Don’t worry; we’re not going to lecture you on the importance of eating healthy. As an aspiring physician, you already know food is fuel and what you eat affects the function of both your body and mind. The problem for most premeds isn’t understanding the importance of eating healthy—it’s actually finding the time.
Both premeds and medical students have extremely busy schedules. Keeping up with your studies, gaining extracurricular experience, succeeding on the MCAT, building strong relationships, and completing mundane but necessary household chores is quite the balancing act. Fitting in two to three healthy meals a day is no small feat considering all you have on your plate.
The following tips will help you save time making and eating healthy meals, allowing you to focus more of your time and energy on your studies, extracurriculars, and hobbies.
1 | Prepare Food During Study Downtime
Let’s start with the big one. As much as you may want to or try to, you can’t study all the time. Your brain doesn’t work like that, and eventually, you will show diminishing returns on what you retain. Being an effective premed and medical student is about more than working hard—you also have to work smart.
You must learn how to study effectively and when to study for maximum impact. You need to take breaks in order to keep functioning at maximum efficiency, but you can use those breaks effectively, too. Taking a short but needed break from your studies is the ideal time to turn to tasks that don’t require much brain power, such as showering, cleaning, doing the dishes, and—you guessed it—preparing meals.
Prioritize preparing and eating food during your breaks from studying. Give your brain the break it needs by switching tasks, but don’t turn to social media or the television. What you choose to do in your study downtime matters and will contribute to your overall success now and as your studies continue to demand more of you in medical school.
2 | Keep Meals Simple and Repetitive
Food can be a lot of fun. There are countless types of cuisines, thousands of ingredients, and endless combinations. Whether that sounds exciting or evokes debilitating indecision, choice is not your friend when it comes to saving time.
You may have a passion for cooking or for eating delicious meals, but save that hobby for your weekend downtime. Cooking a different elaborate meal each night will take up a lot of your time and brainpower. On weekdays or study days, it’s best to keep your meals as simple as possible. Figure out what works best for you and repeat.
Repetition can help you prepare meals faster, and it will keep you from having to use up your limited brain space on deciding what to make and learning how to make it.
The good news here is that healthy ingredients are also generally pretty easy to prepare. Basic vegetables, chicken, fish, rice, quinoa, potatoes, pasta, legumes, and eggs can all go a long way and still offer quite a bit of variety. Everyone’s tastes and dietary preferences are different, so we won’t get into suggesting what meals you should prepare for yourself.
The internet is filled with simple recipes that you can search for based on specific dietary preferences, ingredients, preparation time, and simplicity. The key is not overcomplicating it. Think of your weekday meals as fuel for your body and mind, and save your culinary adventures for your day off.
3 | Choose Recipes That Are Easy to Make and Store
Choosing simple-to-make and easy-to-store meals will save you time and prevent food from going to waste. Simple recipes that require fewer ingredients mean less time spent shopping, prepping, and cooking. Look for recipes that use a few whole ingredients that are easy to find and don’t go bad quickly. For example, broccoli and other hearty vegetables, potatoes, frozen or canned fish, canned beans, quinoa, and other shelf-stable grains.
Watch out for any tricky ingredients that are either expensive, tough to find, or don’t store long. Consider the number of ingredients you need, how long the meal takes to prepare, how long it takes to cook, the number of meals you can make at one time, and how long the meal will store in either the fridge or freezer. Recipes that can be cooked with one sheet pan or pot are also ideal, as these won’t leave a lot of mess to clean up after you cook.
4 | Shop With a Clear List
When you shop for ingredients, go in with a clear list of what you’re looking for. Grocery shopping without a prepared list will have you wandering around the store guessing. This will waste time and result in the purchase of groceries you don’t need or don’t know what to do with. Alternatively, you may come back without the supplies you need, leading to more grocery store visits.
Another downside to buying groceries on a whim is you’ll have trouble deciding what to do with them or how to utilize them once you decide to make a meal. Trying to work through what to make with a random assortment of ingredients can be a fun challenge, but it’s a challenge you don’t need when you have your studies to focus on.
Again, if you’re passionate about cooking, continue to pursue that passion, but do so on specific days off so that you can spend most days focusing on your studies.
Choose a few simple meals you want to prepare in the week to come and make a list of the specific ingredients you’ll need. At the store, stick to those ingredients. To save yourself time, consider ordering what you need online through a grocery delivery service. That said, this will come at an extra cost and still takes time to organize.
5 | Batch Meal Prep
Batching similar tasks can help you get a lot done at once while keeping your focus tied to a specific type of task. You may have utilized this method before by batching all of your email/communication for a specific time so that you’re not switching back and forth throughout the day.
This same batching method can be applied to preparing meals. You can save a lot of time by cooking food for multiple meals at once. It may take a little more planning and time upfront, but overall, you’ll spend a lot less time preparing meals in subsequent days—plus, you won’t have anything to think about or decide because you’ve already made your meal decisions ahead of time. Eating a healthy meal will be as simple as heating up something from the fridge, so you can focus your break on other essential errands, mindfulness, or hobbies you enjoy.
To batch meal prep, you’ll need to make clear decisions about when you’re going to cook. Remember the keep it simple rule here. Choosing simple ingredients that can be interchanged will help you add variety without needing to buy or cook many different things. You’re simply trying to fuel your body, not win any contests or delight your palate. Stick to simple combinations; ideally, a protein + vegetable + grain/carb, depending on what your dietary preferences allow for.
You might have baked chicken + peas + roasted potatoes for one meal and fish + broccoli + quinoa for another. If you are more of a salad person, consider making several salads/meal jars at once and refrigerating them. Include various vegetables and one or more proteins, such as tuna, cheese, quinoa, avocado, tofu, beans, chicken, eggs, or nuts.
Block off a specific time for meal prep; ideally, at the beginning of your week so that it’s not another task you have to fit in around your studying. Make the task a little more enjoyable by watching a show you like in the background or listening to a podcast or music.
Once you have your meals prepped, stick to that schedule. Resist the temptation to make something different or to order food instead. It may seem like a small deviation, but you’ll pull your brain power away from your studies to make decisions about what you might make or what you’ll order for takeout. Adjust and adapt your meals to your preferences to ensure they’re mildly enjoyable. You don’t need to fulfill every craving, but you shouldn’t dread eating your own cooking, either.
6 | Premake Foods You Can Freeze
Many soups, stews, and pasta sauces freeze well and keep for many months at a time. Similarly to batching your food prep for the week ahead, you can cook a large batch of food to portion and freeze for future meals. This saves both time and money, as you can buy ingredients in bulk or make large portions of food when certain ingredients are in season.
For example, you might make a large batch of pasta sauce when the appropriate vegetables are in season and inexpensive at the store or farmer’s market. You can then freeze the sauce into one-meal portions that are ready to go whenever you need a quick yet healthy meal. Soups also freeze well and are perfect to have on hand in your freezer for a rainy day.
Freezing one-portion meals also adds variety to your food without much work since you can pick and choose from what’s in your freezer rather than having to eat the same soup or sauce all week long. Be sure to label anything you freeze, and be sure to include the date it was made.
Making yourself healthy food isn’t as difficult as you might think. With a little planning, you can have healthy home-cooked meals that are cheaper to make and better for you than takeout. Plus, planning what you will eat in advance will save a lot of brain space you can use for more important tasks—like your studies.
Indecision uses up a lot of time, and it adds another stress on top of everything you already have on your plate. Effective students know that success isn’t only based on the amount of time spent studying. A whole range of factors contributes to study success, including how you study, your ability to build habits, and smart lifestyle choices.
At Med School Insiders, we’re passionate about sharing more than study strategies. Our blog and YouTube channel are filled with lifestyle advice to help you live a happy, healthy, and successful life.