Woman eating a salad at work

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When you’re navigating days filled with multiple obligations, even the most conscientious eaters can be swayed by the easy to access but far less nutritious options. Trying to spend carefully while facing limited healthy dining options when our body reminds us that it’s time to eat only compounds this issue  While these are fine to enjoy sometimes, integrating nutrition-packed foods into your diet is important.

No matter where you are in the spectrum of healthy eating, you have an opportunity to start making healthy decisions right now. Develop a plan for preparing, packing, and bringing food wherever each day takes you. Armed with some nutritious basics, you can build meals that’ll keep you energized and focused.

Try out these tips to optimize how you eat.

1. Get to know your bodyWe come in different sizes and shapes—that’s a fact of human diversity. So it makes sense that there’s not a “best” or even “healthiest” way to eat for everybody. Your caloric and nutritional needs depend on your size, activity level, and individual biology. And the non-nutritional roles of food—social, emotional, mental, and even spiritual—are equally important.

Getting to know your own personal food needs is a learning process. Eating well isn’t about counting calories or following a fad diet. In fact, that can actually distract you from listening to what your body has to say. Instead, focus on getting to know what kind of food fuels you best.

  • How much energy do I need to fuel my activities?
  • What types of foods help me feel my best? E.g., Do I feel most satisfied after a bowl of oatmeal in the morning, or do I feel best when I eat more protein, such as peanut butter or an egg?
  • How do particular foods affect my mood? My digestion? My clarity of mind?
  • Will my last meal sustain me to my next meal, or do I need to pack a snack?
  • Do I eat differently when I’m getting enough sleep (or not)?
  • What’s my body’s response to hunger?
  • What does fullness feel like? What does satisfaction feel like? Do fullness and satisfaction feel the same or different?
  • What kind of flavors and textures—sweet, savory, salty, spicy, crunchy, smooth—are most satisfying to me?

2. Get to know your options

Now that you’ve spent some time getting to know your body, it’s time to explore your food options. Keep these tips in mind:

Be curious

Research shows that curiosity improves memory and makes us better learners, according to a 2014 study published in Neuron. Why not bring this quality into your eating experience? Being open to new possibilities helps us think, live, and eat more flexibly.

To up your curiosity game, try out

  • A cultural cuisine that’s new to you
  • Experimenting with spices and condiments
  • Tasting at least one new fruit or vegetable a week

Seek balance

Look for foods you know you like from every food group—fruits, vegetables, grains, protein foods, heart-healthy oils (e.g., olive oil), and dairy (or calcium-containing alternatives like fortified soy milk). Your plate doesn’t have to look a certain way, nor does every meal have to contain all the food groups. Instead, think of balance as a big-picture goal to guide your choices throughout the day and over the week.

Make healthy eating affordable

Making healthy food choices takes some effort, especially with a busy schedule, not to mention it can be pricey. For cost-effective, healthy meals, use what’s available near where your day takes you as additions to what you bring from home.

And never underestimate the power of leftovers. “Preparing larger amounts of food at [dinner] allows me to bring healthier lunches and even save some money,” says Kristina J., a second-year graduate student at the University of Manitoba in Canada.

  • Aim to get at least three food groups in a meal and two in a snack. For example, lunch might be a grilled turkey and veggie sandwich, a pear, seltzer, and a brownie. Great options for afternoon snacks could be pita with hummus, veggies and chips with bean dip, or a yogurt-and-fruit parfait.
  • Eat regularly throughout the day and do your best to eat breakfast to avoid feeling sluggish in your morning classes.

3. Make food work for youEating well is about finding food that suits your tastes, supports your needs, and honors your values.

Rotate between food stations to get the best variety

If the grill is your default stop, consider a deli, salad bar, or stir fry for your next meal.

Add vegetables wherever you can

Pasta, sandwich, salad—wherever you can throw in some veggies, do it. “I like to add veggies to pasta dishes, pizzas, stir fry, anything else where the option is available,” says Emma D., a fourth-year undergraduate at Ohio State University.

Explore condiments, herbs, and spices

If you don’t have access to these during your day, purchase a few of your favorites to keep at home.

Find out what your friends are into and ask for their advice

You might discover a cool new takeout spot or store with additional options. Getting to know your local grocery stores and their grab and go options also comes in handy when your common go to spots are closed.

Vegetarian or vegan?

If the vegetarian entrée doesn’t appeal to you (how much pasta can one eat?), make a meal out of side dishes. Just try to make sure you’re balancing carbohydrates, protein, and fats. A healthy diet (for anyone) also includes a variety of plant-based proteins, such as tofu, beans, soy, lentils, grains, and nuts, as well as heart-healthy fats, such as nut butters, olive oil, and avocado.

Adhering to cultural or religious food guidelines?

Speak with the grocer or service staff to help you find foods that meet your needs.

Need support for allergies, a medical condition, an eating disorder, or a disability?

A health care professional can be your ally and advocate. Your dietitian, doctor, nurse, or therapist can work with you to make sure your meals will be accessible, appropriate, safe, and satisfying.

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Article sources

Chowdhury, E. A., Richardson, J. D., Holman, G. D., Tsintzas, K., et al. (2016). The causal role of breakfast in energy balance and health: a randomized controlled trial in obese adults. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition103(3), 747–756. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.115.122044

Gruber, M. J., Gelman, B. D., & Ranganath, C. (2014). States of curiosity modulate hippocampus-dependent learning via the dopaminergic circuit. Neuron, 84(2), 486–496. Retrieved from https://www.cell.com/neuron/fulltext/S0896-6273(14)00804-6?_returnURL=https%3A%2F%2Flinkinghub.elsevier.com%2Fretrieve%2Fpii%2FS0896627314008046%3Fshowall%3Dtrue

Lenasi, A., Mohammadpoorasl, A., Javadi, M., Esfeh, J. M., et al. (2016). Eating breakfast, fruit and vegetable intake and their relation with happiness in college students. Eating and Weight Disorders—Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity, 21(4), 645–651. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1007/s40519-016-0261-0

Smith, K. J., Gall, S. L., McNaughton, S. A., Blizzard, L., et al. (2010). Skipping breakfast: Longitudinal associations with cardiometabolic risk factors in the Childhood Determinants of Adult Health Study. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 92(6), 1316–1325. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.2010.30101

Will, M., & Stock, J. T. (2015). Spatial and temporal variation of body size among early homo. sapiens. Journal of Human Evolution, 82,15–33. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0047248415000287?via%3Dihub

University of Cambridge Research News. (2015). Earliest humans had diverse range of body types, just as we do today. Retrieved from https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/earliest-humans-had-diverse-range-of-body-types-just-as-we-do-today