It’s 11:30 am, and your stomach starts to grumble. Do you: A) drive down the street for your favorite drive-thru combo meal? B) ignore your grumbling stomach and keep working through lunch? C) take a much needed break to eat the healthy lunch that you brought from home? If you answered C, then you’re right! But how exactly do you prepare easy healthy lunches for work? Read on for tips for packing a healthy lunch!
Benefits of Healthy Lunches
Whether you work from home or commute to the office, lunch is an important part of the day. It often provides a midday break where you can rest your mind, catch up with friends, and get a much needed energy boost. Choosing to make and bring a healthy lunch to work can ensure productivity, efficiency, and energy – all important attributes of an effective boss, co-worker, employee, or business partner!
Think you’re too busy for lunch? Think again! A healthy homemade lunch can actually save you lots of time throughout the week; no more waiting in drive-thru lines, restaurant cues, or grocery store checkout lanes. Plus, a pre-made lunch will also save you energy, stress, and money – all big wins in our book!
What makes up a healthy lunch?
Consuming a variety of nutrient-rich foods at lunch can prevent that almost inevitable mid-afternoon energy crash. There are two methods that can help you build a healthy lunch: the “Key 3” method or the MyPlate method.
The “Key 3” Method
There are 3 key nutrients we want to include in a balanced lunch for optimal energy levels and nutrient density: fiber, protein, and healthy fats.
Fiber keeps you full, maintains steady blood sugar levels (and therefore prevents an inevitable energy crash), and provides other long-term benefits such as cancer prevention, decreased heart disease risk, and improved bowel function. Whole grains, beans/legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds are all fiber-rich foods.
Protein provides satiety and helps you feel full. Nutritious protein options for lunch include beans/legumes, tofu, tempeh, nuts, seeds, eggs, fish, low-fat dairy, chicken, and turkey.
Healthy fats are calorie-dense, meaning that they provide lots of energy per volume. Fats help keep you full for hours until your next meal. Examples of healthy fats include olive oil, nuts/nut butters, seeds, avocados, coconut, and fatty fish.
The MyPlate Method
If you are a visual person, this is a great method for planning simple, healthy lunches. MyPlate emphasizes making half of your plate fruits and veggies, one quarter grains, and one quarter protein. They recommend including dairy too, but we prefer Harvard’s Healthy Eating Plate, which lumps dairy into the protein category. Don’t forget to include healthy fats and water too!
There are lots of great meals that have all of the MyPlate components that aren’t divided into quadrants, but are instead mixed, mashed, folded, wrapped, blended, or cooked together. Think soups, casseroles, sandwiches, wraps, salads, bowls, stir-frys, and even smoothies!
Learn more about this meal planning method in our healthy plate makeover article.
How to Pack a Healthy Lunch
Now that you know the components of a healthy lunch, it’s time to pack one up! We’ve got lots of healthy packed lunch ideas for work, plus some tips and strategies that make this packing process easier!
Meal Prep for Success
Doing some lunch meal prep for the week is a good place to start. Check out our meal planning for beginners article, or if you’re interested in more plant-forward or vegetarian lunch ideas, check out our plant-based meal prep article. Once you know the basics of meal prepping, you’ll be prepared to throw together fast and healthy lunches no problem!
Healthy Meal Prep Ideas for Lunch:
- Whole grains: quinoa, brown rice, farro, millet, whole wheat pasta
- Beans: drained & rinsed, non-refried, hummus, or cooked
- Lean proteins: roasted or grilled chicken, hard boiled eggs, baked tofu
- Homemade vinaigrette
- Chopped veggies -– raw or roasted
- Trail mix
- Energy bites
- Dark Chocolate Covered Dried Fruit
Cook Once, Eat Twice (or Thrice!)
Another of our favorite lunch-packing tips is utilizing the “cook once, eat twice” method. When making dinner, increase the yield or set aside some leftovers for lunch the next day. This works well for recipes that have flavors that develop overnight such as soups, curries, and sauces.
Pack Lunch the Night Before
On the subject of preparing meals the evening before, get in the habit of packing your lunch at night. This will save you time in the morning and prevent you from skipping lunch or going out for fast food.
Set Yourself Up for Success
You’ll probably be a lot more motivated to make healthy lunches if you have the right dishware, utensils, and accessories to make it convenient and accessible. Start by purchasing an insulated lunchbox. Choose one with a fun or fashionable design to inspire you to pack your lunch more often! Alternatively, use a reusable shopping bag. Try to avoid using plastic bags or paper sacks, as these create unnecessary waste.
We recommend purchasing a variety of microwave-safe storage containers that will allow you to transfer, store, and heat your food safely. We also like these Bentgo box containers because they divide the container into several portions. This is a great reminder to include a variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in each meal!
A Note on Food Safety
When packing foods that need to stay cold, don’t forget an ice pack! This is especially important if you won’t have access to a refrigerator. Bacteria grows quickly above 41ºF and especially above 70ºF, so it’s important to keep your food below this temperature. Never leave perishable foods in a hot car!
If you’ll be reheating your lunch in the microwave, make sure to heat it to an internal temperature of 165ºF. You probably won’t have a food thermometer in your lunchbox (or maybe you will!), so just be sure that you heat your dish thoroughly and stir it at least once during heating to ensure even heat distribution.
Stay Stocked Up
Keep a few healthy snacks at your desk or in the office fridge so that if you forget your lunch, you aren’t hungry enough for a full meal, or you don’t have time to take a break, you can eat a nourishing snack that will keep you focused and energized.
Shelf-Stable Snacks for your Work Desk
- Trail Mix
- Dried Fruit
- Energy Bars
- Apples, Oranges, and Bananas
- Nut Butter
- Whole Grain Crackers
Simple Snacks for the Office Fridge
- Baby Carrots, Sugar Snap Peas, Cherry Tomatoes
- Plain Greek Yogurt (Keep honey at your desk if you want some sweetness)
- Grapes & Berries
- Energy Bites
Easy Healthy Lunch Recipes
Now for the part you’ve probably been waiting for: easy, healthy office lunches! There are nearly endless options, but here are some of our favorite homemade lunch ideas:
- Wraps & Sandwiches
- Salads & Grain Bowls
- Grownup Lunchables/Snack Plates
Wrap & Sandwich Ideas
There’s a world of sandwiches beyond your basic ham & cheese and PB&J! Think outside the bun and build an upgraded sandwich with a variety of whole grains, lean proteins, veggies, and healthy spreads. When building a healthy and tasty sandwich, we recommend following this basic formula: Base + Protein + Spread + Fillers. Once you have this formula down, play around with adding different herbs and spices; the sky’s the limit for flavor combinations!
- Base: whole grain bread, English muffin, tortilla, flatbread, crackers, bagel, pita bread
- Protein: mashed beans, marinated tofu, cooked tempeh, tuna, salmon, hard-boiled eggs, sliced cheese, chicken
- Spread: hummus, mashed avocado, Greek yogurt, pesto, roasted sweet potato
- Fillers: spinach, spring mix, lettuce, sliced tomato, sprouts, shredded carrots, etc.
Grain Bowl & Salad Lunch Ideas
Say goodbye to boring ranch-drenched iceberg lettuce salads and say hello to hearty grain salads, flavorful green salads, versatile bean-based salads! When building a nourishing and satisfying salad, keep MyPlate and the “Key 3” in mind and work to include fiber, protein, and healthy fats. Mix together your favorite grains, beans/legumes, veggies, and a healthy dressing for a filling and nourishing salad or bowl. If bringing a green salad, keep the dressing separate until you’re ready to eat; this prevents the greens from getting soggy.
Need some lunch recipe inspiration?
Here are some of our favorite salad and dressing recipes:
What’s better than a cozy, filling bowl of soup? Try out some of our favorite soup and stew recipes, and feel free to add your favorite garnishes.
Leftovers for Lunch
Check out some of our favorite dinner recipes! Either cook extras in the evening or set aside a few servings for lunch the following day.
Make a Grownup Lunchable!
When you’re not in the mood for any of the above options, a grownup lunchable, otherwise known as a snack plate, can be a perfect solution. Create a satisfying lunch by including foods from each Healthy Plate category: fruits, vegetables, protein/dairy, grains, and healthy fats. We’ve listed some examples below:
- Fruits: apple slices, grapes, strawberries, clementines, berries, dried fruit, avocado
- Vegetables: baby carrots, cucumber slices, cherry tomatoes, sugar snap peas, mini bell peppers, celery sticks
- Protein/Dairy: hummus, nuts, nut butter, hard-boiled eggs, Greek yogurt, cheese
- Grains: cold pasta, whole grain chips or crackers, energy bites, granola clusters, pita bread
- Healthy Fats: nuts, nut butter, avocado
Of course these lists aren’t exhaustive; use your creativity to find other warm or cold lunch ideas for work that will hit the spot for you!
We hope that this article has opened your eyes to the endless opportunities for easy healthy lunches for work, as well as some strategies for making a nutritious lunch in a crunch! If you want some easy lunch ideas for kids, check out our vegetarian lunch ideas for kids article!
Making your own lunch at home saves you time, money, and health. What’s ONE thing that you can do this week to make a healthier lunch? Leave a comment below!
To YOUR Taste!