“How do I make smart eating choices on a busy schedule?” patients frequently ask. As a busy doctor, I can understand how eating healthy might feel like a herculean demand and become short shift among the numerous demands in your life. While eating healthy on a time budget does require a little planning, it’s easier than you might imagine.
I find when I invest that time, it pays off by keeping me healthy and eating well. In the end, it makes life easier. You can cook once and eat twice by making more than you need and enjoying leftovers.
Let’s face it: If you wait to decide what to eat until just before you leave for work or just after you get home in the evening, you may not have everything you need to put a meal on the table. Cooking your own food can become a revolutionary act that could even save your life.
Being caught off guard, coupled with a growling stomach, could put you in danger of going off your program entirely. That’s called a food emergency. When that happens, we will always go for what is available, quick and easy – usually addictive, processed junk.
A little strategic planning ensures you never need to fall into those emergencies. I’ve found these six strategies help me and my patients maintain consistently healthy meals even with the tightest schedules.
- Make a list. Take some time one day every week to sit down and make a shopping list. Then visit the grocery store and purchase all of the ingredients for those recipes in advance. Keeping a list and sticking to it saves time, money, and unhealthy food from “landing” in your shopping cart. Another helpful hint: never go to the grocery store hungry!
- Go frozen. Frozen vegetables (preferably organic) become a real timesaver, especially if you already have some in your freezer and can avoid the need for last-minute grocery store stops. Ditto for frozen grass-fed beef, wild-caught salmon, and organic berries. Shopping at warehouse stores can become a real time- and money-saver. Just buy the very best quality you can find. If you have the freezer space, you can take advantage of sales and coupons and stock up for weeks or even months with these essentials.
- Choose pre-prepped. If chopping doesn’t fit your tight agenda, choose fresh pre-washed organic leafy greens, like spinach, kale, arugula, and even Romaine. Pre-cut produce is also available at many markets, which drastically reduces kitchen work. They might be a bit more expensive, but if you’re short on time they’re worth it.
- Don’t be afraid of canned foods. Carefully chosen canned and jarred foods, such as vegetable or chicken stocks, sardines, wild Alaskan salmon, artichokes, and roasted red peppers, make it easy to toss together last-minute meals. Always choose lower-sodium versions and read labels carefully to be sure that gluten, dairy, sugars, and other unwanted ingredients aren’t inadvertently sneaking into your diet. If choosing canned food, opt for PBA free cans whenever possible.
- Schedule a preparation day and make it fun. Once you’ve shopped and have a well-stocked kitchen, you’ll want to prepare for the days ahead. Choose two days during the week (I find that Sunday and Wednesday work) when you are going to spend a few extra hours in the kitchen, cooking and preparing as much as you can in advance. That means chopping veggies, whipping up sauces and marinades, and cooking brown rice and other whole grains in advance. Get your kids involved, create some great conversation, and make the process fun rather than a chore.
- When you’re really time crunched, at least go healthy. Even when you do your best, you’ll have days where everything falls apart and even throwing together a simple salad topped with pre-cooked wild salmon becomes impossible. Because you prepared, you’ll have nuts, seeds, and other healthy snacks to steady blood sugar levels so you’re not ravenous by dinner. Many grocery stores now have hot bars with healthy selections. Stopping by Whole Foods Market on your way home for a rotisserie chicken along with sautéed pre-cooked vegetables makes a simple “fast food” meal without the sugar and damaged fat in drive-thru foods. Always do the best you can under the circumstances rather than aim for perfection.