Quick and Healthful Lunches

When you’re rushing out the door on a weekday morning, you just can’t think ahead to lunchtime. It’s hard enough to get showered and presentable, feed the cat, get your kids to school, and do whatever else needs doing. So when your stomach rumbles around noon, you dash to the nearest store for a ham sandwich gloppy with mayonnaise or you accept your co-worker’s offering of the leftover fries at the bottom of her McDonald’s bag. And you vow you’ll remember to bring fruit and yogurt with you tomorrow.

Don’t berate yourself. With all the demands on our time these days, few of us eat as healthfully as we’d like to. But upgrading your lunch munchies is easier and less time-consuming than you think.

Tips for Lunch

Start small. Decide to make one or two changes — like setting an apple or orange beside your briefcase or car keys every night — and see if you can turn it into a habit.

Set a goal of bringing your lunch twice a week. Monday is easy because you can whip up something you like during a leisurely Sunday afternoon. Then, when you prepare a midweek dinner, make extra so you’ll have leftovers to bring. Note: If your family routinely polishes off every last crumb, sock a little away in a plastic container before you serve the meal (don’t worry — they’ll survive).

Stock up on lunch possibilities when you shop for groceries. Think simple — a loaf of whole wheat bread and a jar of peanut butter; a package of corn tortillas, a can of black beans, and some fresh tomatoes; frozen veggie burgers, whole grain hamburger buns, and a jar of roasted sweet peppers. Throw together a few of your favorite ingredients, and see what happens!

Some days, settle for bringing just part of your lunch. Shoot for at least two wholesome items in every lunch, and you’ll be doing pretty well. Slip a miniature box of raisins into your tote bag, grab a handful of baby carrots, slice up a red bell pepper, scoop some crunchy cereal (slightly sweetened oat or wheat squares) into a sandwich bag. And you needn’t forgo nuts: As long as you keep your serving size to a handful, peanuts, almonds, cashews, and many other nuts are a good way to get some protein, folic acid, heart-healthy fat, and important minerals. They help you feel full, too.

On days when you buy a sandwich, go to a place that’ll make one to order. Ask for turkey or roast beef, extra tomatoes and onions, and only a smidge of mayonnaise. Better yet, opt for mustard. Don’t get tuna if it’s mixed with lots of mayo. By skipping that eggy, oily spread, you’ll cut back the fat and cholesterol significantly.

Explore other options near work. Maybe there’s a burrito place on the corner, but you think of burritos as fattening. They can be, but see if you can get one made with whole beans (instead of refried) and without meat, cheese, or sour cream. A spoonful of guacamole will give you a nice dose of vitamin E and heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, but don’t overdo it — avocados are high in calories. Ask for lots of salsa!

Don’t wait until you’re ravenous. Eat lunch as soon as your stomach lets you know it’s in need. Otherwise, you may end up wolfing down more than you need — or grabbing a greasy cheeseburger from the nearest fast-food outlet. One trick to prevent overeating is to have a piece of fruit or a small serving of low-fat yogurt about an hour before mealtime.

Love Your Lunch

Once you’re regularly bringing lunch to work, be sure to vary the fare a bit. Even your favorite sandwich can lose its appeal if you’re chowing it down every single day. Here are seven easy and healthful ideas to inspire you.

Pick a Peck of Pita Pockets

When you weary of conventional sandwiches, try zesty do-it-yourself pita pockets. Start with whole wheat pita bread. For the filling: Chop up half a cup of your favorite veggies — carrots, broccoli, cucumbers, sweet peppers, or a mixture. Add a sprinkling of shredded reduced-fat cheese. Then stir it all together with salsa. To prevent sogginess, seal the filling in a reusable container and fill the pita pocket when it’s time to eat.

Bagel Bonanza

For another variation on the standard sandwich, slice a big whole grain bagel in half and spread one side thinly with light cream cheese. Then lay on all the flavorful, nutritious toppings you find lurking in your refrigerator or pantry: tomato slices, diced jalapeno peppers, pickle slices, fresh spinach leaves or other greens, slivers of fresh red onion. The possibilities are endless.

Personal Pizzas

This one’s for the kid in you. These mini-pies take only a few minutes to prepare: Slice an English muffin, spread a heaping tablespoon of spaghetti sauce on each half, and sprinkle each with a tablespoon of shredded low-fat cheese. If you can spare another minute, top with sliced bell pepper or onion. Bake your pizzas in the toaster oven until the cheese melts slightly, then reheat them at lunchtime in the office microwave.

Crunchy Yogurt

Start with plain or vanilla nonfat yogurt, then stir in half a cup of low-fat granola or another good-munching cereal. Add a tablespoon or two of raisins, chopped walnuts, peanuts, or sunflower seeds. You can seal it all in a plastic container or leave the yogurt in its carton and pack the mix-ins in a sandwich bag. For a weekend lunch at home, have crunchy yogurt with fresh melon or a sliced banana.

Cool Tuna Casserole

Here’s a comforting pasta dish you can make in advance and seal in single-serving containers. Mix one can of water-packed tuna with about three cups of cooked macaroni (try whole wheat elbows from your local health food store). Add a cup of vegetables — thawed frozen corn or peas, or chopped carrots, celery, or tomatoes — and gently toss with a little low-fat salad dressing. Round out the theme with a roll or breadsticks, if you like.

The Peanut Butter Classic

Many of us cower from its calories, but peanut butter is also full of protein, folic acid, and key minerals. Use it in moderation, and it’s a fine lunch choice. Choose a brand without hydrogenated fats, which are often added to prevent separation. Instead of jam, which is loaded with sugar, give your sandwich a fresh taste by adding thin slices of apple or banana, or a scattering of raisins.

Quirky Quinoa

A protein-rich grain available in natural foods stores, quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) cooks up in about 15 minutes. Make a small saucepan of it on the weekend, zap some frozen peas or other veggies in the microwave, chop up a few almonds or cashews for crunch, and cut a block of firm tofu into cubes; then stir all of these ingredients together and seal the mixture in single-serving containers to bring to the office. Unless you work with a bunch of granola heads, be prepared to explain what the heck you’re eating to your coworkers.

Further Resources

Roberta Larson Duyuff, MS, RD, CFCS, The American Dietetic Association’s Complete Food and Nutrition Guide. Chronimed Publishing, 1996, 1998.

References

Roberta Larson Duyuff, MS, RD, CFCS, The American Dietetic Association’s Complete Food and Nutrition Guide. Chronimed Publishing, 1996, 1998.

American Medical Association, Good Food That’s Good For You: Good Nutrition at Every Age

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