For many, lunch surpasses breakfast as the most important meal of the day. Lunch is a chance for the body and brain to refuel and get ready for whatever the remainder of the day has to bring. A midday meal should fill you up without being too heavy, and it should include just the right balance of nutrients to ward off the 2 p.m. slump — sometimes easier said than done. Quick, simple, low-calorie meals will keep you energized and keep your healthy eating habits on track.
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Planning ahead is the best way to make sure to incorporate as many nutrient-rich ingredients as possible.
Lainie Cooper, nutritionist and working mom
“Incorporating a few uncooked meals each week is a good start that may bring immediate changes including feeling more vibrant and energetic,” said Sarah Cahill, a Florida-based raw-foods chef. That energy, Cahill explains, protects against the dreaded afternoon lull.
But you don’t have to go extreme to eat raw, Cahill says. Lettuce wraps make an easy and filling uncooked lunch. Combine a variety of raw vegetables — think sliced red bell peppers and cucumbers, diced zucchini, finely chopped cauliflower and minced green onions — and marinate overnight in red-wine vinegar, chopped fresh herbs, salt, pepper and a light drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. Place the vegetables in Bibb lettuce leaves and fold up like a taco.
“Deciding to incorporate raw, living foods during a midday meal will help eliminate cravings and satisfy urges to overeat,” said Cahill.
Keep It in the Bowl
“When I have a busy week, thinking ahead to lunch can be hard,” said Lainie Cooper, a nutritionist and working mom in Denver. “Planning ahead is the best way to make sure to incorporate as many nutrient-rich ingredients as possible.”
One-bowl salads with a grain base such as cooked brown rice, millet or quinoa are perfect for lunch on the go.
“On Sundays, I make a multiserving batch of quinoa, which is high in protein and fiber, and keep it in my refrigerator. Then before work, I toss one serving of the quinoa with a handful of other ingredients and whisk together a quick dressing for a one-bowl meal I can eat at my desk or when I'm on the road,” said Cooper.
These salads are also perfect over mixed salad greens. Some examples include:
Southwestern: Half a can of low-sodium black beans, rinsed 1/2 red bell pepper, diced 1/2 cup corn 1/2 cup diced chicken breast, lean steak or shrimp (great use for dinner leftovers) Dressing: light sour cream, fresh lime juice, two finely minced green onions and a dash of hot sauce
Fruit & Nut: Handful dried cranberries Handful walnuts Handful sliced almonds Sliced grapes Dressing: apple cider vinegar, extra-virgin olive oil and Dijon mustard
Asian: 1/4 cup shelled edamame Shredded carrots 1/2 cup chicken breast, lean steak or shrimp (great use for dinner leftovers) 1/2 avocado, diced Dressing: Soy sauce, sesame oil, lime juice and a dash of chili oil or hot sauce
Use Your Leftovers
Reusing leftovers from dinner the night before is a cost-effective strategy for packing a lunch. But you don’t have to eat the meal in the same way again the next day. By adding a few additional ingredients, you can have a whole new dish.
A dinner of roast chicken and vegetables with couscous can become a Moroccan-inspired wrap. Combine the leftovers in a bowl with some chopped green olives, raisins and lemon zest; drizzle lightly with extra-virgin olive oil; and dust with a pinch of cinnamon and cumin. Wrap in a whole-grain tortilla.
Leftover pasta, meat or vegetables can be cooked into a frittata. Chop the leftovers and place in a small, ovenproof skillet over medium heat. Pour two beaten eggs (or 1 cup fat-free egg substitute) into the pan and cook until the eggs are just firm. Place under the broiler until the top is golden brown. Refrigerate, then slice into wedges and serve over salad greens.
Flake leftover firm fish, such as salmon or swordfish, into a bowl. Stir in a heaping teaspoon of prepared horseradish, a squeeze of lemon juice, sliced almonds, a small dollop of Dijon mustard and a scant teaspoon of light mayonnaise. Eat with baked pita chips or flatbread crackers, or pile on half of a toasted English muffin.
It doesn’t take much — just a few minutes the night before and these simple tips and ideas — to create a healthy, wholesome lunch that will recharge you for the rest of the afternoon.
Four Snacks to Keep Your Day on Track
Snacking isn’t just acceptable, it’s encouraged, says Denver nutritionist Lainie Cooper. Having a low-calorie snack in the morning between breakfast and lunch and again between lunch and dinner can help keep you from overeating at the day's larger meals. Here are a few light yet satisfying between-meal nibbles.
Want something salty? Kale chips: Spray kale leaves lightly with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add a touch of cayenne if you like things spicy. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 20 minutes, or until crispy.
Baked pita chips and creamy curry dip: Stir a teaspoon of curry powder and a pinch of salt into 1/4 cup fat-free Greek yogurt. Use baked pita chips to dip.
Craving something sweet? Berry roll-ups: Spread a small, whole-grain tortilla with a thin layer of Neufchatel and sprinkle with just a pinch of sugar (or sugar substitute) and a dash of cinnamon. Place raspberries, blueberries or sliced strawberries at the base and roll.
Frozen chocolate banana bites: Slice a banana into 1-inch-thick rounds. Press a single chocolate chip into each slice. Place banana slices on a baking sheet, leaving a few inches between slices, and freeze overnight.