When you're busy, a nutritious lunch can be hard to come by. But that's where meal planning and prepping come in.
"The ultimate goal for many with meal or food prep is to have food ready to go when hunger hits," Hillary Pride, RDN, CPT, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "Some common barriers to weight-management success can be skipping meals, restricting foods and not choosing foods that provide fullness and satisfaction."
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When you don't have a variety of healthy choices on hand, it's convenient to skip meals or tell yourself that you'll "grab something later." And, far too often, that "something" ends up being fast food. In fact, Americans get over 11 percent of their total daily calories from fast food, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Meal prepping for lunch can not only help you avoid that fast-food pitfall, but it can also save you time and money. It can also cut down on the stress associated with deciding what to eat or rushing through making meals, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Lunch Meal Prep Tips
Meal prepping might seem overwhelming at first, but it becomes much easier when you get into the habit. As you get used to prepping lunches for the week ahead, you'll start to note what you like to eat and your menu will become more consistent.
That old saying, "Practice makes perfect," applies to meal prepping, too. To help you get started, Anika Christ, RD at the health club Life Time, doles out some helpful tips:
- Buy Mason jars or glass containers. "I like [making] Crock-Pot chili on Sunday and filling five Mason jars for lunches at work for the upcoming week," she says. "It makes packing my lunch easy and doable each morning, and I don't run out of lunches during the workweek."
- Wash and cut produce in advance. You're more likely to eat fruits and veggies when they're washed, cut and ready to eat. "Store your produce in containers on the top shelf of your refrigerator. That way you see them when you open the door to pack for lunches and they don't get lost in the produce drawer," Christ says.
- Don't aim to prep for the whole week. Instead of diving in headfirst, aim to make three healthy lunches for the week and pick a second day in the week to prep the rest.
Now get cooking with these tasty lunch ideas to bring to work.
Lunch Meal Prep Recipes
1. Superfood Bow-Tie Salad Bowl
Make a batch of this pasta salad on a Sunday — or whenever you have 30 minutes free — and pull out a cup each day for lunch. The arugula, though, will wilt if it's stored with the pasta, so keep it separate until you're ready to eat your midday meal.
Get the Superfood Bow-Tie Salad Bowl recipe and nutrition info here.
2. Spicy Sweet Potato Soup With Coconut
When choosing a soup for make-ahead lunches, pick an option that you won't get bored of by the third day. A spicy sweet potato soup probably falls in that category, and it's almost effortless to double or even triple.
Add a dollop of Greek yogurt on top to bump up the protein and add a touch of creaminess.
Get the Spicy Sweet Potato Soup With Coconut recipe and nutrition info here.
3. Sizzling Steakhouse Salad
Salads can get incredibly boring if you eat them daily. "Food satisfaction is key for many when it comes to weight management," Pride says. A steakhouse-inspired salad is satiating due to the protein in the beef and fiber in the vegetables and will make you look forward to forking into it.
To prep this salad, wash, tear and dry the lettuce (with a salad spinner or on a paper towel), chop the onions and pan-sear the beef.
Get the Sizzling Steakhouse Salad recipe and nutrition info here.
4. Steak Burrito Jar
Skip the refined-flour tortilla and layer all your burrito ingredients in a glass Mason jar instead. The key to keeping the ingredients fresh is to layer appropriately: Sandwich the delicate romaine lettuce between the black beans and brown rice so they won't cause the lettuce to get soggy.
Top the rice with the steak, which provides a solid foundation on which to layer the wet ingredients like salsa, guacamole and sour cream.
Get the Steak Burrito Jar recipe and nutrition info here.
5. Easy Tuna Salad
"Canned tuna is an inexpensive way to get in extra lean protein," says May Zhu, RD of Nutrition Happens. And because it can typically be kept in the fridge for around 4 to 5 days, it makes for a great meal prep option during the week. Enjoy it on sprouted whole-grain bread, a bed of lettuce or in lettuce cups.
Get the Easy Tuna Salad recipe and nutrition info from Salt and Lavender.
6. Easy Chicken Chili
To lighten up this soup, consider swapping Greek yogurt for the cream cheese, Zhu says. "It keeps the creaminess while boosting the protein and lowering the overall fat content."
Get the Easy Chicken Chili recipe and nutrition info from Natasha's Kitchen.
7. Korean-Inspired Ground Beef Bowls
"Beef is an excellent source of protein and contains 10 essential nutrients including B vitamins, zinc and iron that support our metabolism," Zhu says. Feel free to add your favorite veggies and swap the cauliflower rice for brown rice or whole-wheat noodles.
Get the Korean-Inspired Beef Bowls recipe and nutrition info from Lexi's Clean Kitchen.
8. Spicy Chickpea Quinoa Bowl
Stock your pantry with meal-prep-ready ingredients like chickpeas. "They contain both protein and fiber, which work together to slow down digestion and promote fullness," Zhu says. Pairing them with another source of plant-based protein — like the quinoa in this recipe — helps keep you fuller longer.
Get the Spicy Chickpea Quinoa Bowl recipe and nutrition info from Eat Yourself Skinny.
9. Instant Pot Chicken Taco Bowls
"This taco bowl recipe contains a well-balanced trio of protein, fiber and healthy fats," Zhu says. This combination of nutrients helps to balance our blood sugars and keep our energy levels stable. So say bye-bye to drowsiness in the middle of your workday.
Get the Instant Pot Chicken Taco Bowls recipe and nutrition info from I Heart Naptime.
10. Quick and Easy Vegan Pasta Salad
Pasta salads are a great option when you need to pack a cold lunch. It's also a great way to add a variety of vegetables to your meal, Zhu says. If you want to bump up the protein and fiber in this salad, consider using legume-based pasta instead such as Banza ($3.19, Amazon).
Get the Quick and Easy Vegan Pasta Salad recipe and nutrition info from The Simple Veganista.
11. Sticky Ginger Soy Glazed Chicken
"This is a great example of how frozen vegetables can be included into meal prep," Zhu says. "Frozen veggies are usually more affordable and just as nutritious as fresh vegetables." If you're looking to reduce the carb content in this recipe, swap the noodles for zucchini spirals or cauliflower rice.
Get the Sticky Ginger Soy Glazed Chicken recipe and nutrition info from Budget Bytes.
12. Roasted Vegetable Couscous
"This recipe contains an impressive 35 grams of protein per serving to help keep you full and satisfied between meals," says dietitian Andrea Mathis, RD. "To help boost the fiber content, consider using whole-grain couscous, which can help keep your blood sugar levels stable and lower cholesterol, too."
Get the Roasted Vegetable Couscous recipe and nutrition info from Budget Bytes.
13. Egg Salad Sandwich
When you're short on time, this quick recipe comes in handy. "Eggs are a great source of vitamin A, vitamin B12 and selenium, which helps to keep our immune system healthy," Mathis says. To make this recipe lower in fat and calories, swap Greek yogurt for the mayo.
Get the Egg Salad Sandwich recipe and nutrition info from The Cookie Rookie.
14. Lebanese-Inspired Quinoa Salad
This salad is chock-full of protein, thanks to the chicken and quinoa. "Quinoa is high in protein and one of the few plant-based foods that contain all nine essential amino acids," Mathis says.
Get the Lebanese-Inspired Quinoa Salad recipe and nutrition info from The Lemon Bowl.
15. Spicy Black-Eyed Pea Nourish Bowls
This bowl is full of protein and fiber, thanks to the combination of black-eyed peas and sweet potatoes. "Black-eyed peas are also high in other nutrients such as folate, copper and thiamine," Mathis says. "And just one sweet potato gives you 400 percent of the vitamin A you need each day."
Get the Spicy Black-Eyed Pea Nourish Bowls recipe and nutrition info from Minimalist Baker.
16. Fire-Roasted Tortellini Minestrone Soup
"This recipe is a healthier take on traditional minestrone soup," Mathis says. "It's packed with vegetables like spinach and zucchini, which contain pantothenic acid and folate, both of which are essential for our overall health."
Get the Fire-Roasted Tortellini Minestrone Soup recipe and nutrition info from Little Spice Jar.
17. Chopped Thai-Inspired Salad With Peanut Dressing
"Peanuts and peanut butter help to provide this recipe with a source of healthy fats and protein," Mathis says. And even though they're calorie-dense, peanuts are nutrient-rich and low in carbohydrates.
Get the Chopped Thai-Inspired Salad With Peanut Dressing recipe and nutrition info from Little Spice Jar.
18. Egg Roll In a Bowl
Adding ingredients like ginger makes this recipe full of flavor without adding additional calories. "Ginger has been used to aid in digestion, reduce nausea and help with symptoms of the common cold," Mathis says. If you want to make this recipe vegetarian, replace the meat with tofu or eggs.
Get the Egg Roll In a Bowl recipe and nutrition info from Well Plated.
19. The Ultimate Vegetarian Burrito
Vitamin-C-rich bell peppers help to absorb the non-heme (plant-derived) iron in the beans, making this combination a winner, says dietitian Nicole Rodriguez, RD. Feel free to swap the white rice for brown rice and the tortilla for a lettuce wrap or whole-grain option.
Get the Ultimate Vegetarian Burrito recipe and nutrition info from Dishing Out Health.
20. Asian-Inspired Miso Chicken Salad
"Unless you're going low-carb, consider adding a whole-grain to this salad for more satiety," Rodriguez suggests. You can add a scoop of farro, brown rice or even quinoa.
Get the Asian-Inspired Miso Chicken Salad recipe and nutrition info from Lively Table.
21. Vegetarian Chili Potato
Beans and potatoes provide a one-two punch of protein and fiber. Because they can be baked in the oven or the slow cooker, it's a great make-ahead lunch option. Plus, it's a tasty way to cut back on meat.
The fiber you'll get from the beans and potatoes can also help you manage your weight. A February 2012 study in Obesity found that eating soluble fiber — the type beans are full of — is linked to having lower body fat.
Get the Vegetarian Chili Potato recipe and nutrition info here.
22. Quinoa Stuffed Pepper
If you're looking for a minimalist recipe, consider this one for your next meal prep day. The prep isn't so time-consuming and the results are extremely filling, considering you're eating an entire bell pepper in one meal. Feel free to mix and match the veggies with whatever you have on hand.
Get the Quinoa Stuffed Pepper recipe and nutrition info here.
23. Avocado Smoothie Bowl With Almonds and Mint
You can keep this smoothie in a bowl or transfer it to a drink container if you're on the go. This smoothie is balanced with all three macros: It has protein from the nuts, healthy fats from the avocado and carbohydrates from the banana. For more protein, add a scoop of your favorite protein powder.
Get the Avocado Smoothie Bowl With Almonds and Mint recipe and nutrition info here.
24. Caprese Mason Jar Salad
This low-carb Mason jar lunch is sure to keep you full and can be eaten as a main dish or a side. Consider adding grilled chicken breast or a piece of salmon to make this a well-balanced meal.
Get the Caprese Mason Jar Salad recipe and nutrition info here.
25. Greens, Fruit and Chickpea Wrap
Enjoy your veggies, fruits and whole grains all in one wrap. These can be made in bulk and stored in the fridge, just keep the olive oil and vinegar on the side and add them right before you dig in.
Get the Greens, Fruit and Chickpea Wrap recipe and nutrition info here.
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Meal Prep: A Helpful Healthy Eating Strategy"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Caloric Intake From Fast Food Among Adults: United States"
- Obesity: "Lifestyle Factors and 5-Year Abdominal Fat Accumulation in a Minority Cohort: the IRAS Family Study"