In a past life (ie before I had children) I was a passionate home cook. I ate strictly paleo 90+% of the time and even ran a paleo cooking blog. I spent my weekends at farmer’s markets and trendy butcher shops and wine stores.
I remember the day it started to go downhill.
I was maybe 6 weeks pregnant with my now-2-year-old daughter, Olive. I got up on a weekday before work, peeled and diced a sweet potato and some onion, cooked up some organic thick-sliced bacon, then made sweet potato home fries with onion and sage in the leftover bacon fat, and topped it with an over-easy farm fresh egg. I sat down to eat it, stuck a little cube of crisp-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside sweet potato into my mouth, and frowned. I was completely repulsed by the meal. The sickly sweet of the potatoes, the runny yellow yolk, everything. The food aversions worsened until all I was eating were salt and vinegar chips and fruit leather.
The aversions lifted months later but (shocker) I never turned back into the kind of person who wakes up early on a Monday morning to cook an elaborate breakfast from scratch. I am, however, trying to focus once again on healthful, high quality food, to keep my body well-fueled and primed for action. A few years into my new pace of life as a mother and business owner, I’ve come up with some pretty solid tips for a protein-centered, fit-friendly diet that doesn’t take a lot of time or effort.
Start your day with protein
Mornings can be tough. Nights are still hard for me with a baby who wakes to breastfeed often, so when my toddler wakes up, it is with great reluctance that I drag myself out of bed to get her fed and dressed and ready for the day. I usually only have 20-40 minutes to feed and clothe 3 people (me, toddler, baby), get diaper bags and lunches packed, and drink as much caffeine as I can possibly get into my body in a short time span. I then spend an hour dropping off my husband at work and my daughter at daycare and then coming back home, all in rush hour traffic, so if I don’t eat before I leave, I’m hungry for a while. The McDonalds drive thru becomes extremely tempting.
So I make it a goal to have some serious protein – 20-30g of it – before I walk out that door. Depending on how late we all sleep, this could mean cooking myself a couple of eggs, or warming up a bowl of chili (I love chili and make it in big batches so I usually have it on hand), or if I’m desperate, I just stir up some chocolate protein powder and water and chug it down, then have a real breakfast when I get home from the morning commute.
Buy convenience foods (or make your own)
I know, it’s hardly a “convenience food” if you made it yourself, but the idea is to have prepared food on hand that you can just warm up or grab right from the fridge. That could mean it comes purchased ready to serve, or you spend some time on a weekend cooking and stocking up the fridge. Either way, here are some of my go-tos:
- Chili! Is there any diet that doesn’t allow chili? You can make it vegan, paleo, slow carb, whatever you need. It’s gluten free and dairy free by default (although if you’re down with gluten and dairy, it sure is tasty with bread and cheese). It’s also filling, rich in protein, and delicious, and so, so easy to make in large batches and refrigerate or freeze. I eat it regularly at either breakfast or lunch.
- Cooked chicken: this can come in any variety of formats. Costco has hot rotisserie chickens, big containers of sliced roasted chicken breast, and canned chicken that is surprisingly tasty. I always pick up at least one of those. Toss it on a quick salad, chop it up and put it in an omelette, or dump some salsa on it and microwave it, whatever. It’s a super easy and tasty whole-food protein source. If you don’t want to buy pre-cooked, you can spend your weekend either roasting whole chickens or cooking up chicken breasts in the slow cooker or oven to base meals around for the next few days (just make sure to freeze any that you won’t be able to eat within 72 hours).
- Sweet potatoes: this method of cooking sweet potatoes will work for virtually any size or variety. I like to cook up a bunch at once, and then I can just quickly warm up a whole or half potato, drizzle with butter or oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper for a quick carb fix as a side dish or post-run snack.
Keep easy-to-snack on raw foods around
You know that sinking feeling when you need food but all you have in the fridge are ingredients? Instead of defaulting to a bag of chips because you don’t feel like cooking, try to always keep on hand at least a few of the following:
- Raw veggies like carrots, celery, broccoli, and bell pepper strips. To make it easy on yourself, either buy these pre-sliced and ready to eat, or cut them up yourself after you get home from grocery shopping so they’re ready to just grab and go later.
- Dips for raw veggies so they’re not the most depressing snack ever: I like hummus, tzatziki, and guacomole.
- Easy to eat fruits like bananas, apples, mandarin oranges, grapes, or strawberries. I know pineapple is delicious but please be real with yourself about the likelihood of your chopping up that bad boy when it’s snackin’ time. If you DO want something like pineapple or watermelon, buy pre-cut or prep it ahead of time yourself.
- Nuts and nut butters are great too, but portion carefully as they are crazy calorie-dense. Which is sometimes what you want! But it can be easy to go overboard.
Eat the same things over and over
Yes, it’s true a varied diet is crucial to good health. But what you and I consider a “normal” diet is, in the larger context of what human beings eat, a hugely varied diet. Such is the luxury of first world living. So while I can’t recommend living off of Mr Noodles at every meal from now until eternity, I can comfortably give these tips to simplify your life:
- Eat the same breakfast every day, or alternate between 2 breakfast options. Then you can easily ensure you always have the ingredients for your “default” breakfast and you’ll get super fast at preparing it without thinking in the morning.
- Always cook enough dinner to have leftovers. Eat them for lunch the next day. Boom, one meal a day you don’t have to think about.
- You don’t need to come up with a different dinner idea every day. My best friend likes to just alternate between “steak and potatoes” and “chicken and sweet potatoes”. The exact preparation varies, but the basic ingredients for her protein and starch stay the same, while side veggies alternate.
- Meal plan, even if your plan is just as simple as in the point above. Having an idea what you’re going to eat on any given day helps you avoid decision fatigue and discourages you from just ordering takeout.
Make time to eat
Don’t get crazy hungry. Don’t skip meals just because your day is busy. If you’re going to be busy, plan for it, and don’t feel guilty taking 15 minutes to at least get some food into you. Hunger leads to nasty moods and terrible decision making. If your stomach is starting to ache from hunger, take care of it. You need proper fuel to get going, especially if you’re active.