When busy it's easy to put healthy habits aside with the promise that when things quiet down we'll hop back on the bandwagon. Between work, family, social, relationship, personal and health commitments, we often juggle many balls in the air - and when presented with the choice of cooking a meal after a long stressful day verses a nose-dive on the couch while waiting for Uber Eats to show up, it's only natural for a few balls to drop.
A busy schedule has almost become a default way of life, and a healthy-eating barrier for many. While I like the idea of a glass half-full approach to the notion of busy - life is busy, how wonderful to have a job, people to see, places to go - we do need to keep in mind the toll this can take on health, like increased stress and all of its knock-on effects, mindless eating and sleep concerns. Our body will try it's best to keep up with the demands we put on it, but if we constantly withdrawal from ourselves without depositing back within, we will eventually run into red.
I won't harp on about balance, because I'd be a terrible preacher. So here's some ideas for eating healthy, despite a crazy busy schedule:
Make the 'better' choice
When you're in a situation where you're eating out or can't control the menu, aim to pick the 'better' choice from what's available. This approach helps sideline a lot of not-as nourishing options that can start to add up when eating out often. For example, if you're hungry and dart into a nearby cafe, go for the roast veggie frittata rather than the sugary caramel slice (unless you want to treat yourself!). If you're at a bakery, go for the chicken salad sandwich instead of the mince and cheese pie. Even if you'd prefer to be eating somewhere else, sometimes we just have to go with the flow, adapt, and avoid putting extra pressure on ourselves - instead choose the best from the lot, commend yourself, and move on.
Minimise food prep with healthy convenience products
I'm a big advocate for preparing/cooking from scratch where we can, but don't always have time or energy when things get really busy. Stocking the kitchen with healthier convenience products can help cut down prep time in the kitchen - try tinned legumes (like chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans...awesome to bulk out a dish and increase the fibre and protein content) frozen veggies, microwavable pre-cooked rice cups (great tossed with salads), frozen fruit (awesome for smoothies as they're typically pre-cut into bite-sized pieces), store-bought hummus and pesto (love hummus as a snack or dolloped onto a salad, or pesto spooned over lunches and dinners).
Allocate time to plan and prep
Allocate time you say? But I am busy, I don't have time! But here's the thing - organising and eating food throughout the week requires attention and time anyway, and as we're generally eating at least three times a day this quickly adds up. Allocate what time you can to food planning and prep - even just a few minutes reviewing your upcoming schedule to get an idea of when you'll be eating at home - will help save oodles of time during the week. You could try writing a meal plan or grocery list, preparing a few dishes, doing a shop, or packing a few snacks - whatever you can fit in. Sow now, reap later. I love preparing a range of basic precooked ingredients, once or twice a week, to use in speedy throw-together meals, such as:
- A roasted tray of root veggies e.g. potato, kumara, parsnip, carrot
- A whole roast chicken - split the meat across the week!
- A pot of cooked beans
- A tub of homemade hummus to dollop over salads or enjoy with veggie sticks for snacks
- A hearty stew to freeze into portions
- An undressed salad or coleslaw (pre-dressing it can make it soggy - save that for when you're serving!)
- Homemade veggie soup - a warm mug makes the most perfect winter snack
- Single-serving frozen smoothie pouches
Batch cook your heart out
Batch cooking in a nutshell: cook once, eat four times (or six, eight, twelve...go nuts). This clever technique maximises time spent in the kitchen by seeing you prepare more servings of a dish then you'd eat in a single sitting, and squirreling away the extra portions for your future self to enjoy when you don't feel like preparing food or are too busy to.
To batch cook simply prepare more food then you intend to eat - try doubling, tripling or even quadrupling a recipe, and then refrigerate/freeze the extra portions for a rainy day. This works well for hearty dishes that can freeze for ages like soups, curries, stews or bolognese sauce. Here's some batch-cooking recipe ideas from Healthy Always - vegetarian chili, lentil bolognese, or pumpkin carrot soup.
Be a smart snacker
Snacks are ideal for bridging the gap between main meals and keeping hungry at bay. If we're someone who may often emotionally eat (where we eat to satisfy emotions in a moment, rather then physical hunger), they can also be a good strategy for preventing overeating or binges, which occur more frequently when we're feeling stressed and busy. I highly recommend stashing some easy-to-eat snacks at work, home or even in your handbag, to ensure that if you're short on time, or hungry and peckish, you have nourishing options available. Try bags of nuts, fresh fruit with yoghurt, nut butter on rice cakes, cheese and crackers , good quality nut bars, quick protein shake or bliss balls.
Try one-pan/pot dinners
I love cooking, and find it hugely relaxing - but hate cleaning up afterwards, especially if the recipe required a dozen pots and pans. On busier nights, try a simple one-pan meal, which is when you cook all the components of your meal on a single baking sheet. One of my favourite one-pan dinners is pesto salmon- simply line an oven tray, slap on a fillet of salmon, surround it with diced capsicum, onion and broccoli, throw it in the oven until cooked, plate-up, add a dollop of store-bought pesto over-top of your fish, and then dig in! So yum, and clean up is a breeze. The internet has tonnes of awesome one-pan/pot meals to try of you're interested.
Ditch the on-the-bandwagon/off-the-bandwagon mentality
When you're busy, you're likely already facing a lot of pressure - so try remove any self-imposed pressure that you must be on the healthy eating bandwagon 24/7. You truly don't, and what a wonderful revelation this is.
In the purist of health and wellness we can put a lot of unnecessary stress on ourselves. Pressure to eat perfectly, exercise when we should be sleeping, completely avoiding favourite foods as we've deemed them 'bad', or adhere to a strict way of eating. While this may come from a well-meaning place, it's likely not necessary, and can be damaging to our relationship with food.
For many, being super strict is often a one-way ticket to self-sabotage. If we 'crack' and eat a cookie when we said we wouldn't, instead of enjoying it and moving on, we can start to judge ourselves and our 'willpower'. We may then proceed to eat another ten, as we've 'stuffed up' so it doesn't matter, and we'll start again tomorrow. While a few cookies won't matter, 1/2 a packet might leave us feeling not so flash. Our health is built on what we do most of the time - not all or some of the time. Meaning we can treat ourselves, and still achieve our goals.