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Eating Healthy And Homemade When You Are Busy

It’s no secret that I work a lot. One of the questions that I have been asked countless times over the years is how I have the energy and creativity to make homemade meals when I’m working long days and late hours. The first thing I always say is that it’s like therapy for me. Cooking and eating a home cooked meal signifies a transition for me from crazy days to feeling like I have personal time and a home life. It actually stresses me out more to pick up takeout, eat something like a bowl of cereal (NEVER will you catch me doing this) or make a frozen dinner. I get so sad that I don’t even have time to cook a meal for myself. I totally admit that I love dinner out but I never want to get in a pattern of picking up takeout every night.

When the work hours get longer, the meals get a lot simpler. I pack breakfast the night before, eat lots of lunches out, start putting my meals in bowls and I have the 20 minute meal protein + veggie + grain/starch for dinner thing down to a science. I can walk in the house at 8:45 p.m. and have everything in the oven in under 10 minutes. Notice I said lots of lunches out…this is where I will cut myself some slack. When I can’t make it home for lunch my go-to is a soup or salad from a market that is walking distance from the gym. I get a change of scenery without having to take too long of a break. I still LOVE going home for lunch but when that’s not possible I just roll with it. You have to pick your battles.

The key to eating homemade and healthy with a demanding work schedule is preparation. I have had meltdowns of epic proportions both standing in the middle of the grocery store and in the middle of my kitchen at 10 p.m. You seriously cannot think rationally when you’re hungry and exhausted. I prevent this by making sure that my pantry and fridge are stocked with staples that I know I can easily prepare meals from. I do one big shopping trip per week so that I’m not wasting time running to the store every day and stressing myself out about what to get. I admit that I’m not very good at doing Sunday meal prep and cooking for the week but the things I keep on hand are generally easy to cook in under 20 minutes. And again, I enjoy the process of actually making the food when I get home (especially when sipping a glass of wine at the same time!). I usually do manage to cook one grain kind of thing to keep in the fridge for lunch/dinner bowls like quinoa, brown rice, cous cous, etc. (Read more about bowls in this post.) So here’s a look at some of my recent eats during a time when I’ve been working 10-12 hour days.

Overnight oats
Β are my go-to breakfast to eat at my desk in the morning after training clients. Although I have been more into smoothies and eggs lately, you can’t beat overnight oats for the ease of preparation the night before and portability.

Big salads for lunch from Reid’s. It’s a specialty market across the street from the gym and they offer unlimited premium toppings for a flat rate of $7.99 lb. You can create so many different themed and delicious salad mixes. I loved this one with arugula, spinach, chick peas, red peppers, kalamata olives, artichokes, pecans, dried cranberries, feta and balsamic.

Soup…soup for lunch, soup for dinner. Of course I prefer it homemade but I’ll take it pre-made from Whole Foods or Reids or from a can. It’s always one of those comforting foods to turn to when nothing else sounds good. Favorites include lentil and veggie.

This dinner seriously took five minutes to get in the oven. I started the couscous and then turned the heat off to let it cook while seasoning the salmon with lemon pepper, slicing a lemon and throwing it in a 400 degree oven. The veggies were steam in a bag. I accidentally got the mixed veggies with cheese sauce but it was a welcome mistake! πŸ˜‰ I usually prefer to roast a fresh veggie but sometimes steam in the bag has to do the trick. I was able to hop in a hot shower to unwind while all of this did it’s thing.

This is a little more of a typical dinner. I preheat the oven to 400, prep my veggies with olive oil and seasoning and place them on a baking sheet lined with foil. Often I also add a sliced sweet potato on there to bake but on this night I had a boxed grain thing from Whole Foods with currants, pumpkin seeds, peppers, etc. While I’m prepping the veggies I heat a nonstick skillet over medium high heat. I put the veggies in and then season the chicken with the rub or sauce of my choice and then brown it on both sides in preheated skillet. I always finish chicken in the oven with the veggies. I find it hard to cook a whole chicken breast in a skillet without it overly browning on the outsides unless it’s pounded thin. The brown then oven bake method has kept my chicken juicy and flavorful. I also love having everything in the oven so I can go shower, clean, etc.

And it’s not always pretty. I like to call this a healthy hamburger helper…I started pulling things out of the fridge and this is what came to me. Leftover lentils and quinoa tossed with sauteed mushrooms, lean ground beef, sundried tomatoes, spinach and broccoli with marinara sauce and cheddar cheese. I know the cheddar cheese is random but when I was younger I used to love putting cheddar on my spaghetti instead of parm so this was a nod to that. (I just needed that comforting memory and taste last night.) I have a late client tonight so I won’t get home until after 8:30 p.m. The plan is bunless blue cheese burgers with sweet potato wedges and salad.

Let me know if you have any specific questions. I’m happy to offer insights about what has (and has not!) worked for me. I would also love to hear your tips for staying sane and eating good when life is crazy.

{ 33 comments… add one }
  • Julie April 2, 2013, 8:25 pm

    I’m looking for a good premade black bean or seafood burger.. Any favorites to share? I don’t eat meat and sometimes crave some kind of sandwich for dinner (besides pb&j of course) but don’t want to buy a whole package of burgers that might not be good! Loved this post though, it’s all about having the right ingredients in the house πŸ™‚

  • She Rocks Fitness April 2, 2013, 8:30 pm

    We are very similar in the way we eat and cook our meals! Usually after evening clients, I am so tired and starving and dinner is made in less than 15 minutes. Sometimes before I head out to later clients, I’ll prepare as much as I can before I leave, so that when I come back, I throw it all together and it’s ready to be devoured. Not the prettiest, but always good! Going to make your overnight oats tomorrow before a 5 mile run. Thanks!

  • Lesley April 2, 2013, 8:45 pm

    Great post! I’m crazy busy too, I work about 11 hours a day…and it’s TOUGH at the end of the day to put something together. And it doesn’t help that I’m an awful cook πŸ˜‰

    I love posts like this because I really appreciate the “basic” cooking tips!

  • Julia April 2, 2013, 8:58 pm

    I am exactly the same way… despite working 16+ hour days lately leading up to a big conference, I have continued to pack my own breakfast and lunch (dinner is usually at my desk). Preparing my own food and making the gym/yoga a daily priority keeps me feeling grounded in normalcy in an otherwise unsustainable situation. Always love your posts about managing a crazy work schedule.

  • Paige @ The Balancing Act April 2, 2013, 9:03 pm

    Very timely post! In addition to my full class load and extracurriculars, I just started working part-time! Luckily, cooking while listening to music is my favorite way to unwind, too.

    My main strategy for eating healthy, homemade meals when I’m busy is pretty boring: leftovers. Even though I live alone, I’ll often make a regular recipe that serves a family of four. I’ll eat it until I’m tired of it and then freeze the rest! That way I only have to cook a few times per week, and I have a freezer full of healthy options for when I seriously don’t even have the time or energy for grilled cheese. It happens! πŸ˜‰

    And yes, overnight oats are the best for busy mornings! I just made myself a bowl with fresh strawberries, almond butter, and coconut for tomorrow.

  • Krystina April 2, 2013, 9:12 pm

    What about snacks?
    I know that you typically post 3 meals on the blog, but do you have snacks between meals? If so, what are your favorite quick, healthy snacks?

  • jeannie April 2, 2013, 9:19 pm

    I notice that you eat a lot of avocados. Do you usually eat a whole one in one day? If not, how do you store them? Lately I try to keep an avocado over night and it’s just disgusting and brown the next day! Thanks.

    • Krystina April 2, 2013, 9:49 pm

      I always eat a half at a time. I’ll eat the half that doesn’t have the pit, and leave the pit inside the other half, squirt it with lemon/lime juice and wrap it tightly in foil or plastic wrap.

      • jeannie April 2, 2013, 9:55 pm

        Does the citrus prevent browning? Do you store it in the fridge or on the counter?

        • Meaghan April 3, 2013, 9:35 am

          I do the same. The citrus does help keep it from browning. It’s not AS pretty the next day usually, but it helps! Definitely store it in the fridge with the pit intact once you’ve cut it open.

  • Advocarerunner April 2, 2013, 9:40 pm

    Love this post and got some great ideas here. What do you do for snacks? I know that’s probably a separate post but just curious.

  • Janie April 2, 2013, 9:43 pm

    Wow, your dedication to prepping and having delicious meals at home amazes me. Thanks for the tips!

  • Colleen April 2, 2013, 9:56 pm

    Meal prep is a huge necessity,but it doesn’t have to be time consuming. I generally dedicate 2 hours on Sunday evening to prepping every meal and snack for the entire week. The crock pot is my best friend…as is a casserole that will last me several days.

  • Carolyn April 2, 2013, 10:04 pm

    great post!!!

  • Heather April 2, 2013, 10:14 pm

    My favorite way to heat healthy is by making a huge pot of soup. That way whether its for lunch or dinner, I have something healthy & homemade ready to go any time I need a quick meal. I eat on it for about 5 days, and after that I freeze in individual portions for later meals.

  • Melissa April 2, 2013, 11:35 pm

    Do you typically make one serving of your dinner (chicken, veggie after work) or do you make multiple for leftovers? If you’re just making one meal how do you make sure you have protein defrosted? Do you plan what you are going to make in the morning and then take one piece of protein out to defrost or do you take the whole package out at the beginning of the week and plan your meals around that? I’m not very good at having fish or meat ready to go and it often prevents me from eating creative yummy dinners. Thanks!

  • Brittany (Healthy Slice of Life) April 3, 2013, 7:46 am

    This is one of my favorite topics and I love seeing how you do it all with your busy life πŸ™‚ I agree 100% that the trick is in the preparation. I eat so many bowls for lunch and prepping grains and beans on Sunday makes it so much easier.

  • Holly April 3, 2013, 8:02 am

    Jen when it comes to grains what do you recommend? I struggle with this because a lot of times the package will say it’s going to take 45 minutes to cook (ie. brown rice).

    Do you buy the quick cook stuff? Or it’s already cooked in a batch in the fridge?

  • Caroline Arey April 3, 2013, 8:55 am

    Loved this handy post, Jen. I actually have a small side business where I make lunches for my coworkers – for $5 a day they get a homemade and healthy meal, and I get a little extra cash and the fun of cooking for a group… I’m up to 18 meals or so a day! BUT I also work 80-90 hours a week and try to work out at 5 days a week, so the crockpot is my best friend. I set it when I go to bed (I’m super paranoid that if I leave home during the day something will happen with my pups at home), then when I wake up, I scoop it all into Tupperware and tote it to work. Pinterest has given me so many healthful crockpot recipes that I can pair with roasted veggies of any and every variety. It’s been a great way to get my friends eating healthy and encouraged me to have homemade meals on hand everyday!

  • Katherine April 3, 2013, 9:43 am

    you do such a good job with this!


  • Erica April 3, 2013, 9:48 am

    Lately I have been eating more at night – I blame NYC for the continuous cold temps – but I need something super healthy and low in cals that I can snack on in the evening. Any ideas other than lite popcorn?

  • Addy @ Six-Kick Switch April 3, 2013, 9:49 am

    Thanks so much for the post, Jen! You’ve given me a lot of good ideas – I also hate eating crappy food when I get busy. It just makes the whole thing worse! But thinking ahead like this will help alleviate those breakdowns πŸ™‚

  • McRae April 3, 2013, 9:53 am

    A random but delicious quick lunch/dinner bowl that I’m obsessed with:

    – kale chips (olive oil & kosher salt, 10-15 minutes on 375)
    – scrambled egg
    – avocado slices
    (sometimes I add homemade pesto or any other veggies I have around)

  • Alex @ Cookie Dough Katzen April 3, 2013, 12:38 pm

    Great post! Overnight oats are the best. I always prepare my lunch the night before too. Those cheese veggies look so good. It’s okay, no one has to know you didn’t mean to get it πŸ˜‰

  • Ja @Ja on the RUN April 3, 2013, 12:53 pm

    OMG! I love everything!!! They all look good! I am drooling while reading! πŸ™‚
    They’re all my favorites too! Love overnight oats and Quinoa! πŸ™‚

  • Katie @ running4cupcakes April 3, 2013, 1:46 pm

    cous cous is the best for a quick grain. so easy too!

  • tara April 3, 2013, 2:09 pm

    wow what a great post. i try to cook too. well i pretty much have to as i have to be gluten free (super blah). my best tip to people who ask me the same type of thing is to pre-plan your meals. i plan everything on friday, shop on saturday/sunday, and cook large meals to have lunch leftovers. i normally eat maybe 2-3 meals out per MONTH since dining GF sucks and i dont want to get sick. if i didnt plan i’d be a huge mess. well i’m still a mess but maybe a bit less : )

  • Morgan April 3, 2013, 3:08 pm

    This was a great, simple post. It just shows you that you don’t need to spend hours preparing a healthy, tasty meal. I also try to prepare a huge batch of something I eat often (enchiladas, ziti, cooked meats etc) and freeze them in single servings. Like you, when I get home late and am tired and starving I HATE having to cook something lengthy.

  • Anne April 3, 2013, 5:58 pm

    Such a helpful post. I really struggle with cooking chicken in a skillet without drying it out. I’d like to try your method of browning the chicken and then putting it in the oven. How long do you brown the chicken and how long to you let it cook in the oven?


  • Elizabeth @ livingrunningcooking April 3, 2013, 7:45 pm

    So glad I decided to catch up on your blog tonight. Just the motivation I needed. I have been wanting to redo my running playlist for a while. I loved your suggestions. I really like Eminem and have never heard that song! I have also been super burnt out with cooking recently. But this was a good reminder that you can be quick, simple, and healthy!

  • Lauren K April 3, 2013, 8:50 pm

    Great post! I thought about stopping at Whole Foods tonight since I was solo for dinner and then remembered this post. Managed to put together a salad with leftover chicken. Huge step in the right direction considering I used to be one of those people having cereal every night. Now that seems gross and boring!

  • Liz Simpson April 4, 2013, 11:26 am

    I love this post. People are too apt to fall out of healthy eating and working out bc they can be time consuming. Making time for the important things is worth it in the long run!

  • Laura April 4, 2013, 5:40 pm

    Great ideas! I eat 2 meals a day at my desk and I’m also on a budget- so eating out is a once a week treat. I find that buying stuff to make salads every day is the best thing for me. I can change up the protein, veggies and just keep the base.

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