We have all experienced the monotony that bringing a lunch to work can be: searching the fridge for way too many minutes for something to take, repeating the same thing for days, then never wanting to look at it again. Even if cooking brings out your creativity, making 250 lunches (or more if you make them for your kids and/or partner, too) per year can feel like meal prep overkill and can tarnish the gloss on inspiration and grow into a millstone-weight chore.
So this month, Fairygodboss caught up with nutritionist and herbalist Danielle Brooks, author of Good Decisions Most of the Time: Because Life is Too Short Not To Eat Chocolate and owner of Lake Washington Wellness Center and Gooddecisions.com to get advice on planning and making easy lunch recipes that turn into healthy meals that can be eaten at your desk or during a break to refresh at any time during the workday.
The first thing Dani says is, “I am a fan of leftovers. There is nothing more stressful than having to come up with a healthy lunch when you are pushing hard for a deadline and time for taking care of you is limited. When you get home at the end of your day, intentionally cook more than you need for dinner so the next day all you have to do is grab your leftovers for lunch and go.”
But let’s face it: sometimes we don’t cook dinner or what we're cooking (a salad, a TV dinner, a meal from a delivery service where the items are already portioned into single servings) is not conducive to leftovers or doesn't translate into a lunch idea.
If that’s the case, Dani suggests stocking up on mixed nuts, fresh fruit, nut butters like peanut butter or almond butter, fresh veggies like bell pepper slices, yogurt and eggs. And if you’re a fan and a carnivore, either beef jerky or canned protein (such chicken or tuna).
Dani says one way to encourage you're eating a healthy lunch is to keep these things on hand in either an office refrigerator, if you have one, or the dry goods in your desk drawer.
“This prevents you from making unhealthy choices when long work hours result in skipped meals and the chaos and confusion of low blood sugar hits,” Dani says. “When the donut in the breakroom becomes your savior is typically only when you don't have something else on hand instead.” Indeed, it can be hard to resist the bagels and cream cheese at your 11 a.m. meeting if you don't have a good pre-lunch snack at your disposal.
Dani even suggests keeping a fruit bowl on your desk, if you have space, your favorite can or two of soup or in a desk drawer for emergencies (if you have access to a microwave).
But if you need ideas for easy lunch recipes, consider cooking a protein source rather plainly on Sunday or Monday. For example, cook a couple of chicken breasts in some extra-virgin olive oil. For the first day of work, toss some cubes (or shredded pieces) with some barbeque sauce and mix it with some shredded low-fat cheese and toss it in a small glass container with romaine lettuce and chopped veggies for a BBQ Chicken Salad.
For the second day, heat the cubes or shreds of chicken with a (low-sodium!) soy sauce and a few other ingredients such as chopped celery, carrots, and whatever other vegetables you like. Add rice or Asian noodles.
For the third day, use the chicken in a tortilla and add fresh strips of veggies, avocado or lettuce to make a chicken wrap. Drizzle it with a bit of ranch dressing, if you like (but don't overdo it on the dressing; depending on what kind you choose it may make your healthy lunch a not-so-healthy one...plus, no one likes a soggy tortilla!)
For day four, you can add some new ingredients to the chicken and place it aside spinach leaves, cherry tomatoes and small mozzarella balls or pieces of feta cheese and drizzle the whole thing with balsamic to add an artistic flourish to your meal.
By the end of your week, you may be sick of chicken, so go vegetarian and consider baking a potato or sweet potato (which takes only a few minutes in the microwave), and top the potato with chopped, steamed veggies, a soft cheese or Greek yogurt.
For the next week, before the first day, cook a cup and a half (dry) of brown rice, quinoa or whole grain noodles as your base. Throughout the week, you can use a half-cup of rice or noodles (cooked) and add veggies and chicken, shrimp or tofu to make a Buddha in a Jar; a sushi bowl; a burrito bowl with some beans; a strawberry, noodle or rice and mozzarella pasta salad, or mix some pesto with the protein and add a bit of sundried tomato (or plain old tomatoes) and the starch and you have a colorful, delicious salad.
The meal prep time for all of these lunch recipes is minimal; all of these ideas take approximately 10-15 minutes to assemble once the main ingredient for the week has been cooked. Each dish will provide plenty of color and vitamins and protein to keep you going throughout the day. And if you need a little pick-me-up snack, you always have the mixed nuts, hardboiled eggs and Greek yogurt that Dani said to keep on hand.
Jill L. Ferguson is the co-author of WOMEN Are Changing the Corporate Landscape: Rules for Cultivating Leadership Excellence and Raise Rules for Women: How to Make More Money at Work. She is the founder of Women's Wellness Weekends and can be followed on Twitter: @JLFerg.
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