11 Tips for Healthy Eating When You’re Busy (By a Nutritionist)


(Updated 01/13/24)

Is life bustling at the moment? Struggling to keep on track with your healthy habits? This blog contains my top tips for eating healthy when busy.

Banana being sliced by a knife on a chopping board, surrounded by fruit.

When life gets busy, our healthy habits are an all-too-easy sacrifice, with the promise that we’ll hop back on the bandwagon when things quieten down.

Between work, social and personal commitments – plus everything squeezed between – we often juggle many balls. However, given were mere mortals and not crazed clowns who don’t sleep, it’s only natural for a few balls to drop.

You know the drill. When push comes to shove, there’s a time trade off. We stay up later than we should because those last few work emails ‘really should’ be sent. We don’t exercise because that laundry basket is piling up. We nosedive onto the couch while speed dialling takeaways because it’s one less task.

Busy Bees

Sometimes trade offs are just a part of being a team – in the workplace, at home – and helping our players (including us) be the best we can be, in the moment.

But, there’s a tipping point. While our body tries best to keep up with demands, our Herculean efforts have impact; whether that’s mindless eating, poor sleep, sitting too long, eating on the go, or the knock-on effects of prolonged stress when trying to juggle it all.

I won’t harp on about balance because I’d be a terrible preacher. So here are tricks and tips that have been my go-to’s, and which I share with nutrition clients, to keep wellbeing rituals true even when life accelerates.

1. Pick the ‘Better’ Option

If you’re in a recurring situation where you’re can’t control the menu, pick the ‘better’ option from the lot. This can help slideline not-as nutritious options that compound over time. You could:

  • At your local cafe go for the roast vegetable frittata rather than the sugary caramel slice (unless you really feel like it, then enjoy!).
  • If you’re at a bakery for a more balanced meal, pick the wholegrain chicken-mayo salad sandwich, instead of the sausage rolls or pies.
  • At the petrol station opt for the protein-packed bagged nuts, jerky, cabinet fruit or nutty muesli bar; over the choccy bars and bagged lollies.

This tip is also a good way to kick in the butt the “I’ll just start again on Monday mentality”. This is where we self-sabotage eating habits because we feel our environment or actions aren’t, at the moment, ‘healthy’ enough – so why bother? Here, we unintentionally throw the baby out with the bathwater. Instead, let’s commend ourselves for picking the ‘better’ option from the bunch and move onwards.

2. Team Slow Cooker

Slow cookers, aka crock pots, are a busy persons dream kitchen gadget. Just set and forget – with minor prep – at the start of the day, and come home to a delicious hearty hot dinner. Is there anything better?

Because the ingredients have had, literally, hours to cook, dishes are often uber flavourful (think shredded pulled pork or creamy chicken casserole…drool).

With crock pots you have the ability to cook in bulk, so always prepare a few days worth of food at a time to save time.

3. Minimise Food Prep with Kitchen Convenience Products

Stocking the kitchen or workplace with healthier ready-to-use products can help cut food prep significantly. With options on hand, meals come together quicker, less cooking equipment’s needed and wash up minimises. Try:

  • Frozen veggies and fruit. Save on chopping with pre-cut frozen veggies. Add direct to your simmering curry or blitz into a smoothie for a nutrient boost.
  • Jarred pasta sauce. Simmering a tomato sauce from scratch is a glorious ritual, but jarred bottles means a delicious bolognese can be ready in less than 15 minutes. Flavoured varieties (e.g. Italian herbs or garlic) are a nice way to add oodles of flavour, without the cook time.
  • Quick oat sachets. A speedy microwavable and high-fibre breakfast. Store in your work cupboard or desk for a two minute breakkie on days you’ve had to dash to work without a crumb passing your lip.
  • Instant rice. Regular rice needs around 18–30 minutes to cook; instant rice just 1–7 minutes. Add to lunch or dinner as a speedy carbohydrate option!
  • Canned legumes (e.g. chickpeas, lentils, beans). A great way to boost the protein or fibre content of a meal. Simple drain, rinse and add – to salads, curries, casseroles, chilis, tray bakes or soups.

4. Meal Plan What You Can

The benefits of meal planning are immense; it’s cost-effective, a time saver and makes healthy eating easier. With a meal plan in place, we may be less likely to eat or food shop impulsively (where less-than-ideal choices, nutritionally speaking, often happen!).

While time’s needed to plan, it’s a quick return on investment. Removing the pressure to think about what to cook each day will open up valuable mental tabs and serve as a handy roadmap for the week ahead. Here, you might:

  • Plan as little or as much is needed. Maybe you just want to plan speedy workday breakfasts? Or dinner ideas for the week? Or the full monty aka breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks? You do you. If you’re new to meal planning, start small to cover a few days; working up to an entire week.
  • Do bigger, more considered, shops. Buy more, shop less. Write a shopping list based on your meal plan, to cover you for at least the week. Take your list, armed with a pen, to the supermarket. You’ll likely spend less money, time aimlessly wandering aisles or extra trips back between shops!
  • Keep it flexible. Sometimes, no matter how much we plan, the plan falls through. Include a planned meal that celebrates pantry or frozen goods easily repurposed into another meal. My go-to’s are vegetarian curries that use tinned goods (e.g. tomatoes, coconut milk, lentils) and frozen products (e.g. veggies).

If meal planning isn’t right for you, many awesome meal kit home delivery services do the leg work by providing ingredients and recipes right to your door!

5. Try One-Pan or Pot Dinners

Forget using a dozen pots, bowls and utensils to prepare a meal – try a one-pan dinner! This easy dinner approach removes the need to figure out what sides to cook with your main, as your one dish will provide your protein, vegetables and grains all together.

With a speedy prep time, the oven or stove does most of the work – and clean up is a breeze. Here are three examples:

  • Pesto chicken bake place sliced courgette, cherry tomatoes, red onions and chicken thigh onto a baking tray. Toss with olive oil, oregano, store-bought pesto and salt. Oven bake until the chicken is cooked. Serve with drained and rinsed tinned butterbeans mix through.
  • Rainbow salmon bake place sliced capsicum, courgette, cherry tomatoes, kumara/sweet potato and red onion onto a baking tray. Toss with olive oil and cajun seasoning. Cook until kumara is nearing done; then make room, add salmon fillets, and bake until cooked through.
  • Seasonal sausage bake. Add your pick of starchy carbs (e.g. potato or kumara), seasonal chopped veggies and a pack of sausages on a baking tray. Drizzle with oil and your pick of seasoning. Bake until the sausages and root veggies are cooked through.
A bowl of muesli and fruit being made.

6. Batch Cook

Modern buzzword, timeless practise! Batch cooking is where we prepare meals in larger quantities to store for future us to enjoy.

Batch cooking requires putting aside a block of time to cook, often on the weekend, with the intention of this saving time during the working week. In a nutshell; cook more food, less often. Here you could:

  • Whip up a range of interchangeable precooked ingredients. Try a colourful roasted root veggie tray or salad or coleslaw (dress later, so it doesn’t become soggy). Or prepare a whole cooked chook to spread across weekly meals (e.g. make chicken breast-mayo sandwiches for lunch, serve the drummies with your root veg tray for dinner).
  • Do half the work. Save time during the week by doing kitchen prep work ahead. Prepare the dry mix of your bircher muesli in bulk, marinade raw meat and freeze portions, or pre-cut raw veggies for stir-fry.
  • Prepare dishes in their entirety. Bring food prep to the bare minimum during the week. Simply heat-and-eat your precooked meal come dining time.

Once you find your batch cooking ‘flow’ and complimentary recipes, you’ll be able to cut down cooking time further. Many tasks can be performed in parallel – cook rice while your curry is simmering, so they finish together.

7. Become Best Mates with Your Freezer

No matter whether you’re storing leftovers or a batch-cooked dish, for the time-pressed frozen meals are fabulous on nights you’re unable to cook.

To maximise shelf life and minimise reheat time down the line, it’s critical to properly store freezer-bound meals. Keep in mind:

  • Defrosting time and ease. Are you wanting single serve meals or a dish for the whole household? Plan ahead to save a headache down the line.
  • Labelling and dating foods. It’s easy for dishes to get sucked into the freezer abyss and forgotten, never seeing the sights of our stomach. Masking tape and a permanent marker are my go-to’s.
  • Not all food freezes and defrosts the same, meaning once thawed, they may not be as appetising as planned. Soft cheeses and creamy dishes tend to separate; fried foods and cooked pasta go soggy; any fresh produce with a high water content (e.g. celery, cucumber, lettuce) go limp. On the flip side, freezer heroes include bolognese sauce, stews curries, meatballs, baby food, fruit purees, and muffins. 

Some of my favourite freezer-friendly meals include this red lentil and spinach dahl, this creamy coconut, lentil and vegetable curry and these lemony apricot and coconut bliss balls. Yum!

8. Stash Nutritious Snacks

…in the car, office, handbag, wherever! When we’re busy and hunger strikes, it’s only natural to reach for the nearest or most convenient food item.

While schedule changes are inevitable, having a stack of healthier snack options ensures there’s a nutritious helping hand to keep us going and bridge the gap between main meals. You could try:

  • A box of muesli or granolas bars in your work draw. Opt for bars packed with nuts and seeds for a satiating protein boost.
  • Trail mix. Make your own by mixing together your pick of nuts, seeds, dried fruit and dark chocolate; or buy a ready-made at the supermarket.
  • Greek yoghurt pottles. Buy a big tub and stash in the work fridge for a protein packed snack that’ll last the week. Many family-sized tubs will offer 5+ servings per pottle.
Danijela about to eat muesli and fruit.

9. Keep Work Lunches Simple

When we’re on the go-go-go during the day, lunch doesn’t always get the love it deserves. However, for a productive afternoon, pit stopping for fuel is important and can be prepared speedy.

Keep meals basic and straightforward, with the balanced plate approach as a nice general nutrition guideline. Here, aim to tick off each of the food groups at main meals in the following roundabout quantities – a palm-size of protein rich foods, a fist-size or less of starchy carbs, a few handfuls of veggies and thumb sizes of fat rich foods. When one or more of these components are missing, meals may be both less satisfying and nutritionally diverse.

Below are my favourite speedy workplace or university lunch ideas, based on this philosophy:

  • Tinned fish on rice cakes. Spread avo or hummus on the bottom, top with sliced tomatoes and spoon over tinned fish. Enjoy with veggie sticks (e.g. chopped carrot, capsicum or celery).
  • Speedy chicken wrap. Spread a whole grain wrap with hummus or store-bought pesto. Add a few handfuls of salad, shredded deli chicken and grated cheese.
  • Snack platter aka adults lunchbox. Pick a snacky protein-rich food (e.g. tinned fish, a few boiled eggs, smoked salmon), a carb-rich food (e.g. crackers, dried fruit, fresh fruit), a few fat-rich foods (e.g. cheese or avocado wedge, handful of nuts) and a few handfuls of veggie sticks.
  • Mashed egg and mayo on crackers. Mash together 2-3 boiled eggs with a heaped Tbsp mayo and pinch of salt. Top wholegrain crackers with sliced cucumber and egg-mayo mix. Add veggie sticks on the side.
  • Smoked salmon, beet and feta salad. Add to a bowl or jar a wedge of smoked salmon, a handful of baby spinach, tinned drained baby beets and corn kernels, sliced cucumber and grated carrot. Season with a drizzle of olive oil and vinegar or squeeze of lemon, and crumble of feta cheese.

…the best lunch of all? Leftovers! If you’re cooking a bit extra in the eve, always prepare enough for a portion to have for lunch the next day. Cook once, eat again and again!

10. Schedule it in

Our professional life can overstep into our personal all too frequently – so make your calendar work for, not against you! Each week, consult your timetable for pockets of time that you can schedule in healthy habits or rituals. Here are some ideas:

  • Mini reminders. If you’re the kind of person or likes to plan out everything, insert reminders for a snack, meal or a trip to the water cooler for an extra glass of water. This way, even if you’re running around, juggling all the balls, you’re reminded to pause and refuel.
  • Lunch meeting. If your work calendar is jam-packed with meetings, try scheduling one over a meal. Eating while distracted isn’t ideal, but catching up with colleagues or clients over food has perks. It’s an opportunity to refuel while also connecting and socialising in neutral territory. If you’re able to pick the location, opt for one with a menu that’ll provide sound sustenance!

11. Ten-Minute Nightly Prep

Before bed, try the ten-minute nightly prep. No matter how busy we are, we can (hopefully…eep!) find ten minutes in our schedule. Here, spend a brief moment organising breakfast, lunch or snacks for the next day. You’d be amazed at what you can do in ten minutes! You could:

  • Put smoothie ingredients into a container or small blender canister. Keep in the fridge overnight and blitz in the morning!
  • Add leftovers to a serving container ready to pop in your bag to take on-the-go.
  • Boil a few eggs. Enjoy as a satiating AM or PM snack, or protein-rich addition to a lunchtime salad.
  • Whiz up a salad jar. Add dressing to the bottom of a jar (to keep veggies fresh); layer with a few handfuls of salad, diced cucumber, tomatoes and rinsed tinned chickpeas or lentils. Simply invert to dress the salad to eat!
  • Pick out snacks. Add hummus to a jar with chopped up veggie sticks to serve. Pick out your favourite muesli bar. Add nuts to a small container. Whatever floats your snack-boat.

To Wrap Up

Feeding our bodies with nutritious food is key for productivity and health, helping us juggling the demands of a busier schedule. Without enough nutrients or the ‘right’ balance to support body functioning, we may start to fall prey to lower energy, lack of focus and a struggling immune system.

It can be difficult – but try priortise whatever time you can to support your heath, whenever you can. We have one lovely body after all.

Thanks for reading! I hope you find these tips helpful 🙂 If you enjoyed this nutrition-related article, here’s another on dietary fibre and its importance.

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