Skip Navigation
Search Menu
Healthy Heart

Eat Smart

How to Eat Healthy When You Have No Time

Female fast food worker handing female driver food at drive thru

You start with the best intentions: You bookmark healthy recipes, pick up kale and quinoa at the grocery store and buy a pressure cooker. But then something happens. You get slammed with a huge work project, you find yourself taking care of sick kids (or parents), or you spend all day running errands. Whatever the reason, life often leaves us no time (or energy!) to prepare meals. So you swing by the drive-thru or phone for a pizza, which leaves you feeling bloated and discouraged about ever eating healthy again.

You’re right to be concerned. “A diet that’s high in saturated fat, sodium and sugar can lead to obesity, elevated blood cholesterol levels and high blood pressure — all of which are risk factors for heart disease,” says Isatu Isuk, R.D., L.D.N., a dietitian at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. But there are ways you can whip up wholesome meals at home without investing tons of time planning meals or grocery shopping. You can also eat healthier when you’re on the go. Isuk recommends these strategies to help you stay on track even when you’re feeling frazzled.

Healthy Restaurant Options

Many restaurants now offer lighter fare on their menus, often with calorie counts. Take a quick look at restaurant menus online to see which ones provide the best options before you head out. Then consider these tips when ordering:

  • Eat a small salad or broth-based soup first. It’s a nutritious and filling start to your meal that will help you consume fewer calories overall.
  • Choose veggie-based entrees or those with baked, broiled or grilled fish or skinless chicken.
  • Look for meals that aren’t greasy or oily. For example, instead of ordering cheese-covered chicken enchiladas, get the grilled chicken or fish tacos. Choose food items without creamy sauces or gravies.
  • Ask to substitute veggies or salad for fattening sides such as fries, coleslaw or butter-laden mashed potatoes.
  • Portions served at restaurants can be too big. See if smaller portions are available. Restaurants often offer “half” salads or sandwiches upon request. If not, ask for a doggie bag and be prepared to take home one-third to half of the meal.
  • If you crave dessert, opt for fresh fruit or sorbet.

Better Fast-Food Choices

Eating fast food doesn’t mean you have to down a fatty cheeseburger and salty fries. These days, there are a variety of menu options where you can find healthier picks. Many fast-food restaurants also have their menus, with calorie counts, online.

Smart picks for a quick and easy meal are places where you have more control over what goes into your order. At a sandwich shop, it’s easy to make healthy adjustments such as no mayo, extra veggies and whole wheat bread. (Plus, they also often have salads and soups.) Ethnic eateries that offer build-your-own bowls, vegetarian options or grilled meat and vegetable plates are good bets, too. 

But if you’re passing through a traditional drive-thru, keep these tips in mind:

  • Avoid fried food (e.g., french fries, onion rings, chicken strips and nuggets).
  • A grilled skinless chicken breast sandwich is lower in saturated fat than a burger.
  • Order the smallest sizes — don’t “supersize” anything. Ordering the kid’s menu version of your favorite fast food can give you the taste you crave with far fewer calories.
  • Skip calorie-heavy sides and toppings.
  • Bypass sugary drinks in favor of water, unsweetened tea, or fat-free or low-fat milk.

Convenient Home-Cooked Meal Kits

If the time it takes to gather recipes, plan what you’re going to eat for a week and grocery shop is what’s holding you back from eating healthy meals at home, there’s an easy solution: meal subscription boxes.

There are more than 100 different companies that box up multiple meals’ worth of groceries and deliver them to your house each week. Sure, the cost is more than if you did the meal planning and shopping yourself, but many find the convenience worth it. When your meal box is delivered, you can just throw the premeasured ingredients together and follow the cooking instructions to get portion-controlled, tasty dinners on the table in minutes. You get to choose from a constantly rotating list of recipes. Many companies offer low-carb, low-calorie, gluten-free or vegetarian options as well. And you avoid buying ingredients that go unused and sit in the fridge.

“Whether you’re dining out or eating in, it’s important to think about a balanced diet,” says Isuk. “That means making sure you’re getting a good mix of lean protein, vegetables, fruits, whole grains and healthy low-fat dairy.”

With such a wide range of convenient meal options available — and the information you need to make smart, heart-healthy choices — you can feel good about what you eat even when life gets busy. 

You May Also Like

A man reaches for the top shelf in a grocery store

Heart-Healthy Eating on a Budget

Follow these tips to help you improve your heart health without breaking the bank.

Chicken and fresh vegetables on open-face tortillas

A Heart-Healthy Eating Adventure

Eating well for your heart health doesn’t need to be bland. Enjoy all sorts of ethnic cuisine styles with these tips from a Johns Hopkins nutritionist.

Healthy Mediterranean-style diet

Take Your Diet to the Mediterranean

It’s an easy (and delicious!) change that can turn your diet into a disease-fighting tool. See what’s on the menu—and how to bring it to your kitchen, with the help of a Johns Hopkins expert.