Breakfast gets all the glory as the most important meal. But lunch plays a key role in your day too, especially for anyone trying to slim down. If your midday meals are too skimpy, you may overeat at dinner; while too-heavy lunches can make you sleepy and sluggish—not the ideal mindset for your ongoing weight-loss efforts. Below are five options that strike just the right balance, to help you power through your afternoon and drop pounds healthfully. Each contains plenty of nutrient-rich veggies, lean protein, and beneficial fat, along with a small portion of good carbs (enough to energize you but not enough to keep you from losing weight).
One of the simplest strategies I recommend is making a double portion of dinner, and packing the leftovers for lunch the next day. Include two baseball-sized portions of green veggies, prepped with EVOO and seasonings. (Think leafy greens dressed with EVOO, balsamic, and herbs; or EVOO and herb sautéed or oven-roasted spinach, kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, green beans, or zucchini.) Add a portion of cooked lean protein, such as a half cup of pulses, like lentils or beans, or three ounces of poultry or seafood. And include a half cup of a nutrient-rich starch, such as yam, sweet potato, skin-on fingerlings, quinoa, brown, or wild rice. To keep it interesting, change up the combos, herbs, and spices while maintaining the same overall proportions.
You can’t go wrong with a simple stir-fry. In a medium pan over low heat, sauté a quarter cup of minced yellow onion in one-third cup of low-sodium vegetable broth until translucent. Add a cup of broccoli and a half cup each of chopped red bell pepper and shredded purple cabbage. Stir in a teaspoon of minced garlic, a quarter teaspoon of fresh grated ginger, one-eighth teaspoon each of crushed red pepper and black pepper, and sauté until veggies are slightly tender. Add a serving of cooked lean protein to heat through, such as three ounces of chopped chicken breast or a half cup of black-eyed peas. Serve over a half cup of cooked brown or wild rice, and garnish with a quarter cup of sliced almonds.
It’s true that we eat with our eyes as well as our stomachs. Many of my clients say that beautifully crafted meals help them stay on track with healthy eating, and feel more satiated. One trend that hasn’t fizzled out is mason jar salads: Fill the bottom with a half cup of oven-roasted sweet potato or purple potato. Add layers of dark leafy greens, alternating with sliced grape tomatoes, shredded carrots, and yellow bell pepper; and top with three ounces of canned wild salmon or a half cup of cooked red lentils. Just before you’re ready to eat, top the salad with a dressing made from two tablespoons of tahini, thinned with one and a half tablespoons of water, and seasoned with a teaspoon each of fresh lemon juice and minced garlic, and one-eighth teaspoon each of sea salt and cayenne pepper. Post your Instagram pic, then dive in.
It’s a common misconception that sushi is a healthy and slimming lunch. The truth is, sushi rolls are generally packed with white rice, and include a scant amount of protein and veggies. A better Japanese takeout option is a salad with ginger dressing, three ounces of sashimi or seared tuna, a side of avocado, and small side of brown rice. Craving Mexican? Order an entree salad (no fried shell), made from a base of greens and grilled veggies, dressed with pico de gallo, topped with black beans, chicken or fish (or just beans for a veg option), and sliced avocado or guacamole.
No time to sit down to an actual meal? Nibble on finger foods that add up a balanced lunch. Include a few handfuls of raw veggies (like sliced cucumber, red bell pepper or celery) with a quarter cup of olive tapenade or guacamole, or a few tablespoons of seasoned tahini or almond butter for dipping. For protein, include a half cup of oven-roasted chickpeas, a few hard-boiled eggs, or three ounces of chilled, sliced grilled chicken breast. Round it out with a serving (about three cups) of popped popcorn. Munch away at your leisure.
Cynthia Sass is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a consultant for the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Nets