How many of you have done something like this before:
You alarm goes off and you groggily shut it off and drag yourself out of bed to get ready for work. You start drinking your morning coffee and realize you didn’t pack your lunch the night before like you promised your more energetic and organized self that you would. You open the fridge and are vastly underwhelmed by the choices you see. Looks like your options are four-day old spaghetti, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or whipping something up from scratch in the span of fifteen minutes before you have to leave for work.
Your stomach says buy Subway, but your budget whispers that you’re broke because it’s the week of payday and you should just starve.
Trust me, I’ve been there plenty of times before. You want to eat healthy and nutritious food that will keep your stomach satisfied and keep your mind refreshed for work. I’ve had plenty of days where PB&J is the staff of life, or days when I was overachieving and made a smoothie bowl that morning because I didn’t have access to a blender while riding the ambulance, only to find come lunch time that pre-made smoothie bowls don’t keep well and brown in a very unappealing fashion after so many hours of sitting in a lunchbox under the dashboard.
I would love to share all of my favorite lunch recipes that can be prepped the night before, but for right now in this post I just want to share some general tips I’ve learned from experience that will keep your fridge stocked and ready to go with easy lunches for you and your family.
For starters, when thinking about a healthy lunch it is going to be different for everyone based off their dietary needs and preferences, but a good rule of thumb is to prep a grain, a protein and a fruit or vegetable with every meal. So let’s look at each of these three pieces and how to prep for them.
I’ve tried keto before, I’ve eaten paleo and low-carb and they all bring great weight-loss results and have nutritional merits, but I cannot lie…
I love carbs, and grains just make me happy. I was easily able to maintain my weight at 130 lb (pre-pregnancy anyways) with grains as a daily part of my diet.
If you tend to shy away from grains, I totally understand. All the hype around low-carb and gluten-free has us feeling skittish about our daily oats. Some of our modern grains have been genetically engineered so much that our bodies are struggling to process them and the results can sometimes lead to autoimmune problems or inflammation in the body. Grains do raise your blood sugar, but if you’re consuming the right grains it can be a healthy level of blood sugar increase that your body processes easily and uses for energy without storing as fat.
So what grains should you be prepping?
Brown rice is a winner. We know from studying communities around the world that are living long and active lifestyles even among their elderly members that rice has many nutritional benefits and can contribute to longevity. Okinawa residents consume rice daily and this tiny island boasts some of the healthiest and most active centenarians in the world. Rice is delish and can be used in so many ways.
I cook about two cups of brown rice in 4 cups of water and it cooks up in maybe an hour to and hour and half.
I have almost double the amount of rice once it’s cooked and it’s ready to be tossed with stir-fried veggies, paired with Hawaiian chicken and pineapple, topped with pan-fried cinnamon apples and chia seeds, or paired with grilled meats and veggies.
Quinoa is not technically a grain but can be cooked just like rice. It is high in protein, B-vitamins, iron, and fiber. It has a slightly bitter taste from the saponin coating, so make sure you thoroughly rinse these babies in a mesh strainer before cooking. Quinoa tastes fantastic in stir-fry dishes or when mixed with a little curry and mayo/greek yogurt. Because of the protein content, it will likely keep you full and energized longer than rice will. Boil a few cups of it and store in an airtight container in the fridge.
Buckwheat, despite its name, is not related to wheat and is great for blood sugar control since it digests so slowly. It is rich in minerals like phosphorus and manganese and has a slightly nutty flavor to it. For a long time I only wanted to eat breakfast foods for lunch at work. Maybe it was a nostalgic thing, sitting there in the breakroom with a bowl of buckwheat porridge pretending I was really on my couch at home on a Saturday morning. I cooked up a big batch of buckwheat once a week and topped it at work with fresh berries, banana slices, pan-fried cinnamon apples, peanut butter and dark cocoa powder, or shredded coconut.
Oatmeal is my all time favorite! I eat oatmeal multiple times a week for breakfasts and lunches. You don’t even have to prep this one before hand it’s so quick to grab in the morning or buy pre-measured packets (unsweetened!). But if you’re into meal prepping then you can easily measure out ziploc bags or containers with ½ cup of dry oats (quick oats or whole rolled oats, whichever your preference), toss in some chia seeds, goji berries, flax meal, or whatever the heck you like to add into your morning oats for a protein and fiber boost.
Overnight oats are also bomb diggity. You can prep ready to go, cutesy half pint mason jars with half a cup of oats, add-ins, a few tablespoons of Greek yogurt and cup of milk of your choice (I vote almond milk), pop a lid on those suckers and let the oats soak in the moisture overnight. Now you have a cold cup of oatmeal that tastes delish with fresh fruit, chopped nuts, sweetener of your choice and whatever toppings your heart desires without ever having to use the stove or microwave.
Grains for gains my friend!
You know you need it, and you probably know how much protein you need too depending on what your health goals are
Protein can be totally plant-based and you can still be healthy and gain muscle.
If anyone out there is telling you that you need meat to get those gains, just smile and nod.
It’s an argument no one ever really wins.
I like meat in moderation, so my hubby and I prep a couple different animal proteins for the week (it’s really mostly him because he loves meat and loves to barbecue).
- Grilled or oven baked chicken breasts (season with salt, pepper, garlic and maybe some lemon juice to keep it plain and adaptable). I get so bored with just plain chicken and rice–the standard “meal prep” idea that you see everywhere else. I like to toss mine into a bacon, chicken, avocado wrap or make it into a cobb salad. Eating it with pineapple skewers or making a cold chicken curry on couscous is delish too!
- Smoked pork butts make great shredded pork for barbecue pork and veggies, carnita bowls, and pork fried rice.
- Slice and pan sear some steak for easy fajitas or taco bowls on rice.
But I also am a firm believer in plant-based protein. I love that my hubby and I can get grass-fed beef from his parents, but having butchered chickens as part of a 4-H project when I was a teen, I don’t eat chicken as much as I used to.
I have seen things that cannot be unseen (that’s a completely different conversation though, so I’m stopping it here).
I totally understand feeling like you can’t afford grass-fed, free-range, pasture-finished, organic meats (hint-grass fed or free-range don’t always means it was that way for the animal’s entire life span). It adds up quickly when you start buying organic, but trust me, it’s totally worth it cutting back on or completely avoiding meats that have hormones in you don’t need, or meat that has been raised on a diet of just corn (or worse). I would recommend that if you can afford even one type of organic meat per week, do it and supplement with plant-based proteins the rest of the week. Or heck, just go completely plant-based.
Here are some of my favorite, easy to pack plant-based protein ideas for ready to go lunches:
- Black beans for taco bowls.
- Roasted chickpeas or homemade falafels for Greek power bowls or pita pockets.
- Pinto beans for beans and rice (topped with cheese of course, lol).
- Nut butters or chopped nuts to top porridges with or add into smoothies.
- Seeds! Pumpkin, flax, hemp and sunflower seeds are all protein packed and ready to be added into smoothies, sprinkled on porridges, tossed into salads or stir-fry dishes.
- Grains–all the grains discussed above are also high in protein, so all the more reason to be adding them into your diet.
- Tofu or tempeh–if you’re into that. I’ve tried both and just couldn’t quite learn to love the texture. But if you love it, go for it! There’s a lot of conflicting information about tofu, whether or not it’s healthy. Most of the information currently out there is that fermented soy foods are the way to go, since unfermented soy products (soy milk included) contain phytoestrogens–plant-based estrogen-like hormones that may contribute to breast cancer. At this point, use your best judgement and any doctor’s advice you may have about consuming soy products, or at least search for fermented soy products like pickled tofu, tempeh, miso or natto.
- Green veggies are easy and quick to prepare or can be eaten raw, and many of them contain protein. Spinach, broccoli, kale, avocado and edamame are excellent choices.
Fruits and Veggies
If you’re into raw whole foods, then meal prep just got a whole lot quicker. Find your favorite produce, slice it, dice it and pack it into pre-portioned containers for the week.
Make sure you’re packing any dips or add-ons too, like hummus, ranch, or peanut butter yogurt for spreading on your delicious fruits and veggies, but keep those reasonably portioned so you don’t lose track and accidentally eat a whole bottle of ranch on your celery and carrots.
If you like to cook your produce, some easy ideas include:
- Steam a couple heads of broccoli and cauliflower.
- Line a baking sheet with foil, toss some carrots, broccoli, brussel sprouts and/or asparagus in a little oil of your choice and roast in the oven for 15-20 minutes.
- Wash, chop and toss together some salad mix and portion it out for the week.
- Pan-fry some onions and bell peppers for fajitas or tacos.
- Slice some red onion and red cabbage (eat the rainbow!), add in some salt, pepper and diced garlic, toss in a little olive oil, lemon juice and sweet chili sauce for a yummy coleslaw with a kick (or skip with chili sauce and just do mayo for your standard coleslaw).
- Stir-fry green onions, water chestnuts, bok choy, and mung beans (and whatever else tickles your fancy!) with a little oil and soy sauce and make a big batch of stir-fried veggies for the week.
- Chop red onions and pineapple into chunks, slide them onto a skewer and grill them for a delightful Hawaiian themed meal.
- Make a big fruit salad! (make sure to toss the fruit in a little lemon juice to help keep the produce from browning too quickly)
I really hope this post has helped get your creative juices flowing and given you some solid ideas on how to prepare and pack ahead for your work day meals. Comment below with some of your favorite meals-on-the-go ideas!