When Should I Eat Lunch? Eating lunch at the same time every day can be a helpful tactic for people who follow a calorie-controlled diet. The regular routine of eating at the same time helps people develop a pattern of self-control and discipline, which helps them say “no” to cravings. Sticking to a diet can be hard, so why not follow a routine? Eating at the same time every day will help you learn some self-discipline
Why your meal timing is everything, according to a dietitian
If you want to lose weight and maintain a healthy diet, focus on when – not just what – you’re eating.
If you want to lose weight and maintain a healthy diet, focus on when – not just what – you’re eating.
Long gone are the days when we ate breakfast at 7, lunch at 12 and dinner by 6. Nowadays breakfast is more likely to be enjoyed with coffee at 9, lunch by 2 or even 3 as the demands of the day see time getting away from us and dinner by 8, if we are lucky. Long commutes, frantic lives and less focus on three square meals each day means that we eat far more sporadically in modern life but also in a way that has much more of a negative impact on our weight than we may realise.
The human body is regulated according to a circadian rhythm – this means that our basic physiological processes, including our hormones are controlled according to a 24 hour body clock. This means that we are programmed to burn more fuel in the first half of the day, and to store it later. It means the body is also programmed to have periods of time without food (overnight) and that there are times the body is in store and repair mode as opposed to mobilise fuel and burn it mode. Nothing we do significantly changes this. We may work shift work and eat throughout the night, but the body will remained programmed to not be burning as much energy overnight and more likely to store food consumed at this time.
It is for this reason that modern life and the random, if not constant feeding that we expose the body to, is conducive to weight gain over time. In many examples we eat far more food late in the day than we do the morning and we do not give the body the long periods of time it needs overnight without food to allow the hormones that control fat metabolism to return to baseline levels. It is for this reason that focusing on eating the right things at the right times of day is one of the most powerful things you can do to control your weight long term.
To tap into your natural metabolism, the best thing you can do is eat something early in the day. 9 or 10am is too late for breakfast. One of the reasons you feel hungrier on days you have taken time to eat breakfast early is that your metabolism has been given a boost. Ideally we need to eat by 7 or 8am to get our system going each morning.
If you start the day early, forget eating your lunch at 2 or 3pm – it is too late, as we are burning more calories and generally burning more energy between the hours of 8-6pm. Generally speaking you will feel hungry 3-4 hours after your first meal which means that most of us will benefit from an early lunch. Another option for particularly early risers is to enjoy two small lunches, one at 11-12pm and one at 2-3pm is avoid unnecessary snacking throughout the day.
Choosing your meal times
Though the best mealtimes will ultimately vary from person to person, there are some general suggestions for timing meals.
Keep these three rules of thumb in mind when planning your mealtimes:
- Eat earlier when possible. Many studies have linked earlier mealtimes to better health outcomes, compared with eating late at night.
- Limit your daily window of eating. Keeping your entire caloric intake for the day within a 12-hour time frame reduces the risk that digestion will interfere with your body’s circadian rhythm.
- Consider your circadian rhythm. Your body may not digest and process your meals as efficiently while it’s also releasing melatonin — specifically late in the evening or during the very early morning hours.
These guidelines may be useful when trying to decide upon a consistent meal routine to follow.
However, you’ll likely want to consider some individual factors as well, such as:
- Health conditions. Many medications must be timed with meals and may dictate when you need to eat. Conditions like diabetes also require eating at certain times of the day to maintain proper blood sugar levels.
- Your daily routine. We often time our meals around work schedules and personal obligations. That may mean eating earlier or later than you would ideally like to. In this case, maintaining consistency may still help limit disruptions to your circadian rhythm.
- Type of meal. On days when you have no choice but to eat later in the evening, choosing small, nutrient-dense, yet simple meals can aid digestion and limit circadian rhythm disruptions.
- Your instincts. Mealtimes will likely fluctuate from day to day. It’s important to trust your instincts and allow yourself to eat when you’re hungry, even if it’s at a different time of the day than you planned.
How about if you have an afternoon workout to do? What time should you eat, and about how much?
Both experts explain two different ways to approach lunch without an afternoon workout ahead.
Greene points out that after a workout, it’s critical to eat something to replenish your muscles, whereas before a workout you may just need a quick bite to eat for energy. “If possible, I recommend eating lunch after the workout, as having a meal ensures you get in protein, carbohydrates, and some healthy fats,” she says. Greene recommends eating two pieces of dried fruit such as an apple, dates, or mango for a quick carbohydrate release, aka the macronutrient that will give you the fuel you need to power through the entire workout.
Sass offers another tactic. She says that if you eat a full, balanced lunch, or one that’s filled in vegetables, lean protein, and healthy fats and carbs, wait for at least two—if not three hours—so that everything digests before you work up a sweat. Greene also agrees that this is adequate time for digestion if you choose to eat lunch before you work out.
“You can also split lunch and have healthy carbs, say a baked sweet potato or a banana, about an hour before the workout, and the rest (veggies, protein, healthy fats) right after, to support healing and recovery,” says Sass. “Again, it depends on the time of the workout. The split would work better for an early afternoon workout, 1 or 2 p.m., versus late afternoon so you don’t push dinner too far back.”
What if you skip lunch and prefer to have a larger dinner?
We get it, your work schedule is crazy and you don’t feel like you have enough time to eat a meal during the day, so you eat a snack to hold you over until dinner. The question is, is this good for your health?
“Research has shown that those who eat most of their food at night tend to eat more overall calories,” says Greene. “For this reason, I suggest not skimping out on lunch. If you hate salads, go for a sandwich on whole-grain bread with veggies and protein [and] skip the condiments, or a warm grain bowl containing at least two fist-fulls of veggies.” She says that adopting this routine will help you to feel full throughout the day, avoid substituting unhealthy snacks for meals, and overeating at dinner.
What are some healthy lunch ideas?
You’re probably searching for healthy lunch ideas for one (or more) of a couple of reasons:
(1) It’s lunchtime and you have no idea what to feed yourself.
(2) You’re sick of eating salads or deli sandwiches every day.
(3) You’d like to start meal prepping your lunches. And
(4) you simply want inspiration for how to switch up your routine
Mixed mushrooms on toast
Lucky for you, we have answers to all your lunchtime needs—whether you’re feeding yourself at home, at work, or on-the-go. While we did compile a master list of all our favorite healthy lunch recipes, here’s a cheat sheet for some healthy lunch ideas:
- pasta salads (like this cold pesto pasta salad)
- soups and chili (we’re partial to Instant pot zoodle soup)
- tuna salad
- rotisserie chicken recipes (like salsa verde chicken tacos or a Chinese chicken salad)
- chicken salad
- burritos or burrito bowls
- grain bowls
- potato salad
- meatballs (think: Middle Eastern lamb meatballs, Vietnamese pork meatballs, Tuscan sun-dried tomato chicken meatballs, or Southwest turkey meatballs)
- mini pizzas
Healthy lunch recipes.
This is a crazy idea, but hear us out: your lunch doesn’t have to be a completely thought out meal. By that we mean you don’t need prep and prepare a composed meal like a steak sandwich or a mushroom pesto ravioli. You can also consider putting together some bento box ideas (they’re not just for kids!) that feature a little bit of everything you want to snack on. Consider themes like:
- Mediterranean lunch box: hummus and pita with a cucumber, tomato, onion, feta salad and a side of kalamata olives
- Breakfast-style lunch box: everything bagel pretzels, hard-boiled eggs, apple slices, cheddar cheese
- Veggie lunch box: roasted chickpeas, fresh peppers, cucumbers, carrots, green goddess dressing, almonds
If you’re in the market for some healthy lunch ideas, here are dozens of our favorite recipes to make for our midday meal.
Italian Panini with Provolone, Peppers, and Arugula
Keep it simple with this chicken panini recipe: A light, healthy spread like pesto, a low-calorie cheese like fresh mozz, and a layer of lean white meat chicken deliver all the same flavor and a tasty crunch for a fraction of the calories.
Turkey BLT Salad
By turning the bread into crunchy croutons and the lettuce into the base of a salad, you minimize the refined carbs and maximize the healthiest part of the equation. Toss in a handful of cubed deli turkey to boost the protein, and suddenly you have a salad with substance and style to tuck into.
Most quiches suffer the burden of excessive amounts of heavy cream and cheese—and often a trans-fat-laden crust. This quiche dispenses with the heavy dose of dairy fat and instead gets its flavor and substance from antioxidant-dense sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, and lean chicken sausage. It’s one of our easiest healthy lunch recipes you can easily meal prep for the week.
Fig, Prosciutto, & Goat Cheese Salad
Why eat a restaurant salad if it’s going to cost you the calorie intake of more than a full-sized meal? Enter our healthy fig and prosciutto salad recipe. In this version, there are a quarter of the calories! We pair strips of salty, intense prosciutto with juicy, ripe figs. Add the tang of fresh goat cheese and the subtle, earthy crunch of toasted pine nuts and this makes for one inspired salad.
This recipe requires absolutely no effort, save for about 2 minutes of slicing and 2 minutes of toasting. Plus, it morphs easily into other dishes. Not in the mood for a sandwich? Ditch the bread and eat this as a salad for one of the easiest healthy lunch recipes you can throw together.
Chicken Pot Stickers
Chicken potstickers aren’t just meant to be eaten as an appetizer! Pair these potstickers with fresh vegetables and a salad, and you can easily add them to your list of healthy lunch ideas.
Asian Chicken Meatballs
These chicken meatballs are inspired by street-corner grills in Vietnam and Thailand, where ginger, garlic, and chiles reign supreme. With those bold flavors, plus the char of a hot charcoal grill, you won’t need a fat-heavy mix of meat, or even a pile of spaghetti, to make an outstanding dinner (or lunch!) with this chicken meatballs recipe. Serve them with steamed rice, cucumbers, maybe a bit of sauce, and big lettuce leaves for wrapping.