Salads are synonymous with ‘healthy lunches’, but as the weather grows colder they become less appealing. Also, let’s face it, even in the peak of summer the most appetising salads tend to be the ones slathered in rich, creamy and highly calorific dressings.
So here are some top tips for satisfying healthy lunches to have alongside the occasional salad that won’t have you reaching for the biscuit tin by 3pm and won’t break the bank.
The ideal budget lunch solution is to take leftovers from the previous night’s meal to work, which can be popped in the microwave and ready within minutes (if you don’t have a microwave at work, take them warm in a thermos). Stews and casseroles are ideal for leftover lunches, as are pasta dishes. Leftovers from a Sunday roast can also be used up for Monday lunch – for example, you could eat the cooked meat cold, with a salad. Also, keeping a bag of frozen veggies in the work freezer (if you have one) is a cheap and easy way to add an extra portion of your 5 A DAY to lunch.
The versatile new potato
New potatoes make a low-calorie but filling accompaniment to a salad or plate of leftovers – three to four new potatoes (90g) contains about 50 calories, which is considerably less than the bread roll you might otherwise eat. You can take pre-cooked new potatoes into work (they last a couple of days if you refrigerate them) and reheat them with the rest of your meal or eat them cold. Alternatively, you can cook new potatoes in the microwave – just place in a covered, microwavable dish with a tablespoon of water and cook for about 5 minutes.
Beans, beans, good for the heart…
Another way to make a (truly healthy) salad more filling is by adding tinned beans or pulses to your leaves and salad veg. Beans and pulses, such as cannellini beans or chickpeas, are a good source of protein so make a healthy alternative to meat. They are also cheap and ready to eat straight out of the tin – my tip is to look for tins of mixed beans in water, as these look appealing on the plate and give some variety in flavour and texture. For more ideas, visit the salad recipe section of our website.
If you don’t have time to prepare your own, try to choose salads that contain beans, lentils, couscous or quinoa – they all release energy slowly, so will keep you fuller for longer. Another tip is to opt for salads that have a pot of dressing, preferably oil-based, rather than being pre-dressed, as this way you can control how much you use.
Soup of the day
If the WCRF UK office is anything to go by, soup is the autumn lunch of choice. Soups are satisfying, warming and, of course, an easy way to get at least one of your 5 A DAY.
Homemade soup can be quick and easy to make – check out our healthy soup recipes for some inspiration. Simplify your week by making a batch at the weekend to last you a few days. If you make too much, you can always pop a few portions in the freezer until you need them.
If it’s not practical to make your own then soup bought from a supermarket or sandwich shop can still be a healthy lunch option if you know what you’re looking for. Some shop-bought soups can be high in salt and calories so steering clear of those labelled ‘cream of’ or that contain processed meat such as ham, bacon or chorizo are good ways to avoid the worst culprits.
Use your loaf
Bread from a pre-sliced loaf can vary from less than 60 calories per slice to around 120 calories, so it is worth having a look before you buy. I go for 400g loaves as it’s an easy way to save calories – the slices are simply smaller!
Always try to choose wholegrain – the high fibre content is good for your digestive health and means the energy is released more slowly than in white bread so you’re less likely to get that afternoon slump.
I also keep a packet of wholegrain crispbreads on my desk – they are a great alternative to bread with soup or salad and are a healthier alternative to crisps or biscuits for when you get a craving for a crunchy snack.
Another place you can make a healthier choice is in the spread you chose. Go for low-fat cream cheese (garlic and herb is my personal favourite) rather than butter or margarine in a sandwich or on toast – it tastes great and saves on calories.
Avoiding mayonnaise, cheese and meat in rich, creamy dressings can also reduce the calories in your sandwich. Healthy options include plain chicken, turkey or tuna, all with fresh, crisp salad. Adding spring onions, some fresh herbs or a teaspoonful of fresh tomato salsa is a great way to inject flavour.
As with soups, if you buy pre-made sandwiches, take a few moments to compare the nutritional information. You’ll be amazed by the calorie saving you can make!
Check the label
If you’re choosing a shop-bought lunch, take a moment to look at the nutritional information. Chain sandwich shops often label the calorie content of their products, and have more information on their websites so you can check if their soup of the day is a healthy option before you even leave your desk.
Supermarket websites or front-of-pack labels provide this information too. Take a look at our guide to reading food labels to find out more about making healthy choices.
Most of us suffer from that mid-afternoon snack craving at least some days, but often it has nothing to do with actually being hungry. Try taking a break – get up and make yourself a cup of tea, or if you need to ask a colleague something, walk to their desk rather than emailing them. This small amount of activity and change of scenery might be all you need. For days when the craving can’t be silenced, it’s a good idea to keep some healthy snacks to hand. Here are some ideas:
- Flavoured rice cakes (sweet and savoury are available)
- Dried fruit
- Unsalted nuts and seeds
- Wholegrain or baked crisps (buy a multipack – the bags are usually smaller)
- Skinny, unsalted popcorn
- Fresh fruit (take advantage of supermarket special offers by sharing with a colleague)
- Vegetable sticks, including carrots, cucumber and celery (on their own or with a dip such as plain or flavoured reduced-fat houmous, cream cheese or cottage cheese)
- Low-fat yoghurts
If you have any top tips for a healthy lunch, why not share them in the comments section below.