Whether you're browning bagging it or picking up lunch at your local deli, you may wonder: What's the best thing to eat for lunch to lose weight? Like your breakfast and dinner, your lunch should be filled with healthy, whole foods that help you keep calories in check.
Your Lunchtime Weight-Loss Strategy
To lose weight, you need to create a negative calorie balance so you're burning more calories than you're eating. Creating a 500 to 1,000-calorie deficit can help you lose 1 to 2 pounds a week. The American Academy of Family Physicians recommends you use a combination of diet changes and exercise to support your weight-loss efforts.
The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute says most women can safely lose weight following a meal plan that contains 1,200 to 1,500 calories a day, while men (and active women) can lose weight eating 1,500 to 1,800 calories a day. To support energy and control hunger, divide your daily calorie needs as equally as possible between your three meals, being sure to leave 150 to 300 calories for a snack.
This means your weight-loss lunch meal should contain about 350 to 500 calories. Knowing how many calories you have for your lunch meal can help you figure out the best things to eat for lunch to lose weight.
Read more: 12 Easy On-the-Go Lunch Ideas
1. Sandwich: Weight-Loss Cold Lunch
A sandwich makes a simple and easy lunchtime weight-loss option. But you don't have to limit yourself to just meat and bread. There are many healthy ways to put together this weight-loss cold lunch that makes your simple sandwich more than just a simple sandwich.
Consider all the different items you can use beyond the typical two slices of bread, such as whole-wheat pita or English muffin, whole-grain tortilla or even a collard or romaine lettuce leaf. You also have many filling options that can fit into your low-cal lunch, such as turkey, tuna salad made with nonfat Greek yogurt, hummus, or lean roast beef. For crunchy nutrition and more flavor, finish your sandwich off with fresh veggies, such as sliced cucumbers or red pepper slivers.
The peanut butter and jelly sandwich is a classic comfort food and can certainly fit your weight-loss plan. However, you can make a few upgrades to keep calories in range while maxing nutrition. Spread a small amount of your favorite nut butter on a toasted whole-wheat English muffin and add sliced bananas or strawberries.
2. Not Your Typical Lunchtime Salad
A salad may seem a little too cliche for your lunchtime weight-loss plan. But your weight-loss cold lunch salad can be more than just iceberg lettuce and tomatoes. Consider topping your favorite mixed greens with diced chicken, sliced strawberries and a sprinkling of walnuts with balsamic vinegar and a touch of oil. Or top your leftover sautéed kale with broiled salmon and sliced almonds and flavor with fresh lemon for a sophisticated salad packed with nutrition.
Tired of lettuce? Roasted veggies make a great base for a salad and can be topped with chickpeas, sliced avocado and feta cheese or leftover London broil, fresh sliced grape tomatoes and a light balsamic vinaigrette.
A grain-based salad such as cooked wheat berries mixed with sliced tomatoes, diced cucumbers and basil with lemon juice and a touch of olive oil, also makes a satisfying, healthy, weight-loss lunch meal. You can use any leftover grain to make this salad, such as quinoa, brown rice or farro.
Read more: 23 Healthy Salads Nutrition Experts Eat
3. Last Night’s Dinner
Eating about the same amount of calories at each meal not only helps keep your energy levels even and nutrient intake up, but also helps make meal planning a whole lot easier. You can easily turn your dinner meal into a leftover lunch option. Just be sure to make enough when preparing dinner to be able to brown bag it. You can even pack it up when you're cleaning up after dinner so it's ready to go when you leave for work in the morning.
While leftovers make a great lunch meal, they can make you sick if not stored properly. The USDA recommends putting your leftovers in the refrigerator as quickly as possible to prevent them from turning into a playground for bacteria. If your dinner has been sitting out on the counter for more than two hours, the USDA recommends you toss it.
At work, you need to keep your lunchtime leftovers refrigerated, not on your desk, until it's time for lunch. The USDA also recommends you reheat your leftover lunch in the microwave before eating, ideally until it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
4. Out to Lunch
Restaurants aren't off-limits when you're trying to lose weight. But eating out may require a little preparation on your part. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) suggests you review the menu before you get there to sleuth out the healthy options.
Many restaurants provide nutrition information so you can see how your lunch meal fits into your weight-loss plan. Restaurant meals are notoriously high in calories, and you may need to make a few modifications to be able to "afford" a higher-calorie lunch. AND suggests shaving calories from your breakfast or dinner to stay within your desired weight-loss range. You can also spend a little more time at the gym after work to burn off those extra restaurant calories.
If nutrition information isn't available, AND recommends going with grilled or broiled items and swapping the fries for a veggie or side salad. You can also ask your server to put sauces on the side or go light on the cheese to save calories.
5. Short on Time
Maybe you forgot to pack a lunch or your mid-morning meeting ran into your lunchtime. While you may be tempted to skip lunch altogether, that may leave you feeling too hungry later on, which often leads to poor food choices and overeating.
When you're trying to eat better and drop those unwanted pounds, you need to turn yourself into a planner so you're not stuck having a candy bar and soft drink from the vending for lunch. Stash items in your desk so you're prepared for lunchtime mishaps that leave you stranded for your midday meal.
Healthy, shelf-stable foods you can keep in your desk include single-serving bags of mixed nuts and dried fruit, canned fruit packed in juice, whole-grain crackers, cans of low-sodium soup, packets of plain instant oatmeal and peanut butter.
If you haven't had a chance to stock your desk, consider making a quick run to the local convenience store before hitting up the vending machines. Many convenience stores have a smattering of healthy options mixed in with the chips, candy and hot dogs. Some options you may find include yogurt, cheese sticks, single-serving containers of mixed nuts, fresh fruits and garden salads.
6. Fast Food Fare
While fast food is often high in calories and low in nutrition, it's not impossible to find items that fit your weight-loss plan. Many chain fast-food restaurants post nutrition information on the menu board or near where you place your order, which can help you find items that fit your lunchtime plan. You can also find information online.
According to Helpguide.org, the best lunch foods for weight loss when you're limited to fast food include:
- Small burger without the cheese or special sauce
- Side salad instead of french fries
- Grilled items
- Soft tacos
- Veggie burrito
- Thin crust pizza
- Broth-based soup
- Plain baked potato
- Salad with grilled chicken and light dressing
- Steamed or stir-fried meat and veggies
However, you don't want to make fast food a habit if you can help it. According to a January 2016 review published in Health Promotion Perspectives, frequent consumption of fast foods increases risk of diabetes, metabolic syndrome and heart disease. It also contributes to abdominal fat gain.
7. Meal-Replacement Protein Shake
If tight deadlines or an over abundance of projects are making it impossible for you to go to lunch, let alone eat one, you may be looking for an alternative meal option. Because, while you may be overworked and stressed out, skipping lunch isn't going to help.
Meal-replacement protein shakes may be your best option. According to a January 2016 position paper from AND that was published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, meal-replacement shakes can help you keep calories in control and support your weight-loss efforts, but should be part of a healthy diet that includes portion-controlled meals that consist of real foods.
There are many meal-replacement shakes available that you can easily find at your local grocery store. However, some of these shakes may contain high amounts of added sugar. For better health and nutrition, look for high-protein smoothies that use fruit for natural sweetness. You can find ready-made high-protein smoothies in the refrigerated section of your grocery store.
8. Healthy Bento Box Lunch
As noted by AND in the 2016 position paper, portion control is key when it comes to keeping calories in line to support weight loss. The Japanese have been using the bento box as a way to carry lunch to work since the fifth century, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan. While the original bento box was a single container similar to a child's school lunchbox, today's bento box is divided into compartments for the placement of different types of foods.
The Japanese often fill their bento boxes with rice, vegetables and protein or sushi. You can fill your bento box with your favorite lunch items. To maximize nutrition while keeping calories within your lunchtime range, fill the largest compartment of your bento box with your veggies, whether it's your salad, sliced cucumbers and carrots or your leftover broccoli from last night's dinner. Then, use the other compartments for your lean protein, whole grain and fresh fruit.
9. Hunger-Satisfying Soup
During the cold winter months, nothing satisfies hunger better than a bowl of soup. Low-sodium broth-based soups filled with vegetables and lean sources of protein make the best lunch foods for weight loss. Add fresh fruit, a mixed green salad and a low-fat yogurt to round our your meal.
While soup makes a satisfying lunch meal for your weight-loss plan, it can be high in sodium. According to the USDA, a cup of canned chicken noodle soup can have as much as 940 milligrams of sodium. While low-sodium soups make a better options, they can also contain as much as 430 milligrams per cup, according to the USDA.
In addition to fluid retention, which can alter the results of your weigh-ins, too much salt in your diet may increase your risk of high blood pressure. The American Heart Association suggests you consume no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day. That one cup of chicken noodle soup provides almost half the daily amount.
10. The Sunday Meal Prep Lunch
If you're a planner, consider taking a day during the week, such as Sunday, to prepare the best thing to eat for lunch to lose weight. Preparing your meals ahead of time relieves stress and prevents those unexpected trips to the fast food restaurant. With a little creativity, you can have a different meal each day using some of the same foods.
For example, you can roast chicken and vegetables in the oven, while you cook up your favorite whole grain on the stove. On Monday, fill your bento box with veggies, chicken, whole grains and fresh fruit. Tuesday, stuff a whole-grain pita with diced chicken and roasted veggies.
Then on Wednesday, you can make a roasted veggie salad tossed with beans, raisins and feta cheese. Thursday, add your diced chicken and whole grain to low-sodium chicken broth and toss in some frozen corn, peas and carrots for a comforting soup. Finish the week wrapping sliced chicken with your roasted veggies in a whole-grain tortilla.
- American Academy of Family Physicians: "What It Takes to Lose Weight"
- National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute: "Healthy Eating Plan"
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "7 Tips for Healthy Dining Out"
- Helpguide.org: "Healthy Fast Food"
- Health Promotion Perspectives: "Fast Food Pattern and Cardiometabolic Disorders: A Review of Current Studies"
- USDA: "Leftovers and Food Safety"
- Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Interventions for the Treatment of Overweight and Obesity in Adults"
- Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan: "Japanese Box Lunches"
- USDA FoodData Central: "Chicken Noodle Soup"
- USDA FoodData Central: "Soup, Chicken Noodle, Low Sodium, Canned, Prepared With Equal Volume Water"
- American Heart Association: "How Much Sodium Per Day"