When you’re ready to start bringing lunch regularly, you’ll need a few ideas that actually sound appetizing. We turned to dietitians, nutritionists and award-winning chefs for their top healthy picks that you (and your kids) will actually want to eat.
“Protein-packed lunches are a must for me, I generally try to pick a source of protein as a base for my meal and then add in carbs or healthy fats around that. The protein source, like the chicken or tuna, helps keep me full between meals, while the carbs and fats help sustain my energy levels for my late-day workouts and help me avoid the afternoon ‘crash’. I always like to include some greens or veggies, such as romaine lettuce and sun dried tomatoes, to provide some fiber and antioxidant support,” said Brianna Diorio, a holistic lifestyle coach, clinical nutritionist and NASM-certified personal trainer at the Vitamin Shoppe. “One of my favorite lunches is making my own version of "chicken salad" minus the mayo. I simply take one can of organic canned chicken, mixed with 2 tablespoons of garlic hummus (in lieu of the mayo) and add in some chopped romaine and sun dried tomatoes; I do this in the morning while my coffee is still brewing.”
Start with whole wheat bread, add your choice of nut butter and fresh fruit slices, suggests Alexandra Miller, a licensed dietitian/ nutritionist and Corporate Dietitian at Medifast, Inc. “If you want to lighten up the sandwich, use a one hundred calorie whole wheat sandwich thin, mini bagel, or tortilla; you can also skip it altogether! Stick with 2 Tbsp. or less of nut butter and be generous with the fruit serving. The whole wheat bread provides dietary fiber, nut butter provides healthy fats and protein, and fruit offers a variety of vitamins and minerals.”
There are tons of options with this combination; starting with a small whole grain tortilla, put in sliced apples and reduced fat cheese or tuna, onion, lettuce and tomato. Then take a cup of your favorite soup, like homemade vegetable soup or low-sodium black bean soup, for a complete meal. Miller likes this option because it “packs in most of the food groups: fruit (apples, etc.), whole grains (tortilla), protein (cheese, tuna, etc.), vegetables (vegetables in soup, leafy greens, tomato slices, etc.), and dairy (if soup is prepared with milk).”
“Skip the carbs from the pasta and use cabbage to separate the layers,” said Darshi Shah a health/ nutrition coach and author. Or if cabbage isn’t your favorite, incorporate another vegetable. “It works, and it is a time-saver as one tray can freeze well and be used multiple times.”
This is another option that you can customize in about a thousand ways—for example, check out these super satisfying options. On top of being completely customizable, smoothies are incredibly easy and they don’t take much time to throw together. Make it while your pot of coffee is brewing and come lunchtime, throw in some ice, shake and enjoy.
“Just like fruit kabobs, veggies on a stick with a side of hummus is a great balance of micronutrients, protein and good quality, monounsaturated fat,” said Mareya Ibrahim, a holistic nutritionist, award-winning chef and founder of EatCleaner.com, who is also known as The Fit Foodie. “Skewer raw vegetables, including broccoli, cherry tomatoes and cucumber and add veggies like avocado and red pepper to the hummus to up the nutrition ante.”
“Just by taking whole grain or gluten-free bread and rolling it, you can transform it into a great lunch treat,” said Ibrahim. “Flatten each piece with a rolling pin or end of a wooden spoon, spread with cream cheese, slices of avocado and cucumber and roll tight. Sprinkle the top with ground flax meal for added Omega 3 benefits and a nice crunch.”
Spaghetti and meatballs is a classic comfort dish and, unfortunately, it’s not exactly the healthiest option. A few simple changes—swapping turkey for ground beef and whole wheat pasta for regular pasta—make this a much better option, while still satisfying cravings.
“I like to make sure my lunches have a good balance of carbs, proteins and fats. This helps to regulate blood sugar and avoid those energy slumps mid-afternoon,” said Emily Cooper, a registered dietitian and blogger at Sinful Nutrition. She suggested taking a whole wheat wrap and filling it with “turkey, fresh veggies and sliced avocado.”
The next time you cook salad for dinner, throw on an extra filet for lunch. Give left-overs a twist that couldn’t be easier and take your favorite dark leafy greens, throw the salmon on top, add your favorite vegetables and keep the dressing on the side. When you’re ready to eat, dress lightly and dig in.