22 Healthy Lunch Ideas
Our definitive guide to a healthy lunch on the go—complete with nutrition-boosting tips, make-ahead strategies, and tasty pack-and-go recipes.
Ah…the ubiquitous lunchbox. Whether you’re packing your own or one for every kid in the house, there are real challenges when thinking about your mid-day meal. We know you want healthy options that keep you full enough to stay away from the vending machine come mid-afternoon. There’s also a real need for make-ahead recipes…why would those pre-packaged lunch packs and frozen meals be so popular if ease of prep wasn’t the primary goal (since nutrition and flavor certainly aren’t their claims to fame). And most importantly: How can you keep your lunch tasting good day after day? After all, if it doesn’t taste good, vending machines, drive-throughs, and lunch table swaps are inescapable. Enter our lunchbox makeover. Look out for “Nutrition” “Prep,” and “Smart Packing” tips throughout the slideshow, offering our secrets to building a better lunchbox meal.
Smart Packing Tip: To prevent soggy sandwiches, pack separate zip-top bags of tomato slices, arugula, and bread, and then assemble the sandwiches just before eating. Toasting the bread before packing also helps keep everything crisp.
Nutrition Tip: Spelt (also called farro) is a high-protein grain with a mellow nutty flavor. It is rich in B vitamins for an energy boost as well as a good source of fiber. (Bulgur, quinoa, or whole wheat couscous are good substitutes if you do not have spelt for this dish.)
Prep Tip: Put leftovers to good use when preparing your lunches. Consider incorporating some of tonight’s dinner into tomorrow’s lunch. Slice leftover chicken or beef and serve it on top of pasta or salad greens, mix it into a grain salad, or make it into a sandwich. Here, we’ve taken our Grilled Lemon-Herb Chicken and used the leftovers for this quick salad. You can also use store-bought rotisserie chicken in this recipe with great results.
Smart Packing Tip: Don’t skimp on soup toppings just because it’s lunch. Add a dollop of yogurt and a sprinkling of basil before packing this soup in your thermos.
Nutrition Tip: Fresh, whole fruit is your best option for sides and snacks during the day. Change things up by selected fruit that’s in season--you'll enjoy diverse flavors plus nutritional variety as your choices change naturally throughout the year. An apple, chilled grapes, or mango slices offer a great source of fiber, keeping you feeling fuller longer.
Nutrition Tip: Blueberries are often deemed the “brain berry,” since they’re known to improve memory and protect against short-term memory loss. They are one of the most potent sources of antioxidants, which help counteract heart disease, cancers, and other types of illnesses. Blueberries are also full of fiber and high in vitamin C.
Smart-Packing Tip: A favorite in southern France, pan bagnat (pan ban-YAH) literally means “bathed bread.” The bread in this sandwich is meant to absorb some liquid from the filling, so it’s great to make ahead of time. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap or foil and enjoy.
Prep Tip: Making stir-fry for dinner and have a half of this and that leftover? We call for green onions, red bell peppers, and tomatoes in this recipe, but any leftover veggies will work here. Use leftover grilled or roasted chicken or buy a rotisserie chicken.
Nutrition Tip: If you love the creamy, rich taste of avocados but worry about the fat and calorie content, we can put some of those fears to rest. While avocados are high in fat, most of it is “heart healthy” mono- and polyunsaturated fat. Concerned about calories? One-fifth of a medium-sized avocado has about 50 calories. Not bad considering these versatile fruits are nutrient-rich, containing nearly 20 vitamins and minerals. As long as you use moderation as your guide, avocados are a very nutritious and tasty addition to sandwiches, salads, and dips.
Nutrition Tip: Packing a pre-portioned, lightened sweet treat in your lunchbox could save you some calories in the long run. Rather than running to the vending machine or giving in to that plate of cookies in the break room, count on your homemade treat to satisfy your cravings. At less than 200 calories, these blondies are probably a better choice, and they taste better, too.
Prep Tip: This recipe starts with Basic Grilled Flank Steak that has been simply marinated. When cooking meats you plan on using for leftover creations, stick with simple seasonings so the flavors are subtle enough to pair with whatever lunch concoction you’re creating.
Smart Packing Tip: Salt draws moisture out of watery ingredients like cucumber and tomatoes, so pack these separately and add to the grain salad at the last minute for best results.
Nutrition Tip: Practice portion control with sides. This wrap only has 239 calories, so you can afford to pair it with some baked tortilla chips. Warning: It’s easy to overeat if you munch straight from the bag. Portion servings into zip-top plastic bags so you won’t go overboard with sides and snacks. Most baked tortillas chips are around 120 calories per 1-ounce serving. Pair with an apple or mango slices for a complete meal.
Smart Packing Tip: Temperature control is key when packing a lunch. Keep cold food cold (below 40°) and hot food hot (above 140°) as it travels. Use insulated lunch bags, coolers, thermoses, ice bags, and frozen gel packs to help with temperature control.
Nutrition Tip: If you’re craving chocolate, eating an apple isn’t likely to satisfy you. Instead, enjoy what you really want—in moderation. Research shows that each subsequent taste of a food is rated as less enjoyable than the previous taste. The first bite is always the best; the second bite, second best. If you eat half of what you’d normally want, your satisfaction rating will still be very high. So packing one of these delicious chocolate chip cookies (81 calories each) might satisfy your craving and keep you from overdoing it later.
Nutrition Tip: Choose high-quality foods with nutritional benefits for the most bang for your buck. Tapenade spread on a fresh baguette will offer salty-meaty flavor from the olives (as well as heart-healthy fatty acids) and tasty carbs from the bread. If chocolate is your weakness, go for gourmet dark chocolate, which offers beneficial antioxidants along with great flavor. If you want something creamy, try thick Greek yogurt drizzled with honey. You’ll gain some calcium as well as the rich creaminess you crave. And if roasted lamb and homemade olive spread is your thing, this sandwich will make you happy (and healthy).
Prep Tip: A Microplane® grater is ideal for grating fibrous fresh ginger. Simply peel the ginger first, and then run it across the grate over a small bowl to collect the pulp and juice.
Prep Tip: Our little secret here is combining fresh and frozen vegetables for one hearty stew. Frozen veggies are a nutritious, budget-friendly option. The produce is fresher than canned because they are flash-frozen right after picking—much better than sodium-laden canned veggies.
Nutrition Tip: Remember to eat regularly throughout the day, never going more than 4 to 5 hours without eating. Waiting too long between meals can turn normal hunger pangs into an out-of-control craving. It’s hard to make a good choice when you’re starving. Keep healthful options—almonds, string cheese, fat-free milk, and sandwiches like this veggie-cheese delight—on hand to keep hunger in check.
Nutrition Tip: Olives deliver big flavor, yet they’re relatively low in calories (one serving of five kalamata olives contains about 25 calories). The olive bar at some supermarkets typically offers a variety, so try different types to mix things up.
Prep Tip: Unless milk is stabilized with a thickener such as flour or cornstarch, it will “break,” or curdle, when it becomes too hot; that’s why it’s important to watch the temperature as you’re cooking the custard. Also make sure and cover the surface of the pudding with plastic wrap (with the wrap actually touching the pudding) to avoid a skin forming.
Prep Tip: This salad holds well, so go ahead and dress with the vinaigrette and pack for your lunch. It’s also a great take-along for picnics and tailgating.