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How to Eat Healthy When You’ve Got a Busy Schedule

During a busy and stressful week, planning ahead can help save you from the vending machine and cafeteria. Here’s how to do it.

You spend your time at work caring for other people's health, but do you adequately take care of your health? According to the American Nursing Association’s 2016 Health Risk Appraisal, just 16% of nurses surveyed ate the recommended five or more servings of fruit or vegetables each day, and 35% ate the recommended three or more whole grain servings a day (half of the grains you consume should be whole grains). Moreover, only 56% of nurses said they had access to healthy foods during work hours.

You’re busy. Sometimes it’s easier to grab what’s available instead of what’s best for you. But with some planning, you can be on the road to better nutrition. Here are some tips for eating healthy when you don’t have time.

Plan Ahead

This might seem like a no-brainer, but the key to healthy eating is planning your meals—not just what you eat, but when you eat. So on your day off, figure out what you will eat for the week—breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. To simplify things, you can choose two options per meal and rotate what you eat throughout the week. And if you’re eating lunch in the hospital cafeteria, plan your purchases to avoid impulse buys. 

If possible, prepare everything in advance. For example, if your next recipe only requires a portion of a vegetable—say, half an onion—cut up the whole item instead to have it ready to cook on those extra busy days. Sometimes it isn’t easy to find the motivation to cook after a long workday. So here’s a tip: Use a pressure cooker. You can throw everything into the device before you leave home so it’ll be ready to eat when you return. And if you’re preparing soups or stews, you can even make a large batch and freeze the leftovers for another day’s meal. 

Create a food schedule and stick to it. Know what time you might be able to snack during your shift? Add that to the schedule, too, so you don’t forget. It’s essential to ensure you have adequate fuel to get you through the day—this also helps ensure you aren’t reaching for that candy bar you’ve got stashed.

Skip the Vending Machine, Pack Your Own Snacks

Don’t leave home without your snacks! A vending machine can be a lifesaver if you’re starving with nothing to eat, but it’s better to bring snacks with you to work. Dried fruit, bite-sized vegetables (think: baby carrots), nuts, and seeds all work great in a pinch, helping you avoid the machines or that slice of cake in the breakroom. Pita chips with hummus, hard-boiled eggs, string cheese, and low-sodium crackers are also excellent choices, which you can even combine to make an assortment (but delicious) meal. 

Candy can provide a quick boost of energy but can leave you feeling tired once you’ve burned off the sugar. Instead, go with an energy bar made from dried fruit and ground nuts, which won’t melt in your pocket. 

Stay Focused at the Grocery Store

Grocery shopping can be stressful, especially if you feel pressed for time (or are hungry). To make things easier, create a grocery list before you head to the store and stick to it. In the busy aisles of a grocery store, it’s easy to get distracted and start grabbing what’s on sale, but these items may not be your most healthy options. Make sure to load your cart with whole, unprocessed foods, which will help you avoid foods with a long list of potentially unhealthy ingredients, like preservatives and trans fat. Instead, replace processed items with whole grains, fish, fruits and vegetables, and lean meats. 

If it’s in your budget to do so, don’t be afraid to grab some pre-cut or pre-bagged foods and canned items. Pre-cut trays, frozen vegetables, and bagged salads are often more expensive than their whole cousins, but they can save time and energy. Canned fruits make great mid-day snacks, while canned vegetables work as dinner sides, among other things. In addition to canned fruits and vegetables, keep your pantry stocked with healthy foods like quinoa, brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, nuts, beans, and seeds. 

You can also bypass the grocery store altogether by signing up for deliveries of community-supported agriculture (CSA) boxes full of fruits, vegetables, and even meats. Home-cooked meal kits are also a big time saver, and many companies offer low-carb, low-calorie, gluten-free, and vegetarian options. 

One thing to consider when shopping: the Mediterranean diet—which emphasizes fruits, vegetables, olive oil (for fat, instead of butter, margarine, and other oils), whole grains, and fish for protein—is often hailed as the best diet by dietary experts and researchers alike. Most recently, a study published in the journal Neurology found that the diet can lower inflammation and blood sugar levels and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. 

Choose Wisely at Restaurants

Sometimes you don’t want a home-cooked meal, and that’s okay. However, if you’re grabbing take-out or dining in, look closely at the ingredients of the options that appeal to you to see what you’re getting into. Many restaurants also offer calorie counts and label “light” meals. 

The same rules apply: Look for menu items that include many whole vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, or fish. Try to avoid fried food or meals that are greasy or oily, and instead, go with the baked or grilled options. Likewise, take a pass on food items with creamy sauces or gravies. 

Meals often come with various sides, some of which are unhealthy, such as french fries, coleslaw, and mashed potatoes covered in butter. Ask to substitute these options with a salad or veggies. If you’re ordering a drink, avoid sodas and other sugary drinks. Instead, go for water, unsweetened tea, or juice. And skip that cake or pie for dessert, opting for fresh fruit or sorbet, if available. 

Portions at American restaurants can often be too big. If dining in, start with a nutritious small salad or broth-based soup, which can help curb your appetite. You can also see if the restaurant offers half-sized meals, such as half-salads or half-sandwiches. Another option is to order the full-size plate and save half for lunch. 

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