Staying Healthy During Crunch Time
May 11, 2011

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Wow. Thank you all for your sweet, encouraging, and supportive comments on the big move. I’m so grateful to everyone who commented. And to DC readers who de-lurked to say hi: I hope I can meet you all soon! Thanks for your welcoming words.

A while back, in response to a tweet in which I announced that I was about to squeeze a pre-packed dinner into an evening lecture class, one of my smartest readers (and friends) asked if I’d write a post on how I maintain healthy eating habits during busy, stressful times. This question might mean different things to different people, but this particular reader was asking me how I manage to avoid skipping meals, or eating too little; she noted that she has a tendency to undereat, and sometimes lose weight, when she’s very stressed or busy.

I can relate, since my own tendency when I’m very stressed has always been the same. Whether this is because I’m actually too busy to eat, or because food deprivation will always be a habit that tempts me when I’m unhappy, I’m not sure. I know that a lot of people genuinely do forget to eat when they’re harried, and I suppose it has happened to me (I can think of a few times this semester) but more often than not, I’m not the sort of person who “forgets” to eat food. I just like the stuff too much. The likelihood when I undereat is that there is a tiny, yet tenacious little part of my psyche that feels calm and in control when food intake has been scant. I’ve spent my adult life subduing and making peace with that little beast, but I’m human, and when I’m particularly stressed or unhappy, I hear her voice.

My reader’s situation, though, is different: she does forget about, or doesn’t have an appetite for, meals when she’s very stressed. And that’s a different story, but well worth addressing, since I have many busy readers! And of course, I have at least some experience with struggling to make time for food when I’m very busy: haven’t we all?

In the last semester, I struggled to balance a post-bacc curriculum that felt impossibly challenging to me, a new relationship, a counseling practice, and a blog. Between that, maintaining my friendships, and trying to squeeze in my passions—operas, concerts, museums, and cooking, of course—I had moments where I felt stretched to the limits. Of course, I’m no different from most people in this regard: most of us, no matter what our particular responsibilities, are busy! But I take some pride in the fact that, even when I’m slammed, I eat consistently and well.

Eating well (and, to a lesser extent, exercising) are fundamental components of my happiness: I’m not happy when either habit is out of whack. This is particularly true of my relationship with food: I don’t feel my best when I don’t eat enough or eat poorly, and moreover, undereating invariably evokes memories of unsavory habits past. If I’m on the road or stuck in meetings and I can’t eat, c’est la vie. Part of recovery is accepting that life isn’t all about food, and we can survive when other priorities take over! But if the problem is simply that I’m busy juggling commitments, I do everything and anything I can to prioritize a plentiful diet in spite of my time constraints.

How? By being a dedicated planner. Healthy meals do not materialize for us simply because we’d like them to: you have to have a fridge stocked with produce, a few dishes prepped in advance, in order to be prepared for long days at work or in school. This is all just a matter of planning: getting to the grocery store when you’re under a deadline, using a study break to make a batch of hummus, pesto, and a big stew, and so on. My tactics when I’m busy are as follows:

1) This is not the time to experiment. Busy periods invite us to eat the foods we know and love best. You don’t have time to whip out a cookbook and try that raw lasagna you’ve been meaning to make for a year now, so don’t pretend you do. Focus on making food that’s second nature to you, and food that you know for a fact will turn out well.

2) Use shortcuts. I’m happy to make breaks, crackers, soups, and snack bars from scratch when I can, but final exams, for example, are not the time or the place. That’s when I like the Pacific and Imagine Organic boxed soups (I usually add some beans for protein), Silk almond milk, Lydia’s raw crackers and breads (my fave!), Brad’s raw kale chips, canned beans (BPA free, natch), and fresh guac from the Mexican restaurant downstairs. It’s a little less cooking and a little more cash than I’d like, but it’s just a busy week or two: I’ll survive. Don’t be a stickler for homemade everything when you’re busy and freaking out: let some quality brands do some of the work for you.

3) Use any and every free moment to make dishes that are easy and essential. During my finals, I used every spare thirty minute break to make a batch of hummus, an easy soup, a salad dressing or two, a raw pesto, or a nut pate. I even managed to squeeze in some nut milks, some chia puddings (which keep nicely for 2-3 days; a great way to make breakfasts in advance!) and some chocomole. Having these things on hand made it so, so easy to whip up salads, snacks, wraps, and so on when I was in more of a rush later on. And remember: kale salad is the only salad that tastes better after a night of marinating. So, make it when you can, and enjoy it later.

4) Pack your food. It’s easy to let yourself fall behind schedule, run to class in a hurry, and forget to pack dinner: I know! I did it myself this semester. So start leaving at least ten minutes of time before you leave the house, and use those minutes to pack any meals you need for the day. If the very best you can do is a raw snack bar, a piece of fruit, kale chips, and baby carrots, well then, that’s just fine.

5) You’ve got to shop for groceries. Really. I don’t care how busy you are: many grocery stores are open all night, if that’s necessary. Take twenty minutes to get there, shop, and get home. I’ve been known to cab it to a health store only 8 blocks away for a really fast grocery run. Sounds insanely wasteful, but the cost of eating in restaurants all week, buying overpriced raw foods, or being hungry, are all far greater.

Enough talk. Sometimes descriptions and photos work even better at proving my point! So here are some examples of how I treated myself well in the days leading up to finals:

Twice as much green juice. The one nice thing about reading week was being home more, and using my juicer daily. My mind and body craved it, and every sip was heaven! I typically drank a juice before breakfast, as a late afternoon snack, or both.

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Lots of salad beasts. Yes, I ate that one on my bed. Sometimes a girl likes to study in bed.

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Lots of green juice means lots of juice pulp crackers, which I’ll blog more about in a day. Here they are with hummus, salad, and avocado:

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A sweet treat here and there. I made these for mom, but kept a bunch to enjoy myself. They were little bursts of sunshine in otherwise cloudy and stressful days, and I was happy to have them around.

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Joe Coffee. I spent a week treating myself to $2.00 of it every morning. It’s the best coffee in the world, and it saved me brewing time, and it was 100% worth it.

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On the morning of my big tests (9-12 and 7-10:30 pm, respectively), I made a chia pudding the night before. I woke up at 5 am, squeezed in a quick workout (with flash cards in front of me!), and then had breakfast waiting for me in the fridge:

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Chia pudding with almond milk, vega, bananas, blueberries, and cacao nibs:

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Perfect.

I also had a proper lunch in between exams at home, rather than staying on campus to freak the heck out for five hours. I ate, studied calmly, and had an easy dinner of kale chips, a raw snack bar, carrots and hummus, and an apple before the second test. So glad I stayed in a tranquil space and ate well between tests.

And that, friends, is that. I’m certainly no time management pro: if I were, I wouldn’t constantly be complaining about having no time! But I try. I don’t feel great about how my finals went, but I do know that I studied my absolute hardest, and fed myself responsibly at the same time. And that, for me, is an achievement in its own right.

With the semester drawing to a close, I hope you all manage to put both yourselves and your commitments first. You’re worth it.

xo

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    41 Comments
  1. I’m finally getting around to re-posting my comment. Life sans Internet sucks. I do love your suggestions. I’m more of an intuitive eater than a food planner, for lots of reasons, but I did find food planning very helpful for a very long time, both as a way of avoiding a complete relapse and as a way of warding off the more pernicious binge-purge lifestyle I’d seen so many people sucked into. But if I successfully navigated that difficult passage between Scylla and Charybdis, I’d hardly say I was “recovered” – one, because my weight was still very low, and two, because my relationship with food (and with my body) was still a tortured one. In my case, recovery involved learning to eat more intuitively, to indulge my cravings, etc. At a certain moment, planning my meals became more a hindrance than a help, so I stopped.
    But there’s planning and there’s planning, and I do think more planning (of the sort you’re talking about) could help me remain on an even keel during stressful times. I’ve got the shopping down (a well-stocked office fridge has saved me from fainting on more than one occasion), but I’m terrible at maintaining certain habits when there’s too much on agenda. So, for example, while you amp up the green juice during your exams, juicing is the first thing to go when I’m busy (can’t even contemplate the clean up). Ditto exercise.
    Good news is that even if I eat a bit less during stressful times (because I’m really not hungry), I do keep it healthy. So, my weight probably fluctuates a bit more than it should, and if I were keeping a food diary, there are days I’d flunk, for sure. But I recalibrate quickly, and I rarely get sick, so I must be doing at least a few things right, even if that “balance” you’ve achieved still eludes me after so many years.

  2. My body isn’t one of those that forgets to eat when stressed. My grandmother used to say it was her relatives that escaped a German King and used their hefty reserves to last them in stressful times. We eat when stressed! Heh.

    But making good choices, that’s something I can do. The main thing I did when working 50+ hours a week was to prep my dinner and lunch for the next day at the same time. And sometimes breakfast too. I always packed plenty so I’d have no excuse to eat crap that would make me feel like crap.

  3. With my new job and new schedule, I have been busy and haven’t had the energy to try new lunches or dinner recipes. I’ve felt guilty, like I need to be mixing things up or getting more variety of grains and veggies in my life – but these meals are healthy, they meets my nutrition (and mental and emotional) needs, and I enjoy them. Why stress about one more thing when there is already enough to worry about? I totally needed to read that today!

  4. You are such an inspiration! I started finals attempting to be really healthy aaaaand stress won (oh but that blueberry cake doughnut was sort of awesome). Since I won’t be making any school payments for a few months I think it’s time I bought a juicer. This is a fantastic post, thank you so much for continuing this blog during your hectic schedule.

  5. Thanks so much for making realize I am not the only person out there that uses some short cuts :). Being a mom of 4 and having our house up for sale right now is making me crazy.

  6. I am a crazy-busy student, too and I am happy to see that you use my same strategies! Another reinforcer I use is to socialize while cooking or working out. yet more motivation to stay on track. I also believe that the brain power you gain from those breaks help you succeed more, anyway!

  7. I definitely agree with packing food for the day ahead of time…it doesn’t matter how silly I feel with a big bag of tupperware on the bus in the morning, it means I have food to get me through even the busiest day. That way I also don’t find myself grabbing a quick candy bar or sugary drink for a pick me up.

  8. Whew, it feels good to de-lurk! Thanks for adding a new word to my growing blogosphere lexicon…

    What a great topic for a post! I used to make very poor dining decisions as a stressed out premed in college – I would hit the books late at night with 2 or 3 PB&Js and some Rockstars (not the sexy kind) to keep myself company!

    These days I am committed to packing healthy vegan fare ahead of time and my biggest problem is dealing with the sheer bulk and weight of it all. A typical day’s lunch sack has two mason jars of green smoothies, one monster salad, extra veggies for a wrap and dipping, hummus, homemade salad dressing, bottle of green tea and a grapefruit or two , which makes for a wheezy old bicycle and an exhausted rider. Suggestions?

    One tip I might add to help your readers save time on groceries is to join a CSA. Having a box of fresh produce (which I have already paid for, and selected) arrive a short bike ride away from my door every week seems like magic! Definitely a lifesaver when I feel like there is no time for the grocery store.

    Thanks for everything!

  9. Congrats on finishing finals! Enter the large sigh of relief. 🙂

    I’m with you on the planning. Since I got so busy teaching, my days are much, much longer and if I don’t have a plan in place, it stresses me out even more, even if the reality is that I would surely not starve did I not have meals written out and shopping all done. But that mental solace is worth it, not only because it’s one less thing to worry about, but it’s also one more thing to look forward to–I provide myself the insurance that I always have a healthy, delicious meal to look forward to, even if it’s not, as you say, the proverbial raw lasagna I’ve always meant to try. I’ve developed an arsenal of tried and true favorites that are also quick, easy and economical.

    ::pats self on back::

    Lunches out with friends are also quite healthy here and there. 🙂

  10. What an insightful and helpful post, thank you Gina! I agree that making time for grocery shopping and preparing food goes a long way towards healthy eating when the ole’ schedule gets chaotic. There’s a psychological component to feeling prepared – equipped with healthy options – and if that helps you enter your tests feeling more confident, than that’s wonderful. I’m very similar and will always set aside time to shop for and prepare healthy foods so that I won’t be tempted to either not eat or eat something unhealthy when I get too busy.

  11. What a great post. How sweet of you to take all that time to answer a reader’s question in such a detailed abd beautiful way!
    Peace and Raw Health,
    Elizabeth

  12. I loved this post. I’m a law student, in the throes of exams, and sometimes I feel crazy for scheduling grocery store trips or thinking about what I’m going to pack for lunch when I’m headed to school for a full day of studying. But I just don’t want to have to resort to unhealthy and unsatisfying options, so for me, taking the time to grocery shop and plan out healthy meals and snacks is worth it.

  13. Man, I wish I had seen these tips before my exams. I totally resorted to the vending machine WAY too many times. Joes is amazing, by the way. I probably went there 50 times within the past seven days;)

    Congrats on finishing your finals, I’m sure that you rocked them! I hope you get some time to relax once you’re done.

  14. Great tips Gena! It really is all about planning ahead and having the things you need ready to go. I like to have pre-cooked beans or lentils in the fridge to throw on top of a salad for fast protein.

    For me it always worked to pack my days food the night before so I wouldn’t have to worry about it in the morning.

    Interestingly enough my body always craves more dense foods during stressful times so eating a big serving of raw nuts, trail mix, or avocados was always an easy and tasty answer!

  15. These are some really great tips Gena, thanks for sharing.

    I used to love being in the kitchen for hours at a time, cooking and baking and playing. Now that I have my own business from home, I don’t like to take time away from that to make food. I end up eating more convenience foods than ideal, but it’s better than not eating at all. Which for me isn’t about forgetting to eat, but rather being too content with what I’m doing to get up and make food! The first few months of this arrangement, I was not eating well or often enough, but I am working on it. Now I try to keep instant bean soups, hummus, green smoothie fixings, and chia puddings on hand for quick and easy snacks that don’t take time away from sewing. The best of both worlds 🙂

  16. so funny you blogged about this, Lori and I were talking today how we did eat much and my dinner time we were starving!! we just got to busy that did not have time to make us food, I know not a good habit, but I notice myself not having time to make me good food. I have been snacking a lot, which is not necessarily bad, but I miss real meals, you know? But like you I never forget to it!! I am around food all day, haha

  17. I can’t wait for the juice pulp crackers!! As a student, I have been juicing like crazy too — we have had exams for two weeks! I am definitely taking “shortcuts” and making things that I can do on autopilot. Packing meals has become so much easier for me!

  18. I can relate to this: “she noted that she has a tendency to undereat, and sometimes lose weight, when she’s very stressed or busy.”

    When I am stressed, some switch in my brain chemistry flips to fight or flight mode, get it done mode if you will, and I just don’t have an appetite. I force myself to eat but it’s not enjoyable. I just eat b/c I know I have to, but I have always been this way. From the time I was growing up and very young til now. I learned that I have to eat even though it’s not my natural tendency when I am stressed. Everyone’s bodies are so different what our natural tendencies are…some people overeat, undereat, drink, smoke, get moody, cant sleep, sleep too much, etc…we all are so varied arent we.

    Anyway, love the tips! I am the queen of busy as a FT working mom, but yes, you HAVE to grocery shop and this is not the time to break out a new raw cookbook with an 18 hour dehydrator recipe. This is the time for canned beans and time savers, planned leftovers!! and some chocolate 🙂

  19. hey gena! great topic for a post. i especially liked your 2nd piece of advice to use shortcuts in the kitchen. i was wondering if you had any advice for a shortcut with almond milk. i try to make it myself frequently, but sometimes need to buy. which boxed brands do you recommend?

  20. Great tips! I will be a student in the fall again and I’m a little apprehensive about trading in my luxurious free time for school–and not having time to cook! Great to see it is possible to make it a priority. You’ve given me hope. 🙂 I’ve always been the type to eat more than I should when I’m stressed–or at least eat more poorly (can’t say I’ve ever forgotten to eat!), so I’ll really have to focus on having healthy choices around…

  21. Thanks for the this post Gena. You have no idea how timely it is! Ironically I just posted about my pathetic meals as I study for my Wilderness First Aid. I have been out of school for some time, so I am out of practice when it comes to managing food while studying. I’m taking all of your tips to heart – including prepping some chia pudding for tomorrow.

  22. Hi Gena,

    Baltimore resident de-lurking! Welcome to the area. DC is wonderful.

    There are a few vegan restaurants in Baltimore (which is a $6 train ride away), including a mostly-raw spot.

    I work at a yoga studio in the city- if you ever make up here, I’d love to have you asa guest and then show you some food favorites!

    Sarah

  23. I’m with you. Forget to eat? NEVER. I am having a killer week, and am flying through my fridge like it’s nobody’s business. Seriously, it’s nobody’s business.

  24. how did you get into columbia? i would love to go there (im in highschool) and would love some tips! I’ve heard that its really hard to get into

  25. Boy, when I had finals last week, my eating habits totally fell off the wayside. Looking back, I probably would have felt better eating healthier meals, but in the moment, it was what I did. Next time, I will work on eating lots of veggies–I mean hey! they make us more efficient because of all the energy they provide us.

  26. it’s always a challenge for me to stay healthy when i get busy with school stuff so thanks for the super helpful and informative post!

    • oh yeah, and i totally agree with broccolihut above, besides grocery shopping, planning is the #1 way i stay in my healthiness ‘groove’ if i can call it that, haha.

  27. Great tips! I’ve had to balance the stresses of school with the rest of my life recently too, and my number one tip is to plan ahead. At this time of the semester, there is absolutely no time to stand in front of the fridge staring, trying to think of something to eat! I’m also lucky to have a grocery store across the street that is open 24/7 🙂

  28. Great post Gena…I can’t wait to hear more about the pulp crackers. I’ve been lining my juicer pulp catch basket with a ziploc baggie and just tossing the pulp in the freezer after each juice, accumulating a lot.

    This post I need to take very seriously since we’re into preparing for another international move and in a few weeks, all but 1000# of our belongings will be gone for 2-3 months.

  29. I am SOOOO jonesing for a juicer!!!!! I saw this great movie called Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead and it totally got me drinking more juice (but I’m limited to it at restaurants at this point). Maybe when the economy recovers I will splurge on a juicer. LOL

    • I found a used Breville on Craig’s list for $60 (she was asking $90, but I talked her down!) I use it every morning, and love it.

    • Gina-I love your blog! Wendy-I also struggled with spending the cash on a juicer until I found this! http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B003ZDNKSS
      It actually woks great and I’ve used it everyday since I received it in the mail last week! Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead also prompted me to invest in a juicer!!

      • I need a juicer too! Thanks for the suggestion! And, THANK YOU Gena for the great post. Excellent tips. I am gearing up for a marathon work week – yes, Thurs-Wed – and will incorporate your ideas. I too rely on more costly measures when I am strapped for time. I always rationalize that my mental and physical health is worth it and it’s not forever, just this week: Vega bars, kind bars, Whole Foods buffet, and packing fruit on the daily.

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