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In Search of Work-Food Balance

Making healthy and nourishing food choices is hard when you have a busy schedule. Try these five tips to make things easier.

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We’ve all been there. One minute we are vowing to eat healthier to benefit our training, the next we realize we just polished off a box of Girl Scout Samoas because it was the only food in the car. At least they’re carbohydrates, right? And look, one whole gram of protein!

Eating empty fuel can leave us feeling even more hungry, and it can affect our training goals. Long term, improper nutrition can lead to higher rates of injury and illness. If you’re not a professional athlete with time to plan out meals, it can be difficult to know how to best eat healthy in moments of stress, when traveling, or when strapped for time. The good news is, it is possible to train hard and eat well despite a busy lifestyle.

In general, as a runner, you should be striving to eat every two to three hours to keep your energy high, blood sugar stable, and to stay satiated throughout the day so you aren’t left grabbing cookies by the handful.

The ultimate goal is to have both protein and carbohydrates at all meals and snacks while in a training cycle or running more than three times per week. Protein provides the fullness and sustained blood sugar, while the carbohydrates provide the energy.

Always ask yourself, “Does this meal or snack contain protein?” If not, try to figure out how you can include it. It may be something as simple as eating a handful of almonds with your apple or adding some beans or chicken to your salad. 

Putting the following concepts into practice is your ticket to finding that work-food balance. 

quick food for busy trail runners
(Photo: Getty Images)

1. Keep Your Stash Full

This one may sound intuitive, but it is crucial for avoiding those energy drops. Placing pre-packaged nut butters or granola bars in your coat pockets, glove compartment, or desk drawers can help when a craving strikes. Make a habit of restocking once a week, on grocery day.

Pop open a nut-butter packet and eat it plain or put on crackers, fruit, or vegetables. Other convenient and portable options include canned or bagged fish (like tuna or salmon), whole-grain crackers, string cheese, granola bars (look for ones with some protein and a low sugar content), oatmeal packets, hard-boiled eggs, trail mix, Greek yogurt, avocado, and whole-grain bread.

Pro Tip: Stash your favorite seasoning at work (like Spike, garlic salt, fiesta seasoning, etc.) to encourage eating foods like avocado, hardboiled eggs, or fish rather than packaged snack foods.

RELATED: This Protein-Packed Fudge Makes the Perfect Holiday Snack

2. Put a Lid on It

This one requires a little bit of prep, but nothing that someone short on time can’t do. For breakfast, make simple and protein-packed overnight oats. Place ½ cup whole-rolled oats and ½ cup of your favorite milk in a jar or container and let it sit overnight. Top with nuts, fruit, and spices and grab on the way out the door (can be heated or eaten cold). For lunch, things like a wrap or layered salad in a jar will do the trick.

RELATED: If You’re Terrible at Eating Breakfast, Here’s How to Get Better (and Why It’s Worth It)

3. Think Outside the Box

Thinking outside the box for meals and snacks can mix up the boring peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich you are used to. Trying new things, like sweet-potato toast topped with nut butter and banana or rice cakes with avocado, hummus, and sliced hardboiled egg, can prevent boredom and encourage healthier choices.

Pro Tip: Get saucy. Buy or make a couple of healthy sauces that you love. Transfer them into travel-safe containers and keep them at work or wherever you find yourself snacking. Top your snacks or meals to keep things interesting.

quick recipes for busy trail runners
(Photo: Getty Images)

4. Try Meal Prep (Just a Little Bit)

A small amount of meal prep on a weekend day can set you up big for a healthier work week. Buy an extra dozen eggs and hard boil them, make a large batch of quinoa, or chop up vegetables for the week. All of these are quick and help ease the stress of knowing what to pack on a hectic morning.

Pro Tip: Making a large batch of quinoa (hello, protein!) or brown rice with vegetable or chicken stock and coconut milk instead of water makes a great meal base or emergency snack.

RELATED: Turn Leftovers into a Meal Prep Masterpiece with Power Bowls

5. Hydrate

One of the biggest challenges when trying to eat well is actually hydrating properly. Exercise increases fluid and electrolyte requirements, and when we don’t get enough of those things, dehydration makes us feel even hungrier. This can prompt overeating and impulsive choices.

Pro Tip: Carrying a water bottle, downloading a water tracking app on your phone, or trying some new water infusions can help.

RELATED: 7 Simple Ways to Drink More Water

Two Quick Recipes for When You’re Crunched On Time

Cobb Salad in a Jar


  • ¼ lemon, juiced
  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
  • 1½ Tbsp. maple syrup
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 cup spinach
  • ¼ cup cherry tomatoes, halved
  • ¼ avocado, diced
  • 1 hard-boiled egg, sliced
  • ¼ cup feta cheese crumbles
  • 4 oz. grilled chicken breast (diced, optional)
  • 2 mason jars

Mix together the lemon juice, olive oil, Dijon mustard, maple syrup, salt, and pepper. Layer dressing equally in the bottoms of two mason jars.

Layer the spinach, tomatoes, avocado, egg, and feta. Seal with a lid. When ready to eat, give the jar a good shake and enjoy!

Banana, Peanut Butter, and Sweet Potato Toast


  • 1 medium sweet potato
  • 2 Tbsp. peanut butter
  • ½ banana

Trim the pointy ends off the sweet potato and cut the potato lengthwise into ¼-inch-thick slices.

Place slices in the toaster and toast 2-3 times until they’re softened. If you don’t have a toaster, you can set your oven to broil and bake the potatoes on a cookie sheet for 3-6 minutes per side.

Top with peanut butter and banana and enjoy.

Kylee Van Horn is a licensed Sports Registered Dietitian, 2:49 marathoner, and competitive trail runner.