Just the idea of packing a lunch elicits a stress response in so many of us. Maybe we’re packing lunch for our kids, maybe it’s for us, but the pressure is on to create a simple yet satisfying, healthy yet hearty, easily transportable meal. This seemingly impossible task is daunting to many people. So much easier to rely on the school cafeteria, lunch trucks, and takeout, right?
Wrong! Let us consider the short- and long-term effects of poor choices at lunchtime. Yes, the school cafeteria may offer some healthy-ish options. I can count on my kids not to choose any of them. Likewise our workplace food trucks and fast food/delivery services: it’s a dietetic disaster out there, folks, and not packing a lunch is akin to heading out to the battlefield in a bathing suit.
My kids would eat mostly carbs, fats, and sugars, if given the chance, and their trays would be piled with pizza, pasta, burgers, hot dogs and fries, chips, juice, and dessert. The downtown lunch scene features pretty much the same choices. Almost all options include refined grains and added sugars, foods with a high glycemic index and load. These will cause a spike in blood sugar, which triggers a surge in insulin. The insulin grabs all that sugar and brings it to the fat cells to be stored away, causing a nice late-afternoon blood sugar crash.
Studies show that people who eat meals prepared at home, including brown-bag lunches, tend to consume significantly more fruits and vegetables and have a lower body mass index than those who do not. If we pack a lunch, we can make better choices: a meal higher in fiber, protein, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats has a lower glycemic index and load, and will keep our blood sugar steady — no crash! So in the short term, we can be productive through the afternoons. A little planning goes a long way: in the long term, studies show that a healthier diet is associated with improved cognition through the elder years.
How to build a healthy lunch
There’s a basic formula to follow: Primarily plants (actual fruits and vegetables) and protein (like legumes, lentils, tofu, seafood, chicken), with some complex carbohydrates (think: whole grains) and healthy fats (think: nuts and nut butters, seeds and seed butters, avocado, healthy oils).
If the bulk of the meal is plants, like actual fruits and vegetables, you’ll get plenty of fiber. Protein and healthy fats are satisfying. If you include whole grains, you’ll get complex carbohydrates. All of these are absorbed slowly, preventing that blood sugar spike and crash (and also inhibiting fat formation).
But what do these healthy options look like? Below are some simple lunches that follow the basic formula, and that our family actually eats.
Everyone loves dipping and stacking their food, not just kids — this is why those prepackaged boxes of processed food sell so well. So we make our own healthy versions of these with things that can be simply thrown into a “bento box”-style container, without requiring much prep. Here are a number of suggestions that are easy, inexpensive, require slicing at most, and travel well:
Build-Your-Own Gourmet Pizza: Sliced cherry tomatoes; mozzarella cheese; fresh basil; marinara sauce; mini whole-wheat pita breads or pizza dough rounds; orange sections.
Nacho Lunch Muncher: Strips of bell peppers; pinto beans; slices of cheddar cheese; whole-grain chips; low-sodium salsa; sliced peaches.
Breakfast-As-Lunch Box: Sliced strawberries and fresh raspberries, blackberries, and/or blueberries; healthy yogurt; sliced almonds or unsalted sunflower seeds; low-sugar granola or toasted oats cereal.
Hummus Dipper: Carrot sticks and bell pepper strips; container of hummus; whole-grain crackers; unsalted pistachios; apple slices tossed with cinnamon.
Deconstructed Tuna Sandwiches: Cucumber slices; container of tuna salad (tuna, lemon juice, touch of mayo); whole-grain bread squares or crackers; cantaloupe chunks.
Nut Butter Dips and Mini-Wraps: Apple and banana slices (spritz with lemon juice to prevent browning); small container of almond, cashew, peanut, or sunflower seed butter; raisins; whole-wheat wrap cut into fourths.
These ideas are all endlessly modifiable. Customize to fit your preferences!
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