The alarm goes off late, you have back-to-back meetings and before you know it, your stomach is growling and you don’t have anything to eat. Don’t fall into the trap of grabbing takeout or heading to the vending machine in your office snack room — likely not-so-healthy options. With a little bit of planning, you can have a healthy and delicious homemade lunch waiting for you.
"Start by thinking of healthy foods that you enjoy, and begin your meal planning from there," says Melissa Hughes, RDN, a program manager with Sharp Rees-Stealy’s Center for Health Management. "Having a general sense of the types of foods your body needs and the nutrients you get from these foods will make it simpler to prepare healthier lunches at home that are easy to take with you to work or on the go."
Hughes offers these four tips to help you prepare and pack a healthy lunch:
1. Choose foods you enjoy — You are more likely to eat a lunch brought from home if it includes some of your favorite foods. She suggests mixing up colors, textures, temperatures and flavors for a dynamic eating experience at every meal. "Variety keeps things fun and interesting," says Hughes. "We tend to gravitate more toward fresher dishes like salads in the warmer months, and soup and stews when it gets cooler, but pay attention to what you’re in the mood for on any given day."
2. Be practical — Consider timesaving methods when preparing your meals, which can be as simple as cooking extra at dinner to have for lunch the next day. "You can pre-portion your food on a Sunday so that all you have to do is grab and go on weekday mornings," says Hughes. She also suggests having backup staples ready to go in case you run out of leftovers or prepared meals. "My grab-and-go staples include hard-boiled eggs; fresh veggies, such as cucumbers, peppers, baby carrots and cherry tomatoes; as well as hummus, fruit, string cheese, nuts and Greek yogurt."
3. Balance your plate — There’s no question that vegetables are a healthy choice, but don’t forget to also add protein, carbohydrates and some healthy fat to fuel you through the rest of your day. "The goal is to compose half of your plate with non-starchy vegetables such as greens, peppers, broccoli, carrots, mushrooms, cauliflower or cabbage, and split the other half of the plate with one-quarter carbohydrates and one-quarter proteins and healthy fats," says Hughes. "Choose unrefined carbohydrates, such as sweet potatoes, wild rice, beans or whole fruit, which help to prevent a mid-afternoon energy slump."
4. Get inspired — Leave the sandwich and chips behind and go gourmet with these meal ideas:
- Fresh green salad with beans, nuts, chicken and a vinaigrette dressing — make it more fun by layering ingredients in a jar
- Butternut squash soup with arugula pesto and seasoned ground pork
- Tapas-style spread, with veggies, fresh fruit, olives, hummus, sliced ham, cheese and whole-grain crackers
- Smoked salmon wrap with avocado, radishes and greens in a lettuce or tortilla wrap, and fresh fruit on the side
- Tuna salad with cucumbers, olives, carrots, chives, celery and a drizzle of olive oil, and plantain chips on the side
- Protein bowl with a base of quinoa, brown rice or roasted winter squash; plenty of non-starchy veggies; and chicken seasoned with soy sauce, rice vinegar and sesame oil
"Planning for a healthy lunch rooted in nutrient-dense foods can be easy and motivating," says Hughes. "It will set you up for day-to-day success and can support any overall health goals you want to achieve."