Up to this point, we've already focused on choosing a balanced, filling breakfast as well as a healthy snack. We are going to continue that theme by choosing the most nutritious and filling ingredients for lunch. Instead of going out to a restaurant with coworkers or friends for an expensive, oversized lunch, a healthier option is to take a few minutes each evening to plan a balanced midday meal. A few minutes of planning in the evening will ensure that there are nutritious choices at your fingertips when hunger comes calling. Knowing that your lunch is already planned and waiting will eliminate bad choices and rash decisions. There's certainly nothing wrong with going out to lunch once in awhile, but make it a treat, not a daily occurrence -- eating out daily can contribute to a shrinking wallet and an expanding waistline.
Just like breakfast, lunch should include a substantial number of calories, enough to keep you full for 3-4 hours. Most likely you have been running full steam all morning. Breakfast was hours ago and unless you've included a healthy snack midmorning your energy reserves are running low. This is the time of day to replenish your body with superior nutritional choices so you have the energy you need to get through the afternoon. Avoid refined carbohydrates, excessive amounts of sugar, and high-fat meals; instead, choose lean sources of protein, healthy fats such as olive oil and avocado, and unprocessed, complex carbohydrates including plenty of vegetables and fresh fruit.
How do we determine the number of calories to include in our lunch? For now, try to keep it somewhere in the neighborhood of 350-500 calories (can be slightly higher if you are male or very active, slightly lower for females or sedentary people). In future posts we will be combining all of the information we've learned about basal metabolic rate (BMR), total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), and determining the number of meals/snacks we want to eat in a day. It is important to remember that not all calories are created equal. There is a big difference between eating a large tossed salad with grilled chicken, nuts, vegetables and olive oil vs. eating a burger with fries. While both meals may contain the same amount of calories there are far more nutrients available to your body in the salad. Don't fall into the trap of believing that "any old thing will do" for lunch; make this a meal that is chock-full of nutrients and delicious ingredients. Lunch is your second best chance (after breakfast) to get it right! Also, don't make the mistake of undereating at lunch. You have all afternoon to keep moving and burn off calories, so fill up now and keep your metabolism revved all afternoon.
Here are some suggestions for healthy lunches during the busy week:
- Leftovers from dinner make a perfect next-day lunch. I find it easiest to put the leftovers into lunch-size plastic containers when I'm cleaning up after dinner. That way, lunch is ready to go the next day; just grab a container from the fridge and you're all set.
- Get into the habit of cooking extra meat at dinner. Grilled or sauteed chicken, fish, pork or lean cuts of beef can be used the next day in a sandwich, on a salad, or mixed in with pasta to make a delicious chilled pasta salad.
- Salads are particularly quick and easy to put together. Assemble a base of assorted lettuces and spinach. Top with a variety of chopped and grated vegetables, a small amount of nuts, shredded cheese and lean grilled meats. Drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
- On Sundays, make a pot of brown rice. Drain and rinse a can of black beans and store in a plastic container. Do the same with canned corn, chickpeas or any other bean/legume. To prepare a fast lunch during the week, just scoop some of each into a bowl, toss in some chopped lettuce, top with leftover meat, chopped tomatoes and mashed avocado for a delicious, nutritious lunch.
- On Sundays, also consider making a serving or two of whole wheat pasta. Drain and chill in the fridge. To assemble a quick weekday lunch, scoop some pasta into a container; top with a small amount of marinated olives/artichokes/sundried tomatoes/mozzarella (this can be purchased in the deli section of most groceries). Toss in fresh cherry tomatoes, a handful of fresh spinach and top with leftover chilled meat and a few almonds or walnuts. The oil from the marinated vegetables is usually sufficient, but you can drizzle a little extra olive oil and balsamic vinegar if necessary.
- Individual serving size packets of salmon or tuna make a quick and delicious lunch served on a sandwich or a salad. They don't need to be drained so keep a few of these stashed in your desk at work or in your pantry at home.
- Leftover homemade soup and chili are a nutritious option for lunch. It is easily portable in a small thermos.
- Use a variety of whole grain breads, wraps, pitas and tortillas so sandwiches don't get boring. Add unusual toppings like sprouts, cucumber slices, avocado, sliced hard boiled egg, and spinach to spice things up.
- Don't overlook "breakfast" foods for lunch -- yogurt, oatmeal and eggs are just as healthy and delicious at the midday meal.
- Chopped vegetables with hummus or cottage cheese make a nice side dish for sandwiches -- a healthy alternative to chips
- If you do end up eating out, review the restaurant's menu and nutritional information online before you go. There are plenty of healthy options even at fast-food restaurants -- salads, baked potatoes, chili, subs with lean lunchmeat, fruit salads, etc. Know before you go!
- Add a piece of fresh fruit to all of the above suggestions to balance out your meal with plenty of healthy carbs and fiber
- Click here for more delicious lunch options from Eating Well magazine.
Whether you are in the workforce or are at home during the day, taking a proper lunch break is important because it gives you a chance to decompress and destress for a few minutes. Don't make the mistake of always working through lunch or standing at the kitchen counter snacking while you continue to do housework. Everyone can benefit from sitting down to a nourishing meal and really focusing on the food in front of them. Chew your food well (this aids in digestion) and appreciate the different flavors and textures. Give your mind a rest from your "to do" list. Take a moment to read something for pleasure, talk with a friend or listen to music. Allow lunch to be the repast* it is meant to be -- nourishment that is good for the mind, body and soul and will help you face your busy afternoon.
*repast (r-pst) n
1. a meal or the food provided at a meal a light repast
2. food in general; nourishment; the act of taking food or refreshment