Our definitive guide to a healthy lunch on the go—complete with nutrition-boosting tips, make-ahead strategies, and tasty pack-and-go recipes.
Our Best Healthy Lunch Ideas
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.
Mr. Stripey Tomato, Arugula, and Pancetta Sandwiches
Update your lunch routine with this new spin on the classic BLT. Mr. Stripey tomatoes are a variety of heirlooms with pale, yellow skins with a pinkish-orange blush, occasionally with green stripes. Substitute a beefsteak or other large, firm tomato. Pancetta is Italian cured bacon that gets cooked in the oven (no splattering on the cook-top). Substitute regular cured bacon, if desired. Prepare the mayonnaise mixture and cook the pancetta up to one day ahead.
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.
Spelt Salad with White Beans and Artichokes
This vegetarian salad is a lunchbox dream: You can make it ahead, it’s packed with filling protein and fiber, and it’s loaded with flavorful ingredients. And as an added bonus, it tastes nice chilled or at room temperature. Include a cluster of red grapes and crusty Italian bread in your bag, and you’re ready to go.
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.)
Curried Chicken Salad with Apples and Raisins
Enjoy this fruit-studded chicken salad with whole-grain crackers, or spread it on whole-wheat bread for a sandwich. The balance of sweet apples and raisins with fragrant curry elevates chicken salad to a new level.
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.
Fresh Tomato Soup
Nothing says comfort more than a warm bowl of tomato soup. Ditch the can and prepare this homemade soup with fresh veggies. Buying in season is smart on so many levels: Produce tastes best in season, and it’s usually less expensive. Since we crave tomato soup beyond the peak of summer, this recipe calls for plum tomatoes, which tend to be flavorful all-year long.
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.
Little Italy Chicken Pitas
A smart trick to this zesty sandwich is using oil from the sun-dried tomatoes to prepare the vinaigrette. Prepare the chicken filling ahead of time and pack separately. Fill pitas just before eating.
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.
This snack comes together in a few minutes if you purchase orange sections from the refrigerated part of the produce section. Prepare the parfaits in the morning and refrigerate, covered, for up to four hours; sprinkle with wheat germ just before serving. We’ve layered in the ingredients into a canning jar with a tight-fitting lid—perfect for stashing in your bag for breakfast, lunch, or a healthy snack.
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.
Tuna Pan Bagnat
Nicoise salad meets hearty sandwich in this delectable creation. Canned tuna is a great staple of lunch-time fixings, and in this case it’s worth the splurge to go with a premium-quality tuna that’s packed in oil. Paired with hard-boiled eggs, briny nicoise olives, and dressed in lemony vinaigrette, this sandwich is not your typical lunchroom fare.
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.
Southwestern Chicken Pasta Salad
Spice things up for lunch by using intense flavors in hum-drum dishes. There’s nothing boring about this pasta salad, packed with sharp Cheddar, sweet corn, and smoky chipotle. Fresh summer corn is sweet, tender, and juicy—enough so that it doesn’t even require cooking. If your corn is a bit past its prime, boil it for two minutes.
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.
Avocado Soup with Citrus-Shrimp Relish
This lovely no-cook soup is thick and creamy, and a meal in itself with its topping of lemony shrimp. It weighs in at less than 300 calories a bowl, so pair it with a side salad for a well-rounded meal.
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.
For these classic bar cookies, we wanted just enough salt to heighten the flavor, so we opted for unsalted butter. Browning the butter deepens its flavor and, when combined with brown sugar, creates the butterscotch taste. Store unrefrigerated in an airtight container up to three days, or freeze for three months.
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.
Beef, Orange, and Gorgonzola Sandwiches
Grilled flank steak with oranges and blue cheese combine in a sandwich that will make you the envy of coworkers when you open your lunch box. For the best results, use crusty rolls because they stay pleasantly crisp.
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.
Tabbouleh with Chicken and Red Pepper
Nutty, nutritious bulgur, perhaps best known as the star of Lebanese tabbouleh, can be used like brown rice in salads and pilafs, or simply cooked or steamed and drizzled with oil and sprinkled with chopped herbs. Mediterranean and Middle Eastern markets carry bulgur, or look for it in the grains section of large grocery stores. Pack with hummus and pita chips for the complete effect.
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.
Chipotle Pork and Avocado Wraps
Here, the trick is starting with Simply Roasted Pork and using the leftovers for a spicy wrap. For a bit more spice, add another teaspoon of chipotle chiles to the avocado spread.
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.
Beef and Barley Soup
Homemade soups and stews are great options for to-go lunches. They tend to get better with time, so here making ahead buys you time and flavor. Lamb may be used in place of chuck steak, if desired. Use one pound of boneless leg of lamb, cut into one-inch pieces.
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.
Oatmeal, Chocolate Chip, and Pecan Cookies
These easy drop cookies are crisp on the outside and slightly chewy on the inside. Chocolate minichips disperse better in the batter, but you can use regular chips if that’s what you have on hand.
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.
Lamb, Roasted Tomato, and Artichoke Sandwiches with Olive Spread
Roasting the tomatoes makes them sweet and meaty; it also draws out much of the liquid so that you can assemble the sandwiches the night before without worrying about the focaccia becoming soggy. Pair with crunchy carrots for a balanced meal.
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).
Asian Green Bean Salad
Making homemade dressings is well worth it—they offer more flavor, less sodium, and less 30-letter ingredients. Buy the ingredients for this basic Asian dressing and you’re pantry will be set. Snow peas can be substituted for the green beans here, and you can top with leftover chicken or pork for more protein.
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.
Although traditional Brunswick stew is sometimes thickened with stale bread cubes, this version uses flour to give it body and features garlic bread on the side. For an on-the-go lunch, you may want to substitute whole-grain crackers for the bread.
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.
Roasted Red Pepper Spread Sandwiches
If you like pimiento cheese, you’ll enjoy this recipe. Keep the sandwiches well chilled so that the cream cheese spread will remain firm. Sturdy, whole-grain bread works best.
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.
Chicken Salad with Olive Vinaigrette
Israeli couscous is pasta with bead-sized grains that are much larger than those of regular couscous. It‘s similar to barley in size and texture, but it cooks more quickly, in just 15 minutes.
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.
Ok…so think outside the box…or the pudding cup. Why not make your own homemade pudding and pack in individual containers for lunch? It will require a little more work on the front end, but the result is dreamy, creamy pudding without artificial sweeteners.
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.
Garden Salad with Citrus Vinaigrette
Fresh squeezed orange and lime juice, balanced with honey and red wine vinegar make a light and refreshing dressing for garden-fresh veggies. The vinaigrette would be good over salad greens.
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.