Lunch can be a meal that keeps the rest of your day going or brings it to a screeching halt. What you eat at lunch gives you the energy to finish that big report, prep for that meeting, or study for that big test. With a few upgrades or new foods, you can help your health goals as well as the rest of your day.
You can upgrade your lunch in a lot of ways. If you like the kind of food you’re eating but want something more nutritious, you can use higher quality and more nutrient dense options. You can make a larger dinner the night before and dress that up for lunch. If you’re in a total lunch rut, there are a lot of healthful options that can expand your lunch horizons and taste great.
Working with What You’ve Got
If you like the kind of lunch you already have, there are a few upgrades you can make to get a healthier lunch.
Upgrade your Ingredients: Look at the ingredient labels of the foods you use to make your lunch to see which ones are a little more processed and can be upgraded to versions that are organic and minimally processed. If you like sandwiches, look at your bread. Is it made of whole grains that are minimally refined? How much sugar or salt is hiding in those slices of bread?
Change up the Chips: If you eat chips pretty regularly at lunch, consider upgrading to something just as crunchy with less salt and trans fat. Try some raw veggies with hummus, bean dip, or nut butter instead. By adding the dips, you get some fiber and protein that will help keep you fuller longer. If you want a chip, try chips made from different root and tuber vegetables, as well as chips made from dehydrated greens like kale and Brussels sprouts that are minimally processed.
Level up your Sandwich: If you like sandwiches, upgrade to a more nutrient dense, whole grain bread. Increase your veggie intake by adding more lettuce, shredded carrots, sliced bell peppers, or one of your favorite vegetables. They could be raw or sauteed. Switch out the mayo for a mashed avocado, pesto or hummus. Also, be mindful of the size of your sandwich. Is it too much sandwich or just enough? Would you feel just as full if you only brought half a sandwich and ate a piece of fruit, small side salad, soup, or vegetables with a dip instead?
Elevate your Salad: Salads are an infinite playground of healthy possibilities. Look at the ingredients you put in your salad now. If you’re using iceberg lettuce, try spinach, kale, or a greens mix that has more than just lettuce. Up the vegetable count by adding more raw or sauteed vegetables. Salads don’t just have to be greens and vegetables.
You can also add some leftover rice, quinoa or other grains from the night before, as well as beans. Up the fullness factor with a hard-boiled egg or safe caught tuna. Swap your dressing for a mashed avocado, tahini or a simple, homemade vinaigrette of olive oil, balsamic and lemon juice seasoned with some salt and pepper.
A Spin on Something Familiar
If you’re new to bringing or making your own lunch and the idea of making a completely new meal is a little daunting, start with a small step. Make a little more than usual for dinner and have that for lunch the next day. If you want some more variety in your lunch, there are some quick ways to add a little something to make it feel less repetitive.
Put it to Bed: Serve it over a bed of greens. This will up your vegetable count as well as add a new spin to your food. Depending on what your leftovers are, you can add a few more vegetables and turn this into a completely different meal.
Create Different Pairings: If you have other leftovers from a different meal, try pairing that with what you made last night. The flavor combination will change and be different to you.
Add a Sauce: Add a pesto, dip, yogurt, or sauce to add new flavors to last night’s meal.
Change the Protein: If you’ve got salad, grain or other side dish leftovers, try it for lunch with a different protein. This could be from a different meal or something you can easily cook or assemble at lunch.
Trying Something New
If you’re stuck in a lunch rut or just looking to add more variety to your lunch rotation, there are plenty of nutrient-dense, filling meals you can try.
Zoodles: Zoodles, or zucchini noodles, are a great vegetable alternative to grain-based pasta. You can make them a number of different ways, from a simple vegetable peeler to a spiralizer. Zoodles can be enjoyed raw or cooked and are packed with B vitamins, manganese, and vitamin C. You can enjoy it with a tomato sauce, salad dressing, pesto or mashed avocado and pair it with most raw or cooked vegetables.
Side Dishes on Side Dishes: Pair a few side dishes together to have a little bit of everything. These sides can be anything from a small side salad, a grain salad with vegetables or beans, roasted vegetables, smaller portions of protein, a small cup of soup… The flavor combinations and possibilities are endless.
Soup: In cooler weather (and in cold offices), soup can be a filling and perfect meal to keep you going. If you want to do something simple you can puree seasonal vegetables, or you can go with broth based soup with chopped vegetables, beans, grains, noodles, or meat to any combination that’s in season or in your pantry.
“Burger” Salad: Instead of having a burger or any other patty-shaped food in a bun, put it over a bed of greens with some raw vegetables and a homemade dressing to add more nutrients and vegetables to your usual burger experience. You could also do this with homemade falafel, meatballs, or taco meat.
Wraps: Swap out the slice of bread for a tortilla and wrap your sandwich up! You can go beyond the usual sandwich fillings and add in any grain salad, raw or sauteed vegetables, or beans. Just like the sandwich upgrades, you can add hummus, avocado, or some pesto to add moisture and flavor. There are also several different kinds of “tortillas” to try, from your standard large flour tortilla to flour tortillas with vegetables in them, to sprouted, flourless tortillas, to paleo/gluten-free friendly wraps made from coconut. You could also take the wrap to another level and use lettuce leaves!
Tacos: Liberate tacos from taco night and enjoy homemade tacos for lunch. If you’re packing this lunch, bring all of your components in separate containers and build the tacos as you’re eating them. Upgrade your usual tacos with a finely chopped lettuce, cabbage, or even kale to up the vegetable count, salsa, maybe some radish for added crunch.
Your taco meat can get upgraded too. If you’re a meat eater, upgrade to higher quality, organic meat. You can also (regardless of if you eat meat) make vegetarian taco meat out of nuts, lentils, or mushrooms. With a food processor and the right seasonings, you won’t even notice that it’s not meat.
Start with small upgrades each week to see how you like them and which ones you want to keep enjoying. As you’re meal planning each week, think about what meals you want to make more of to have leftovers and if you want to make any of those leftovers into different lunches. With a little prep and some new ingredients, you can have a flavorful and healthful lunch that can keep you going and help your health and fitness goals.
Healthy Eating 101 returns with foods you can stop buying and start making, making your food cleaner and your wallet fatter.
Aimée Suen is a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner who shares nourishing, gluten-free recipes and nutrition wisdom at Small Eats. She is driven to help others enjoy whole foods and empower them to find their own healthy in all aspects of life, one small step at a time. When she’s not in the kitchen, she’s practicing yoga, in the gym, or learning something new. You can find Aimée on Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest.
Second Photo Credit: Peiling Lee/shutterstock.com; Third Photo Credit: Axel Alvarez/shutterstock.com; Fourth Photo Credit: naD photos/shutterstock.com; Fifth Photo Credit: Martin Rettenberger/shutterstock.com; Sixth Photo Credit: Joshua Resnick/shutterstock.com