Breakfast gets all the attention as the most important meal of the day. And while I don’t want to take away from our morning meal that “breaks the fast” (eating early in the day certainly is important!), a mid-day meal is just as necessary to help sustain us until dinner.
But, for many people, lunch can be a curveball. Whether you’re working from home and find yourself snacking all day without a complete meal, or you simply don’t take the time to cook or prep lunch, this mid-day pick-me-up meal warrants more attention than we give it. After all, many of us who feel the afternoon slump could gain some energy just from eating a balanced lunch meal.
Skipping lunches has been associated with a reduced intake of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, dairy, seafood, and plant protein, which can negatively affect health over time. Plus, people often consume more calories after dinner when skipping breakfast and/or lunch as the body plays “catch up.”
While our culture generally labels dinner as the largest meal of the day, some research has shown that consumption of a higher-energy lunch may result in favorable changes in weight loss and fasting insulin levels.
Time seems to be the name of the game when it comes to working lunches, so say goodbye to hours upon hours of meal prepping on Sundays because these nutrient-dense lunch ideas (all of which are registered dietitian-approved) can be ready in under 15 minutes.
Nutrient-dense lunch ideas RDs swear by
This one is easy to customize based on your preferences or what’s in your pantry. Cook up your favorite grain (such as quinoa, brown rice, or farro), and then pile on a protein and veggies. To save time, use microwave grain options, like Seeds of Change, and a bag of frozen vegetables. Registered dietitian Eden Davis, RDN, recommends a quick meal with brown rice, salmon, edamame, and teriyaki sauce. “Within five minutes, I can chop up salmon into quarter-size pieces, toss in my favorite teriyaki sauce, sprinkle with sesame seeds, and place in the air fryer for 5 minutes before topping with frozen edamame to provide a dish rich in nutrients and a great energy boost.”
Rotisserie chicken salad
If you don’t have the time or patience to cook chicken, opt for a juicy rotisserie chicken that you can throw on nearly everything. Blend with mayo or Greek yogurt, and some spices and spread on sandwich bread or a wrap.
Rice and tuna bowl (chamchi doebbap)
This Korean-inspired dish uses a reheated base of white rice with canned or pouched tuna piled on top. An assortment of vegetables, such as matchstick carrots, kimchi, pickled onions, or radishes, is added on top. “This lunch fulfills my craving for flavorful vegetables, and a drizzle of kewpie mayo and gochujang creates a savory sauce with minimal effort,” says registered dietitian Cara Harbstreet, RD. “In the time it takes to microwave the rice and drain the can of tuna, you can have a satisfying lunch on the table.” Deobbap means “over rice” so any protein can be swapped for tuna, including salmon, leftover rotisserie or baked chicken, eggs, tofu, or shelled edamame.
Stuffed avocado or sweet potato
Take half of an avocado (or a cooked sweet potato), fill it with canned tuna or salmon, and season to your liking. You could also stuff it with cooked beans, rotisserie chicken, or lentils, and top it with cheese, herbs, nuts, or seeds. Serve alongside a salad or with your favorite crunchy veggies or crackers.
Perhaps the ultimate lunch staple, sandwiches can be a great mid-day meal. But, I challenge you to switch up your typical deli sandwich. Opt for some veggies on your egg and cheese sammy, use a spicy cheese with peppers in a grilled cheese chicken sandwich, or smash some chickpeas over a spread of avocado on your sandwich for an upgrade in fiber. You could also swap the bread out for a wrap, naan bread, or English muffin, or try out a new bread, like sourdough, focaccia, or potato bread.
Dietitian Chelsea LeBlanc, RDN, is a fan of the quick fajitas for lunch. “Grab some corn tortillas, frozen fajita veggies, a can of rinsed black beans, and low-sodium taco seasoning,” she says. “Saute the fajita veggies in a little olive oil. Add the black beans and a sprinkle of taco seasoning to the skillet to warm. Add this fiber-rich mixture to the corn tortillas and top with your favorite add-ons like salsa, guac, and cheese.” This filling, budget-friendly lunch is ready in minutes.
Cottage cheese bowl
While cottage cheese may be having its moment right now, it certainly does make for an easy, accessible, high-protein lunch option that can be catered to sweet or savory taste buds. Along with protein, cottage cheese also offers bone-building calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin B12.
“My favorite savory option is a Greek cottage cheese bowl,” says Amy Beney, RD. “On top of a bowl of cottage cheese, I’ll add a mix of whatever veggies are on hand, including tomatoes, peppers, kalamata olives, cucumbers, and seasonings such as Greek, salt, and pepper, to make a super quick, nutrient-packed lunch for a working person.”
Lauren Manaker, RD, is also a fan of the quick and flexible cottage cheese bowl. “I’ll take ½ cup of cottage cheese and add any items from the fridge or pantry—pumpkin seeds, raisins, roasted chickpeas—really anything goes,” she says. “This dish also helps avoid food waste, as it welcomes the use of items that may be thrown away if it is close to their expiration date.”
FYI, Greek yogurt is a great swap for cottage cheese and also adds a boost of probiotics.
Swap out the fast-food or delivery burger with a sweet potato turkey burger. Mashed sweet potatoes add extra antioxidants and fiber, as well as vitamins A and C. Microwave your sweet potatoes for 5–7 minutes, and then scoop out the flesh to mix in with the ground turkey or chicken, and cook for about 5 minutes on each side.
A fall favorite, chili can be customized just about any way you like. Combine some canned beans, onions, peppers, broth, and crushed tomatoes in a pan or instant pot and cook until flavors mesh. Opt for additional add-ins, like beef, chicken, pumpkin, or sweet potatoes. Throw some crackers on top for a satisfying crunch.
Take the “girl dinner” Tiktok trend and apply it to lunch. The key is to make it filling and cover all the bases with macronutrients, like protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Mix and match with some of your favorite convenient protein options, such as deli meats, roasted chickpeas, or hard-boiled eggs. Pair them with some crackers, whole grain bread, fruits, or veggies, and add some flavorful fats, like olives, olive oil, cheese, Greek yogurt, nuts, or seeds.
Pasta salad steals the show as a “picnic food,” but it can also be a fabulous lunch option. With a variety of pasta options available (from protein-enriched to plant-based to gluten-free), pair your favorite cooked pasta with any add-ins on hand—chicken, beans, tofu or seafood are all great options. This hummus pasta salad is a great inspiration. To save time, you could also use a microwaveable, quick-cooking pasta option, like Barilla Ready Pasta.