Quick, Easy, Cheap, and Healthy: Lunch Ideas for Work!
Where Do You Eat Lunch?
Where you eat your lunch obviously has a lot of say over what your meal options are. If you work in an office that has a fridge, microwave, and maybe even a toaster oven, your possibilities are almost endless. If you're on the go all day and eat lunch out of a car, truck, or backpack, you can only bring foods that won't spoil and can be eaten cold. Luckily, you still have plenty of options to keep variety in your diet!
Invest in a Good Lunch Box
These days, you are not limited to throwing a sandwich in a brown paper bag when eating lunch on the go. Bento lunch boxes have separate compartments for side dishes and your main course. There are special lunch boxes made for carrying salads that will keep all of the ingredients separate and have a sealable container for dressing, so you can mix it all together fresh at lunchtime. Some lunch boxes have built-in ice packs, so you can throw it in the freezer the night before and have a cold carrying case to keep your lunch chilled all day. Spending the money (usually less than $20) on a good lunch box now will save you money over time compared to bringing a new brown bag daily, with smaller ziploc bags inside separating all your ingredients.
Sandwiches will always be a popular lunch choice because they are simple, easy to transport, and can be customized to anyone's personal tastes. Mixed with some healthy side dishes, they're perfectly filling for a midday meal. When making your sandwich, there are a few tips to remember:
- Use whole-grain bread. White bread and processed wheat breads don't even compare to the nutrients you can get out of whole grain bread. Whole grains have been linked to decreasing the chance of stroke, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure, certain types of cancer, and obesity. If that doesn't convince you to switch to whole grains, I don't know what will! Your grocery store probably has a whole aisle devoted to bread, so check out your options for different types of whole grain wheat, multi-whole grain, or even varieties like whole grain rye. Make sure the label says "100% whole-grain" on it, or you could just be buying sugar-packed white bread disguised with a few seeds on the crust.
- Use lean proteins. To me, nothing sounds better than a sandwich piled high with salami, pepperoni, and sugared ham. However, eating such processed, salty food daily will do a number on your health. Look for healthy, lean proteins for your sandwich. Bake a chicken breast and cut it up into pieces. Get some lean turkey from the deli. The health benefits of an omega-3 rich diet are indisputable—try incorporating tuna or salmon sandwiches into your weekly diet. If you do want to occasionally indulge in a fattier meat, look for a low-sodium option at the deli counter.
- Pile it high with veggies. Don't turn to cheese and mayonnaise for extra flavor. Veggies will give you all the flavor you need, plus they're packed full of fiber and vitamins! Peppers can add a kick, cucumbers can add a refreshing crisp texture, onions or garlic can add a strong burst of flavor. Iceberg lettuce is a common topping on many sandwiches, but try switching it up with spinach! Commonly considered a "superfood" because of its countless health benefits, spinach also has more flavor and is more filling than iceberg lettuce.
- Watch the dressings. While many people like their sandwiches with mayo, mustard, barbeque sauce, salad dressing, or vinegar and oil, be aware of everything you're putting on. Many of those dressing options can double or triple the sugar and sodium levels of your formerly healthy sandwich. Try to avoid any dressing, but if you must use it than limit the amount and look for low-sugar and low-sodium options.
Ideas to Get You Started:
Healthy Snacks and Sides
A sandwich alone probably won't quell your appetite at lunch, so you'll need to bring some snacks to eat on the side.
- Eat your vegetables! The importance of veggies in your diet can't be overstated. The fiber will fill you up, and each vegetable offers its own array of nutrients and vitamins. Carrots, cucumbers, peppers, apples, cherry tomatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, spinach, celery, artichokes, squash, radishes, sweet potatoes... the possibilities are endless! Mix them all up into a salad or eat each separately. Steam them, grill them, or eat them fresh. One thing to note is that frozen vegetables are actually healthier than fresh or canned veggies, because they are flash frozen as soon as they are picked, when they are at their ripest. Don't feel bad about buying a $1 bag of frozen veggies to last you through one or two meals- while fresh is still healthy and delicious, you'll be saving a little money and gaining a few nutrients by buying frozen. If you need a dip for your veggies, reach for the healthier hummus before you reach for ranch dressing.
- Hard boiled eggs. While many people shy away from eggs because of their cholesterol content, modern research shows that one egg a day doesn't significantly affect your cholesterol levels. Eggs are packed with protein, so don't be scared to hard boil a few eggs each week, and grab one for your lunch every day. If you're already on a special diet to watch your cholesterol, try removing the yolk and just eating the egg white- but check with your doctor for his okay.
- Rice or pasta. While rice and pasta can be used to make an excellent main dish, you can also bring a small amount as a side. Make a batch of brown rice or whole-grain pasta at the beginning of the week, and portion it out to bring a small side each day. You can add in some vegetables for flavor, but try to go easy on flavorings. Instead of melting butter and cheese over pasta, try a drizzle of olive oil or some unsalted tomato sauce. See if you can adjust to the taste of rice without soy sauce, and get flavor from a few chopped peppers and onions instead.
- Nuts. Nuts are high in fat, but they generally have more omega-3 healthy fats, and therefore are a great addition to your diet if eaten in moderation. Mix up some walnuts, almonds, chestnuts, or cashews. You can make yourself a healthy trail mix by adding some dark unsweetened chocolate for its heart health benefits, and a few berries for their rich antioxidants.
- Fruits. Because of their high sugar content, fruits should be eaten in more moderation than vegetables. However, their natural and unrefined sugars are much better for you than those found in most candies and processed foods. Grab some strawberries, watermelon, peaches, blueberries, cantaloupe, or whatever other fruits you enjoy. Pomegranates have recently surged in popularity due to their health benefits, and once you figure out how to eat them they make for a delicious and refreshing snack!
- Edamame. Many beans are protein- and fiber- rich and a healthy way to curb your appetite. Edamame, however, are truly the star legume. Just half a cup of shelled edamame offers the same fiber content as 4 slices of whole grain bread, and give you 10% of your daily vitamins A and C. Soy has been linked to lowering cholesterol, protecting against cancer and heart disease, lowering insulin resistance, and reducing inflammation. And guess what ladies- the phytoestrogen in edamame has even been linked to breast growth! Soy can be bought fresh or frozen.
Eating the same old sandwich every day can get boring, and your taste buds start craving a burst of new and exciting flavors. While you can mix up your sandwich with different toppings and breads, sometimes you want something completely different. If you don't have a microwave at work it may be harder to think of other options, but they still exist!
- Chicken fried rice. I can't think of a better one-dish meal that includes all of your food groups in a healthy, yet flavorful and delicious, way. Chicken fried rice is fairly simple, too. Cook a batch of brown rice as you normally would, and let it sit in the fridge for a day or two. Fresh rice doesn't fry up as well. Next, take some chicken breast and cut it into cubes or strips. I like to marinate it in teriyaki seasoning for a few hours, to give it some extra kick. Heat up a skillet with sesame oil, or it's healthier alternatives of vegetable, flaxseed, or canola oil. Throw in the chicken and cook until you no longer see any pink. While the chicken is cooking, chop up all the veggies you want. Green onions, white onions, peas, carrots, baby corn, chinese broccoli, snap peas, water chestnuts, spinach, and celery are all common choices. You can also find pre-mixed stir fry veggies in the frozen aisle. Throw everything in with the chicken, and stir for a few minutes. If you were using frozen veggies, wait until they have defrosted. Next, crack an egg or two over the whole mixture, and stir until the egg is no longer runny. Finally, stir all that up with your brown rice, giving the rice a few minutes to fry. Voila! You have a one-dish meal, packed with flavor, that combines whole grain, lean protein, and vegetables in every bite.
- Whole wheat pasta. Pasta is a very simple dish. Boil it for 8-12 minutes, drain it, and you're done. After that, it's totally customizable. Properly cooked pasta with a mix of veggies and dash of olive oil doesn't need any heavy sauces, but if you prefer sauce be sure to use tomato sauce with no salt or sugar added. It's much cheaper than pre-mixed sauces like Ragu or Prego, and you can add seasonings to your own liking. While heating it up, mix in some chopped garlic, onions, parsley, oregano, basil, rosemary, thyme- whatever suits you! Steamed veggies tend to go best in pasta. My favorites are zucchini, yellow squash, and spinach, but you can experiment with mushrooms, tomatoes, cauliflower, onions, peppers, or anything else you choose. As far as a protein goes, try to avoid beef sauces. Substitute ground turkey, chopped chicken breast, or ground bison instead. Cook it in a skillet and add to your seasoned tomato sauce, then pour over your cooked whole-wheat pasta and veggies. A simple meal that combines all the food groups, is easy to prepare, and costs next to nothing!
- Salads. Salads don't have to be a side dish! Start with a base of lettuce, spinach, or mixed greens. Add all the flavorful veggies you can think of- make it colorful! Add some protein to make it filling- grilled chicken breast, turkey, tuna, nuts, and beans. Adding pomegranate seeds or berries will boost its antioxidant content. Sprinkle it with flaxseed to increase your omega-3 intake. Add healthy fats with avocados or olives. A little bit of a flavorful cheese like bleu or feta will go a long way! Small, sealable plastic containers can be used to transport dressing, but try to use a healthy dressing like balsamic vinegar or raspberry vinaigrette over something heavy like ranch or french. Some salad ideas to get you started can be found here.
- Wraps. While similar to sandwiches, wrapping your ingredients in a whole-grain tortilla adds a different flavor than two slices of bread. If you're watching carbohydrates, this is the perfect lunch option. You can even grill your tortilla, either wrapped or in quesadilla form, for a warm treat.