No matter how much you love food or how skilled you are in the cooking department, eating well on a consistent basis is an ongoing battle—especially after an exhausting day, when the very thought of cooking dinner (never mind cleaning up the aftermath) sends you straight to the nearest fast-food joint.
This is because insufficient rest messes with our hunger hormones. “When we’re tired, levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin rise and levels of leptin, the hormone that helps us feel full, falls,” says New York-based registered dietitian Katherine Brooking, RD. “The areas of the brain that control willpower are hijacked, making it harder to resist junk food cravings.”
Harder, but not impossible, say experts. With just a little advance planning, you can show your out-of-whack hunger hormones who’s boss. Here’s how to get started.
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Stash grab-and-go snacks
Keeping non-perishable snacks in your desk and car (weather-permitting) can curb the temptation to reach for convenience foods that lack nutrition—and often make cravings worse, says Grace Derocha, RD, certified diabetes educator and certified health coach at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. Snacks like nuts, seeds, jerky, roasted chickpeas, and popcorn can help stabilize your blood sugar—a prerequisite to quashing your cravings—and make it (way) easier to steer clear of the drive-thru on the way home from work.
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Double up on prep
If meal prep isn’t your thing (or your schedule makes it a difficult habit to maintain), prep as you go by cooking more than you think you’ll need each time you’re making a meal—say, double or triple, says St. Louis-based registered dietitian Alex Caspero, RD. The more versatile the foods (think: brown rice, grilled chicken, roasted veggies, tuna salad), the more mix-and-match options you’ll have to choose from after a long day at the office.
Make extra servings (and freeze them)
Sure, frozen meals are convenient, but they can get pricey—so can throwing out leftovers that you can’t stand to look at anymore. Solve both problems by dividing your leftovers into single-serve portions and freezing them in storage containers or bags, suggests Molly Devine, RD, founder of Eat Your Keto and advisor to KetoLogic. After a few cooking sprees, you’ll have a variety of ready-to-heat homemade meals to choose from on nights when you just can’t even.
Plan out your indulgences
Sometimes when you’re craving something sweet, you’re not going to stop fantasizing about it until you give into the craving—especially when you’re tired. “Believe it or not, I suggest eating the indulgence, but doing it in a planned and moderated way,” says New York-based registered dietitian Natalie Rizzo, RD.
For example, if you have a nightly chocolate craving that’s more punctual than you are, keep two Hershey kisses out on your counter and know that you can eat them to satisfy your craving. “Giving into the craving will stop you from losing control and bingeing on something that your body doesn’t really need,” she says.
“Meal prep” your snacks
Many of us have our meal prep routine on lock but forget that snacks are where we tend to go off track. “If you’re the type of person who’ll sit down and eat an entire bag of potato chips when tired, don’t give yourself that option,” says Rizzo. Instead, at the beginning of the week, lay out five small containers and fill them with healthy snacks—like nuts, dried fruit, and whole-grain crackers—and do your best not to buy any other snacks for the week. You’ll satisfy your need for a snack, but the pre-planned healthier options won’t weigh you down.
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Organize a dinner swap with friends
Odds are, you’ve got a few friends who are also trying to eat healthier, but like you, their hectic schedules are getting in the way. “Organize a meal swap, where you all cook one large healthy meal, and swap portions,” says Rizzo. Put servings into individual containers and voila, one healthy meal for every night of the week. That way, instead of ordering takeout, dinner’s already covered—and for a fraction of the price.
Satisfy cravings with healthier substitutions
“When you’re in craving mode due to lack of sleep, you can curtail the damage by opting for healthier versions of commonly craved foods,” says Brooking. For example, swap your heaping dish of ice cream for a 6-ounce cup of Greek yogurt or your box of chocolates for a chocolate-flavored protein bar. You’ll get to enjoy the textures and flavors of your underlying craving, and the protein in these picks will help keep you fuller longer.
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Choose your dinner during your lunch break
If you know you’re going to be working late or the thought of grocery shopping triggers a Liz Lemon eye roll, keep a list of healthy restaurants on standby that are on your route home, says Derocha. Check out the menus ahead of time and bookmark the healthiest meals available at each establishment so you can make an informed decision, even when you’re crunched for time.
Stick to recipes you love
Keep a stash of five to 10 “greatest hits” recipes on hand—ones you know are quick to make and you can put together without much fuss, says Susan Bowerman, RD, director of worldwide nutrition education and training at Herbalife Nutrition. The more you love (and possibly even drool over) the recipes, the less you’ll let a little thing like being tired get in the way of enjoying a healthy meal. You: 1. Cravings: 0.