made me start thinking about what could make it easier for busy people like her to eat healthier.
Even when we’re not super-busy like my friend is, sometimes it can be hard to put healthy meals on the table. We may be dealing with a chronic condition that saps our energy or causes so much pain we can’t stand long enough to cook a meal. We may want to cook something healthy, but don’t have the things we need on hand. There are lots of things that can interfere with our plans.
That’s why it’s so important for us to make it easier on ourselves when it comes to eating well or other healthy behaviors.
1. Set aside some time each week to do some planning.
“Wait – what? I thought this was going to save me time, not cost me more!” I promise, if you spend the time doing a little planning, it really will save you time in the long run. I’ve learned this from personal experience. It may seem time-consuming initially, but once you do it a few times it doesn’t take long at all.
So what kind of planning do you want to do? There are two things that can really help you eat healthy, even when you don’t have a lot of time to cook:
1. A Meal Plan
Making a meal plan for the week helps you know what foods you’re going to need to have on hand. Also, as we talked about in Want to Eat Better?, it helps you avoid ‘decision fatigue,’ the result of having to make too many choices in a given day. When you know what you’re going to eat ahead of time, you can just grab what’s on your plan and go.
When you do your plan each week, you’ll have at least some idea of what the week ahead looks like. That gives you the flexibility to plan quick and easy meals for those days you know you’ll be working late, or rushing out the door to church or the kids’ baseball games, etc.
2. A Grocery List
Once you have your meal plan, use it to make your grocery list. This helps in a couple of ways: first, it helps make sure you have all the ingredients you’ll need for the week. Secondly, it can keep you from making those impulse buys at the supermarket. When you have a list and stick to it, you’re less likely to pick up foods that don’t support your healthy eating habits. And bonus — because you’re not making impulse buys, you’ll probably save money too.
2. Stock your freezer and pantry.
Sometimes we think the only way to eat vegetables and fruits is to buy them fresh, but that doesn’t always work out so well. Why? Well, I don’t know about you, but sometimes life events blow my well-crafted plan out of the water, and my nice fresh veggies start to go bad before I can cook them.
Frozen vegetables and fruits are just as nutritious (maybe even more, because they’re frozen immediately after picking), and all the peeling and chopping is done for you. That makes them super-easy to toss in a pan for a quick stir-fry or, even easier, steam in the microwave.
It’s also helpful to buy an extra pack of lean meat, fish, or poultry to put in the freezer whenever you go shopping. This can help ensure you have healthy proteins on hand if you don’t have a chance to go out shopping on a given week. These days, you can even buy chicken pre-cut into chunks or tenders, saving a ton of time when it comes to prep.
Now let’s talk about the pantry. Some great pantry staples to have on-hand are:
- Canned wild-caught seafood
- Nuts and nut butters
- Whole grains and seeds (things like oats, quinoa, brown rice, chia seeds, etc.)
- Canned tomatoes
- Beans and legumes **
- Canned vegetables **
- Pasta (whole grain or gluten free pasta are some great options)
- Fruit in 100% fruit juice (this cuts down on the added sugar you get in the heavier syrups)
- Healthy oils, vinegars, and condiments
- Dried fruit (dried fruit is good in moderation, but does contain more sugar than fresh fruit)
- Whole-grain or nut flours
** Canned vegetables and beans can have a lot of sodium, but if you rinse them, you can reduce the amount of sodium by about half.
3. When you do have time to cook, make a little extra.
A lot of people find that meal prep — cooking and pre-packaging meals — is a great way to stay on track with their healthy eating plan. I love the idea, but I don’t usually have the energy to do a whole lot of cooking at one time. If you have a day each week that you have the time and energy to do this, it really can be helpful.
If not, an easier way to have some healthy meals on hand is just to cook some extra when you’re making a meal. You can either put it into a container to take with you for lunches during the week or freeze it to have later.
Another option is to do a partial meal prep. For example one thing I do almost every week is cook a batch of chicken breasts in the crockpot. It only takes about 15 minutes to brown them and get them in the crockpot, and then it’s just a matter or letting them do their thing.
We use those chicken breasts throughout the week to top our salads, make grain bowls, add to flatbreads or pasta dishes…..the possibilities are endless.
Another thing I do is cut up a couple of heads of lettuce and store them in Ziploc bags in the crisper. If you put a paper towel in the bag with the lettuce, it will usually stay nice for the whole week.
4. Take advantage of the grocery store’s pre-cut veggie options.
Almost every grocery store is willing to do most of the work for us when it comes to prepping our vegetables and fruit. Chopped peppers and onions are a common sight in produce sections, as are things like pre-cut squash, root vegetables, etc. At our local Fresh Market, they even have spiralized zucchini and butternut squash.
A lot of grocery stores are also doing meal kits, which have everything packaged together that you need to make a specific meal. Almost all the work is already done for you; all you have to do is assemble the ingredients and pop them in the pan or oven. Not all of them are healthy options, but some stores have great choices for healthy meals. Even if you don’t have time to cook a meal from scratch, this helps you fix a good-for-you meal in just a few minutes.
5. Stop by the supermarket salad bar.
Stopping by the supermarket on the way home is almost as convenient as stopping through the drive-thru at a fast-food restaurant, and can be much better for your healthy eating plan.
Just a word of caution here — although there are lots of healthy choices on a salad bar, there can also be a lot of unhealthy ones. The best thing to do is load up on veggies and lean proteins and leave the bacon bits and mayonnaise-laden salads on the bar.
The same goes for the salad dressings – you’d be surprised how many calories, fat, sodium and sugar they can add to your salad. Having some healthy salad dressings or some good-quality Extra Virgin Olive oil and Balsamic vinegar in your fridge/pantry can help you avoid the less-healthy options you might find on a salad bar.
It’s so easy to get into the mindset that if we can’t cook a meal from scratch, we might as well not even worry about trying to eat healthy. The next thing we know, we’re pulling into the drive-thru or picking up the phone to order take-out.
We have to find a way to make healthy eating work into our lives, not give up on ourselves because we can’t do things perfectly. As we’ve talked about before, perfection is the enemy of progress. Finding things that make it easier to eat healthier within our unique circumstances can help us be successful, even when we do it “imperfectly.”
What helps you eat healthy when you’re short on time? Please share!