This is a time where we need to eat healthier than ever – but with very little time, we need to plan our meals ahead of time and be aware of the nutritional value of what we eat.

Making healthy dietary choices and preparing meals when you’re pressed for time can be stressful and challenging, says Megan Rabie, a dietician at Mediclinic Potchefstroom.  ‘But incorporating just some basic tips into your busy lifestyle can make mealtimes easier, healthier and something to look forward to.

1. Plan ahead.  This helps to save time, money, and energy, says Rabie.  ‘Make grocery lists when you go shopping, so you know exactly what to buy for the week ahead.  Stock up on nutrient-rich food that will stay fresh and can last for a while, such as fresh and frozen fruit and vegetables, whole-wheat grains, lean protein, low-fat dairy, dry or canned legumes, nuts and seeds, vegetable oils and nut butters.  These foods are packed with nutrients, such as fibre, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats – everything you need for a healthy body and mind.  When you prepare meals, it can may make sense to cook in bulk, so you have an extra portion to take to work the next day.’

2. Change it up.  ‘To ensure you get all the right nutrients, choose food from all food groups with every meal.  Also be sure to mix up different food within the same food group.  Include healthy snacks and pre-portion the night before.  Having small healthy snacks between meals can help keep cravings at bay and sustain energy levels throughout the day.’

3. Be careful about snacks.  ‘Ideally, a good snack includes a fibre, lean protein and a healthy fat source.  For example, alternate between cut-up fruit and vegetables,’ Rabie explains.  ‘Apples, pears, oranges, bananas, grapes, berries, melon, and so forth, and cherry tomatoes, carrot sticks, cucumber slices, sugar snap peas, bell pepper and celery sticks, all make easy nutrient -dense snacks.  For the protein and fat portion, try Greek yoghurt, unsalted nuts and seeds, boiled egg, nut butters, low-fat cheese, meatballs or roasted chickpeas.’

4. Keep it light.  ‘Rather have lighter instead of heavy meals,’ she advises.  ‘This may help to prevent a big dip in energy levels and is less likely to cause drowsiness or affect concentration.’

5. Read the labels.  When shopping for food, reading food labels is a helpful tool to determine whether it is healthy or unhealthy,” says Rabie.  ‘Knowing what to look for in a food label can help you identify and avoid the less healthy components present in packaged food.  These include saturated fat, trans fat, total fat, added sugar, and sodium.’  Here’s what you need to know:

All food labels contain a ‘per 100g’ and a ‘per serving’ column.  To determine whether a product is high or low in a particular nutrient, the 100g column will be most accurate when comparing similar products.

● Sugar.  ‘Various products contain hidden sugar even if the product doesn’t taste sweet.  Sugar can be present in different forms.  Look out for different types such as brown sugar, high fructose corn syrup, maltose, dextrose, molasses, fruit juice concentrate, fructose, maple syrup, glucose syrup, glucose, maltodextrin, lactase, honey, golden syrup, invert sugar, raw sugar, treacle sugar, cane sugar, lactose, isomaltose, malt, malt extract and sugar.”  Aim for 5g or less per 100g.

● Unhealthy fats.  ‘Products can contain different forms of fat.  Avoid or limit food containing saturated fat and trans-fat.  Aim for 1.5g or less per 100g of saturated fat and 1g or less per 100g of trans-fat.  These types of fat will be indicated as animal fat, vegetable fat, butter, margarine, trans-fats, coconut oil, carob, beef fat, ghee, cream, milk solids, lard, hydrogenated oil, palm oil, nuts, seeds, shortening, dripping and monoglycerides.  Rather choose products containing the healthier mono- and polyunsaturated fats.’  Total fat must be limited to 3g or less per 100g.

● Salt.  ‘Most packaged foods are loaded with sodium (salt) even if the product doesn’t taste salty.  Look out for hidden sodium such as MSG, baking soda and anything with the words nitrates, nitrites, sodium, and salt.’  Aim for 120mg or less per 100g.

● Fibre.  ‘Dietary fibre is an important nutrient that you should consume daily.  Unfortunately, many packaged foods don’t contain the recommended amounts.  These foods should be limited as they are usually considered refined with low nutritional value.’  When comparing products, look for food that has 3-4g of fibre or more per serving.