Whether you’re at home, in the car, or sitting at your cubicle, fueling up at lunchtime is essential for powering through the day. But what you eat can make or break the rest of your day — and can help or hurt your weight loss goals.
So, what should you be eating for lunch? A healthy combination of lean protein and vegetables, says nutritionist Leslie Milligan of Grand Strand Medical Center in South Carolina. “Protein has to be mainstay of your lunch because it makes you more alert.” Plus, carbohydrates can cause drowsiness, so it’s best to limit them at lunchtime.
Here are eight of her favorite lunchtime go-to’s.
1. Raw and roasted veggies
A combination of cooked and raw vegetables is a tasty way to maximize your veggie intake during the day. “Cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, and garlic can all be roasted, and broccoli, carrots, cucumbers, and radishes are great raw options,” says Milligan. Roasting your veggies brings out the natural sugar inside the vegetable, which makes them sweeter, she adds.
Try chopping and roasting all of your veggies on Sundays to make weekday lunches a breeze. Don’t forget to add a protein to your meal, too.
Related: 8 Easy Cooking Hacks for Weight Loss
2. Oil and vinegar-based salad dressings
Salad packed with veggies and fruit is a nutritious and easy option for lunch, but don’t ruin its nutritional value with high calorie salad dressings.
“We always recommend an oil and vinegar-based dressing or a light salad dressing. In fact, we don't even recommend fat-free dressing,” says Milligan.
Olive oil-based salad dressings are packed with healthy fats like monounsaturated fat, substances that will keep you full and energized through the afternoon, says Milligan.
One of Milligan’s favorite lunch ideas is ratatouille filled with eggplant, tomatoes, roasted red peppers, zucchini, yellow squash, and mushrooms. “I use the veggies as my base, and then I put a piece of grilled chicken or salmon on top,” says Milligan.
The base of the dish is eggplant, which is rich in anti-inflammatory antioxidants and may help control your blood sugar, too.
Related: Grilled Chicken and Ratatouille
4. Crustless quiche
Quiche is an easy make-ahead meal that contains protein and B-12 vitamins. If you load it with vegetables and pair it with a salad, you’ll have a complete, fiber-rich meal, says Milligan.
Ditch the pie crust to cut down on empty calories and carbohydrates that will make you tired later. Combine eggs and veggies in a muffin tin and bake for an easy, portable lunch option.
Soup is also a great lunch option, but many prepared options don’t have enough protein in them and many of them are loaded with sodium, says Milligan.
Try these make-ahead homemade soups, and if you’re in a pinch, choose a low-sodium canned soup and add shredded chicken.
“Regardless of the base you use, always add additional protein.” And steer clear of cream-based soups — they have a lot of sodium in them.
6. Canned tuna or chicken
In a pinch, low-sodium canned chicken or tuna is a good source of protein, says Milligan.
Top your salad with canned chicken or tuna or eat it paired with a veggie soup. If you’re making tuna fish or chicken salad, nix the mayo and use ingredients like olive oil and lemon juice instead.
Black beans, pinto beans, and kidney beans all contain protein and fiber, and may help you feel fuller, longer.
Canned beans are good warmed up on top of a salad, says Milligan. For days when you have to pick up lunch, “Grab a bag of salad and a can of beans at the grocery store. Then, empty the fluid from the beans, heat them up and put them on top of your salad.”
8. Don’t forget to eat a snack
Combat late afternoon fatigue — and cravings — with a healthy snack. “Try to avoid going home depleted of vitamins, minerals, and basic nutrients, which can lead to overeating,” says Milligan.
When the afternoon slump hits around 3 p.m., Milligan recommends noshing on Greek yogurt or one-percent milk and a chocolate additive like low-sugar Nesquick. Low-fat yogurt or string cheese with a piece of fruit is good option, too.
Related: Anti-Aging Snacks
There are always healthy options when you eat out, too
Nowadays, there are plenty of healthy options for the times you do have to eat on the go.
Milligan says the best thing you can do is to order your meal in the plainest form, eliminating cheese, condiments and additives. “If you want a burger, order a plain burger; if you order a chicken sandwich, have it grilled without mayo.” Halving or skipping the bun can help cut down on carbs, too.
Salads aren’t always the best options, either. Avoid toppings like croutons and bacon. “If you use a whole packet of salad dressing, you'll consume more fat than you would've if you had a burger.” Look for oil and vinegar-based dressings and drizzle it lightly over your greens.