Too Busy to Eat Well? 4 Tips on How to Start Now?

Healthy Lifestyle

Sometimes it can feel like being an adult means having no free time; for many of us, our plate of responsibilities is full to the point of spilling over. Maybe you’ve been so busy lately, that your eating habits have gone off the rails. Perhaps you’ve put eating healthy on hold until after things in your life settle down. After all, how can you be expected to eat well when life is so hectic?

If you’re stuck in the I’m-too-busy-to-eat-healthy mentality, I want to ask you two important questions. The first is this: when will life actually stop being busy? I’m not asking this to be negative but to be realistic. There will always be something creating busyness in your life. If it’s not school, it’ll be work. If it’s not kids, it’ll be grandkids. If you figure you’ll start eating healthy when you’re not busy, you’ll just continue to put it off.

Now onto my second question: how long can you afford to postpone healthy eating? It can be easy to do things like skip lunch in the name of productivity, or “reward” ourselves with treats in the evening for working hard. But over time, habits like these will catch up to us in the form of gut issues, hormonal imbalances, or even chronic diseases like high blood pressure or diabetes. It can be easy to lose sight of the fact that we only get one body in this life. If we don’t invest in our health now, we can end up losing it in the future.

I understand that at this point you might be feeling a bit frustrated. “I do want to eat healthily, but how is it doable amidst the craziness of my life?” you may ask. Don’t despair— it is possible!

“If You Don’t Have Time To Do Things Like Grocery Shop, Cook, Or Eat Three Meals Per Day, It’s Time To Take A Look At What’s Going On In Your Life.”

How To Start Now

1 Set Boundaries

Based on my experiences working with clients, unhealthy eating habits often boil down to a lack of boundaries in certain areas of a person’s life. You must set boundaries with yourself and others to nourish your body properly. It’s crucial to silence that negative inner voice that beats you up for not being perfect. An all-or-nothing mindset won’t do you any favors with your diet.

If you think you have to be flawless to be healthy when life gets busy, you’re going to spread yourself too thin. Overburdening yourself can result in giving up and harming your mental health—neither of which I want for you. Instead, be compassionate with yourself. As long as your overall habits are healthy, you will reap the benefits. If here and there, you have a treat, order takeout, or eat convenience foods, it's not a big deal. What you’re doing consistently counts the most toward your well-being.

Setting boundaries with yourself also includes prioritizing your health. I know that I said this before, but I’m going to say it again because it’s so important: we only get one body in this life. If you don’t have time to do things like grocery shop, cook, or eat three meals per day, it’s time to take a look at what’s going on in your life. Have you taken on too much? Do you have enough support? Are you burned out? If you are too busy to feed yourself properly, it’s time to set some boundaries.

Give some thought to what you need from yourself and from others to make healthy eating happen in your life. Maybe you need to set a boundary with yourself to take your lunch break away from your desk to make sure you have something to eat at work. Also, remember that you don’t have to try doing it all alone. Reach out for help in areas of your life where you’re feeling overwhelmed. If you find you’re always falling behind on your to-do list, ask family members to help you out more with chores around the house, for example. If you’re experiencing caregiver burnout, look into what home care services are available in your community. Healthy eating will be a lot easier when you have enough support in your life.

Establishing boundaries will help you to give your body the nourishment it requires. When you prioritize your health and get the support you need, you’ll find it easier to get through busy days because your body will be getting the fuel it needs. You’ll prevent intense cravings and overeating because you’ll be honoring your hunger throughout the day. You’ll also be getting the nutrients your body needs to prevent and/or manage health concerns (e.g., gut issues, anxiety).

2 Think Ahead

Healthy eating is a lot less likely to happen when you’re winging it. If you haven’t thought ahead about what you’re going to eat and then things get hectic, it’s more likely that you’ll reach for unhealthy options or not eat at all. When you’ve made a plan and some food prep, your days will go more smoothly, and eating healthy will become automatic. A little bit goes a long way—you don’t have to make a super-detailed meal plan or spend all day cooking. Here are a few examples of how efficient planning will help you eat healthier regularly:

“I Usually Recommend Preparing  Some  Type Of Grain, A Couple Of Different Sources Of Protein, And Two Types Of Vegetables.”

a) A realistic plan for the week ahead is going to be crucial. Once you know what meals you’re going to have, you can make your shopping list and buy the ingredients you’ll need. When your kitchen is fully stocked, the task of cooking a meal becomes much less stressful. Make sure you choose a realistic number of recipes; variety is great, but you want to keep meal prep manageable. I usually recommend that my clients pick two breakfast ideas, four lunches, and four options for dinner each week. If you cook extra for each meal and enjoy the leftovers the next day, you can enjoy variety throughout the week without having to cook every day.

b) If picking out recipes each week feels too stressful for you, you can simplify meal planning even further. Instead, make the basic components for a meal and then combine them as you wish at mealtimes. I usually recommend preparing some type of grain, a couple of different sources of protein, and two types of vegetables. For example, you might make a batch of rice, bake some chicken breasts, boil a batch of lentils, and wash and chop some mushrooms and bell peppers. You can use these basic ingredients in many different dishes. Make a stir fry, salad/rice bowl, burritos, or soup; the list goes on, depending on your creativity. I suggest picking two food prep days (e.g., Sunday and Thursday) so that you don’t get bored with your food options.

c) If you’re so busy that neither of those first strategies sounds realistic for you, make sure you plan to eat something. Going for too long without food will result in cravings and overeating, as well as low energy and increased stress. If you don’t have the time to sit down and have a full meal, have a quick snack instead. The rule of thumb I give to my clients is that for every meal you don’t have time for, replace it with two snacks. This will help you meet your nutrition needs and energize you throughout the day. Snack options could include a peanut butter sandwich, whole grain tortilla chips with guacamole, or a smoothie or meal replacement beverage.

3 Keep It Simple

When you’re busy, you don’t have time to make elaborate meals. I get that. But you can still have a home-cooked meal if you keep it simple. Here are five healthy and simple meal ideas for you to try:

Puréed soup: Drink it from a thermos if you need to eat on the go.

Quesadilla: Assemble it in a long, flat container beforehand, and heat it in the microwave or toaster oven when needed.

Animal or plant-based patty: Try something like a ground turkey or black bean patty. If you add a source of carbs (e.g., mashed sweet potato or squash) and veggies (e.g., grated carrots or beets), a patty can become a complete source of nutrition. If time is limited, you can just eat the patty alone and still meet your basic nutritional needs.

Bakeable meals: These are foods like enchiladas, casseroles, lasagnas, or stuffed bell peppers. You can set up one of these dishes when you have a chunk of time and store it for later in the refrigerator or freezer. Over time, you’ll have a wide inventory of meals to choose from on days when you’re low on time or don’t feel like cooking.

Crockpot meals: There are more than 101 ways to use your crockpot! From mac and cheese to oatmeal or lasagna, there’s almost nothing a crockpot can’t do. All you need is 20 minutes to set up your recipe, and then you can go about your day while the crockpot does the work for you.

4 Mix & Match

This last tip ties back to letting go of the all-or-nothing mentality. Eating healthy doesn’t mean you can never eat take-out or convenience foods; everyone needs to get a break from cooking sometimes. And enjoying fun foods as part of our diet is a more realistic, sustainable way of eating. Ultimately, I think that eating something is always better than skipping a meal. If all you’re up for is a convenience food item, at least you’re still nourishing your body. Having said that, I recommend (whenever possible) mixing and matching takeout or convenience items with nutrient-dense foods. That way, you’re still getting a break, but you’re bumping up the nutrition factor of your meals as well. There are tons of ways to mix and match foods. Here’s a list of ideas to get you started:

» Frozen pizza with veggies (e.g., sautéed onion and mushrooms, spinach, olives, pineapple) and topped with extra protein like chicken, tempeh, or lean ground beef 

» Takeout pasta and Mediterranean salad

» Takeout pizza and roasted veggies on the side (e.g., carrots, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower)

» Takeout fried rice with extra veggies (heat some frozen mixed veggies) and add extra protein such as tofu, shrimp, or chicken

» A can of tomato soup with a source of protein (e.g., canned chickpeas) and a source of carbs (e.g., rice, frozen corn, or bread/toast on the side)

Hopefully, these tips have you feeling like eating healthy is doable—even when you’re busy. However, if you’re still feeling like it’s going to be a struggle, consider visiting a registered dietitian to get support. They can help you with things like meal planning, grocery lists, and recipe ideas. Ultimately, whenever you feel overwhelmed, my advice is to practice self-compassion. The most that anyone can do is try their best.