The following list is full of healthy lunch ideas for eating out. I realize that most people do not have the luxury of having a home cooked meal everyday and may need to order their lunch when dining out or eating at someone else’s home. For those people, this post could be very helpful.
Are you eating healthy when you’re eating out or packing lunch for work? Eating healthy at restaurants can be tough. There are a lot of hidden calories and salts in most of the mouth-watering dishes served at restaurants. The hardest part is trying to find healthy lunch ideas for eating out so I’ve created this list of healthy lunch ideas for eating out to help you on your way! Use my tips below to make it healthier.
Healthy Lunch Ideas For Eating Out
Choosing a healthy lunch from a café, bakery or restaurant, that you enjoy and can provide sustained energy to get through the afternoon, is not always easy. To help you decode the menu and get what you really want, here’s a guide of what to look for.
Start With The Basics
1. To put together a healthy meal, choosing minimally processed foods from the different food groups is a good place to start. This provides slow release carbohydrate, protein and fat, as well as a range of vitamins and minerals to provide energy, nutrition and satisfaction.
This is easy to do at home, but you can do it most of the time when you’re out too. So what does this look like practically?
If you just choose a green salad, it’s not a balance of the food groups and you’ll feel hungry soon after. But adding some roast kumara, chicken and avocado will provide a range of the food groups (vegetables, meat, starchy foods and healthy fats). Something as simple as a chicken and salad wholegrain sandwich is an example of a mix of the food groups.
2. Listen to your body. Healthy eating is about nutrients, but it’s also about enjoying your food and knowing what makes you feel good. If you order an item you don’t really feel like, because it is the healthiest thing on the menu, chances are you’ll grab something else later anyway. Find a balance between satisfaction and nutrition.
Decoding Menu Language And The ‘Health Halo’ Effect
3. It’s easy to assume some items are inherently healthy by their name, but that’s not always the case. Smoothies are a case in point. Some cafés make smoothies with a fruit juice or ice cream base, meaning they contain a significant amount of sugar or saturated fat. Don’t be afraid to ask what is in your order.
4. When a food is labelled ‘free from’ something, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking it must be healthier. But foods that are refined sugar free, dairy free and gluten free are not necessarily healthier than their counterparts. For example, a dairy-free, gluten-free cake can still be nutritionally similar to another cake that contains these items. The same goes for the terms ‘organic’, ‘raw’ or ‘natural’. An easy way to get around it is to look at the item without the label in front of it – would it be an everyday choice?
5. ‘Refined sugar free’ can be misleading and many believe it to be a healthy choice. Yes, unrefined sugars may contain small amounts of vitamins and minerals, but they are nutritionally insignificant. Sugar, refined or not, is still sugar.
6. If an item contains the word ‘creamy’ then it’s probably cooked using cream, therefore high in saturated fat. If something is battered or crumbed it could be deep fried, so double check.
7. Items made with whole grains, such as brown rice or quinoa, are more nutrient dense than those made with refined grains, such as white rice, couscous or pasta.
8. Wholegrain breads are more nutritious than white breads or wraps. Sourdough bread has a lower glycaemic index, providing a slower release of sugars to the blood.
9. Don’t be afraid to ask for changes to your order. For example, if you know they are heavy handed with the butter, you could ask for less or none. Or you could ask for your dressing or sauce on the side, switch bacon for salmon or order vegetables instead of hot chips.
Feel Your Fullness
10. Portion sizes when eating out are often much larger than what you’d make at home, especially for treat foods. A scone or a muffin might be double a ‘usual’ serving, or more. We often eat things as a ‘unit’ and eat the whole thing regardless of size – it’s autopilot eating. To get out of this habit, cut larger portions in half, and put the other half away. If you want more, you can have it, but it helps you think about it.
11. Rather than pushing past the point of comfortable fullness, simply because you’ve paid for a meal, get a doggy bag or just leave it behind. You may feel it’s a waste, but it’s no more wasteful to leave it than eating it when you don’t feel like it and feeling bloated and overfull afterwards.
Top Healthy Lunch Option To Eat Out
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. “Other canned fish like salmon, sardines, and mackerel are also great to keep in your pantry,” notes Allison Knott, M.S., RDN, CSSD, NYC based endurance sports dietitian.
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 or make our Tuna Salad Sandwich (pictured above). Not a fan of mayo? Try our Pressed Tuna Sandwich. If you’re new to other canned fish like salmon, Knott likes to mix it with a little mayonnaise, lemon, and pepper for a simple salmon salad, and she 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. With no cutting, cooking, or prep of any kind 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, they also add fiber, which can help you stay full for longer.
“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. 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 5 grams of fiber per ½ cup cooked, it’s guaranteed to help keep you full all afternoon. That’s because the protein and fiber found in farro, “take longer to digest, slowing the rate at which sugar gets released into our bloodstream,” says Symone and Chantel Moodoo, dietitians for busy lifestyles. This helps you feel full longer and 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, Smoked Turkey and Farro 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 or grab a box from the freezer aisle. While frozen options are very convenient, “sodium can add up quickly,” notes Knott. A good rule of thumb is to aim for less than 400 mg 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 that are 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 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 products, 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 thick layer of ricotta on whole grain toast and then 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 brings a ton of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients to your lunch. Eating avocado (and the nutrients found in this fruit) is linked to better cholesterol, blood sugar control, 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 that are linked to many health benefits. Upgrade your wrap or sandwich by 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 Hummus and Chicken Bowl or Lemon Roasted Vegetable Hummus Bowl.
There’s actually 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 of cardiovascular disease, 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 trade in white bread for whole grain.
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 signifies that the main flour in the bread is made from the whole grain and hasn’t been stripped of fiber as well as vitamins and minerals.