How to make healthier food choices when your time is limited

Helpful eating tips when convenience foods may feel like your only option.

It’s that time of year again…kids are back in school, sports and other extracurricular activities are in full swing. Parents everywhere are gearing up to add more to their plates. With so many things to do, and while adjusting to a new schedule, it may feel like processed, fast, or convenience foods are the only option.

Many people attribute the lack of time as one of the biggest barriers to eating healthier. Are there ways we can still eat healthy when the time is limited? Yes! It is possible to meet our nutritional needs if we make more deliberate choices when eating out or eating on the run.

The first step in making nutritional food choices more often is to increase your awareness of your family’s current eating habits. Then you can identify where you need to make adjustments. This can help you figure out what you need to add and/or reduce in your family’s diet in order to meet your daily nutrient needs.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) developed the Choose MyPlate website, which provides guidelines for daily nutrition. This is a great reference to compare your current dietary habits to what is recommended for your age and gender. According to the USDA, MyPlate was developed to help Americans make smarter food choices from every food group while staying within suggested daily calorie needs, and to help people get more nutrition from the calories that are consumed.

Following a healthy diet does not mean you have to swear-off fast food. Fortunately, chain restaurants have started to serve healthier options in response to our country’s ever-increasing obesity epidemic and failure to meet nutritional recommendations. Additionally, the Affordable Care Act has mandated that chain restaurants provide nutrition information to customers. This is information that you can use to help guide your choices even when on the move or eating out.

Here are a few tips to help you make healthier choices at fast-food restaurants:

  • Keep portion sizes small. If the fast-food restaurant offers several sandwich sizes, pick the smallest. For comparison, a regular-sized hamburger has approximately half the calories of a large hamburger. Additionally, instead of getting a large serving of French fries or onion rings, ask for a small and save 200-300 calories!
  • Choose healthier sides. Better yet, choose a side salad with low-fat dressing, a baked potato, or fruit as your side instead of French fries.
  • Choose salad, but be wary. Choose an entree salad with grilled (not fried) chicken, veggies such as tomato, cucumber, and peppers with a low-fat or fat-free dressing. Ask for your dressing on the side so you can control how much you put on. Also, go easy on the extras such as cheese, bacon bits and croutons. These toppings quickly increase your calorie count.
  • Watch what you drink. Many beverages are high in calories. For example, a large regular soda (32 ounces) has about 300 calories. Instead of soda, order water, unsweetened iced tea, sparkling water or mineral water.
  • Remember the veggies. Always be sure to ask for tomato and lettuce (maybe even extra!) on your sandwich to get in more necessary vitamins and minerals.
  • Ask for whole grains. Most restaurants offer a sandwich with a whole-grain or whole-wheat bun; request your sandwich on one of these instead of the enriched white flour buns which lack the nutrients our bodies need.

The chaos of family life, especially when the new school year begins, can make it a challenge to eat healthily. However, we can still meet our nutritional needs, even on the go, by increasing our awareness of our unhealthy dietary habits (compared to the USDA’s recommendations), making adjustments as necessary and being more aware of our food choices. 

These simple tips are meant to provide general recommendations on how to incorporate healthier food options into your diet. If you would like to learn more about healthy eating and wellness, visit Michigan State University Extension

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