Whether you prep ahead or grab takeout, these energizing options will help you power through your day.

By Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD
Updated January 07, 2020
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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 lose weight. 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).

If you're all about efficiency

One of the simplest strategies I recommend is making a double portion of dinner, then 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, for example yam, sweet potato, skin-on fingerling,; quinoa, or brown or wild rice. To keep it interesting, change up the combos, herbs, and spices while maintaining the same overall proportions.

If you're into meal prepping

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.

If you appreciate an Insta-worthy meal

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.

If you're grabbing takeout

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.

If you prefer to graze

No time to sit down to an actual meal? Nibble on finger foods that add up to 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, MPH, RD, is Health's contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a private practice performance nutritionist who has consulted for five professional sports teams.

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