Dear Mentor: How do I eat well when life is crazy?

Dear Mentor,

I do my best to try to make sure that my family and I eat well, but sometimes my schedule makes thinking about meals nearly impossible. Even when I have the help of my husband or the frozen dinner section, this aspect of my life feels overwhelming. Do you have any tips on eating well when life is out of control?

from mentor Alicia Bosscher, professional dietitian and lover of good food

These days, my life is always full, so I try to approach each minute/day/week with my eyes wide open. It's so tempting to think, When life settles down, then I’ll start eating well. But if I'm honest, I know it won't, so I try to come up with healthy and realistic ways to fuel myself and my family. But I don’t aim for perfection. As a dietitian who works primarily with people with eating disorders, I see how important it is for all of us to avoid striving for perfection with food.

Eating well is very different than eating perfectly, and frankly, trying to eat perfectly often leads to or fuels disordered eating. Eating well does not mean avoiding all sugar, or any single food group (unless of course you need to for a specific condition). Eating well does not mean going as long as you can without eating each day. Eating well does mean eating often enough so you don’t feel starved, but not too often that you never feel the early signs of hunger. Eating well means being able to eat a treat without guilt and without punishment. Eating well means paying attention to your hunger and fullness -- honoring both by eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full. With that definition of eating well in mind, here are some specific tactics for eating well when life is full.

  • Plan to eat something before you’re desperately hungry – put another way, set aside time for meals. Don’t pat yourself on the back when you work through lunch. Yes, you may have finished up important tasks, but it’s not worth it if you let your blood sugar crash.
  • Keep as many convenient snacks/meals on hand as you think you need. Think nuts, string cheese, plain yogurt, hearty whole wheat bread and peanut butter. Once you’re stocked up, be kind to yourself and remember that a collection of snacks eaten together can make a quick and easy meal.
  • Beware of diets — they almost always backfire.
  • Focus on a decent balance of macronutrients (protein, carbohydrate and fat). For example, when planning meals or putting together a simple lunch, do a spot check to make sure you’re including at least one serving of each of these three main nutrients. For example: toast (carb), avocado (fat), string cheese (protein), apple (carb) with peanut butter (fat & protein). Aim for three macronutrients at meals and 2-3 at snacks.
  • Let treats be treats, not replacements for meals. By this I mean don’t make them off limits, but do your best to eat some protein, carbohydrate and fat before you enjoy your treat. You might find that you can slow down and savor it (as well as be content with less) if you’ve already had your fill of the nourishing stuff. Plus, you’re less likely to feel a sugar crash if you drink that mocha after eating a meal.

If you’re up for a challenge, pick one of these tactics and give it a solid effort for three weeks. You might just find that eating well makes life feel less crazy.


from mentor Ann Boyd, managing editor at The Well and self-taught cook

I love to eat, and so I have learned to cook for myself, for my friends, and for my family. One might even say that I enjoy cooking, and I would say I do with the following caveats: I love to cook when I have a) plenty of time, b) a group of people who will happily eat what I prepare, and c) a solid dishwashing team to back me up. Bonus if I have a sous chef.

Not all of these conditions are in effect for normal, daily cooking — and the task can take on extra pressure when life is truly crazy for one reason or another. Here are my best tips:

  • Be kind to yourself. Some of us (ahem) can get compulsive at times about cooking, channeling pressures from outside forces to eat healthy, sustainable, home-cooked food. The guilt can get slathered on pretty thick when you start reading statistics about kids thriving when they eat family dinners. Be mindful, but be released from guilt. Jesus came to free you from dietary laws.
  • Plan for contingencies. We all need a pressure-release valve at times. Take-out is a real option, as are frozen dinners from Trader Joe’s (their Mandarin Orange Chicken is a favorite of ours). If you have time to toss together a salad or slice some apples in addition to whatever processed deliciousness you’re planning to consume, you can be officially absolved of your guilt. (If there’s no salad to be had, just live it up, baby!)

  • Manage the other people. If I was just cooking for myself, I would be pretty content with a bowl of roasted broccoli most nights (in addition to a few cookies). But that won’t fly with the other people in my household. The solution: modular meals. My husband and I generally eat whatever I prepare, but that’s not true for my kids, so I plan my meals to include at least 2-3 things they’ll eat. This sometimes looks like: red lentil soup (yuck!) with biscuits (yum!) and strawberries on the side (ah!). Am I worried about their protein intake? Only a little. It’s just one meal. If you’re concerned, toss a string cheese at them.

  • Plan for the week. If you can take ten minutes each week to plan your menu, you’ll be ahead of the game. The plan reduces decision fatigue, focuses your energy (helping you to remember to thaw the chicken, etc.), and allows for the involvement of kids and/or spouse in the cooking process. (I’m delighted that my kids are now old enough to prepare a favorite meal — panini sandwiches and tomato soup — on nights when I’m especially busy.) I don’t always make a plan, and on those weeks I tend to scrounge up pasta or eggs at the last minute. That’s okay, but it’s helpful for me to remember that I always enjoy the process of cooking just a little bit more when the plan is in place.

  • Make space for a treat. Not everyone agrees with me on this, but hear me out. I love baking — much more than cooking, if I am honest. When I’m baking sweets, I’m using no-fail ingredients like butter and sugar and chocolate — even if the recipe is a fail, it’s still going to be pretty darned tasty. So when I’m especially busy, I try to carve out space to make a little treat — a batch of chocolate chip cookie dough that I can freeze in balls and bake off six at a time, or a quick apple galette, or even just a bar of good-quality chocolate that I can serve with a handful of almonds on a special plate. It’s completely optional, but I find that having a little treat prepared helps me to feel like I’m a human being with sensual delights rather than an automaton. But that’s just me.

  • Learn your craft. When I was newly married, I spent a fair amount of time learning to cook using the old Martha Stewart Everyday Food magazines (sadly, no longer in print). All that practice has paid off, as now I’m not intimidated by pie crust, I know my way around a crock pot, and I can roast broccoli in my sleep. I’m conscious that not everyone has developed these skills, just as I have never developed gardening skills (and I feel like a failure every spring). But while gardening is optional, a person has to eat — so I urge you to ask a friend, take a class, or just practice cooking from recipes until you feel comfortable with some basics. The time spent will pay off in ease of dinner preparation!
  • Discern your strategy. There are time-saving measures you can take to prepare food (or parts of meals) in advance. I don’t do all of these, but some are useful. Pick things you like:
    • Batch cooking. Some people love batch cooking — doing a lot of cooking on the weekend or once/month to prepare for coming meals. There are whole cookbooks for this kind of thing. 
    • Double a recipe from time to time. I do this with chili, the aforementioned lentil soup, and sometimes basic shredded chicken. 
    • Chop or prepare fruits and veggies in advance. You have to make sure you use it within a few days, but I find this particularly helpful for broccoli and cauliflower — makes it super-easy to toss with olive oil, salt, and garlic powder and then roast for 25 min at 425°.
    • Put “money in the bank.” One of my favorite cookbook authors, Jenny Rosenstrach, uses this phrase to describe a very useful item — a frozen disc of pie dough. When you have a frozen disc of pie dough, it is easy to get moving on your plan for quiche, chicken pot pie, or even an apple galette. The same can be said for a frozen purchased baguette, frozen pizza crusts, or frozen balls of cookie dough. Or a bottle of wine stashed away!
    • Another “money in the bank” treat — homemade vinaigrette.  Just toss all the ingredients in a small jar and shake vigorously. It takes just a couple of minutes and then elevates your salads all week.

All of this is well and good, but how can this help with dinner tonight? Let me end with my top ten easiest dinners. Bon appetit!

  1. A big cheese omelet (8-10 eggs) with sliced baguette and salad.
  2. Panini (good-quality sliced bread with lunchmeat and cheese, brushed with olive oil on the outside and grilled on the George Foreman grill — toasting in the oven would work too) and pre-packaged soup (we’re fans of Trader Joe’s Roasted Red Pepper and Tomato).
  3. Cheese quesadillas made in the oven, salsa, sliced apples. You can bump up the nutrition with some chicken or beans in the quesadillas themselves or on the side.
  4. “Homemade” pizza using frozen pizza crust (we love the Trader Joe’s version), jarred pizza sauce, pepperoni, and cheese. Plus salad!
  5. Meatball soup, salad, baguette (can you sense a theme?).
  6. Roasted chicken sausages and veggies (broccoli or brussels sprouts work well) all on one pan, plus a baguette or baked potato.
  7. Hummus and pita platter — plus salad! You can add feta, olives, chicken, tomatoes, and tzatziki to make it fancy, but even simply a platter with hummus, pita, and carrots can be delicious.
  8. Boca chik’n patty sandwiches. This is a favorite at our house — frozen Boca “chik’n” patties on hamburger buns with lettuce, cheese, and mayo. Bonus if I toss some tater tots in the oven too. Just like the junior high cafeteria, but less disgusting. (This concept works with turkey hot dogs as well).
  9. Pasta (any kind) with jarred marinara sauce and a side of roasted vegetables with parmesan cheese. Mix and match.
  10. Nachos — tortilla chips spread out on a pan, sprinkled with shredded cheese, and toasted in the oven. Serve with warmed canned refried beans, salsa, shredded lettuce, and any other favorite nacho toppings.


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