How to Eat Healthy When Crunched for Time
Let’s face it, we’re all busy! Even during a time when we’re spending more time at home and less time at restaurants, sometimes convenience is still the name of the game when it comes to meal preparation. Making a home-cooked meal from scratch is ideal when it comes to putting a nutritious meal on the table, but here’s some guilt-free good news: There are shortcuts that pair convenience and nutrition for healthy meals that both you and your family members will love. What’s better than eating well and saving time?
Brittney Bearden, a registered dietitian and sports nutrition manager at Texas Health Sports Medicine shares some sound advice for creating a nutrition-packed meal with convenience foods when you’re hard-pressed for time.
Healthy Doesn’t Have to Be Hard or Expensive
“The two biggest misconceptions I hear often when it comes to eating healthy is that it’s complicated and expensive,” Bearden says. “While it can be both of those things, it doesn’t need to be. Learning a few simple skills and hacks can help you pull together a quick, healthy meal from kitchen staples.”
Oftentimes convenience foods can get a bad reputation for not being so healthy. But Bearden says “convenience foods” is a broad term that can cover a wide array of foods. The goal is to choose the healthier end of that array. While, yes, a drive-thru hamburger is “convenient,” we all know it’s not the healthiest. A simple bag of microwaveable rice or quinoa is also just as convenient, but healthier.
Bearden says her convenience food staples include canned beans, microwavable grains, pre-cut vegetables, frozen steamable vegetables, frozen fruit, canned tuna and salmon, whole-grain breads, and pre-made sauces.
When asked about some of her favorite healthy meals that are quick to throw together, she was full of ideas, such as:
- Rotisserie chicken, microwaveable quinoa and microwaveable steamed veggies.
- Burrito bowl using canned black beans, microwaveable rice, pre-cooked chicken, microwaveable steamed veggies, guacamole and salsa.
- Adult snack plate of deli turkey, low-fat string cheese, whole-grain crackers, sliced veggies, and almonds.
- Egg and veggie scramble with pre-cut/pre-mixed fruit.
- Rotisserie or pre-cooked chicken with pesto sauce and roasted vegetables (fresh or frozen).
- Turkey wrap with pre-sliced deli turkey, hummus and pre-cut veggies.
- Already prepared turkey meatballs (fresh or frozen) with zucchini noodles, which you can prepare yourself or find already prepared in some grocery stores near the produce section.
Know Before You Go
Grocery shopping can be daunting, especially if you don’t know where to start. That’s why Bearden says making a list and doing a little prep-work before walking in can be a game-changer to help simplify what you really need and what you’re there for.
“Grocery shopping with a list typically is a more cost-effective shopping strategy, while also ensuring you buy what you need and eliminates multiple trips to the store each week,” she adds.
If you need some guidance to get you started, look for already washed and bagged salad greens, cherry tomatoes, snow peas, mini peppers, baby carrots, broccoli and cauliflower that can be tossed together into a fast salad. Berries, apples and stone fruits like peaches and plums are quick fruits you can grab and throw in your lunch bag, as well as nuts packaged in individual servings. For protein, grab plain yogurt to mix with your own fresh fruit or granola-type cereal. Chickpea pasta is a healthier alternative to regular pasta and while traditional dried lentils are notorious for taking a long time to cook, there are also microwaveable ready-to-eat lentils that Bearden recommends as well.
If you’re also a member of a large warehouse store, Bearden suggests doing some of your grocery shopping in bulk, which may require a bit more planning when it comes to buying items you can make one to two weeks of meals from, but it can be done. But keep in mind that highly perishable items such as fruit and leafy greens may not last as long as you hope, which may make those a smart item to add to the regular grocery shopping list.
A few nutritionist-approved favorite bulk food items include frozen fruits and veggies and fresh meats — either individually vacuum packed or larger quantities that are easy to separate in smaller freezer bags for easy defrosting. Also shop for dried fruits and nuts but sort the food into individual packages to keep a check on portion control.
And if you’re asking yourself “What about the snacks?!” Bearden says whether you buy them from a grocery store or a convenience store, there are healthier options than some more guilty snack time favorites.
“There are many healthy snack options, whether we’re bringing them from home or buying them at a gas station,” she explains “Ones we can have around the house from the grocery store are items like fruit, vegetables, Greek yogurt, deli turkey & whole grain crackers, boiled eggs, and bars made from whole foods.
Healthier items we can typically find in gas stations are things like nuts, trail mix, beef jerky, popcorn (without butter), hummus & pretzels, string cheese, and peanut butter crackers.
Taking Advantage of Meal Services
While meal prepping and meal planning does help turn typically time-consuming meals into convenient quick fixes, if you’re strapped for time more days than not, despite your best efforts, you still may not be able to chisel out enough time to go to the grocery store, much less prep. That’s where subscribing to a meal service may come in handy.
There are plenty of options out there from kits that already have ingredients prepped and sorted to entire meals already made that you just have to reheat and enjoy.
“Meal services can be a great resource for individuals who aren’t big fans of cooking or grocery shopping, or simply don’t have time,” Bearden explains. “These services help cut food waste and take away the decision-making process of what to eat.”
With that in mind, Bearden adds she typically recommends these services for smaller households rather than large families, even if a service offers a family plan, because of cost issues when you bump up to these larger plans. If you’re a competitive athlete, or have a budding student-athlete at home, these services may not provide enough calories as well for training purposes.
If you want to help cutdown the time you spend in the kitchen, or have basics on hand already prepared in the fridge to make whipping up a quick healthy meal a breeze. Bearden says some key kitchen appliances and batch cooking a main ingredient, such as a protein, can be huge timesavers.
As far as appliances go, turn to your handy-dandy slow cooker or a modern pressure cooker to help cut down either the time it takes for you to make a meal or keeps it as hands-off as possible for you.
If you want to give batch cooking some staples a try, Bearden has a handy formula to help you out:
Protein + Grain + Vegetables + Toppings = A healthy, quick meal!
Try batch cooking one or more of these items and storing them plain in the refrigerator so you can grab them and doctored them up for various different meals throughout the week.
Also, a good rule of thumb to remember is to devote ¼ of your plan to lean protein, ¼ to quality carbs, and ½ to colorful vegetables.
“No one has the perfect diet, but we should all strive to eat healthy the majority of the time, even with busy schedules,” Bearden says. “When I meet with clients, we talk about the importance of a balanced plate that includes a lean protein, a quality carbohydrate source and colorful vegetables. That’s true for quick meals with convenience foods, too.”
Texas Health Sports Medicine offers specialized sports nutrition counseling available by appointment. For more information or to schedule an appointment with a sports dietitian, visit Texas Health Sports Medicine.