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Non-Negotiable Health Needs: How to Stay Healthy When Busy


How do you stay healthy when you’re busy? These self-care tips for busy moms will help you stay on track with nutrition, exercise, and mental wellness.

Registered Dietitian Ann Kent and her toddler making a recipe togetherI’m in a season of life so beautifully busy that self-care is hard to fit in.

Between balancing the activities of our teenager – running from sports practice to band concerts, chasing around our toddler, and running a small business…

I barely have time for my marriage, let alone friendships and that elusive self-care.

But I’ve learned the hard way that self-care is essential for me to care for so many other people. And self-care is necessary if I want to enjoy my life!

In busy seasons like these, I come back to a concept I learned from a dietitian colleague of mine, Nicole Eichinger, on her Nutrition’s My Life Podcast: keeping my health non-negotiables and letting some other things go.

What is a “Health Non-Negotiable?”

Let me define what I mean when I say “health non-negotiable” when it comes to self-care, because this isn’t the same as a healthy habit. At least, not exactly:

Your non-negotiables are the things that keep you sane. The things that give you energy so you can care for others. The items on your non-negotiable list are the things which you know you need to do consistently in order to do all the other things in life.

Your non-negotiables are NOT necessarily your goals or your ideals. When things are going well, you may far exceed the items on this list. Rather, you non-negotiables are the “minimum necessary” to take care of yourself when life gets crazy.

Your non-negotiables are just that – non-negotiable. No matter how busy you are, no matter what’s going on, what is it you need to include in your life to function in your survival-mode-moments?

Cast Iron Skillet on Stovetop - Dietitian Ann Cooking

Why Self-Care Needs to Include Health Non-Negotiables

Registered Dietitian Ann Kent making a meal planTaking care of your own health is sort of like putting on your oxygen mask. In case of emergency, you need to have your mask on before you can help someone else with theirs.

The reason to put your mask on first is simple: you can’t help others unless you’re doing okay.

I’m sure you’ve heard this before – the importance of self-care. In fact, often I hear guilt about the lack of self-care when I meet with a new client – guilt about not taking enough time to cook/exercise/meditate/whatever it is they think they *should* be doing.

If this is you, I want you to know: it’s time to stop should-ing on yourself.

The reality is we only have 24 hours in a day and you have many priorities in life. Maybe you work, take care of children or an aging parent, or spend time volunteering. Because we live in a world of competing priorities, it’s not always possible to do all the things you know you need to do for your health.

Rather than place judgment on yourself, I encourage you to take a step back and identify what your oxygen-mask-health-needs are: those habits and daily tasks which are essential for you to be the healthiest version of yourself.

This guidebook from The Reclaim Strategy is a great place to help you start to identify what your priorities are for this stage of your life.

For more support, I recommend to reach out to a professional who specializes in the piece of self-care you want to focus on. Click here for a list of my colleagues who I recommend.

How to Identify your Health Non-Negotiables

To help you identify your top needs, I encourage you to consider what might be important in these three areas: nutrition, physical activity, and mental health.

This guidebook is a great place to start as you think through what is most important to you. For 1-1 coaching I highly recommend my friend and colleague Emily Glenn of Fully Aware Wellness Coaching.

As you identify YOUR non-negotiables, you might find you have different categories than either of us! That’s perfectly okay; the point is for you to personalize what your non-negotiables are based on YOUR needs.

Nutrition Non-Negotiables

As you consider your nutrition non-negotiables, I encourage you to focus on the habits which help you feel your best.

For example, if you know that you (and your budget) feel better when you cook at home instead of eating how, you probably need to focus on the habit of meal planning in order to accomplish this. (Grab this Meal Planning Template if you’d like a guide to get started!)

Make a list of what you want, then think of the habits you need to help you accomplish that task.

Here are some examples:

  • If you want to save money on your food budget, focus on eating at home instead of going out
  • If you want to eat home-cooked dinners, focus on making a meal plan once per week
  • If you want to improve your gut health, focus on eating a fruit or vegetable with every meal
  • If you want to eat more vegetables, focus on grocery shopping once per week
  • If you want to enjoy food without guilt, focus on mindfulness at mealtime
  • If you want to teach your kids about healthy eating, focus on having family dinner at least once a week

Now, that list above ^^ is long because it’s only for inspiration. Pick only one or two of these as your “bare minimum” non-negotiable.

You don’t have to navigate this alone! Start with this free meal planning template. The guidebook that comes with it walks you step-by-step to learn how to make a meal plan that will work for your family, no matter how busy you are.

Physical Activity Non-Negotiables

Registered Dietitian Ann Kent hiking Long's PeakExercise can be healing in so many ways. It can be empowering to feel confident in your body, help balance your hormones, and provide connection with friends or with nature.

But exercise can also be exhausting when you’re already running ragged.

For this reason, your physical activity non-negotiable might look different than “go the gym 3 times per week,” which is more of a goal than a bare minimum (at least it is for me).

I encourage you to focus on how you feel when you exercise rather than trying to meet a strict goal. This can be a great way to enjoy movement for the long term!

Instead, here are a few examples of Physical Activity Non-Negotiables:

  • Get outside once per week
  • Do yoga once during the week and once on the weekend
  • Plan a family walk, hike, or bike ride once per month
  • Take a 5-minute walk over the lunch break

In addition to including physical activity, I also encourage you to intentionally incorporate rest days into your routine. Sometimes a “lack of motivation” to exercise is just burnout!

Mental Health Non-Negotiables

Stress management, social connections, and sleep (both quantity and quality) are some of the most important pieces to a healthy lifestyle.

Mental health is such a broad topic which I encourage you to explore for yourself to find the things most important. It can take some practice to figure out what your personal non-negotiables are.

Here are a few examples of Mental Health Non-Negotiables:

  • Go to bed by 10:30 PM on weeknights
  • Spend 5 or 10 minutes meditating
  • Schedule date night with spouse every other week
  • See a counselor once per month
  • Brush your teeth every day (meeting a physical need can help with mental health)
  • Watch favorite TV show every week
  • Take my depression medication every day
  • Spend time reading a book or journaling every weekend

The needs of nutrition, movement, and mental health are intertwined. As you create your personal list of non-negotiables, include something from each of these categories to help you holistically care for your health.

Family enjoying meal time together

Continuing Your Self-Care Journey

In a season of overwhelm, committing to your non-negotiables can help you stay grounded, healthy, and happy for yourself and for those around you.

Remember that nobody is meant to go through busy seasons alone. It’s okay to reach out for help!

These are some of my favorite resources to help you on your self-care journey:

Wherever you are in this journey, I hope you continue to move forward with the support and love you deserve.

Happy healthy living,
Dietitian Ann

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