For most of us, maintaining a healthy diet is challenging. But add in a busy schedule that barely leaves time to sit down, let alone enjoy a 30-minute meal, and, well, it can feel nearly impossible. With a little time and sometimes limited funds, our choices are dwindled down to the stuff that isn’t so healthy for us. And if we are somewhere with healthy choices, we’re not sure how to spot them or put together a meal that checks off all the nutritional boxes. So what are we left with?
According to registered nutritionist and culinary consultant Peggy Kotsopoulos, it all comes down to choices when you’re someone who frequents a cafeteria, prefers going to restaurants for work meetings or has to depend on meal prepping once a week. Ahead are the tips, tricks and hacks that’ll keep you on track, whether you’re a college student returning to campus life, a 9-to-5er with a full calendar or a freelancer with places to be and little time to take a breather.
Cafeterias can be hard to navigate simply because there are so many different food options and most of them are processed. According to Kotsopoulos, the best approach to think “veggies” and “protein.” Fill half your plate with veggies. They can be raw, steamed, cooked, grilled, sauteed or even a salad.
“These are loaded with fiber to help keep you full, with fewer calories and packed with nutrients,” she says. “One quarter of your plate should be protein (grilled chicken breast, tuna/salmon, even turkey slices, cheese or black beans) and one-eighth carbs (pasta, whole-wheat bread, a wrap).”
The last eighth of your plate should be made up of foods rich in fats, such as salad dressing, olives, avocado, nuts/seeds and cheese. Using this as a guideline to fill your plate can help guide healthier decisions.
The same rule of thumb applies to restaurants. Choose menu items that are loaded with veggies such as salads, steamed vegetables and stir-fry. As far as carbs are concerned, don’t be afraid to ask to replace your white rice or potatoes with whole grains, such as brown rice or quinoa. Steamed veggies or a salad are also a healthier alternative.
Instead of red meat, opt for fishes, such as salmon, tuna, halibut (or whatever fresh market fish is on their menu) or lean poultry. And in general, fried, au gratin, crispy, escalloped, pan-fried, sautéed or stuffed foods are high in fat and calories. Instead, have the cooked part of your meal steamed, broiled, baked, grilled, or poached.
“Have sauces and dressings served on the side, so you can control the amount you eat, or skip them completely,” says Kotsopoulos. “If it’s a cream or butter sauce, avoid it completely and use fresh lemon juice and olive oil instead.”
Another great tip for salads: Don’t be afraid to ask for additional toppings, such as pumpkin seeds, walnuts, avocado, or other veggies to make it both filling and nutritious. Chances are that if you see it someplace else on the menu, they have it in stock.
“If you’re not sure about a how a certain dish is prepared, ask,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to ask for substitutions. People do it all the time (especially me) and restaurants are very accommodating!”
Snacking on the Go
Now that we’ve got on-the-go meals covered, let’s talk about snacks. For starters, the best types are easily portable. For instance, a banana or apple packs up easily. So does a high-fiber, high-protein, low-sugar plant-based bar or small bag of homemade trail mix (think raw almonds, walnuts, chopped dried apricots … whatever combo of nuts/seeds/dried fruits your palate desires).
Also, keep portion control in mind. “If it fits into your hand, it’s a snack. If it’s larger, it’s a meal,” says Kotsopoulos. “Snacks should be relatively small serving sizes (handful of nuts, yogurt, a fruit, veggies & hummus, protein bar); just enough to tie you over till your next meal.”
If your goal is to eat out less, meal prepping once a week is a great way to craft your own meals without having to sacrifice time every day. However, there are a few guidelines to remember. Here are Kotsopoulos’s go-to hacks:
- Wash your veggies and greens as soon as you bring them home from the market and then store them in your fridge. You can also find many prewashed veggies at your local grocery store.
- Wash and cut broccoli into bite-sized pieces for easy cooking.
- Shred veggies (carrots, zucchini) for salad toppers or to fill wraps.
- Wash and chop greens into small pieces to throw into soups, stews, and pasta dishes.
Also, remember that most foods freeze great and when cooking, always make extra.
“Even simple things like steamed veggies (broccoli, cauliflower) can be kept in airtight containers in the fridge,” says Kotsopoulos. “When making large dishes—even salmon, grilled chicken, chili, soups, stews, quinoa salads and bean salads—make extra and store in individual freezer-safe containers for easy meals down the road.”
She also says you can store cooked pasta coated with a bit of olive oil in a baggy in your fridge and even freeze sauces in advance. This provides a great opportunity to stock up on your favorite homemade salad dressings.
Fast Meals That Aren’t Fast Food
And for those who aren’t fans of meal prepping, you can still put together a meal on the fly without having to sacrifice nutrition. For instance, Kotsopoulos counts omelets as one of her breakfast go-tos when she’s tight on time.
“I add whatever veggies I have on hand—onion, mushrooms, peppers, avocado, tomatoes, baby spinach—and some cheese. It packs in a ton of protein to keep you full, and eggs are also great for keeping your mind sharp,” she says.
As for lunch and dinner, salmon is a protein option that only takes a couple minutes to cook. To jazz it up a bit, Kotsopoulos likes to mix Dijon mustard with a bit of maple syrup as a glaze and bake for 12 minutes.
“While that’s cooking, I steam up some broccoli or make a quick and easy cucumber and tomato salad,” she says. “Quinoa also only takes 15 minutes to cook. And once it’s cooked, it keeps in the fridge for up to five days. You can use as a side dish or as a base of a salad.”
As for eating late, protein, not sugar, is the best thing to eat at night. Kotsopoulos’s favorite late-night snack is a can of tuna mixed with balsamic vinegar and baby tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, hummus and veggies.
“When we are up late and stressed, it’s the crunch (and distraction) that we typically crave. Think raw almonds/nuts, even raw veggies (carrots, red peppers). Just try to avoid the sweet stuff, as it impacts blood-sugar levels and your ability to concentrate,” she says.