Are you looking for ways to make eating healthy easy?
Well, I’m here to help you! But first, I have a confession to make.
I don’t eat healthy all the time. (Gasp!)
Shocking, I know— but true.
I’m a doctor that blogs about living a healthy lifestyle. I know all about the importance of eating a healthy diet. I’ve studied the data. I see the results of poor nutrition every single day in my medical practice. I know what I should be eating. But it is So. Freaking. Hard.
Why is it so hard?
Let’s face it. We are all busy! And eating right takes effort. When we are tired and stressed, we want something quick and easy. Unfortunately, in our society, processed junk is often the easiest and fastest thing available.
It is a constant struggle for me to feed myself and my family healthy food. My husband and I both work full time, and we have five very active kids at home. We are always busy, but if we are in the middle of a sports season, we are busier than busy. With our crazy schedule, it seems nearly impossible to feed us all a healthy meal.
Tonight for instance—I’ll leave work and pick up my youngest kids from after school care. My oldest son has a soccer game, and my seventh grader has soccer practice. My husband is coaching my second grader’s baseball team, and my fifth-grade daughter has dance. Oh! And I have a meeting at church—just remembered that one! And spelling tests are tomorrow. So there’s that. I’m exhausted just typing it.
I don’t have an hour—or even thirty minutes—to cook a healthy dinner, much less pack a healthy lunch for the next day. It’s so much easier to pick up the phone and order pizza, throw a Lunchable in the lunchboxes, and collapse on the couch to watch “This is Us” on TV.
However, I KNOW the importance of a healthy diet. I KNOW that the risk of cancer, heart disease, and a multitude of other diseases increases dramatically with a poor diet. I KNOW I have to do better. It’s my job as a doctor, and it’s my job as a mom.
Over time, I’ve developed several strategies to help me stay on course and feed my family a decent meal- even when we are short on time. I hope you find at least a few of these tips helpful for you or your family.
1. Commit to Cooking at Home
With the rare exception, most of your meals will be healthier if you cook at home. Even if you boil some noodles and open a jar of spaghetti sauce, you are better off than eating a cheeseburger and fries from McDonald’s. Of course, it’s best to make nutritious plant-based meals that follow the guidelines I outlined in this post and this post—but in the beginning, don’t stress too much about how healthy the food is that you are preparing. Just get in the habit of making food at home.
2. Start One Meal at A Time
If you are completely overwhelmed by the thought of overhauling your entire diet, start with one meal at a time. Commit the next few weeks to changing what you eat for breakfast, then once you’ve got the swing of that move on to lunch, then dinner, then snacks. You don’t have to do it in that order. Do whatever works for you. Just take it one step at a time. I find that I get completely overwhelmed and quit if I try to take on too much change at once.
3. Don’t Complicate Things
Healthy food does not have to be fancy food. I hate to cook. If something has more than a few ingredients and I can’t just throw them all into a pot together, I’m not going to cook it. Be realistic about what you will do and how much time and effort it will take.
I keep my meals simple. Chicken baked in the oven, broccoli thrown in the steamer and brown rice in my rice cooker. Nothing I have to stand over, not a lot of chopping, not a lot of work. Choose a lean meat, a vegetable, and a healthy grain, and you are good to go! Add some fruit on the side or throw a container of pre-packaged salad or pre-cut raw veggies on the table to add some more plant-based foods.
4. Repeat Meals
Make a list of the meals you currently eat. My guess is that the list is pretty short. Most people have 5-10 meals they make on a regular basis. For breakfast and lunch, the list is usually a lot shorter.
Now, brainstorm a short list of simple, healthy meals you could easily prepare. Again, it’s easier to start one meal at a time. For instance, breakfast could be oatmeal or yogurt with fruit and nuts, whole wheat toast with natural peanut butter and banana, or a low-sugar granola with fruit and coconut milk.
Once you have the list, just plan to repeat those meals over and over. Most of us already do that with the meals we eat now, but for some reason, we feel like we have to reinvent the wheel every single week when we are trying to eat healthier.
5. Two or Four-Week Repeat
For those of you that like more variety in your diet, make two weekly menus or four weekly menus, then plan to repeat those every two to four weeks.
I’m married to an engineer, so we love Excel spreadsheets in our house. Make a spreadsheet of your meals and a grocery list for each week. Keep this on your computer or in Google Drive, and you will be on autopilot. If you aren’t a spreadsheet person, jot it all down on paper and store it somewhere that it won’t get lost.
If you take the time to do this upfront, you won’t have to worry about wondering what’s for dinner ever again. No more weekly meal planning! Yay! And, of course, you can add more variety by trading out a meal or two for something new every few months.
6. Save the Fancy Stuff for Only a Few Times per Week
If you like to cook, by all means, do! Just don’t plan to get all complicated when you know your schedule is going to be tight! Save the more complex recipes for when you won’t be in a rush.
7. Make Extra
When you do cook, make double or triple and plan on having leftovers later in the week or freezing some to eat another time. For instance, this past weekend I cooked several pounds of chicken breast in the Instant Pot. (If you don’t have one of these, you need one!) I dumped all the meat in the pot, closed the lid, set the timer, and walked away. Half an hour later, I had perfectly cooked chicken. I shredded it and used it to make chicken enchiladas for dinner. I also made a second pan of enchiladas to eat later in the week. Since I was already making a mess, I used the rest of the chicken to make chicken tortilla soup which we had for dinner the next day. All in all, it took me about thirty minutes to make three meals.
8. Prep When You Get Home from the Grocery Store
Another key thing to do is to prep when you get home from the grocery store. If you just stuff all those fresh fruits and veggies in the fridge, you’ll be too tired to prep them during the week, and you’ll find yourself throwing them in the garbage next week. Go ahead and chop vegetables and cut up fruit. Take meat out of packages, season, and put in the freezer in ovenproof/freezer-proof pans. I love the disposable aluminum pans or Pyrex for this purpose, and it makes it super easy to throw something in the oven quickly on a busy night.
9. Weekend Prep
If you don’t have time to prep when you get home from the grocery, find some time on the weekend to do it. A little time spent now will save you later in the week when you are exhausted and tempted to order take-out.
10. Stock the Freezer
I make a trip to Costco at least once a month and stock my freezer with meat, frozen veggies, and frozen fruits. This way I always have the ingredients for a simple, quick meal on hand.
11. Keep a List of Go-To Snacks for Your Family to See
Make a list of low sugar/no sugar, unprocessed snacks and keep it in the fridge. When you or your family want something, they’ll have a list of things to choose from right in front of them. You can also use this as a grocery list, so you know what to stay stocked up on.
12. Make Things Convenient
I keep a large, divided Rubbermaid container stocked with veggies and another stocked with fruits. It makes it super easy for me to pull these out at meal times or snack times. I’ll do something similar with olives, hummus, and nuts, too.
13. Buy Pre-Prepped Produce and Prepackaged Salad
It’s a little more expensive, but if you can afford it, take advantage of all the pre-prepped fruits and vegetables you can get in the produce section of your grocery store. It makes life so much easier when you are in a hurry to get dinner on the table!
15. Use Menu Planning Services
Personally, I’m not a big fan of menu planning services. They just don’t work well for me. I find I do much better cooking things I know I like and keeping things straightforward and familiar. But if you like to cook and you like to try new things, there are several great menu planning services out there. I like emeals.com for weekly planning and onceamonthmeals.com for monthly meal prep. Both services offer a variety of meal plans that fit into a healthy lifestyle. I especially like the idea of Once A Month Meals. They give you all the instructions to make your meals for the month in one afternoon. This way your freezer is stocked with ready-made meals that you can just throw in the slow cooker or Instant Pot.
16. Take Advantage of Meal Delivery Services
There are meal delivery services that will send you perfectly portioned ingredients to make a healthy meal at home, complete with instructions on how to prepare it.
I’ve tried Hello Fresh, but there are several, including Blue Apron, Sun Basket, and Plated to name just a few. I enjoyed the majority of my Hello Fresh meals, but I stopped getting them for two reasons. First, I found the prep time to be too consuming for me. There is a lot of chopping! Also, my kids didn’t particularly like the meals, so there was a lot of whining. With five children, there is always a child or two who whines about what’s for dinner, but it tends to bother me when I’ve put a lot of effort into the meal. I’ve talked to other families whose kids love Hello Fresh, so don’t dismiss it based on my experience alone.
If it were just my husband and me at home, I think I would incorporate this kind of service into my weekly meal plan.
17. Keep a List of Go-To Restaurants
Let’s face it. We can’t always cook at home. Take a moment to make a list of restaurants in your area and meals that you can get from them that are nutritious. I love Panera, Chipotle, Zoe’s Kitchen, and Jason’s Deli to name a few. I have favorite items from each restaurant that I know I can grab in a pinch.
18. Keep Grab-and-Go Stuff Handy
Make a list of grab and go items to keep stocked in your fridge or pantry. That way when you are running out the door and need to grab something, you have healthy options from which to choose.
19. Identify the Problem
If you eat something unhealthy, ask yourself why. Were you in a hurry with no healthy options available? Were you stressed? Did it just sound yummy? Identify the problem and brainstorm a solution, so you will be ready the next time you face the same situation.
20. Don’t Try to Be Perfect
When it comes to eating nutritiously, great is the enemy of good. So many of us feel like we might as well not even try if we can’t do it perfectly. Yes, kale is really good for you and iceberg lettuce doesn’t have many nutrients. But you know what? I’d rather you eat the iceberg lettuce instead of french fries. If your kids will only eat broccoli with cheese sauce, I’d rather them eat the broccoli with the cheese sauce than not eat the broccoli at all. Yes, store bought ranch dressing is full of things you can’t pronounce, but I’d rather you eat a salad with store bought ranch than not eat a salad at all because you didn’t make your own homemade dressing. The key is not to let perfection get in your way.
21. Add then Subtract
I will admit that this one doesn’t work for everyone. Some people need to start by getting sugar and refined flour out of their diet immediately. However, I find that if I concentrate on adding healthy things to my diet, rather than subtracting unhealthy things, I have more success in the long run. Once my diet is full of healthy stuff, the bad stuff naturally sorts itself out.
22. Subtract One Thing at a Time
When you are ready to start subtracting unhealthy things from your diet, I find it helps to eliminate one thing at a time. Get rid of processed meats first, then limit red meat consumption. Reduce sugar and then remove flour. Most people will find it too hard to eliminate everything at once, and they’ll quickly give up trying. The key to success for most people is to take it slow.
23. Have a Plan
The most important thing, no matter how you do it, is to have a plan. Trouble starts when you have no idea what you are going to eat and no healthy options from which to choose. Sit down today and map out a plan. With very little effort, eating healthy will be a normal part of your everyday life.
I hope you have discovered a few ways to make eating healthy easy for you and your family. As always, please feel free to contact me or comment below with any questions you may have. You can also follow me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google Plus and Pinterest for regular tips on keeping yourself and your family healthy and happy. Also, please subscribe below to get all my posts delivered to your inbox as soon as they are published. I promise not to spam you with junk! 🙂