It's one of the main meals of the day, so eating a healthy lunch is vital. You have the whole of the afternoon to get through, so it's important to have some healthy lunch ideas that will give you the energy you need and keep your mood and concentration levels up.
A survey of more than a thousand Australian adults last year* found that while 31 per cent of us view health and nutrition as important drivers when grabbing our midday meal, many of us are ignoring the need to eat something nutritious.
It seems 36 per cent of us manage a healthy lunch only two or three times a week, and 46 per cent skip the meal altogether at least once a week.
Sure, we're busy people, but if we don't have some healthy lunch ideas on hand, hunger can trigger us to reach for the nearest, easiest and fastest option.
And that spells junk-food hit, which leads to a lot of excess calories and an energy spike followed by the dreaded mid-afternoon slump.
That's when the temptation of chocolate or other sweet treat as a quick mood and energy booster can derail our health or weight loss goals altogether.
To gain a clear idea of how many extra calories you may be consuming on a daily or weekly basis, try keeping a food diary. You might be shocked!
The good news is that just a little bit of planning and preparation can reverse that downward spiral and have you eating well every day.
To gain some idea of how to pick the right foods, you need to know which choices to steer clear of. It's not always obvious.
Your favourite lunchtime staples may be letting you down.
1. Fatty Foes
While we may crave fats in the afternoon, it almost goes without saying that if your aim is to follow a healthy eating plan, it's best to steer clear of fried foods because of their high saturated fat and calorie content.
- Deep-fried chicken, battered fish, tempura and hot chips
2. Food Coma Fillers
Carbohydrates provide our brains with energy, so when we're running low we start craving high-carb foods. But it's best to steer clear of foods with a high glycaemic index (GI), such as foods made with refined flour.
High-GI foods will fill you up and give you a rush of energy, but your energy levels will then plummet, leaving you flagging and drained.
That doesn't mean we need to avoid carbs altogether, just that we need to be aware of the choices we're making.
3. Secret Saboteurs
Many sauces or dressings that accompany those healthy-sounding stir-fries and salads are actually laden with salt, fat and even sugar.
Salad dressings such as Caesar, Thousand Island or mayonnaise
Curries based on coconut cream (such as Thai green or red curry) and stir-fry dishes with rich sauces, such as satays
So, What Can I Eat?
Looking at the list above, it might seem as though all your options have been blown out the window, but the choices are many.
You'll come up with plenty of lunch ideas if you get the basics and will be able to put in place some healthy eating habits.
1. Carb Complex
You do need healthy carbohydrates at lunchtime to maintain your energy throughout the afternoon.
However, rather than choosing the high-GI or refined variety, go for wholegrain carbs, which release the energy into your system more slowly, helping you stay full and preventing you from flagging at around 3pm.
These include wholemeal breads and wraps, quinoa, vegetables (apart from regular potatoes), sweet potato and legumes.
2. Protein Power
You'll also need lean protein, such as tuna, lean red meat, chicken breast, egg or tofu - but avoid any dish that's fried or smothered in a greasy sauce.
3. Naturally Nutritious
Fruit and low-fat dairy, such as cottage cheese or yoghurt, are great foods to eat at lunchtime, as are legumes in the form of chickpeas, lentils and beans.
Load up on salad and vegetables - but again, pick dressings that are light.
Add small amounts of good fats such as nuts and avocado, as they help lower cholesterol, reduce the risk of heart disease and provide vitamins and other nutrients.
Ideas for Creating a Healthy Lunch
Satisfying and healthy lunch options include wraps or sandwiches made with wholemeal bread, with fillings of lean protein and plenty of salad.
Also good is a salad of lean protein or legumes, green leaves, vegetables and grains such as quinoa or wild rice.
Sign up to 12WBT and you'll have access to all of Michelle Bridges' healthy lunch recipes.
And check out:
How Much Should I Eat?
"You don't want too much of a good thing," says 12WBT dietitian Georgie Moore.
But there's no need to eat a skimpy meal that will just leave you hungry almost as soon as you've finished it, either. Moderation is the key.
Imagine a medium-sized plate on the table in front of you.
For the ideal meal, a quarter of the plate would be taken up by lean protein, another quarter would be filled with low-GI or wholegrain carbs, and the remaining half would be filled with salad or vegetables.
"The protein and low-GI carbs will help increase your feeling of satiety, while the veggies will provide you with plenty of nutrients and fibre with minimal calories," Georgie explains.
You can apply these proportions to anything you eat - not just a plated meal.
For a wrap or a sandwich, mentally lay out the wholemeal bread, the meat, fish, egg or other protein, and the amount of salad you're having.
For a straight salad, make sure you also include some protein or legumes to fill out your imaginary plate.
Also bear in mind that later on in the afternoon you can enjoy a healthy snack, which will tide you over until dinner.
Sushi and Sandwiches
Many of us think of sushi rolls as being a sensible choice, but they contain high quantities of rice, and on top of that the rice is bound together with sugar to make it sticky (even in the brown rice variety).
Most sushi rolls contain barely any vegetables or salad, and the protein is often deep-fried or mixed with mayonnaise or other dressing.
Even if the protein is raw fish, it's in very small proportions compared with the amount of rice you're consuming.
As for sandwiches, make sure you have them freshly made up rather than buying pre-made.
That way, you can order exactly what you want, choosing the healthiest wholemeal bread and leaving out fatty dressings and sauces.
Keep an eye on the amount of bread used to make the sandwich: some cafés serve two doorstop-sized slices, which is a lot of carbs in one hit.
What to Drink
Water is always the best choice, Georgie advises.
"For a change from plain water, try a glass of sparkling water with a squeeze of fresh lime or a sprig of mint," she says.
"Alternatively, herbal teas are also a great choice as they contain minimal calories and can often be caffeine free."
Steer clear of sugary soft drinks and avoid fruit juices.
They generally don't have sugar added, but a glass of fruit juice can contain the sugar of up to 10 pieces of fruit with none of the fibre.
"Could you eat 10 pieces of fruit and then eat a meal on top of that?" asks Georgie.
"You're better off eating a piece of fruit, thus reaping the benefits of the nutrients and fibre from the fruit without all the calories."
DIY Healthy Lunch Ideas
The best way to ensure your lunch is as healthy as it can be is to make it yourself.
That way you won't be tempted by those takeaway and food court options. All it takes is a little thought and preparation.
Here are some ideas to help you:
- On your weekly shopping list create a separate section for lunch ideas to make sure you have enough ingredients and accompaniments in your fridge and pantry.
- Lunchboxes aren't just for kids. Invest in a couple with separate compartments for wet and dry ingredients, and even containers for dressings if you want.
- No fridge at work? Buy a cooler carry-bag that you can store overnight in your freezer at home. You take it out in the morning, place your food inside and the bag's self-contained chill packs will keep it cold for up to eight hours.
- If caught out at work with nothing to eat, hit the supermarket and knock up a salad, a wrap or a soup with a wholegrain roll.
- Prepare lunch the night before and store in the fridge.
- Set aside some of your dinner for lunch next day - leftovers are a great way to avoid wastage, save costs and keep you on the healthy eating track.
- Prepare soups and other cooked meals at the weekend and freeze in containers for the week ahead.
- Prepare salad and wholegrain bread or crackers to accompany your meal on the day itself.
Enjoy Your Healthy Lunch
After a few weeks of eating like this you'll probably find both your wallet and waistline are looking healthier, and you might find yourself getting really creative with your healthy lunch ideas.
Just because you're not sitting in a café, you don't have to eat at your desk. Find a patch of sunshine in a park or a nice quiet space and enjoy what you've so carefully prepared.
Knowing your midday meal is super-healthy most days will make it a real treat when you do go out. But stay on the safe side with our guides to healthy Thai, Indian and pub food, or Vietnamese, Japanese and Chinese.
* Survey source: Sumo Salad