Does making healthy food take too long?

Aug. 14, 2017

You don’t want to pick up yet another pepperoni pizza or bag of burgers and fries. There’s not much nutritional value there, right. But what’s a busy parent/spouse/roommate to do?

A woman and man prepare food on a kitchen stove.You race out of work and head home. Your spouse is “hangry” and the kids say they’re starving.

Many of us face this daily dilemma: how to eat fast without fast food?

It’s not always easy, said Lisa Harris, who has a master’s degree in nutrition, is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator who has worked for UCHealth for 18 years. She works at the Poudre Valley Hospital outpatient diabetes education offices and also at various other UCHealth locations, including with health providers at the UCHealth Internal Medicine Clinic – Prospect, in Fort Collins, Colorado.

“Everyone is so busy today,” that it is hard to fall into the fast-food trap, Harris said. “Everybody does it sometimes.”

But they can change. Make healthier choices. Choose wisely.

“If someone wants to do it, it can be done, and it’s not an impossible or even a hard thing to do,” she said. “It’s just a matter of making that decision and doing it.”

The general consensus is that fast food is bad for you but, she said, “It can be good and it can be not good. Not all fast food is bad. It depends on what you choose and which restaurants you use.

“The biggest shortcomings are that it tends to be higher in sodium and higher in saturated fat, and may not include vegetables, or at least not as many as we recommend in most diets.”

She noted that the fast-food industry has been trying to add more healthful options to menus in recent years.

“Many fast food restaurants and counter-service restaurants are now offering healthier options,” she said. “There are many places you can go to put a healthy meal together. Also, now the calories are often listed on the menus of chain restaurants.” Check them out when you can, she advised.

One of the biggest problems with eating out, in general, is that portions are too large, she said.

“That’s an important consideration. The portions (in traditional sit-down restaurants) are often equivalent to two or even three meals.

“Portion sizes have changed in restaurants. Look at the platters our food is served on in restaurants. If you eat out regularly, you start to think of those as normal portions. They’re not.”

This is a photo of Lisa Harris, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes instructor with UCHealth.
Lisa Harris, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes instructor, says that meal planning can help families eat healthier.

When dining out, ask if smaller portions are available, or consider ordering an appetizer instead of an entrée, or sharing a meal with your dining partner, she added.

(Or use the old Weight Watchers trick of asking for a to-go box at the beginning of the meal and putting half of it into the box before you even start eating.)

But dining out nightly isn’t an option for most people. So what is her best tip for getting a healthful meal fast, without resorting to fast food?

“One of the best things is to be prepared. Become educated about food. Look at the calories on the menu. Learn about choices available. Go online to the restaurant’s web site and look at calories and fat and choose the offerings on the lower end. Pick a few stand-bys you like,” she suggested.

If you have to stop at a burger place, she recommended ordering the grilled chicken sandwich and a side salad with low-fat dressing or other side options, like veggie sticks or fresh fruit instead of fries. And even if you order the grilled sandwich, make sure there are no high-fat and -calorie toppings like cheese, mayonnaise or bacon. Maybe try mustard or even barbecue sauce instead, if they have it. Or get the mayo on the side and just add a little bit on your own.

One way to avoid stopping for fast food is have food at home you can prepare quickly, Harris said. On the days you have time, make ahead dishes that your family likes for reheating on busy nights. Make a big pot of vegetable-based soup, turkey-bean chili or other favorite healthful dishes. Use the crock-pot or pressure cooker, if you have them, and make a collection of go-to recipes that are quick and easy, with stuff you can keep on hand for when it’s needed.

Cook up some chicken breasts or hard-boil some eggs to have on hand. Both are versatile.

“For home cooking, planning and preparation are key – plan ahead and make sure you have all the ingredients you need on hand. Make a list when you go to the store so you have it all.”

Don’t leave work wondering what you’re going to fix for dinner, she said.

“When we get home and we’re tired and hungry, it’s hard not to just order a pizza,” she said.

Grab-n-go meals are getting more abundant in grocery stores. They have salads with all the toppings packed up and ready to eat. They have deli meals that just need a bit of heating. They have already-cooked chicken (and other lean) meat ready to go into tacos, burritos, chicken salad and more. They have ready-made soups (and she recommends broth-based ones over cream-based soups).

She suggested checking out the ready-made, convenience foods at the grocery store when you have time. Some are quite good, and healthful, too.

“There’s nothing wrong with taking some help when you need it,” she said.

Hit the salad bar for tonight’s vegetables, or find the already-prepped veggies in the produce section. They just need a minute or two in the microwave. Frozen vegetables are nutritious, too, she added. Or get a veggie tray with dip and serve it to take the edge off of appetites while you’re whipping up the main course.

“Just take it easy on the dip,” she advised.

Think about putting more fresh fruit in your diet, she said. “What’s faster and more convenient than an apple, a banana or an orange?”

Delis aren’t required to offer calorie counts, she noted, so be careful of those healthful-sounding salads with things like kale or quinoa. They may sound healthful, but be loaded with nuts, dried fruits, cheese or fatty dressings.

She personally has tried some of the companies that offer meal-kit deliveries.

“Try them, if you want, and see which one appeals to you. Not all their meals are healthy, but you can choose the ones you want. You can find the nutritional information on their websites,” Harris said. Besides avoiding fast food, the meal kits eliminate the planning and much of the shopping, for those who don’t like to do that. And there’s little or no waste, she added.

On the run in the morning or at lunch?

“An Egg McMuffin isn’t all that bad if you stay away from the sausage ones,” she said.  “If you are craving a burger, get the smallest, plainest one. Try to avoid the mega-burgers with tons of toppings. Who needs a half-pound of meat?”

Some things are worse than others.

“A sandwich with a lot of meat, a white bun and fries – that’s not the best choice,” she said. “So if you like Wendy’s, for example, try the baked potato with the chili topping instead. They also have good salads and fruit or other options as sides.”

Many places have healthy options, like whole-grain buns, right on the menu, but some don’t offer the healthier options unless you ask, she noted. “So ask.”

If you ask, you may discover that your favorite pizzeria offers whole-grain crusts for their pies, that some Mexican restaurants offer whole-grain tortillas and some Chinese restaurants offer brown rice instead of white.

“But,” she warned, “you still need to watch the portion sizes.”

This is not to say that she bans fast food completely from her patients’ diets.

“The occasional fast food meal can be included in a healthy diet. If someone is just starting to work on this, they can start gradually, reducing their intake of fast food – replacing one or two meals a week with healthier options – and working from there.  I rarely tell people to never eat something,” she said.

“It’s all about moderation – how much and how often we have it.”


 Seven Tips for Healthful, Fast Meals

Lisa Harris’ seven steps to fast, but healthy eating include:

  1. Planning precedes everything else
  2. Be sure to have the food you need readily available
  3. Have a go-to menu for high-stress times
  4. Cook ahead and have food ready to reheat
  5. Look for healthy, lean proteins that cook quickly, like fish, shrimp or sliced chicken breasts
  6. Use the time-saving appliances you have on hand, like the crock-pot
  7. Pre-prepared and frozen veggies are fine to use – take help where you can get it




About the author

Linda DuVal is a freelance writer based in Colorado Springs and a regular contributor to UCHealth Today. She has written travel articles for major U.S. newspapers and national, regional and local magazines. She spent 32 years as an award-winning writer, reporter and editor for The Gazette in Colorado Springs.