Even the best of us cannot survive the rigors of a workday on coffee and granola bars alone. Without a balanced midday meal, you’ll lack energy, lose concentration and your performance will inevitably suffer. Lunch is an opportunity to give your brain a break and refuel the body with what it needs to continue “killing it” for the rest of the day.
But before you grab for that ready-made deli sandwich or caesar salad, remember that these pre-packaged foods, though easy, tend to be high in fat, salt and sugar and can make you feel hungrier. Plus, they rarely meet all your nutritional needs. A balanced lunch should include all these components:
It helps to repair your body and keeps you satisfied longer, so it’s important to try to include protein in every meal. Make sure your lunch makes up a third of your daily intake. Choose lean meats, such as canned tuna, chicken breast or salmon. Or go vegetarian with a hard-boiled egg, beans or tofu or low-fat cheese. Hummus, nuts and low-fat cheeses are also great sources of protein.
Carbohydrates, including dietary fiber, provide a steady supply of energy throughout the day. Fiber also keeps you feeling full for hours afterward. The trick is to opt for complex carbs, which digest slowly and aid digestion. Sources include whole-grains, beans, sweet potatoes, fruits, pasta and brown rice.
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats help your body synthesize fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamin D, which you especially need if you work in an office all day. Healthy fats include nuts, olives, avocados and fish.
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Fruits and Vegetables
They’re vital for a healthy immune system, provide essential vitamins and minerals, and stimulate creativity. Plus, the color and texture they add will make your meals look like art. Make sure a good portion of your daily five servings is included in your lunch.
BYO-W to make sure you’re staying hydrated. Have your bottle of water do double duty by freezing it overnight and packing it with your lunch. It’ll keep your food chilled and will have defrosted into a refreshing drink by lunchtime.
The best way to ensure you’ll get all that in your lunch? You guessed it — pack it yourself!
Now, we know coming up with creative healthy lunch ideas five days a week can be a bit challenging at first, but having a plan makes meal prep that much easier. Here are 14 convenient packed lunches that provide all the nutrients you need to keep you going until dinnertime.
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1. Taco Tuesday
Make the most of Monday dinner leftovers by turning them into a Taco Tuesday lunch. Shred up whatever meat was had last night and pack it along with corn tortillas, rice, lettuce, pico de gallo and pepitas for a complete meal.
Photo and recipe: Linda Spiker / The Organic Kitchen
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2. Tuna Salad Protein Box
For those looking to really pack in the protein, look no further. Tuna salad made with Greek yogurt instead of mayo is already plenty of healthy, lean protein, but an added egg and unsalted almonds make sure you’ll meet whatever protein minimum you set for yourself. Two servings of fruit and veg make this lunch an all-star choice.
Photo and recipe: Chungah Rhee / Damn Delicious
3. Packed Like Sardines
Oily fish are good for your heart and full of healthy fats. Sliced portobellos and cucumbers compliment the saltiness of the sardines and give them some bite. The double dose of fruit offers just the right about of carbs and pairing them with almonds (and almonds butter) adds a pop of protein.
Photo and recipe: Paleo Leap
4. Meatless Mexican Lunch Box
No meat needed! Beans and brown rice make for a complete protein while satisfying fiber and carbohydrate requirements, too. Fresh greens, tomatoes and homemade guacamole pack in the veggies and salsa verde dressing makes it a party.
Photo and recipe: Emily Turner / Gluten Free with Emily
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5. Spicy Chicken with Rice and Beans
This Instant Pot meal hits all the notes: quick, easy, delicious and healthy! The recipe is versatile, too. Use rice or quinoa or tofu or whatever you have on hand. As long as you use the cilantro “sunshine sauce,” this lunch will be out of this world.
Photo and recipe: Lindsay Ostrom / Pinch of Yum
6. Tofu Sushi Bento Box
Eat your hearts out, sushi lovers! These vegan rolls are filled with baked teriyaki tofu and miso-marinated kale and bok choy. If that’s not enough veg for you, the rest of the beautiful bento is stuffed with Asian pear, persimmon and carrots.
Photo and recipe: Sarah Eom / Father’s Workshop
7. Egg Salad & Veggie Box
We love that the large compartment of this lunch box is filled with fresh, raw vegetables. The egg salad is just the right amount of protein and the whole-grain crackers act as perfect little scoops. Dried fruits and a square of dark chocolate will help you avoid the vending machine later.
Photo and recipe: Melissa Griffiths / Bless this Mess Please
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8. Tofu Taco Salad
It’s amazing how healthy a taco salad can be when it’s not served in a giant fried tortilla bowl. Bonus points for using crumbled tofu instead of ground beef to help keep saturated fat and calories down.
Photo and recipe: Jordan Cord / The Fitchen
9. Avocado Chicken Salad Bento
The more slots your lunchbox has, the more variety you can pack in. This grazer’s dream has three different veggies, dried strawberries (they’re always in season), a flavorful chicken salad and healthy fats from avocado and walnuts, which are full of stress-busting nutrients.
Photo and recipe: Jenny McGruther / Nourished Kitchen
10. Curried Chickpeas and Spinach Bowl
Once serving of flavorful curried chickpeas is a light and nutritious protein. Pair them with vitamin-packed spinach and brown rice and you’ll be energized for the rest of the day.
Photo and recipe: Brittany Mullins / Eating Bird Food
11. Mediterranean Mezze
Stuffed grape leaves and a whole-grain pita with hummus, olives, feta, cucumbers and tomatoes will fill you up with enough fiber to manage those afternoon munchies.
Photo: Wendy Copley / Wendolonia
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12. Thai Chicken Wrap Bistro Box
These wraps will satiate your cravings for Thai take-out while slashing sodium levels. The homemade slaw has plenty of vegetables and a whole-grain tortilla is way more healthful than plain white rice. Just watch your portion control when it comes to the peanut sauce.
Photo and recipe: Layla Atik / Gimme Delicious
13. Snack Attack
Whoever said lunch had to be a one-plate deal? You can build a well-rounded meal with snack-size portions of healthy (but otherwise random) bites, like bean salad, crackers, chia-seed blueberry yogurt, a pear, olives and chocolate covered cherries.
Photo and recipe: Cassie Johnston / Wholefully
14. BLT Bento Box
This lunch kit isn’t only cute, it packs two sources of protein (bacon and almonds), whole grains (bread), and a serving each of fruit (strawberries and half an apple) and veggies (lettuce and cornichons). Save the cereal bar for a mid-afternoon energy boost and you’re golden.
Photo and recipe: Nina Holstead / Mama Belly
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Originally published on March 4, 2018. Updated on November 6, 2021
Cover image via Shutterstock