Cooking three healthy meals from scratch every single day seems like a noble aspiration, in theory, but for most of us, figuring out how to eat healthy when you’re busy doesn’t seem that feasible. When your time is divided between work, kids, family, friends, and any of the other million obligations that eat up the hours in the day, you may often wonder how to find time to even order takeout, let alone chop, cook a homemade meal, and clean up after.
If you’re strapped for time, there are certain tricks that can help make eating healthier at home a little easier. It’s all about finding creative and clever ways to shorten (or even totally eliminate) prep and clean up, so you can enjoy a good meal. The tips and tricks below will help you form a game plan, and make fueling yourself fit better into your hectic schedule. Here’s how to eat healthy when you’re busy.
1. Look beyond fresh produce.
“Most of us don’t get the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables each day, partly because it can be time-intensive to wash, prep, and store fresh produce,” says Cara Harbstreet, M.S., R.D., L.D., of Street Smart Nutrition. Keeping frozen or canned options on hand can be a lifesaver when you’re short on time. “These options are just as nourishing, with the added benefit of being less perishable and (sometimes) less expensive,” Harbstreet adds. “Add frozen veggies to canned soup or reheated leftovers, serve canned veggies as a side dish, or enjoy canned fruit with mid-day snacks.” Voila—an easy way to load vitamins and nutrients into a meal with very minimal work involved.
2. Chop everything at once.
“Always chop the whole onion (or pepper, carrot, or celery),” says Marisa Moore, R.D.N. L.D., M.B.A., culinary and integrative dietitian. Prepping when you do have the time will make it easy to just grab and use the ingredients when you don’t have time to chop and clean and cook but still want to make a healthy meal. “Having prepped aromatic vegetables ready to go makes it easy to whip up a quick soup, stew, stir-fry or a veggie tofu or egg scramble,” Moore adds. If you end up with too many chopped peppers and onions, Moore suggests spreading them in a single layer in a freezer-safe bag and laying flat until frozen. “Frozen onions and peppers work great as the base for soups and stews!”
3. Embrace the snack-meal.
One of the easiest ways to throw together a meal is to basically just combine a bunch of snack foods to create a meal—with various flavors, textures, and nutrients. “This saves time because you don’t have to cook, and there’s no prep or clean up,” Harbstreet says. “Plus, it can combat boredom since various items can be combined in different ways each time.” Stock up on things like string cheese, deli meats, raw veggies, dips, crackers, dried fruit, and nuts, and then combine them depending on what you’re in the mood for. “Think of it as an elevated Lunchable or low key charcuterie board.”
4. Buy pre-cut and pre-bagged foods.
There’s no denying that the more budget-friendly option is to buy ingredients whole and prep them yourself. But if you’re really crunched for time and need a way to still get healthy food on the table? Amy Carson, R.D., L.D.N., C.P.T., recommends paying for the convenience when you can. Vegetable trays pre-cut, frozen vegetables, or bagged salads that come with all the mix-ins can all help you get a meal on the table in less time. “Sure, these are a little more expensive, but they save you time and give you energy.”
5. Stock your freezer with healthy meals that require zero prep.
Among the many levels of busy is “so busy that you forget what the inside of a grocery store looks like.” To avoid getting stuck at home after a long day without anything on hand that you can throw together, make it a habit to keep a few meals in your freezer that you can simply open, heat up, and eat, without having to even think about prep or clean up. Sweet Earth’s plant-based frozen meals are a great option—they’re nutrient-diverse, affordable, and crafted for the discerning eater, meaning both taste and environmental impact are top of mind. Try the Pad Thai Entrée, Veggie Lovers Pizza, or Mindful Chik’n Strips, which are all made thoughtfully with ingredients to honor and sustain the environment they come from and your body.
Sponsored by Sweet Earth.
6. Batch cook and freeze.
To make sure you’ve got something good on hand for those extra busy days, Linzy Ziegelbaum, MS, RD, CDN, suggests cooking meals when you have the time and stashing some in the freezer. Then, defrost and heat up as needed. “For example, make a batch of chicken meatballs and keep them in your freezer for when you don’t have time to make dinner,” she says. For an even more hands-off approach: Make big batches of soups and stews in your slow-cooker and then freeze half to make future-you’s life a lot less stressful.
7. Prep ingredients in advance.
Meal prep is so popular because, well, it’s a really great way to cook efficiently and not have to make mealtime a big to-do every single time. To keep some variety in your meal prep game, try prepping individual ingredients instead of fully constructed meals. That way, you can combine them in different ways and keep things feeling fresh throughout the week. “For example, if you prepare a protein such as chicken, roasted vegetables and starches such as sweet potatoes or rice ahead of time it is easy to quickly get a healthy balanced meal onto a plate quickly,” Ziegelbaum says.
8. Get creative with condiments.
“Thanks to the popularity of so-called ‘clean eating,’ I find a lot of people are afraid to keep store-bought condiments in the house,” says Rachael Hartley, RD, LD, Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, Author of Gentle Nutrition. “In reality, having a variety of tasty sauces and dressings on hand makes cooking tasty and nutritious meals at home much easier, and saves a ton of time from making your own sauces!” Once you feel comfortable with a basic recipe, you can experiment with new flavors by switching up the sauces and making a meal feel different or new with minimal effort. Hartley’s go-tos are pesto, Japanese barbecue sauce, jerk marinade, and harissa.
9. Organize your workspace.
An unorganized and cluttered kitchen can cause even more anxiety and make the whole meal prep process overwhelming, says Kari Pitts, R.D., L.D.N., at Preg Appetit. A well-organized space can do just the opposite. “An organized kitchen can make finding your ingredients and tools easier, so you can move more quickly when preparing healthy meals,” Pitts says. Clear space on your countertop, so that you have a dedicated spot to prep meals, and keep appliances and gadgets that you use frequently in an easy-to-use place (not stashed away in the back of a cabinet that you can only reach with a step stool).
10. Have a plan without sticking to a meal plan.
“When you’re busy, sticking to a rigid, planned set of meals can be challenging. It takes a lot of mental energy to think more than a few days in advance, and sometimes feels nearly impossible to predict what will sound good to you when that day comes,” Harbstreet says. Instead, she recommends keeping a few “MVP meals” in your back pocket that require minimal prep or clean up and 20 minutes of cook time—or less. Keep the MVPs in mind when you’re doing your routine shopping, so that you can make sure you have options without having to do the extra mental work of planning, Harbstreet suggests.
11. Make a recipe book.
Take things one step further and actually put together a physical recipe book, Pitts suggests. “It can be frustrating and time consuming trying to remember or find your favorite healthy meals online or digging through old recipe books,” she says. “To keep track of healthy meals you like and would like to make again, create your own healthy-cooking notebook and store it in a designated place to quickly reference anytime.”
12. Prep breakfast the night before.
“I’m a big fan of prepping and planning so that it’s easy to grab food and go,” says Shana Minei Spence, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N., founder of The Nutrition Tea. This can be especially helpful if you’re someone who never has time to eat breakfast in the morning. Spence suggests making egg and veggie muffins in a muffin tin, and then just popping them in the microwave when you need something quick and full of nutrients and protein. “These are a great way to add in veggies to your day, as most people don’t eat enough,” she says. You can also pre-freeze smoothie bags. “Put all the fruit and veggies that you are using in a baggie and pop it in the freezer the night before. In the morning, all you have to do is pour into a blender with your choice of milk or yogurt,” Spence says. So quick and easy.
13. Keep it simple.
“Remember that every meal and snack does not have to be fancy,” Ziegelbaum says. “Just because you did not spend a lot of time preparing your meal does not mean your meal is not a healthy one!” A simple peanut butter sandwich on whole wheat bread with fruit and yogurt makes a great lunch, she says. So does a snack-meal. Some days, you just have to remember that as long as you’re eating something that’s nourishing and gives you energy to go about your busy day without feeling hangry, then you’re doing great.
14. Stock up on healthy pantry essentials.
“A well stocked pantry can save trips to the grocery store,” Pitts says. “Some examples of healthy foods to keep in your pantry include quinoa, brown rice, whole wheat pasta, canned beans, dried fruit, and nuts.” Keeping a variety on hand will make it easy to throw together whatever you have time for, without requiring you to get too creative or run out for that one missing-yet-essential ingredient.
15. Carry snacks with you.
If you really don’t have time for a meal, you want to make sure you at least have some healthy snacks you can grab to keep yourself satiated until you can sit down for a proper meal. Spence suggests stocking up on and carrying portable snacks that can curb hunger and fuel you quickly on the go. “I like to stash granola bars in my bags so I always have something ‘just in case.’ Other great options are pre-mixing trail mix with a combo of cereal, nuts, dried fruit, chocolate chips, seeds, etc.,” she suggests.