One of the biggest obstacles to eating healthy is having no time to cook. If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. Our busy lifestyles make it hard to also have a healthy lifestyle but today we are going to share tips, tricks and hacks to eat healthy meals when you just don't have the time to cook. We love to share products we use ourselves, and sometimes those links are referral affiliate partner links, because we love them so much we partnered with the brands.
I was raised in in the 80's and 90's by a hard-working mom who often had two or three jobs at a time. Fast food and convenience food were growing ever-popular, easier and cheaper, so we had a lot of it. My mom cooked epic meals on holidays but for day-to-day stuff, we had a lot of frozen or pre-packaged foods.
Nothing wrong with that, but in adulthood I felt really unskilled in the kitchen. When I got married, not much had changed. We eventually started using Meal Delivery Kits for week day meals and I really credit that choice with helping me learn to cook. (Here are my favorite Meal Kits for When You Are Trying to Lose Weight)
Meal kits showed me two key skills:
- First, how you can really chop up just a handful of ingredients, prepare them simply and have dinner on the table quickly.
- Second, how you can combine pre-cooked items with fresh items to shave off tons of time.
I think I also stopped blaming my inability to cook on the fact that I never really learned. You know?
I'm an adult. If I never really learned…well I can change that and I'm the only one who is to blame if I don't learn.
So below is a mix of meals you can throw together at short notice, staples to keep on hand for nights you run out of time, and strategies you can learn to help you eat healthy even with a busy lifestyle.
Healthy Last-Minute Meals
Some nights you just need to throw together something super fast to keep from driving through at your local fast food place. Any of the ideas below can be prepared faster than you can get to McD's for fries.
- A quick and simple sandwich
- Avocado toast on a bagel thin, topped with an egg
- Soup and salad
- Sandwich wrap
- Rotisserie chicken and frozen vegetables
- Canned beans, sliced bell pepper and cheese on a light tortilla (taco, burrito or quesadilla style) Top it with a dollup of plain greek yogurt
- Whole grain pasta with marinara
- Healthy Fried Rice: Pre-cooked brown rice or quinoa, scrambled egg, veggies (leftover, frozen peas or a cole slaw mix bag), add your favorite protein (leftover shrimp or chicken) and a bit of low sodium soy sauce
- Sweet potato – prepare in the microwave, using the baked potato button (remember to poke a few holes in it first) top with fruit and drizzle of peanut butter.
- Brinner – Breakfast for dinner – Egg and turkey bacon with whole grain toast. Oatmeal with berries and nuts. Omelette with veggies or lean meats.
- Healthy Mini Pizza – Whole grain pita or bagel thin with jar sauce and quick toppings (I like canned mushrooms and Canadian bacon) Tip: Freeze extra sauce in an ice cube tray, then keep the frozen cubes in a freezer bag or container.
- Healthy Teriyaki- Frozen Riced Cauliflower, frozen broccoli florets, teriyaki sauce (just enough for flavor, not an entire bottle), favorite protein.
Healthy Staples for Last Minute Meals
Headed to the grocery store? Here is a list of healthy pantry, fridge and freezer staples that you can grab to combine at home when you have little time to cook a fancy meal.
Healthy, Whole Grains for Lots of Fiber
- Dave's Killer Bread
- Bagel Thins
- Whole Grain Tortillas
- Spinach or whole grain wraps
- Whole grain pitas
- Whole grain English Muffins
- Pouches of pre-cooked brown rice and quinoa
- Turkey Deli Meat
- Ground Turkey
- Turkey bacon
- Chicken breast (pre-cooked or see below for easy prep)
Fruits & Veggies – You can try these foods, even if you remember not liking them as a kid. Tastes change, and if you give yourself the chance to learn to prepare them, you might like them.
- Salad kits
- Fresh, veggies
- Fresh, pre-chopped veggies
- Frozen Fruits and veggies
- Canned fruits and veggies
- Fruit (and some Veggies!) Smoothies
- Spices and spice blends (Try Moroccan Blend or curry powder, or a blend that is new to you)
- Fresh herbs or pre-chopped herbs in tubes, in the produce section (Basil Stir-in-Paste is my favorite but the company has several varieties)
- Slice of lemon or lemon juice (if you worry about using up fruit, grab a bottle of Real Lemon)
- Nuts or sunflower seeds for texture and crunch
Healthier Fast Food Options
Okay, so what happens if you have to eat when you are not home? A meeting came up, work ran late, those plans were switched to today and you can't get home. What then? There are some options you have when you are out and about.
I would challenge you to think of these as only when you didn't have warning. Not when you knew you'd be pinched for time and could have brought something from home. Again you are worth taking the time to prepare ahead.
That said, here are some ideas to lighten up while eating out in a hurry.
- Jimmy John's – Unwich
- Chipotle – Burrito Bowl or salad (use their calculator before you go, then decide if you will eat all of it or save half for the next day)
- Panda express – Several of their entrees and sides are Noom green foods or yellow foods
- Panera – Avoid things with bacon or ranch, as well ask bakery items but many lower calorie or high protein options
- Chik-Fil-a – Basic chicken sandwich, no bacon or ranch. Salad, greens, fruit or lighter soups for your side.
- Wendy's – Chili and baked potato
Quick, Easy Meal Prep On Your Day Off
If you have never “meal prepped” before it probably sounds like a lot of time and effort, but actually it cuts down on the time and effort you need for the rest of the week, and it is totally worth it.
Pre-cooking foods for the week does NOT need to be hard, fancy, or time-consuming.
I am not a big “precise recipe” person. There are tons of recipes in books and online articles that are precise. If you prefer that, I understand. My un-recipes are just kinda for the basics, if you are not used to cooking…this is not Martha Stewart Level Baking.
Below are some examples of how I batch cook healthy foods once a week. Cook temps and times will vary so pay attention as you try new things.
For example I use heavy skillets but if you use thinner ones you will lose more heat as soon as you add cold chicken breast, and also food could scorch quicker if the burner heat is really high. Also your cooking time would vary if you have large chicken breasts vs small one.
It's a learning process, and that is ok! You are worth taking the time to learn.
Chicken breasts Un-recipe– Turn on a skillet to medium (my stove seems kinda weak and my skillets are thick, so I do medium high heat) and grab a package of chicken breasts from the fridge. While the skillet is heating up open the chicken and pat the chicken dry. Sprinkle salt and pepper on one side (You'll get the other side after it is in the pan). Add a light drizzle of cooking oil around the pan in a quick circle and then tilt the pan to spread the oil a bit. Once the pan is hot, add the chicken breast cooking for 5-7 minutes, and flip. 5-7 minutes the other side. If you have and internal temp thermometer check that the thickest part read 165 degree. Set it on a plate or cutting board and you are all done. Now you have chicken breasts for the week, ready in about 20 minutes.
Sheet Pan Veggies Un-recipe– Preheat your oven to 350. While it heats rinse your veggies (pick 2-3 that you like. My favorites are cauliflower and canned chickpeas) and if they are not already small pieces, chop them into 1/2 inch to one inch pieces. Line a sheet pat with foil and spray with cooking spray. Spread your veggies out on the foil, one on the left, one on the right, in case one type cooks faster you can remove it easier). You may either lightly drizzle with olive oil or use an olive oil spray. Salt and pepper, stir them around gently so you don't rip the foil. By the time my oven is preheated I usually have everything ready, it really is quick. Put the sheet pan in your oven and set a timer for 15 minutes. Check after 15 minutes, stir gently. If one type looks like it is done or is tender, remove it to a storage dish or bowl. Do another 10-15 minutes if anything isn't done. Check again, still not done? 10-15 minutes more. It will depend on the veggies your choose, your oven, how big the pieces are, etc. It's not an exact recipe, hence the term Un-recipe. It's an easy thing to do once per week so you can always add veggies to any meal.
Unfancy Omelette Un-recipe– I always assumed omelettes were hard to make. A big fluffy, restaurant omelette loaded with way too much stuff… that kind I have not mastered. But a 2 egg omelette with one or two ingredients straight from the fridge? That is actually easier than scrambled eggs for me:
Get out the eggs, shredded cheese and maybe a ham slice or canned mushrooms. Spray my 10 inch non stick skillet with cooking spray (the medium pan size is the key. If I'm using one egg, I use a smaller skillet, 3 eggs I bump up to a bigger one) and turn on the burner to medium/medium high. Crack 2 eggs into a mug, add a splash of water from the faucet, whip it up with a fork. By the time it is mixed well my pan is ready. Pour into the pan and do nothing. Let it turn opaque. Use a rubber spatula to make some holes in the center to let any remaining liquid reach the pan, the immediately add the cheese and ham. Run your rubber spatula all the way around the edge to be sure it is not stuck, then once all the liquid has set, tip it out onto your plate, folded halfway over itself.
Smoothie Un-recipe: I use a stick blender rather than a traditional blender. Use whichever blender you have. Start with a ripe banana, add 2 handfuls of frozen fruit and then add enough water to cover the ingredients. Blend until smooth. Done. You want to add more? Go crazy. Peanut butter, yogurt, spinach or kale, dry whole oats, chia seeds, avocado, fresh fruit, mint. Make it your own. Use what you have. Congratulations, you just ate fruit and it wasn't too bad!
What else can you whip up in minutes to give your body the good, loving care you deserve?
Which Tips and Tricks Will you Try for Healthy Meals When You Have No Time to Cook?