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Easy Lunch Ideas

By: Alissa Palladino, MS, RDN, LD, ACSM-CPT Katherine Clevenger

Is packing a lunch for your kids or yourself the bane of your weekday existence? Do you regularly have an internal debate about how many times a person can consecutively eat a PB&J, a frozen packaged meal, or a can of chicken noodle soup before others stage an intervention?

Excellent! You’ve come to the right place.

Here are three ways to make lunch planning (for school, work, or otherwise) easy and fun again (and colorful, and fresh, and healthy, too!).

Two important notes before we start

  • Eating a balanced mid-day meal improves energy levels and focus and can also help prevent those late afternoon snacking crazes. If you’re looking to add some balanced eating patterns into your life, packing a lunch is a very easy way to get started and get the hang of things, instead of trying to overhaul your whole diet at once.
  • Don’t forget – the keys to a balanced meal are carbs + protein + heart-healthy fat.

The options below can be customized based on you or your family’s food preferences to stay energized & satisfied, while saving time, money & stress!

Option 1:

Stack Up a Stellar Sandwich

Simple and satisfying, a sandwich is one of the easiest templates for a balanced meal.

Here are some tips to optimize the nutritional benefits:

  • Look for whole grain bread, wrap or pita to add those fiber-rich carbs and extra nutrients
  • Fill with lean protein, such as turkey breast, grilled chicken, or tuna. Great vegetarian options include hummus or a fried egg (feeling fancy yet?)
  • Pile on the veggies – lettuce, spinach, tomato, peppers, onions, sprouts, cucumbers – the more the better!
  • Try basic or gourmet mustard instead of mayo for a delicious pop of flavor and less saturated fat
  • Include a small amount of cheese, avocado, hummus, or oil-based dressing for healthy fats, boosting flavor and increasing satiety throughout the day
  • If you’re used to eating chips with your sandwich, try apple slices, berries or grapes on the side instead for additional vitamins and minerals. For a savory option, try crinkle-cut carrots with a little bit of hummus or ranch for dipping

Option 2:

Assemble a Satisfying Salad

Satisfying is the VIP key word here. Salads always end up as the stereotype for anything “healthy.” In reality, they often end completely out of balance, whether totally over-powered by toppings or lacking enough umph to fuel a person more than a couple hours max before hunger strikes again.

Find balance and satisfaction by:

  • Starting with a base of greens (at least 2 cups of lettuce, spinach, or arugula) and adding as many non-starchy veggies as you want (i.e. tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, mushrooms and carrots) for volume, vitamins, and minerals – seriously, don’t be shy with the veggies here
  • Including a lean protein (i.e. grilled chicken, turkey, tofu, salmon, shrimp, or lean beef) for satiety
  • Adding a complex carb (i.e. black beans, lentils, chickpeas, corn, quinoa, or fresh fruit) for energy and fiber – this one gets overlooked way too often!
  • Choosing one or two higher-fat toppings for flavor and texture (i.e. nuts, seeds, cheese, olives, or avocado)
  • Trying an oil-based vinaigrette as a dressing, and letting the salad ingredients shine by limiting dressing to a couple tablespoons

Option 3:

Build a Bento!

Just try to look at a few pictures of bento boxes and not feel inspired by all the colors and creative combinations! Bento boxes are the best in easy finger-foods and are quick to assemble. To be honest, it’s hard to decide whether they’re more fun for kids or adults to eat – which means that everyone wins here!

To make a balanced bento, just select a food from each of the categories below:

Veggies

  • Raw veggies such as baby carrots, snap peas, cucumbers, bell peppers, celery, or baby tomatoes
  • Roasted, grilled or sautéed veggies such as broccoli, asparagus, string beans or zucchini
  • Side salad made with arugula, spinach and/or romaine lettuce

Protein

  • Hard-boiled eggs
  • Slices of deli turkey, ham, lean roast beef
  • Canned tuna
  • Greek yogurt or cottage cheese
  • String cheese, slices of your favorite cheese, or cubed cheese
  • Roasted chickpeas or edamame

Fiber-Rich Carbs

  • Whole grain crackers, pretzels, bean chips, or air-popped popcorn
  • Whole grain cereal or a grain-based granola bar
  • Fresh or dried fruit
  • Pita bread or mini pitas

Healthy Fats

  • Avocado
  • Nuts and seeds, such as cashews, almonds, walnuts, or pumpkin seeds
  • Oil-based dressing for salad or dipping veggies
  • Guacamole
  • Hummus
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