The 10 Best Healthy Lunch Foods to Eat
While lunch is often an afterthought when it comes to meal planning, what you eat midday can make a big difference in how you feel all afternoon. Trade up your deli sandwich with a bag of chips for some of these foods to get more added health benefits for your lunch, without spending too much time in the kitchen.
1. Canned Tuna
"Seafood is packed with protein, helping you feel full and satisfied. It's also a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, known for their role in heart and cognitive health," says Chrissy Carroll, RD at Snacking in Sneakers. "Canned tuna is by far one of the most inexpensive and accessible ways to include seafood in your diet, and since it's shelf stable you can keep it on hand at all times," she adds.
Canned tuna (and other fish) can be used in sandwiches, salads, casseroles, pasta and so much more. A classic tuna melt is a no-brainer.
Not a fan of tuna? Allison Knott, M.S., RDN, CSSD, endurance sports dietitian based in New York City notes that other canned fish like salmon, sardines and mackerel are also great to keep in your pantry. Knott likes to mix it with a little mayonnaise, lemon and pepper for a simple salmon salad. She also recommends topping whole grain toast or crackers with canned sardines or mackerel for a quick and easy lunch that satisfies.
2. Mini Sweet Peppers
If making half your plate vegetables is a challenge at lunch, try keeping a bag of colorful mini peppers or other ready-to-eat vegetables in your fridge. "Ready-to-eat vegetables like mini sweet peppers or carrot chips are convenient and have a satisfying crunch, which can be a great alternative to chips when paired with a sandwich," says Knott.
With no cutting, cooking or prep required, there's little excuse not to eat them! Knott recommends finding vegetables that you enjoy eating raw and keeping them on hand as a simple addition to a meal. If mini peppers aren't your thing, try snap peas, cherry tomatoes, carrots or cucumbers. Vegetables not only add important vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients to keep you healthy, but they also add fiber, which can help you stay full for longer.
Don't be afraid to add your favorite dip or dressing to make them more fun to eat.
If you're tired of quinoa (or don't love it), make farro the base of your next grain bowl. With 6 grams of protein and 3 g of fiber per ½ cup (45 g) cooked, it's guaranteed to help keep you full all afternoon. According to Symone and Chantel Moodoo, dietitians for busy lifestyles, the protein and fiber found in farro take longer to digest, slowing the rate at which sugar gets released into your bloodstream. This helps you feel full longer and avoid a mid-afternoon slump.
Farro can replace almost any grain (unless you eat gluten-free). It's a great base for salads, grain bowls or even stuffed peppers. Try our Farro and Grilled Chicken Salad, or our Cherry, Almond, and Farro Salad for easy make-ahead lunches.
4. Veggie Burgers
Veggie burgers are a great way to add more plant-based meals to your week. "They are convenient, filling, and can be a good source of fiber and protein," says Knott. Make your own on a weekend (try our lentil burger or zucchini chickpea burger) and freeze for easy lunches.
Alternatively, grab a box from the freezer aisle. Knott notes, "While frozen options are very convenient, sodium can add up quickly."
A good rule of thumb is to aim for less than 400 milligrams of sodium per burger (see all our tips for buying the healthiest veggie burgers). Whether you're making your own or using store-bought (no shame!), look for higher protein options, especially those made with beans, lentils, tofu or other soy products, to stay satisfied for hours.
Beyond the traditional bun with your favorite toppings, you can add veggie burgers to grain bowls, salads or wrap them in butter leaf lettuce. Get creative with your toppings, too! Try pesto or guacamole for healthy fats that add a ton of flavor.
5. Ricotta Cheese
Think this ultra-creamy cheese is just for lasagna? Think again. "It's a versatile dairy product that can add flavor and texture to a sweet or savory lunch. Plus, it has both protein and fat to help you feel full longer," says Carroll. As with any dairy product, much of the fat is saturated fat, so you'll want to consider your whole diet and how it fits in. If you eat other full-fat dairy and red meat, you may want to choose part-skim ricotta.
To serve, spread a layer of ricotta on whole grain toast and add your favorite toppings. For a savory option, Carroll recommends arugula, sliced beets or roasted winter squash, and a drizzle of balsamic glaze. For a sweet option, try sliced banana or strawberries with sliced almonds and honey. Pair either option with a piece of fruit or, for some crunch, some raw veggies for a quick, well-balanced lunch.
6. Black Beans
Black beans (along with other beans) are an under-appreciated superfood. Packed with fiber, protein and important vitamins and minerals like iron, magnesium and folate, they offer a lot of bang for your buck (literally!) as one of the least expensive protein options available. "Black beans can be used in a ton of different lunch-time combos," says Carroll. "Because they're canned and shelf-stable, they're easy to keep on hand for a quick meal. Plus with all their digestive-friendly fiber, beans support gut health," she adds.
The simplest way to use beans is to add them to any salad or grain bowl for a quick protein and fiber boost. If you have some time on the weekends, "make a big batch of black bean soup or chili, then store them in individual grab-and-go containers for lunch throughout the week," suggests Carroll. Try our slow-cooker vegetarian chili for a hands-off make-ahead lunch or our bean and beef taco soup.
Would it even be an article on healthy foods if we didn't mention avocado? This fiber and healthy fat-filled fruit bring a ton of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients to your lunch. Eating avocado (and the nutrients found in this fruit) may be linked to better cholesterol, weight maintenance and even improved attention.
Use mashed avocado as a spread on sandwiches, or as Carroll recommends, mix it with canned tuna instead of mayonnaise. Add it to salads, tacos, grain bowls, wraps or on top of your black bean soup or chili. And yes it's still healthy if you make it into guacamole!
Made from chickpeas, tahini, olive oil, herbs and spices, hummus is packed with good-for-you ingredients linked to many health benefits. Upgrade your wrap or sandwich using hummus instead of mayonnaise or other condiments. It's also perfect for a "snack lunch," which Carroll likes to make with tuna salad, whole grain crackers, nuts and fruit.
Or, take it up a notch with our Chicken Hummus Bowls or Lemon-Roasted Vegetable Hummus Bowls.
There's some truth to the old saying that an apple a day keeps the doctor away. Eating apples has been linked to numerous health benefits including reduced risk for heart diseases, cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer's disease as well as better gut health—thanks to all the phytonutrients, vitamins and prebiotic fiber they contain. Plus, they are easily portable and require no packaging, making apples a perfect complement to almost any lunch.
While we think they are delicious as-is, they also add great flavor and crunch when sliced and added to a sandwich, grilled cheese or a wild rice salad.
10. Whole-Grain Bread
One of the best upgrades you can make to a lunch sandwich is to swap white bread for whole grains.
Whole-grain bread contains more fiber and protein than white bread which "is key to avoiding that mid-afternoon crash," says the Moodoo sisters.
Look for "whole wheat" or "whole grain" listed first on the ingredient list. This indicates that the main flour in the bread is made from whole grain and hasn't been stripped of fiber as well as vitamins and minerals.
Eating a healthy lunch doesn't have to be boring or complicated. It's really about having a handful of nutritious ingredients in your pantry and refrigerator for quick and easy meals. Take a look at our collection of Healthy Meal Prep Lunch Recipes. And of course, don't be afraid to get a little creative in the kitchen!