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I never skip lunch, even on the busiest days. Because I’m a regular breakfast eater (usually plain Greek yogurt and fruit), I’m not “over-hungry” at lunch. Being ravenous, after all, can lead to poor choices.
At lunchtime, I take into consideration the amount of nutrients, convenience, occasion and taste. I don’t eat foods that don’t taste good to me, no matter what the nutrient content. I also aim to meet a friend for lunch once a week, which is good for the mind and spirit!
In general, my lunches have three things in common:
-They are protein rich
-They have at least one to two servings of fruits and/or vegetables
-They are portion controlled and are around 400 to 500 calories
Here’s a week’s worth of my “real-life” lunches. I’m hoping you get inspired by my choices – and tailor your midday meals to fit your needs.
Monday: Salad with Salmon
This was my “meet-a-friend” day lunch of the week. When I’m out, I’ll often choose something that’s a lot of work to prepare at home. I went for a salad chock full of all kinds of vegetables, and I added a piece of salmon to boost the protein and keep me fuller longer. I asked for the dressing on the side so I could do a “dip and scoop” – dip the fork into the dressing, then scoop up some greens. This way, I get the taste of a full-fat dressing, with a modest, satisfying portion. With a lunch like this, I don’t need an afternoon snack, and I’m satisfied until dinner.
Tuesday: Cottage Cheese and an apple
This is a quick go-to lunch for me. I double the portion listed on the cottage cheese container from half a cup to one cup for a big protein boost. I also like to pair it with one large fruit – like an apple, banana or pear. With this lunch, I’ll have a late afternoon snack, usually a second piece of fruit or a reduced-fat string cheese.
Wednesday: Grilled salmon with steamed spinach
This was a “working lunch” for me. During these types of meetings, I’ll always choose something I really enjoy and don’t prepare that often at home. I love grilled salmon (but don’t have access to a grill at home) so this meal was a real treat. This dish didn’t come with a potato or rice, so I added a crusty sourdough roll for a portion-controlled starchy carbohydrate, which I ate before I took the picture!
Thursday: Protein shake and fruit
I’m not one to wolf down lunch quickly because there’s no time. I’d rather use a meal replacement when I’m on the run. That’s why my on-the-go lunch is a low-sugar, high-protein shake or bar, in addition to a whole piece of fresh fruit. I’ll often have either the bar or the shake with the fruit, and if I need a late afternoon snack, I can eat the other item. The shake is quicker and has more protein, but often I like to have the feeling of chewing while I’m eating!
Friday: Subway kids meal
It might surprise you to know that I’ll indulge in a fast-food kid’s meal, or slice of pizza now and then. Almost all fast-food restaurants have a kid’s version around 500 calories (or less). Today’s choice was from Subway, where a kid’s meal includes a half-sub (I chose turkey and provolone on whole grain bread, along with fresh vegetable toppings), a drink (I chose low-fat milk) and either chips or a cookie (I went with Baked Lays).
When I’m looking for a burger and fries, I might choose a kids meal from McDonalds. While it’s up to the consumer (parents or kids) to decide the meal composition, you can make a healthier version. For example, I typically choose the burger (no cheese), mini-fries, sliced apples and water; Sometimes, I swap the apples for a mini yogurt, or the water for a low-fat milk. But the basic burger and fries remain the same.
Remember that lunch is only one meal of your day. For me, my breakfasts and dinners are fruit and vegetable heavy, with plenty of color. I do enjoy two servings of dairy daily for the boost of dietary calcium, along with fortified vitamin D. I’m a big fan of alternating animal proteins with plant sources (tofu is a favorite) and include protein at every meal. And I barter my daily servings of fiber-rich starchy carbohydrates. This includes banana, corn on the cob, a small sweet or white potato with skin, or a small, whole grain roll.
And, I always include an indulgent treat of around 100 calories daily, usually after dinner. I’m not looking for a food “treat” at lunch. This works for me – but I know many of you prefer once a week, just the weekends, or another time of day. The bottom line: whatever works for you!
Am I the perfect eater? Not, not by any means! But I do work on balance. Sometimes daily eating is a juggling act. You do your best to stay on track, no matter what your week is like.
Madelyn Fernstrom, Ph.D. is the NBC News Health Editor. Follow her on Twitter @drfernstrom.