Midday Warrior: Seven Healthy Lunches to Power Your Day

By H.K. Jones

Lunch can be a problem meal no matter what your schedule. Some people don’t have time for it, so they hit the vending machines. That’s bad. Others are bored at work, or didn’t get a proper breakfast, and so gorge themselves on fast food in the middle of the day. That’s even worse. Others still are just in a rut, eating that same old turkey sandwich day after day and not really thinking about their nutritional needs. That's just plain boring. But it turns out that a healthy, nutritious, and tasty lunch is only a recipe away—and we’ve got seven easy, taste-packed recipes for you, enough to give you a whole new attitude toward the noon hour.

Lunch doesn't have to consist of a particular kind of food—sandwiches, or soup, or salad—any more than breakfast has to always be cereal. Instead, think of it as a combination of forces; like all meals, your mid-day meal should be a balanced ensemble of quality carbohydrates and fats, along with some lean protein. The exact percentage of each varies depending on your activity level and other factors, but a middle-of-the-road mix is carbohydrates (45% of total calories), protein (30%), and fat (25%). Try to distribute your calories throughout the day—you don’t want to eat all of your calories at lunch, nor at dinner. The average active man needs about 2,700 to 3,000 calories per day. Plan on eating around a quarter to a third of those calories at lunch.

To get you started, you’ll find below seven ways to brown bag it—in healthy style. Each of these meals contains about 750 calories and is low in unhealthy saturated and trans fats, but high in the “good” nutrients you need to keep you going till dinner. Pick one to start with that suits your taste buds best—but remember that with seven to choose from, you can rotate through the week. You’ll balance out your nutritional profile even as you stay away from the lunch rut... and the vending machine.

Meal Description Benefits
On the Go One fiber-rich, low-sugar energy bar; 2 part-skim mozzarella cheese sticks; 1 apple; 1 banana; and ¼ cup nuts. If you pick a high-fiber (at least 5 grams) bar with at least 8 grams of protein, like a Clif Bar Energy Bar, and combine it with low-fat cheese and nutrient-packed fruit and nuts, you can have a healthy lunch offering a balance of carbs, protein, and fat... all without the prep time.
Pita Sandwich Stuff 2 whole-wheat pitas with ¼ cup hummus, ½ cup arugula, a sliced plum tomato, and a few slices each of red onion and cucumber. Serve with a 6-ounce container of low-fat yogurt and 2 tablespoons of almonds. Hummus, made from chickpeas and sesame paste, gives you a healthy dose of both carbs and protein. Combined with the slow-release energy from the whole-wheat pita (look for 100% whole-wheat pitas with around 100 calories and at least 3 grams of fiber each), these yummy sandwiches will keep you fueled for hours. Low-fat and calcium-rich yogurt, along with some almonds for a little good-for-you fat, round out this healthful meal.
Chicken Salad Combine 4 cups of mixed greens with a cup of diced chicken, 1 cup grape tomatoes, ½ cup sliced red peppers, 2 tablespoons each of crumbled feta, pine nuts and olive oil, and a few tablespoons white wine vinegar. Serve with 2 pieces crispbread. Use skinless baked or roasted chicken—either precooked chicken strips or pulled from a rotisserie chicken—for a lean source of protein. Colorful greens, red peppers, and tomatoes are packed with antioxidants and phytochemicals, and the olive oil and pine nuts provide satisfying and healthy fats. Finish off the meal with a couple of fiber-rich, whole-grain crispbreads (like Wasa or Kavli).
Bean Burritos Roll 2 whole-wheat tortillas each with ½ cup black beans, ½ sliced avocado, and 2 tablespoons salsa. Serve with an orange. Protein-rich beans loaded with lots of fiber and phytonutrients, and avocados packed with heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, make this easy lunch meal a powerful choice. Look for 100% whole-grain tortillas with 4 or 5 grams of fiber each, and finish the lunch with a piece of fruit. Look for reduced-sodium canned beans like Goya Foods Low Sodium Black Beans.
Peanut Butter and Banana Sandwich Spread 1 slice whole-wheat bread with 3 tablespoons peanut butter and top with ½ sliced banana. Drizzle with a tablespoon of honey and top with another slice of bread. Serve with 1 ½ cups fat-free or 1% milk, and the other ½ of the banana. Whole-grain or whole-wheat bread filled with peanut butter (it’s rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fat) and potassium-packed bananas along with low-fat (and protein and calcium-rich) milk makes for a quick, good-for-you lunch.
Salmon Salad Combine 4 cups of baby spinach, 1 cup of sliced strawberries, 1 tablespoon chopped pecans, and 2 tablespoons olive oil. Top salad with 6 ounces roasted salmon and serve with a whole-grain roll. Make the salmon for dinner the night before and save some for your lunch salad the next day. Packed with protein and good-for-you Omega-3 fats, salmon is one of the most healthy fish meats available. Combine it with nutrient-dense spinach, antioxidant-packed berries, healthy-fat-filled pecans, calcium-rich and low-fat yogurt, and a 100% whole-grain roll (look for one with around 100 calorie) for a truly tasty, healthy lunch choice.
Veggie Quesadilla In a nonstick skillet, sauté ½ cup chopped onion and 3 minced garlic cloves in 2 teaspoons olive oil until just tender, about 3 minutes. Stir in 1 cup chopped red peppers and ½ cup sliced mushrooms, and cook until tender, about 5 minutes. Remove vegetables from pan. Coat the same skillet with cooking spray and lay 1 whole-wheat tortilla (around 120 calories with at least 3 grams of fiber) in the skillet. Spoon half of the vegetable mixture onto one half of the tortilla, and top with 2 ounces shredded reduced fat cheddar cheese (such as Cabot 50%). Fold the tortilla over the vegetables, and cook until browned, about 4 minutes per side. Repeat with second tortilla. Top each tortilla with 2 tablespoons each of reduced-fat sour cream and salsa. If you’re playing hooky from work or school, or have some time on the weekend, this vegetarian option makes for a tasty and satisfying lunch. Whole-grain tortillas (around 4 or 5 grams of fiber in each), nutrients-dense veggies, and low-fat cheese and sour cream, make this Mexican fiesta a delicious way to power through the rest of your afternoon.
About H. K. Jones: H. K. Jones is a registered dietitian, freelance writer, and nutrition professional based in Washington, D.C.