As 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.
To save even more time, check out the free and done-for-you vegan meal plan on No Meat Athlete.
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 the smoothie 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!