• Mayo Clinic Q and A: Healthy eating — at home and on the go

a family - parents and young children - running outside, flying a kite, laughingDEAR MAYO CLINIC: Our busy family of five rarely has a chance to sit down to meals together during the week. We often eat out or order takeout. I feel like this leads to a lot of unhealthy eating that includes way too many french fries. Can you give me some ideas for fitting healthy meals into a hectic schedule?

ANSWER: Making healthy meal choices while juggling a busy schedule can be challenging. But it doesn’t have to mean fast food and a steady diet of fries. By taking some time to plan and making thoughtful choices when eating away from home, you can eat healthy on the go.

You’re not alone in your struggle to fit home meals into a jam-packed calendar. About 60 percent of food dollars in the U.S. are spent on food prepared or eaten away from home. Relying on restaurants or takeout is often a quick solution to meals amid the weekday evening rush. But that convenience comes at a price. Large portions filled with an excess of ingredients such as salt, fat and sugar, and prepared in unhealthy ways, can sabotage healthy eating goals.

When you prepare meals at home, you tend to eat more reasonable portions, and the food is often more nutritious. You can make it easier to create healthy home meals regularly by planning ahead.

First, take 15 minutes at the beginning of each week to look at your schedule to determine when you’ll have time to cook and eat at home, and when meals will need to be quick. Try prepping and cooking ahead (batch cooking). Planning for leftovers or having items already cooked that can be incorporated into another meal can aid in ready or near ready-to-eat meals. Kitchen appliances, such as slow-cookers, pressure cookers or sous vide, are popular ways to make time-efficient, homemade meals. When you know how you’re going to handle meals each evening, you’ll be less likely to fall back on takeout foods or restaurants when pressed for time.

Second, as you make your grocery list, include healthy foods your family can eat on the run. For snacks, buy fruits and vegetables that don’t need much preparation, such as apples, grapes and baby carrots. Stock ingredients, such as lean meats and canned fish, low-fat cheeses, tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers and lettuce for easy, healthy salads and sandwiches.

In some cases, takeout food can be part of healthy home meals, too. When you’re in a time crunch, try pairing ready-to-eat broiled or baked chicken from a deli with a vegetable or fruit and a healthy starch at home. A meal like that takes under 30 minutes to prepare and provides a better balance of nutrients than most restaurant meals — less salt and fat, and more vitamins, minerals and fiber.

When you must eat away from home, choose wisely. Go to restaurants that offer a range of menu items, rather than those that focus on a few unhealthy options such as burgers and fries or pizza. If you can, check the calories, saturated fat and sodium count in menu items before you order.

Pick items that are baked, broiled or grilled instead of fried. Substitute fresh fruit or a salad for a side dish rather than french fries. Ask for condiments, such as mayonnaise and salad dressing, to be served on the side, so you can decide how much to add.

Be mindful, too, of portion sizes. A restaurant meal may equal two or three portions of a meal you would serve at home. With that in mind, consider splitting a restaurant meal with someone else. Or ask for a to-go box before you start eating, and put half your meal into it right away. This has two benefits. You eat a more reasonably sized portion, and you have a meal ready for someone to eat during another busy evening.

Although it takes some preparation and planning, you can have healthy meals even as you and your family are dashing in and out the door. Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., Endocrinology/Nutrition, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota

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