When you bring your lunch to work, you want to pack tasty, nutritious meals that will give you a midday energy boost. But it's not always easy to choose foods that will keep you full and that you can prepare quickly.
"A lot of people pack way too light when they bring their lunch to work," says Carolyn Brown, RD, a nutritionist at Foodtrainers in New York City. "Don't skimp out. Make it a solid meal and bring along a mid-afternoon snack that can tide you over until dinner."
To make sure your lunch is balanced, Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, author of The Flexitarian Diet, recommends including a whole grain, lean protein like beans or chicken, and fruits or vegetables.
"Add a little healthy fat -- for instance, from nuts, avocado, or low-fat cheese -- to make it taste great," she says.
You'll be more likely to stay motivated to pack a lunch if you avoid boredom and choose foods you'll look forward to eating. Here are some simple ways to add a little variety to your lunchtime routine.
Experiment With Ethnic Cuisines
To break out of the rut of bringing the same old turkey sandwich for lunch every day, Jackson Blatner suggests thinking in terms of dishes you would order in a restaurant and ethnic cuisines you like.
For example, she recommends the following brown-bag meals that are big on taste:
Greek Salad Pita. Fill a whole wheat pita with leftover chicken or canned chickpeas, romaine lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, green bell peppers, feta cheese, and Kalamata olives. Squeeze half a lemon over the chicken and veggies right before you're ready to eat.
Asian Salad Bowl. Toss together shelled edamame (from the frozen food section, thawed according to package instructions), mixed greens, shredded carrots, green onions, and red bell pepper. Add crushed brown rice crackers for a crouton-like crunch. Bring store-bought peanut dressing in a separate container and add it right before you're ready to eat.
Italian Bruschetta Chicken Salad. Combine chopped chicken or white beans, arugula, tomatoes, olives, raw zucchini, and red onion. Marinate this salad in balsamic vinegar in a plastic container and then put it on slices of whole wheat baguette when you're ready to eat.
Mexican Burrito Bowl. Combine sliced chicken breast or black beans, cooked brown rice (which you can buy frozen and heat up), sauteed onions and green and red peppers, and romaine lettuce. Bring along a 100-calorie pack of guacamole and add it just before you eat.
Eat Breakfast for Lunch
Try incorporating your favorite breakfast foods into your lunch for a change of pace:
- Top a toasted whole wheat English muffin with goat cheese and sliced strawberries or almond butter and sliced bananas.
- Bring a packet of plain oatmeal, add it to a bowl, and stir in hot water or milk. Add ingredients like cinnamon, dried cherries, raisins, almonds, or pecans.
Bring Salad in a Jar
If you like hearty salads but find they often get soggy when you transport them to work, consider investing in a wide mouth, quart-sized Mason jar. Salad ingredients will stay fresh in a sealed, refrigerated jar for hours.
First, put your favorite salad dressing at the bottom of the jar.
Next, add several layers of ingredients like cherry tomatoes, peppers, carrots, cucumbers, mushrooms, corn, broccoli, black beans, chickpeas, hard-boiled eggs, or orzo.
You can include any leftover cooked veggies and grains you have on hand. At the very top, add greens like baby spinach or chopped romaine lettuce.
Be sure to keep the layer of greens separated from the dressing at the bottom so it stays dry.
When you're ready to eat, just shake the jar to coat the whole salad with dressing.
Spice Up Your Sandwich
Instead of the usual cold cuts, try smoked salmon or a turkey burger. And instead of sandwich bread, use whole wheat tortillas, pita bread, or ciabatta rolls.
Keep It Simple
Remember that bringing your lunch doesn't have to be overwhelming. If you can't assemble a whole lunch in advance on some days, Brown says you can still take healthy ingredients from home.
For example, bring some leftover chicken or salmon and add it to a pasta salad that you buy at work.
For variety, Jackson Blatner suggests trying out one new lunch recipe each week. Pack that dish for lunch 2 or 3 days that week and bring leftovers from dinner on the other days. "That way, you can streamline the process of shopping for and preparing your meals," she says.