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steak potato salad bowl

9 Healthy Lunches Nutritionists Pack For Busy Days 

Finding the time to prep, pack, and even eat a nutritious lunch can be challenging during a busy week. But the alternative—picking up fast food or hitting the vending machine—can rack up a whole lot of empty calories. 

“A nutritious lunch is important to keep energy levels steady throughout the day,” says dietitian Shawn Wells, M.P.H., R.D., L.D.N., C.I.S.S.N. It’s also key for balancing your blood sugar—and not eating everything in sight when you get home from work.

What to do? Make like nutrition experts themselves and whip up fast meals that travel well.

Here, three dietitians offer their tips for building healthy lunches—and share their go-to midday meals.

The Anatomy Of A Nutritious Lunch

The best lunches put plants front and center, says dietitian Monica Auslander Moreno, M.S., R.D., L.D.N., nutrition consultant for RSP Nutrition.

“I like to build a ‘plant-forward’ plate that is at least 50 percent non-starchy vegetables, like leafy greens, mushrooms, and cucumbers, Auslander Moreno says. 

The other must-haves: 

  • healthy fats, like nuts, seeds, avocado, or olive oil
  • yummy spices and condiments, like mustard, salsa, tahini, hummus, guacamole, pico de gallo, chimichurri, or dried or fresh herbs (like cilantro)
  • a protein source, like fish, poultry, beef, or tempeh, that isn’t breaded or fried in breading 
  • a complex starch, like sweet potato, beans, quinoa, or sprouted grain bread

When it comes to beverages, “I like a side of plain water, fruit-infused water, sparkling water, or unsweetened tea,” says Auslander Moreno.

How Packing Lunch Supports Your Health

Packing your lunch “tends to be more portion-appropriate, involves less cooking oils, salt, and added sugar, and tends to be cheaper,” says Auslander Moreno.

Basically, you have more control over including quality, nutrient-dense foods—and no excuse to run around willy-nilly looking for something, anything, to eat when hunger strikes at lunchtime, Wells adds. Hangry impulsivity, conquered. 

Related: 9 Easy Ways To Increase Your Protein Intake

Not only does this support your overall health—but weight loss, too. 

Plus, having lunch ready to go makes it easier to actually enjoy your lunch break—and refuel both physically and mentally. “Instead of running around looking for something to eat, enjoying a packed lunch out in the sunshine or near a window will allow you to take a mental break, nourish yourself, and rejuvenate,” says Wells.

Nutritionists’ Go-To Lunches

Inspired to get on the brown paper bag (ahem, meal prep bag) train? Get started with these nine lunches.

Turkey Roll-Ups

1. Turkey Roll-Ups

“The turkey, cheese and raw nuts in these provide protein—and some healthy fats,” says Wells. “The olives and avocado, meanwhile, provide monounsaturated fat, which has been linked to health benefits like decreased inflammation and reduced risk of heart disease.” Cucumbers come in for crunch!

Ingredients

  • roasted turkey breast
  • shredded cheddar cheese
  • full-fat cream cheese
  • cucumber slices
  • diced avocado
  • raw cashews
  • kalamata olives

Instructions

  1. Spread cream cheese on slices of turkey breast.
  2. Add cucumber, avocado, cheddar, and roll.
  3. Enjoy with cashews and olives on the side.

Cobb salad

2. Cobb Salad

“Mixed greens are a great way to add nutrients, fiber, and volume to your meals,” says Wells. “The variety of healthy fats and protein in this salad increases your satiety and helps with energy.”

Plus, eggs are rich in choline, a nutrient we need in order to make acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter involved in memory, muscle movement, heartbeat and more. 

Ingredients

  • Romaine lettuce and/or radicchio
  • 2 hard-boiled eggs
  • 1 slice bacon
  • shredded cheddar cheese
  • diced avocado
  • organic Paleo ranch dressing 

Instructions

  1. Chop lettuce and add to a large bowl.
  2. Add hard-boiled egg, bacon, cheddar, and avocado.
  3. Dress to taste and enjoy!

steak salad

3. Steak Salad

“Spinach is full of vitamins and minerals, like calcium, which can facilitate bone health,” says Wells. “Steak, meanwhile, is high in protein which the body breaks down into amino acids and uses to create, repair and maintain cells.”

Red onions and blue cheese come in to provide a contrast of textures and flavors.

Ingredients

  • baby spinach and/or spring mix
  • sliced grass-fed ribeye steak
  • blue cheese crumbles
  • sliced red onion
  • extra-virgin olive oil

Instructions

  1. Slice steak and cook in a skillet with olive oil over medium-high heat. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  2. Chop greens and add to a large bowl.
  3. Add onion, blue cheese, and steak to greens.
  4. Dress with extra-virgin olive oil, salt, and pepper.

4. Kale, Quinoa & Edamame Salad

“I love this salad because it’s packed with nutrients and fiber,” says dietitian Amber Pankonin, M.S., R.D. “It’s also very easy to prepare, making it perfect for busy days.”

Ingredients

  • 1 Tbsp minced shallots
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 1 ½ Tbsp honey
  • 1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
  • juice and zest of 1 lemon
  • 3 cups kale, chopped
  • 2 cups shelled edamame, cooked and cooled
  • 2 cups cooked quinoa
  • 1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
  • ½ cup dried cranberries
  • ½ cup onion, finely chopped

Instructions

  1. Combine shallots, oil, salt, honey, mustard, and lemon juice and zest in a mason jar and shake until well mixed.
  2. Combine all other ingredients in a large bowl.
  3. Dress as desired and enjoy!

5. Peanut Power Bowl

“This power bowl combines lean animal protein and plant protein, making it not only nutritious, but also super-filling,” says Pankonin. It’s a great go-to when the likeliness of an afternoon snack looks slim.

Ingredients

  • ¼ cup +1 Tbsp water
  • ½ cup peanut powder
  • 2 tsp low-sodium soy sauce
  • 1 Tbsp lime juice
  • 1 Tbsp brown sugar
  • 1 tsp finely minced garlic cloves
  • 1 cup kale, chopped
  • ½ cup sliced purple cabbage
  • 6 oz. chicken breast
  • 1 cup cooked quinoa
  • 1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
  • ½ cup shredded carrots
  • ½ cup red peppers, chopped
  • ¼ cup peanut (for topping; optional)

Instructions

  1. Combine water, peanut powder, soy sauce, lime juice, brown sugar, and garlic in a mason jar and shake until well mixed.
  2. Add all other ingredients to a large bowl.
  3. Dress as desired and enjoy!

greek bites

6. No-Bake Greek Pita

“I love this for busy days because it’s easy assembly and loaded with fiber from the hummus and vegetables, which helps keep you fuller longer,” says Pankonin.

Ingredients

  • 1 whole-wheat pita pocket
  • 2 Tbsp hummus
  • 1 cup Persian cucumber, sliced and quartered
  • 1 cup grape or cherry tomatoes, quartered
  • 1 baby bell pepper, sliced
  • 5 olives, sliced
  • 1 Tbsp red onion
  • 2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 Tbsp white vinegar
  • ¼ tsp pepper
  • dash of salt 
  • 2 Tbsp goat cheese crumbles

Instructions

  1. Chop and combine cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, bell pepper, red onion, olive oil, vinegar, pepper, and salt. Mix all ingredients together add set aside.
  2. Spread hummus on pita bread and top with vegetable mixture. Sprinkle with goat cheese, slice, and serve.

7. Pumpkin Quesadilla

“This pumpkin quesadilla is great because you can fill it with any veggies you have on-hand, like spinach, mushrooms, and peppers, says Chicago-based dietitian Maggie Michalczyk, R.D. “Plus, the fiber from the pumpkin will help keep you fuller for longer.”

Related: 5 Post-Workout Snacks Trainers Rely On To Refuel

Bonus points if you add smashed avocado on top for more healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup pumpkin puree
  • ¼ cup spinach
  • ¼ cup mushrooms
  • 6 oz. chicken breast
  • ¼ cup peppers
  • ¼ mashed avocado
  • 2 almond flour tortillas
  • pumpkin seeds, as desired
  • ghee (for panini maker or skillet; optional)

Instructions

  1. Spread pumpkin puree on one tortilla and top with veggies, chicken, avocado, and pumpkin seeds. 
  2. Top with a second tortilla and cook in a ghee-coated panini press or skillet until crispy.

pumpkin chili

8. Bean-Free Pumpkin Chili

Soup hits the spot when you crave something warm for lunch—until you’re hungry again an hour later. That’s where this chili, one of Michalczyk’s go-to’s during the colder months, comes in. 

Her bean-free recipe is packed with protein and fiber to keep you full all afternoon. Plus, it’s also loaded with nourishing veggies—like vitamin C-rich peppers. Perhaps the best part, though: You can whip up a big batch, divvy it up into containers, and enjoy it for lunch all week long.

Ingredients

  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1⅓ lbs ground turkey or chicken (90 to 93 percent lean)’
  • 1 14-oz. can pumpkin puree
  • 1 medium yellow onion, diced 
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced 
  • 1 medium bell pepper (red, yellow, or orange), diced
  • 1 28-oz. can diced fire roasted tomatoes with liquid
  • ¼ cup tomato paste, no salt added
  • 1 cup reduced-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
  • 2 Tbsp chili powder
  • 1 Tbsp cocoa powder
  • 1 Tbsp pumpkin pie spice 
  • 2½ tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • ½ tsp ground black pepper
  • ½ tsp cayenne pepper
  • optional toppings: plain yogurt, sliced avocado, cilantro, pumpkin seeds, hot sauce, shredded cheese

Instructions

  1. Coat a large pot or Dutch oven with olive oil over medium-high heat.
  2. Add the onion and bell pepper and sauté, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes, or until the onion softens.
  3. Mix in the garlic, stir everything together, and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
  4. Add the ground turkey and use a spatula to break up the meat as it cooks. Continue to cook about 6 to 7 minutes, until fully cooked.
  5. Add pumpkin puree, diced tomatoes, tomato paste, broth, chili powder, cocoa powder, pumpkin pie spice, cumin, black pepper, and cayenne pepper, and stir.
  6. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  7. Divide into food storage containers, decorate with your favorite toppings, and store in the fridge for up to a week.

chicken lettuce wraps

9. Chicken, Cauliflower & Carrot Lettuce Wraps

“These cauliflower chicken lettuce wraps provide you with more fiber per bite and are lower in sodium than your typical lettuce wraps,” says Michalczyk. “They’re any easy lunch to make ahead of time and assemble for lunch!”

Ingredients

  • 1 lb lean ground chicken
  • 1 head of lettuce or baby butter lettuce leaves 
  • ½ head of cauliflower 
  • 1 ½ cup shredded carrots
  • ¼ cup + 1 Tbsp coconut aminos
  • 1 Tbsp hoisin sauce 
  • 1 tsp chili paste (more if you want it spicier)
  • 2 Tbsp + splash of rice wine vinegar 
  • optional toppings: cashews, microgreens, sriracha, chopped green onion, sesame seeds 
  • 1 Tbsp creamy unsweetened peanut butter
  • splash of lime (optional)

Instructions

  1. In a medium skillet, brown chicken, breaking it up until you have a ground chicken texture. Add chili paste, ¼ cup of aminos, and hoisin sauce. Mix together and coat the chicken in the sauces.
  2. Finely chop cauliflower or rice in a food processor. Add to chicken mixture and mix until combined. Add a splash of rice wine vinegar and mix together.
  3. Stir in the shredded carrots and cook for two more minutes.
  4. Remove from heat and divide mixture amongst lettuce leaves.
  5. Make the peanut sauce by heating the peanut butter in the microwave. Then, add remaining aminos and rice vinegar. If desired, add another splash of rice wine vinegar and lime juice to thin the sauce and balance its flavors.
  6. Top lettuce cups with peanut sauce and desired toppings (sesame seeds, greens onion, cashews, microgreens, sriracha) and enjoy! 

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