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Vending machine cuisine your only option? Here's what to eat

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It's that weird week between Christmas and New Year's, when everything seems a little quieter. Maybe too quiet. Here at TODAY.com's West Coast headquarters, our usual cafeteria is closed this week, and last week, too. We thought our readers, like us, might be hitting the vending machine more than usual lately.

The best option in this scenario, as TODAY's diet and nutrition editor Madelyn Fernstrom reminds us, is to pack your own healthy lunch and snacks. But if you forget, here's what two of TODAY.com's favorite nutritionists say are the lesser evils the vending machine has to offer. (If you're lucky enough to have a vending machine filled with healthful options -- good for you! But we're talking standard machines here.)

Breakfast: Granola bar, energy bar

"A typical granola bar contains whole grains, and because most Americans fall very short on the current recommended daily intake of whole grains ... having a granola bar even from a vending machine can be a healthful option to help us meet that goal and reap the many benefits of whole grains," explains Elisa Zied, registered dietitian and TODAY.com contributor. 

Currently, the recommended daily intake of whole grains is 3 ounces -- if you've got your pick of items to meet that recommendation, one slice of whole wheat bread, a half-cup of oatmeal and three cups of air-popped popcorn will do the trick, Zied suggests. 

An energy bar may provide a decent amount of protein, which will help you feel full, and it may contain healthy unsaturated fats and fiber, too. 

Mid-morning snack: Almonds, peanuts, or other plain packages of nuts

These are packed with protein and (mostly) healthful unsaturated fats. Walnuts in particular will provide omega-3 fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory benefits, as well as a boost for your heart's health. "Nuts also contain some fiber, and the combo of protein and fiber is a dynamic duo when it comes to filling you up and satisfying you," Zied says. "Just be sure to watch the portion size." She suggests about 1.5 ounces (typically 2-3 tablespoons) per day as a good rule of thumb to reap the benefits without overdoing it on calories.

Lunch: Tuna salad kit, popcorn, 2 percent chocolate milk

If your machine offers a tuna salad kit, go for that. Tuna provides a plentiful dose of omega-3 fatty acids, powerful healthy fats and protein. "Even mayonnaise provides some healthy fats and vitamin E—just watch the portion," says Zied. If possible, try to limit the mayo to no more than one tablespoon. 

Popcorn is another OK choice -- although the microwave popcorn most machines tend to offer is probably packed with lots of fat and even some added sugar. But, again, we're talking "lesser evils" here -- and popcorn itself is a whole grain. 

This might be surprising, but your standard cup of ramen noodles isn't a great choice. It's loaded with fat, saturated fat and an incredible amount of sodium: 1,434 milligrams! For context, it's recommended that most Americans keep their sodium levels under 2,300 milligrams a day -- unless you're older than 51, are African-American or have diseases like diabetes, hypertension or kidney disease, in which case you should cap your sodium intake at 1,500 miligrams per day. 

But Fernstrom points out,"Would you be better off having noodles or a Snickers bar?" If the only other options are chips and candy, the super-salty noodles may be your best bet -- or, at any rate, your least-worst bet.

For a drink to complement your vending machine cuisine, the hierarchy goes as follows: 2 percent milk or chocolate milk is better than juice. Juice is better than anything called a "juice drink." And even a juice drink is generally a smidge better than soda, Fernstrom says. 

Mid-afternoon snack: Trail mix, Sun Chips

"Trail mix is a wonderful vending machine option -- but the portion may be huge, so don’t think of a big multi-hundred-calorie bag as a whole meal," Zied advises. Instead, keep the bag at your desk and eat a little bit at a time over a few days. 

And if you must have chips, go for Sun Chips, as they contain at least some whole grains -- although they do come with lots of calories and fat, and don't provide much in the way of good nutrients. 

A couple guidelines to keep in mind: Generally, try to avoid what Fernstrom calls the obvious "sugar bombs" and "salt bombs" -- things like candy bars, cookies or chips. And it should go without saying that neither nutritionist really recommends much, if any, of this stuff -- but a desperate moment in front of the vending machine has happened to us all. 

Have you put together any creative but healthy (or healthy-ish!) vending machine-based meals? Tell us about it on our Facebook page

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