9 Lunch Ideas to Improve your Diet
By Rebecca Taggart
Breakfast is touted as being the most important meal of the day, but lunch—be it a homemade sandwich or a restaurant meal—gives us the energy for the afternoon’s work as well as an often-needed break from the computer, sales floor, or meetings. Lunch is also a great opportunity to improve your diet, increase nutrition, and maintain a healthy weight.
The rush of getting out of the house in the morning can make packing a lunch stressful and uninspired, yet the more we buy lunch out, the less healthy it tends to be (and the more money we spend). Think of a homemade lunch as a great way to boost your diet with foods you may not eat enough of. Many of us fall short on the daily recommended servings of fruits and vegetables—five to nine servings every day. A “serving” is about a 1/2 cup of fruit or veggies, which translates to around six broccoli florets, one Roma tomato, one banana, or six strawberries. Salads are a great option if you want to up the number of fruit and vegetable servings in your diet. And don’t forget beans! Beans are an excellent source of protein, fiber, and iron, among other nutrients, and are low-calorie and good for heart health.
9 Great Lunch Ideas
Here are nine great lunch ideas to help inspire you—personal favorites culled from office and home-office workers alike. They range from cold and hot salads to grains and protein. Most are sized for one large or two small servings.
What you need:
- Reusable salad and sandwich containers with tight-fitting lids.
- A bottle with an airtight lid for dressing (an empty jam jar will work).
- A microwavable plate and assorted utensils.
- A lunch bag big enough to transport containers to and from work.
A salad spinner is recommended but not essential. They come in very handy for drying lettuce and are a good investment if you don’t have one. To dry lettuce without a spinner, gently pat washed lettuce dry between paper towels or clean dish towels.
- Wash lettuce ahead of time and keep it ready in the fridge.
- Prepare your salad additions and dressing the night before and keep in airtight containers. Combine lettuce and additions in the morning, and take dressing in a separate container to add to salad just before eating.
- If you currently buy lunch every day, start off preparing lunches for just one or two days a week and slowly increase.
1. Southwest Veggie Salad
Serve this salad with Rebecca’s Vinaigrette (see below), or try a spicy Southwest Dressing, using Greek yogurt as your base. Pepitas are toasted pumpkin seeds, which are rich in iron (not to mention delicious).
1/2 head lettuce (around 3 cups), washed well and cut or torn into bite-size pieces
1/2 red bell pepper, diced
2 Roma or plum tomatoes, chopped
1/2 avocado, diced large
1/2 can black beans, rinsed
1/2 cup corn (cooked, frozen, or canned)
1/4 cup shredded pepper Jack cheese
1 handful of pepitas
Adjust ingredient amounts to personal taste (e.g., extra beans, no tomatoes). In the morning, combine ingredients in a medium to large plastic bowl with a tight-fitting lid. Place in the fridge when you get to work. Toss with dressing just before eating, sprinkle with pepitas, and enjoy!
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon vinegar of choice
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 garlic clove, pressed
1 teaspoon Dijon or other mustard
Dried oregano to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
Mix olive oil, vinegar, and a squeeze of lemon juice in a lidded jar. (I change vinegars to change taste, switching up white or red wine vinegars, seasoned rice wine vinegar, or balsamic vinegar). Add a pinch or two of dried oregano and a couple shakes of salt and pepper. Add garlic and Dijon mustard, and shake well to emulsify.
This dressing improves in flavor when left to sit overnight. Make extra to have some on hand—it will last for weeks in the fridge stored in an airtight container.
2. Mediterranean Green Salad
Add to 1/2 head (around 3 cups) washed lettuce base:
1/2 cucumber, sliced
1/2 red bell pepper, sliced
1–2 carrots, shredded
1/4 red onion, thinly sliced
2–6 pear or cherry tomatoes
1/2 can garbanzo beans (aka chickpeas), rinsed
Pitted black olives
Feta cheese, crumbled
Sliced almonds or toasted pine nuts
In the morning, combine ingredients in container at home. Just before eating, drizzle with dressing and sprinkle with nuts. Perfect with Rebecca’s Vinaigrette.
3. Tuna and White Bean Salad
1 can light tuna, water or oil-packed
1 can cannellini or white beans, rinsed
1 handful parsley, chopped
1/4 red onion, finely sliced
Salt and pepper to taste
Mix tuna, beans, onions, and parsley in a container. Before eating, drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar or Rebecca’s Vinaigrette.
For an added punch of immune-boosting nutrients and cancer risk–reducing benefits, serve over a bed of washed, chopped kale.
4. Fruit Salad with Yogurt or Cottage Cheese
This is a great way to increase your protein and calcium intake, and benefit from all the great nutrients in the fruit. It’s also a great option for breakfast at work. If you have a commute and little time to eat breakfast at home, throw fruit and yogurt in a blender and take it in a travel cup. Fruit salad or smoothies can be made from whatever fruit is on hand, from bananas, berries, apples, and citrus to mangoes, papaya, and star fruit.
Fresh fruit, chopped and peeled (if needed)
Honey to taste (optional)
Nonfat Greek style yogurt (or yogurt of choice), or cottage cheese
Topping options: Granola, ground flax seeds, chopped walnuts or almonds
Prepare the fruit, toppings, and yogurt or cottage cheese in separate containers. Refrigerate and combine before eating, using the yogurt container as your main bowl.
Remember that if fresh berries aren’t available, frozen berries are still an antioxidant-rich addition, and they’ll thaw by lunchtime.
5. Baked Potato or Sweet Potato with Healthy Trimmings
These can be cooked at home and reheated at the office or eaten at room temperature. (They can be cooked in the microwave at work, but it takes several minutes.) Baked potatoes can be decadent or healthy and nutritious. It’s all in the toppings.
1 large potato or sweet potato
Topping options: Olive oil, butter, sour cream, or plain yogurt (low- or nonfat) to taste; shredded cheese; salsa (fresh or jarred); cooked spinach or kale; chives or green onion (chopped); steamed broccoli florets or veggies of choice; hummus; sautéed mushrooms; fresh herbs, like dill, basil, cilantro, or parsley, chopped; and more—experiment!
Salt and pepper to taste
- Prepare toppings at home in separate small containers.
- Poke a few holes in the potato with a fork, and bake or microwave until it is easily pierced with a fork (an average-size potato takes around 45 minutes to an hour to bake in an oven preheated to 400°F; most microwaves have potato settings, but if not, try starting with 3 minutes on each side and increase time as needed).
- After cooking or reheating, slice the potato down the middle and spread open. Use a fork to mash the flesh inside the skin. If using butter or olive oil, add to potato flesh and mash in. Add toppings and seasonings of choice (my personal favorite: Trader Joe’s Everyday Seasoning grinder), and enjoy.
6. Bagel with Healthy Toppings
Choose a whole-grain bagel for fiber and extra nutrients, and Neufchatel cheese for the same taste as but less fat than cream cheese (there are also vegan cheese spreads available). Smoked or leftover cooked salmon and canned tuna are a delicious way to increase your intake of omega-3s, and mashed avocado or hummus both offer a tasty protein boost.
1 bagel, sliced in half
Smoked or leftover cooked salmon or canned tuna; or mashed avocado or hummus
Neufchatel, low-fat cream cheese, or vegan cheese spread
Capers, thinly sliced red onion, or tomato slices
Toast bagel if desired. Spread each side with a bit of cheese and top with salmon or tuna, or avocado or hummus. Sprinkle capers on top of fish for zingy, salty taste, or add thinly sliced red onion and/or tomato slices to any topping (add a little salt and pepper to avocado and/or sliced tomato). Eat open-faced or as a closed sandwich.
7. Tortillas with Warm Beans, Cheese, and Avocado
Chopped tomatoes, or even better, pico de gallo salsa (chopped onion, tomato, cilantro, and chilies), add freshness.
2–4 corn tortillas
1 can pinto or black beans, rinsed
Shredded cheese of your choice (such as cheddar, Monterey Jack or queso fresco)
Chopped tomatoes or pico de gallo salsa
1 ripe avocado
- At home, rinse the beans and place in a microwavable container. Bring shredded cheese and salsa in separate containers.
- Cut ripe avocado in half; remove pit and mash avocado flesh with a fork. Heat the beans in the microwave for 20–30 seconds. Wrap the tortillas in a damp paper towel or cloth napkin and heat for 10–20 seconds.
- Spread tortilla on a plate, add beans, and top with shredded cheese, scooped-out mashed avocado, and salsa. Repeat and enjoy.
Crackers make a great base for lunch if you pick healthy ones. Try low-fat, whole-grain, Scandinavian-style flatbreads, such as Rye Krisp, Wasa, Ryvita, and Kavli, which add fiber and nutrition to the meal. Eat with:
Hard cheese; cream cheese; hummus dip; peanut butter and jelly; leftover rare roast beef; avocado; crab; pickled herring; sardines; or try fish roe for a true Scandinavian experience.
Slice an apple or pear into thin wedges and combine with sharp cheese.
9. Hard-Boiled Eggs
Eggs are very much back on the healthy eating list, at least in moderation. At only 68 calories, eggs are a cheap and surprisingly low-calorie source of protein. They are also a good source of choline, an important anti-inflammatory in the body, significant in supporting heart health, and critical for brain function. A 2007 study showed 90 percent of Americans are deficient in this important nutrient. Rather than raise cholesterol levels, a 2004 study found that eggs actually improved the subjects’ cholesterol profiles. Hard-boiled eggs can be peeled and eaten out of hand with salt and pepper, added to salads, sliced on crackers, or made into egg-salad sandwiches.
Place room temperature eggs into a pot and cover with several inches of water. Bring water to boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook for 10 minutes. (Watch that water does not evaporate.) Drain eggs and let cool. Refrigerated hard-boiled eggs can keep for up to a week. Peel and eat as desired.
Lunch is the Gateway
When you take your own lunch to work, you remove unhealthy temptations and have an easier time controlling what you eat on a daily basis. Let your lunch be the gateway to improving your diet.