I love giving tips on how to make cheap lunches that are healthy.
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.
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.
gurbani on February 13, 2015:
Informative hub. lean proteins are the best option for healthy eating. Instead of animal based sources there also many other plant based sources of lean proteins which is best option for vegan and vegetarian.
Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on January 28, 2015:
Great hub. I just posted a hub like this and focused on the other meals of the day. Great minds think alike! Nice tips!
Kierstin Gunsberg from Traverse City, Michigan on January 21, 2015:
Great ideas! I have bagged-lunch-burnout from packing my husband's lunches five days a week. It's definitely time to invest in some Bento boxes.
Laeeka from Durban, South Africa on January 06, 2015:
Enjoyed the section on healthy sides and snacks. Often we reach for the wrong things without realizing that we can do better if we have a proper game plan.
luisj305 from Florida on January 02, 2015:
These are all perfect meals, it really is upsetting when you can't heat up a meal which isn't meant to be eaten cold..
Great ideas, now all I need is a lunchbox!
Hendrika from Pretoria, South Africa on November 18, 2014:
Thank you for all the good ideas. I think the most important thing is to plan ahead. So often I get caught and then it is back to peanut butter!
febriedethan from Indonesia on October 24, 2014:
I love this idea. I have to prepare lunch for my daughter every day, so this hub is very useful for me. Thank's
Jessica Rich from Nashville, TN on September 06, 2014:
RefundSweepers on August 30, 2014:
Ramen, less than .20 and you just add hot water.
Kathryn Grace from San Francisco on August 26, 2014:
As a newbie, I'm thrilled to find another whole grains and whole foods writer here on HubPages. Veggie wraps are one of my favorite take-along lunch foods, and I find avocado and hummus both nutritious alternatives to mayonnaise for the "glue" in wraps, as well as on sandwiches. Thanks so much for all these wonderful suggestions and illustrative photographs.
Tracie-Fisher on August 26, 2014:
Loved your suggestions for making a healthy lunch. It can make such a difference in stamina for the afternoon.
Maria Giunta from Sydney, Australia on August 15, 2014:
Great healthy ideas for lunches. Actually your ideas are good for anytime - dinners, snacking, travelling. Great tips, voted up, useful and shared.
David BruiseDude from Cleveland, Ohio on August 10, 2014:
Great advice!! Now I'm getting hungry!!
Christine Rogers from Ohio on August 04, 2014:
Good Hub:0 thanks for the ideas
Gordon Hamilton from Wishaw, Lanarkshire, United Kingdom on June 04, 2014:
I love these ideas and you certainly include plenty of options. I worked in an office environment for the best part of twenty years and lunch was almost always simple sandwiches. Working largely from home these days, I can obviously eat pretty much what I want but many of your healthy tips definitely still apply.
MoonRaye from Florida on May 21, 2014:
I remember the days where I wanted to save money by making my own lunches for school. Well, school is done with, and now I have work to worry about. But this certainly gave me an idea on what to eat at my lunch break!
Nancy Adkins from North Dallas on May 14, 2014:
Great ideas love the pictures. I need to take time and do that each morning.
Thelma Alberts from Germany and Philippines on April 28, 2014:
Those are healthy lunch ideas. I love those veggies and fruits for my lunch box and it´s cheaper than buying lunch. Thanks for sharing the ideas. Have a great day!
Mackenzie Sage Wright on April 15, 2014:
Delicious looking lunches, great hub. I enjoyed this. It gave me a lot of ideas for some different lunches to pack for myself, my husband and the kids. It's so easy to get tempted to fall back on fast foods and stuff, you have to shake it up a bit. Nice work.
lesliebyars on March 23, 2014:
I enjoyed reading this hub. These are great ideas and I am glad that you decided to share them. I voted up and awesome. Your pinterest reads are amazing. I am always looking for different lunches, I get tired of taking the same thing for lunch each day.
Lisa Harrel from US on January 03, 2014:
Looks good! I use to pack lunches like these often. I would pack my lunches to save $$.
Amie Butchko from Warwick, NY on December 05, 2013:
Good advice. Sometimes all we need is just a little bit of inspiration. I am going to pack lunches like these for my kids. Healthy and convenient options.
CrisSp from Sky Is The Limit Adventure on October 19, 2013:
I'm a Flight Attendant and we have free meals on board but I prefer packing my own as much as I could. At least, I know what I put in there. :)
Very useful, enjoyable hub!
PoeticPhilosophy from Canada on September 12, 2013:
You know how to pack a lunch! Haha
europewalker on July 16, 2013:
Helpful tips, voted up. Making your own lunch can be beneficial to your health and you certainly can control the calories that way.
Alecia Murphy from Wilmington, North Carolina on July 16, 2013:
I do a lot of these when I make my lunch for the day. The only thing I'm slacking in is bringing salad but hopefully that will change. I feel better when I pack my lunch and so does my wallet. Great hub :)!