Chicken, spinach, halved cherry tomatoes, and black olives on a plate with text overlay: 5 Ways to Eat Healthy When You're Short On Time

5 Ways to Eat Healthy When You’re Short on Time

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?

Make a meal plan.

Making a meal plan for the week helps you know what foods you’re going to need to have on hand, and 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.

Make 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
  • Spices
  • 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.”

Do you have anything that helps you eat healthy when you’re short on time? Please share!

Blessings,

~Terri

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Pictures of three different healthy meals with text overlay: 5 Ways to Eat Healthy When You're Short On Time

15 comments

    1. Thanks Mel. I’m not sure exactly what you’re talking about, though. I think what you’re referring to is where I say, “Even when we’re not super-busy like my friend is…” but I’m not sure where the error is. I’m saying we may not be super-busy like she is but we may have other challenges. Was that what you were talking about? I’ll try to think of a way to make it more clear…. Thanks so much! Sending hugs!

  1. I agree, having a plan, and shopping accordingly is important. I am not so great at planning ahead, often, we plan a day or two at a time. We usually plan for leftovers, that helps. And I have learned to try to take healthy snacks and even pack a sandwich for myself when I will be an hour away running errands. It limits the money I spend, to just getting a drink, instead of a fast food lunch. In the very least I try to pack some grapes and cheese or a spoon a nd unsweetened applesauce. I have also learned to pay much more attention to labels and am often shocked. I am in a different position, because I am retired, working part time and no kids at home; so I try to limit highly processed foods as much as possible. One result of that is making my own bread:) Best and blessings, Michele

    1. Thanks so much for sharing what works for you Michelle – these are some great tips! I’ve seen some of your delicious-looking bread on FB. I make our bread each week too. It’s nice, because you know exactly what’s in it and you can play around with the recipes a little bit to make it a little healthier. Hope you’re doing well sweet friend. Blessings to you!

    1. Thanks so much Tim! I agree – it really does all begin with planning. I’ve learned the hard way if I don’t plan ahead and have my fridge/pantry stocked with healthy foods, I end up not eating as well throughout the week. Hope you guys have had a wonderful weekend with family. Hugs to you both!

  2. We’re still ordering Good Food boxes, CleanEats. That way we know three of our weekly meals are healthy and prepped ahead of time. Then I plan to cook something in between that I can make in bulk.

    1. I’m so glad you’ve found something that works so well for you VJ! It’s so nice to have those options these days, isn’t it? I love having some things that are already prepped for those days when I just don’t feel like cooking… Hope you’re doing well sweet friend. Sending hugs your way!

  3. Thank you Terri. I had forgotten your tip about chicken breast in crockpot to make multiple meals in the week. Thanks for the post and the reminder of a great tip about chicken as well as the overall 5 tips which are all spot on. I have quit planning meals for the week like we were doing for most of 2020. But in 2020 we put in 1 order for pick up at grocery store. We ate better when we ate at home for 6 months and didn’t pick already-prepared food. But we were both retired and made time to plan so we could only buy groceries every 7-10 days. Then I started working again and got out of the habit. Committed to making healthier choices during this year 👏🏻👏🏻💝. Keep posting your blog. So helpful and inspiring. 🥰

    1. Thank you so much Sarah! What you mentioned about eating better when you ate at home for those 6 months has been my experience too. Of course, for me, that’s partly a mental thing – I’ve always looked at eating out as a special occasion where I could eat things I wouldn’t normally eat. That’s fine until we start eating out more; then I realize I’m frequently eating those same things – and you know what that means! I know you’ll be successful in your commitment to make healthier choices; I’ve known you for a long time, and I know that anything you put your mind to, you’ll do. Sending love and hugs your way!

  4. I’d hire you too, Terri! These are some great tips. I used to wonder about batch cooking to be more convenient as I’m so often not up to doing it when dinner time comes around, but I don’t trust myself to get it right when it comes to storage and reheating things. I’ve looked online before, get confused, find I have no time and no ability to even stand that long in the kitchen, and that’s that 😆 xx

    1. Awww….thanks so much Caz! Like you, I find the idea of batch cooking appealing, but I just don’t have the time or energy to spend hours in the kitchen. That’s why I love my crockpot so much. It helps me do a kind of partial ‘batch’ without spending too much time in the kitchen. Just in case you’re interested, this site has a list of the time period foods are safe in the refrigerator: https://www.fsis.usda.gov/food-safety/safe-food-handling-and-preparation/food-safety-basics/refrigeration#13 I hope you staying safe and well, sweet friend. I saw on the news that the Covid cases are coming down over there, so I know that has to be a little bit of a relief. Sending hugs your way!

      1. I’ve wondered about an electric crockpot before, but alas, the same issue of simply not knowing what to do after buying it! It wouldn’t be as much of an issue if I could eat like I used to before my stoma but now there’s quite a lot ruled out and it makes things a bit trickier. Thank you very much for the link, that’s very kind of you 🙏 There’s lots of great info on that site actually so I’ll bookmark it. I like the part on the history of refrigeration – it’s hard to think sometimes that fridges are still fairly new in the grand scheme of things. When my mum was little they didn’t have a fridge. Then again, they also didn’t have a TV back in those days either and that’s probably worse 😉 xx

      2. I’m so glad you found the site helpful. I have it bookmarked too. I’m sure things are trickier with your stoma. You have so much more to consider now. And talking about how [relatively] new refrigeration is…. Years ago when my grandparents were still alive, we went up to my Grandma’s old home place. She took us down to the creek and showed us the Springhouse, which is how they kept things cool. It was built right over the creek, and they put containers right down in the cold mountain water running in that creek.😊

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