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Has your noontime meal become a nutritional compromise? Use these tips for building an all-star lunch from the ground up.
Breakfast may be called the most important meal of the day, but a nutritious lunch is just as crucial. “A proper lunch will help carry you through the afternoon and a late day run,” says Cara Marrs, a sports dietitian in Steamboat Springs, Colo. Yet, too many women rely on nutritionally suspect options at cafeterias, restaurants and in vending machines for their midday food fix.
“Making poor choices at lunch can send your energy levels spiraling downward and increase mid-afternoon cravings,” notes Marrs. Getting in the brown bag groove is almost always a better idea than relying on a grab-and-go lunch. Taking the time to make a healthy lunch can boost your intake of vital nutrients, improve portion control and save a surprising amount of money.
POWER UP YOUR LUNCH
A lunch worth packing has to satisfy hunger while giving you a tasty energy boost. Here are the ten golden rules for creating a power-packed meal.
LUNCH RULE #1: EAT ENOUGH, BUT NOT TOO MUCH.
If you’ve ever gone to a steakhouse for a business lunch, you’re familiar with the fact that an afternoon calorie tsunami can leave you feeling lethargic for the rest of the day. On the flip side, too few calories will leave your body depleted of the fuel it needs to remain alert, and your tank will be empty for your evening workout. “Active women should aim for 400 to 500 calories at lunch,” advises Marrs. So while a burger and fries is too much, a measly garden salad won’t cut it either.
LUNCH RULE #2: CARBS SHOULD BE WHOLE.
Forget the super-sized bagel, soda or white pasta that can cause your blood sugar levels to yo-yo. “A healthy lunch for active women is one that includes whole carbohydrates, such as beans, quinoa, brown rice, whole-wheat pitas and fruit,” says Washington, D.C.-based dietitian and marathon runner, Rebecca Scritchfield. “The steady release of energy will help power you through your afternoon meetings and after-work run.”
LUNCH RULE #3: LOAD UP ON FIBER.
Active women need about 25 grams of daily fiber. Aim to get a good chunk of that at lunch. Fiber will keep afternoon hunger pangs at bay, and help you to resist the siren’s song of office birthday cake. “Adding beans and sliced fruit to salads, loading soups and sandwiches with veggies and opting for whole-grains as opposed to their refined counterparts are all ways to add a fiber pump to lunch,” Marrs says.
LUNCH RULE #4: BE PRO-PROTIEN.
A healthy dose of protein at lunchtime can slow digestion, providing sustained energy and helping to ward off 4 p.m. donut cravings. Plus, protein provides the building blocks for repairing and creating lean body mass in active women. Marrs recommends shooting for about a third of your daily protein intake at lunch. “You can do this by incorporating hardboiled eggs, canned fish, tofu, lean deli meats, lentils and nuts into your midday meals.”
LUNCH RULE #5: CHOOSE HEALTHY FATS.
Fat can make your meal more satisfying, but you don’t want to load up on the heart-hampering variety. “Try adding avocado slices (or nuts and seeds) to sandwiches and salads,” advises Marrs. Homemade dressings made from healthy oils gussy up salads as well. Be sure to use dressing sparingly, and pack it separately to avoid a soggy lunch.
LUNCH RULE #6: DRINK UP.
“Proper hydration should always be on runners’ minds, so make sure to guzzle plenty of fluids with lunch,” says Scritchfield. If you’re a regular at the soda machine, try lightly-sweetened, homemade iced teas, tangy coconut water or antioxidant-packed green tea. “And don’t overlook nutrient-dense low-fat milk,” Scritchfield says.
LUNCH RULE #7: SLOW DOWN.
It’s tempting to wolf down a sandwich while hunched over the keyboard, but studies suggest we tend to nosh on more calories than we think when we eat quickly or mindlessly. “Even in the midst of a hectic day, try and take at least 20 minutes to savor your lunch minus the stressful work distractions,” advises Scritchfield.
LUNCH RULE #8: PLAN AROUND YOUR WORKOUTS.
If you like to run on your lunch break, Marrs says to make sure to eat a small, easily digestible snack of roughly 100 to 150 calories about an hour beforehand. And make sure a run doesn’t force you to skip your midday meal. “It’s important to leave yourself enough time after your run to eat a well-balanced lunch with carbs, protein, healthy fats and fluids to kickstart recovery.”
LUNCH RULE #9: COOK IN BULK.
A crazy work week can leave you with little energy for preparing nutritious lunches, making it more likely you’ll order a fast-food meal combo in a pinch. “Try spending an hour or two on the weekend to rustle up big batches of items, such as pasta salads, taboulleh, sliced vegetables or fruit, soups, stews and chili, so your week’s worth of lunches are already taken care of,” advises Marrs.
LUNCH RULE #10: EMBRACE LEFTOVERS.
Another big time-saver is to make extra portions of dinner and simply bring the leftovers for lunch the following day. An added bonus: the flavors of some dishes, such as soups and chili, only get better after a day or two.