How to Eat Healthy When You Just Can’t Find the Time

iStock 000023148476XSmallAs you may know, two weeks ago we welcomed the fourth member of our family into the world. She is beautiful, mellow, and most importantly, healthy. And for that, we’re incredibly grateful.

We’re also not getting any sleep. Which doesn’t slow down our three-year old one bit, so the fun is compounded.

Every minute, morning and night, it seems, is occupied by a kid. Our house is a happy, lived-in, played-in wreck right now, and it’s all I can do to carve out an hour to run each day. (Mega-props to my wife, Erin, for holding down the fort while I got in 24 miles on Sunday in preparation for my 12-hour race, in just nine days.)

So you can bet the coffee is flowing. But although I’m a bit more caffeinated than usual (on my second cup, as I write this), I’m pretty proud of how well we’ve managed to keep eating well, during this time when I’m sure we need good nutrition more than ever.

Almost every night, we’re tempted to “just get takeout, tonight, and then we’ll get on top of things after that.” While the latter is proving elusive, I must admit we’ve done a good job of cooking all our meals and avoiding the 40-dollar bill (minimum) that accompanies takeout.

So I thought I’d write a quick list of the way we’re making healthy food work when we’ve got zero time — not so that you can weather the storm your next newborn brings with him or her, but in hopes that maybe you’ll find one of our strategies helpful with whatever keeps you busy, day to day.

How to Eat Healthy When You’re Short on Time

1. If you can find a free 15 minutes, make a huge batch of a high-energy, healthy snack that you can grab throughout the day to keep everyone happy. Before we had our first child, we made an amazing peanut butter granola with pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, almonds, and dried cherries. This time, it was seasoned, smoky almonds glazed in maple syrup. Both recipes are in my book that comes out in the fall, but in the meantime, it’s not hard to find homemade granola or trail mix recipes (I’ve got a bunch listed on the recipes page here). Or pickup a pre-made one at Whole Foods or from the farmers market, knowing that the additional five or ten bucks you spend will save you lots of stress and probably an impulse takeout meal.

2. Use the Dr. Seuss meal planning strategy to limit the possibilities and make it easier to choose what to make, quickly. In other words: find one main ingredient that either you already have (the best case) or is in season. Once you’ve committed to the star ingredient, it’s easy to narrow down recipe options or do a quick Google search for a recipe based on it. Often, this leads to the realization that you have everything you need to make a recipe, or can easily substitute a few ingredients to avoid a time-costly trip to the store.

3. Don’t ignore the prepared foods counter at Whole Foods. I don’t mean the hot foods bar, which is uber-expensive and not that good, but the cold deli counter, where they sell pre-formed veggie burgers or tempeh salads. They list all the ingredients right there for you, and most of them actually are whole foods (somebody was thinking when they named their store!). In a pinch, spending just a few dollars extra here can prevent the food-binge takeout trip, and the effort to heat up your food in a pan or toaster is minimal. Example: dinner tonight in the Frazier house is fresh black bean burgers — I got four of them yesterday, weighing over a pound total, for six bucks.

4. Give yourself a break, and buy some of the other foods you normally make. If you’re reading this, I bet you’re weird like we are, and pride yourself on making what most people buy. Hummus, almond butter, granola, pizza dough … all of these foods are things we normally make from scratch. They’re also all foods I’ve bought in the past week. There’s a recurring theme here: spend a little bit more than you usually do, for something slightly less healthy than you usually eat, in order to stave off the big, unhealthy, expensive takeout trip which can quickly become a habit.

5. Put out a healthy snack bowl for the kids. And the grown ups. We got this idea from Dr. Joel Fuhrman in his book Disease Proof Your Child: Every day, we put out a healthy snack on the table so that anyone who walks by can grab a handful. Sometimes it’s a simple trail mix, other times it’s vegetables with hummus or almond butter or goddess dressing to dip in. The idea here is that if everybody grazes throughout the day, people stay happy and nobody wants to cannibalize the sweet little newborn when mealtime arrives an hour late, for some unforeseen but inevitable reason.

6. Love the sandwich. For the most part, I’ve stopped eating sandwiches since I went vegetarian and eventually vegan. Without the meat or at the very least the cheese, I can admit that the thrill is gone. But that doesn’t mean they’re not still the ultimate healthy and convenient meal. Buy some sprouted Ezekiel bread (4 or 5 grams of protein per slice), load it up with whatever vegetables you’ve got around and a good shmear of hummus, and you’ve got a lunch to tide you over. (For car trips, we’ll just do almond butter on Ezekiel bread or hummus without the veggies — our son loves this lunch.) The popular one in our house these days involves hummus, avocado, tomato, the leafy green du jour, homemade vinaigrette and a pinch of sea salt.

7. Make salad ‘n’ beans sexy. Cold beans on a salad, even for lunch, sounds awful to me. It’s what I used to think you had to eat all the time if you were vegan, switching out the beans for spongy tofu when you were feeling really saucy. But here’s how I’ve come to love the old S ‘n’ B: Take a can of chickpeas, drain and rinse, then dry well. Toss the chickpeas in 1 tablespoon flour, then put them in a skillet over high heat with a teaspoon of hot oil so that they crisp up a bit. Season with salt and black pepper, then add to your salad. Sure, the flour and oil probably make the beans slightly less healthy than without, but come on — you’re eating a big-ass salad for dinner! The warm, salty, slightly crispy chickpeas absolutely make the salad meal-worthy, especially if you include some high-calorie, high-nutrient foods like avocado, hemp seeds, nuts, etc. And the total prep time is probably 10 minutes.

On that note … add beans to everything you can; they’re an easy way to substantiate and up the nutrient content of any meal. Twice I’ve made pasta al arrabbiata in the past three weeks, since we had the stuff we needed on hand, and both times I threw in a cup and a half of cannellini beans we had made ahead of time and frozen (a can works, too, of course) — to make a healthy meal out of one that would otherwise fall just short, in my opinion.

8. Simplify the smoothie. I’d be remiss not to mention smoothies in a post on quick, simple, nutritious food (or any post, for that matter :)). Those times when I can’t count on all of my meals being rich in nutrients, I can always count on my old blended buddy the smoothie to deliver. The way to keep it from becoming a preparation beast of its own is to take a few minutes and put all your dry base ingredients (seeds, protein powder, etc) into single-serving, reusable cups, so you can store them in the fridge and just pop one open to dump into the blender instead of having to get out all the stuff, every time.

9. Go back to basics with a grain, a green, and a bean. This meal is a miracle for four reasons — it’s substantial and healthy, you almost always have the ingredients on hand, active prep time is almost zero, and it dirties only one pot. I like adding some rice to a version of this one, and tossing in tons of baby spinach during the last few minutes.

And one more …

As I was putting this list together, I thought of a few more little tips that didn’t lend themselves well to a list, and the most important of them is this:

Do everything you can to pick up one or two extra meals at the grocery store when you go. Nothing eats up your time like going to the grocery store every single day — and I definitely tend to fall into this habit when things get busy.

But recently, when I run to pick up the ingredients for a meal, I’ve been able to improvise and grab more stuff that I know I can make into something good for the next night or two. Base your choices, again, on what vegetables look good or what you know you have at home in the freezer. You’ll get better at this as you cook more and become comfortable with making substitutions in case you forgot to pick up something. This is also a time when swinging by the prepared foods counter can be a lifesaver.

Whatever your method, it feels great to know you’ve got 2 or 3 minimal-effort meals in the hopper so you can grab an extra 20 minutes to kick back with a mojito in the evening. Or not.

Alrighty, that’s all for now. I’m sure somewhere in the house there’s a diaper that needs changing or a story that needs reading or a scraped knee that needs kissing — not to mention seven miles that need running — so I should probably get to work. See you soon!

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Comments

  1. Samantha says:

    Excellent, well-timed post for me as we redo our kitchen and just keep eating out. With a little advance planning in the evening or early morning, we could be eating a lot better than we are. Thanks.

  2. Priscilla says:

    I like avocado sandwiches or plain PB & J as long as its good quality PB & J. I also like making a batch of beans for dinner one night and keeping the excess in the fridge to make refried beans for bean & daiya cheese chalupas or tacos (or nachos!) for another day. It only take like 5 minutes to refry the beans. Great tips!

  3. Fabulous tips, thanks!!

  4. Hey Matt,
    Big congrats on the new little one! Sleep is way overrated.
    All our kids are grown and gone, and I STILL have to find ways to be more efficient in the kitchen.
    Here are some easy ones. WARNING-LONG POST!
    Cook more and freeze. I cook a couple of batches of the beans we use alot- black, pinto, chick peas, kidney, etc. once done, I freeze them in portion sizes. So easy to pull out for a quick meal. And better and healthier than canned. (No EPA or high sodium) Putting the beans on to soak overnight takes about 3 min. And next day cooking only requires a little monitoring. i do this with rice too… Because at our altitude, rice takes forever to cook. Simple, and fast. Beans, rice, a quick salad and avocado- voila! Meal! ( and of course the requisite green chili here in NM)

    My own meat substitute.
    Homemade black bean burgers become meat subtitute in lots of recipes. My burgers are super fast, with easy ingredients.
    One can size of black beans, rinsed amd drained.
    2 cloves garlic
    1 medium sized carrot, grated
    About 1/2 cup raw, hulled sunflower seeds ( or just about any nut-walnut, pumpkin seds, etc)
    Salt , pepper to taste

    Run this all thru the food processor, separately or all together deending on your equipment. You want it to be firm enough to make patties. Too soft? Add more ground sunflower seeds. Too dry and crumbly? A bit of water or apple cider vinegar or tamari.

    Cook these in a skillet on low/ medium heat in a bit of healthy oil – let them get a bit crunchy before turning over. Once done, freeze ( i separate them with a square of wax paper)

    These can be burgers, or if you have a recipe that calls for “ground meat”. Crumble these and season according to,whatever you are cooking. We have used them in tacos/burritos, spaghetti sauce, chili, soup, taco salad, and in stuffed bell peppers.

    Whole food pancake mix. ( this is one of our favorites, and is ALWAYS in our frig. )
    You only need to add water to this, so you could throw all the dry ingredients in a food processor, then store them in a cool place till you want to make a batch of pancakes. Whole food, sugar free, gluten free, vegan.
    1 part raw buckwheat groats
    1 part whole oat groats
    1/2 part sunflower sees, pumpkin seeds, whatever you have handy
    3/4 part raisins
    – goodly dash of cinnamon and a bit of nutmeg. Adds sweetness, and helps with insulin response.

    Grind this all to a meal consistency in food processor. Store till needed.
    I didnt add quantities,only proportions, so you can make however much you want, but if you use cups in this recipe, this batch takes about 4 cups of water, a d makes about 7 cups of batter, and about 20-24 four-inch pancakes. I usually make a whole batch, then put in frig… Toast them in the toaster oven when I want a really quick, healthy breakfast.
    Note: these are dense. Cook on low heat. They are slow to cook- several mintes on each side. But once done, easy to re-heat for a super quick breakfast with some fruit slices and homemade juice!
    So many more ideas- will love to hear othersM

  5. Thanks for this, a great reminder and good motivation! I remember the newborn-and-toddler days vividly but at least I was home more…with my kids at 12 & 9 now I am always on the go and practically live in my car. It’s a challenge to stay on track and healthy, plant-based “fast” food in between cheerleading practice and a gymnastics meet is not easy to come by. I agree that we can’t beat ourselves up if we buy a package of hummus here and there instead of making it ourselves…I have to remind myself, at least I’m eating hummus and veggies instead of grabbing a bag of potato chips!

  6. Congratulations again and thanks for the post :D

    I am now on a master’s thesis writing sprint and this is a great piece of text!

  7. Courtney says:

    Oh my goodness… Can I say “thank you!” enough? I love this website, Matt. I’m learning so much! Smoothies for breakfast & huge salads for lunch… this works to keep me from going completely and crazily unhealthy at dinner, it keeps me vegan before 6 (thank you for the link to Mark Bittman’s interview), it keeps my mood level, it just works for me. And now more great advice that I can really use to help inch my family toward eating healthier! Thank you so much, Matt! (And thanks for the additional ideas, Deb! I’m so glad I came across this fantastic site and the wonderful community of fans! You all just plain rock.)

  8. Yet another NMA post that helps the Murphy family be better vegans ;)

    As working parents with two young kids this is something we constantly struggle with as well. For awhile there we were falling into the just-grab-something/go-out-to-eat trap, but as you mentioned it’s not exactly easy on the wallet – or all that healthy.

    The other thing that comes into play is at 8 and 6, our kids can be finicky eaters. It’s not always easy to put something on the table that EVERYONE is happy with, but we’ve gotten to the point where we’ve found a few staples we can build around. The ideas in this post will definitely help expand our repertoire.

    • Jennifer Ott says:

      I hear you on the kids part: mine are 8, 7, 5, and 2. I would call them, “picky”, but they love things like brussel sprouts :). Keeping everyone happy seems impossible, but as long as the kids can have black beans and rice with a huge salad, I don’t worry that they will starve!

  9. Awesome post, Matt- and so many great ideas that we can use right here, right now. Thanks a ton for imparting your wisdom! And congrats on the little one!

  10. “… nobody wants to cannibalize the sweet little newborn when mealtime arrives an hour late”

    I probably laughed harder than I should have at this :)

  11. Hey Matt-congrats. We have a 6 week old-our 3rd! I downgraded all my runs this year to half marathons for the two reasons you stated-even if I feel great, lack of sleep will cause extra fatigue in my body and no way do I want to get hurt and the amount of time to train is just not feasible! LOL
    And the snacking is totally the way we have done it so far-LOTS of healthy options that I can just grab on my way to clean up a mess, comfort a crying baby or before I hop on my treadmill-my husband and I switch who gets the outside run :)
    Congrats to you and the wife!!

  12. OOPS. In case anybody really wants to try the pancake recipe aboce, i left out an important ingredient.
    1/3 part ground flax seeds…. They bind everything together like an egg does in regular pancakes…

    Great comments everybodyM

  13. Hey Matt,
    Thanks so much for this post! I just started taking a nutrition course, have embarked on the beginning stages of becoming a business owner, and have a full time job, so making healthy meals lately has become a task. Plus, my boyfriend is a newbie in the kitchen and at eating a mostly plant based diet, so these tips are great for him too!

    Thanks for all the great advice and recommendations throughout your website. It’s all very appreciated!!

  14. Twofold congrats – one for your new daughter and one for getting a blog post out! In busy times I like to bring food to it’s bare bones so to speak: a quick bulger wheat pilaf; a tray of baked veges in the oven; big lentil stew on the stove top; serial miso soup nights. I also remind myself that many cultures eat the same food over and over and usually have the best health! Love the snack on the table idea – thanks!

  15. Gill Ewing says:

    Great post Mat! Thanks for all the advice, links etc. and congratulations on your new arrival too. Some of your advice only applies in America but that’s fine – we can find other ways of doing something similar in Europe! Thanks also to Deb for those lovely store-fridge recipes!

  16. Some of my favorite quick and easy meals:
    – Good Seed Burgers (superfood veggie patty) http://goodseedburger.com/
    – Avocado Sandwich (just slather on avocado, add some greens and tomato, sometimes I toast the bread)

    And a huge CONGRATS on the new addition to the family. I know how hard it can be to get training in with a new arrival. I ran my 50 one month after Abby was born, thankfully a bulk of the training was over.

  17. Congratulations on your new addition Matt!

    This is great advice for everyone, not just those with a newborn. My kids are 14, 8 and 6, with very busy athletic lives. We often use many of your tips to avoid the take out trap as well.

    Yes, that means sometimes I buy pre-made foods like hummus, but as you pointed out, it’s still cheaper and healthier than take out.

    I really like the idea of putting all the dry ingredients for smoothies in resealable cups, I will definitely have to use that idea.

    Another way I make sure to get all the nutrients I need is by making overnight oats for breakfast, loaded with all sorts of goodies. I’ve also started eating ENERGYbits every day for optimal health.

  18. I LOVE your blog. Really great info, and all around quality content.

    This post is especially good, because the fact is, people are full of excuses. If you want to do something, do it. Simple. And this post shows that if you WANT to eat healthy, you can, almost anywhere/anytime!

  19. Congratulations, Matt!! So fun!! My youngest of 3 is almost 3 and I am finally feeling like I have a little bit more time than I used to, but the amazement of starting it all out is awesome too! Thanks for the great tips! Laraballs would be a great thing to make for your first tip — and when we have them ready, we all love to nibble on them all day, giving us lots of energy, and they only take 5 minutes to make! Here they are! http://fresh-you.blogspot.com/2002/01/learn-about-laraballs.html So happy for you and that whole blissful blur of a new baby!
    Cheers! Colleen :)

  20. Carolyn in NC says:

    Matt, thanks for the great ideas (maybe my emailed ? promted this post). The best thing I’ve learned over the years raising kids and managing a kitchen is that having a plan for supper helps tremendously but making dinner in the morning while everyone is well fed, happy, and caffeinated is the best thing ever. So ok, at 6pm you have to take stuff out of the frige and nuke them and always feel like you’re eating leftovers, but building an extra lego tower or having the time to send off an email at 5pm is priceless.

    p.s. this is why I love my crockpot (load it in the morning and have dinner ready later……….go see the crockpot365 blog……yes, she has some vegetarian items, too (and they’re gluten free)

  21. Danelle says:

    LOVE the ideas!! I have two small kids, two part time jobs, and a desire to have a few minutes of my own time each day ;) so it feels like we’re constantly crunched for time. I especially love your idea about the re-usable containers for the dry smoothie ingredients! I haven’t had a smoothie yet this week (I usually do several mornings per week) because I’ve been busy and a bit tired of the time involved with opening all the bags and jars to get out minute amounts of stuff. I’m ordering more small Rubbermaid glass containers right now…

  22. Hi Matt — Congrats on your new daughter! As for no sleep and no time, hang in there, it will get easier day by day. Just wanted to drop a note saying how much I REALLY appreciate you sharing your knowledge for vegan athletes. I just discovered your site a few months ago and it rocks! Great comments from everyone else too. Great community!

  23. Congrats and the new kiddo and some great tips in here. One thing I do is I always try to keep some frozen veggies in the fridge. Though I prefer fresh, the frozen ones work great in a pinch.

    Thanks for the post.

  24. Congratulations on your new baby Matt!

    I have a few strategies to eat healthy when I’m superbusy. Planning ahead helps a lot: falling back on a few tried-and-tested- quick or ‘smart cooking’ (like cooking extra quinoa or sweet potatoes for later usage or freezing leftovers). It also saves me multiple trips to the grocery stores!

  25. * I meant to write ‘tried-and-tested quick recipes’

  26. Jon Weisblatt says:

    Congratulations on your new addition to the family! Another geat post. It’s a gerat reminder that eating healthy doesn’t need to take a lot of time.

  27. Great tips, thanks. We’ve tried to cut down on our trips to the store by getting essential supplies delivered to our home once a month. It’s a small win, but still a win!

  28. DawnMarie says:

    Great suggestions! Thank you for sharing. Enjoy your new bundle of love❤

  29. WOW, I just found your website and I’m SO happy I did! You’re a genius…so many great ideas for in a hurry meal prep! I love the warm bean idea, can’t wait to try it! Congrats on the new baby!

  30. Even though Im not a vegan I agree with your tips 110%! Even though it may seem impossible or even super expensive to eat healthy while taking care of a career, family, and body it simply is not. Its all about being both a little thoughtful and and a little proactive in your planning and pre-preparing of your meals. I recently started marathong training, running a half in a little under a month, and have found greens, grains, and beans to be my new best friend. Thanks for the post, and good luck with the new addition to the fam!

  31. Awesome tips!!…one of my go-to’s is nat pb on brown rice cake..love it!

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