Nutrition Experts' Favorite Brown-Bag Lunches
The fiber and protein in this lunch will keep you satisfied all afternoon, and your taste buds will never grow bored eating it regularly since the ingredient options are practically endless. “I'll make it Mexican with black beans, corn, and cilantro; Italian with cannellini beans, chopped red peppers, and basil; and Middle Eastern with chickpeas, cucumbers, and eggplant,” says nutritionist Stephanie Pedersen.
Tote-it tip: Make your salad in the container you’ll carry it in for easy clean up.
1 cup cooked beans
1/2 cup chopped cooked chicken (or other protein)
1 cup cooked or raw vegetables
1 tablespoon fresh herbs (optional)
2 tablespoons lemon juice (or vinegar of choice)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (or other oil of choice)
In a 4-cup food storage container, layer salad ingredients in order. Mix dressing ingredients together and pour over salad. Place lid on container and gently shake a few times to distribute dressing. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Nutrition score per serving (made with chickpeas, chicken breast, cucumber, and spinach): 450 calories, 5g fat (1g saturated), 45g carbs, 28g protein, 16g fiber
“Falafel is one of my favorite Mediterranean foods and is a fair source of vegetarian protein,” says Rania Batayneh, M.P.H., a nutritionist and author of The 1:1:1 Diet. She always bakes and never fries her falafel to avoid added fat and calories, and tops it off with veggies and a digestive-aiding yogurt sauce.
Tote-it tip: Store the yogurt sauce and feta in a baby food jar and pour them into your sandwich just before eating to keep the falafel crisp.
1/4 cup plain nonfat yogurt
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon chopped parsley leaves (or 1/2 teaspoon dried)
1 teaspoon chopped fresh cilantro (optional)
1/8 teaspoon ground cumin
1 whole-wheat pita, halved
3 pre-cooked falafel chickpea balls (such as Veggie Patch)
1/4 cup sliced cucumber
1/4 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup sliced tomato
2 tablespoons crumbled feta cheese
To make yogurt sauce, combine yogurt, lemon juice, parsley, cilantro, and cumin in a mixing bowl. Store until ready to eat. Stuff pita with falafel and vegetables, and wrap in foil or store in a zipper-lock bag. Just before eating, add yogurt sauce and feta.
Nutrition score per serving: 372 calories, 12g fat (4g saturated), 44g carbs, 14.5g protein, 12g fiber
Photo credit: Kevin Lynch, Closet Cooking.com
Taste of Tuscany Vegetarian Roll-Up
Inspired by a sandwich at Damascus Bakery in Brooklyn, NY, this meat-free wrap from registered dietitian Mary Hartley provides about 20 percent of your daily calcium thanks to the ricotta. “The roll-up is moist because the vegetables are sautéed first and the ricotta softens it a bit, plus the pine nuts add unexpected crunch,” she says.
Tote-it tip: Tightly wrap your lunch in foil and avoid packing anything on top of it to keep it from unraveling before you're hungry.
1/2 teaspoon olive oil
2 tablespoons pine nuts
1/4 cup chopped spinach
1/4 cup chopped mushrooms
1/4 cup fat-free ricotta cheese
1 medium red pepper and onion (or plain) wrap
Pour oil into a sauté pan over medium heat. Add pine nuts and sauté for 1 minute. Mix in spinach, mushrooms, and salt and vinegar to taste, and cook for another minute. Remove from heat and mix in ricotta. Spoon some mixture onto wrap, rolling up and adding more mixture as you roll. Wrap finished roll tightly in foil and chill until ready to serve.
Nutrition score per serving: 282 calories, 19g fat (4g saturated), 12g carbs, 12g protein, 2g fiber
Registered dietitian Sharon Richter gives the classic sandwich a makeover by using light mayo and fewer egg yolks and serving it sans bread to cut carbs while keeping the protein count high and flavor rich. Pick up some seasonal fruit to end your lunch on a naturally sweet note, Richter suggests.
Tote-it tip: Pack the egg salad in a sealable container, toss the spinach and tomatoes in a zipper-lock plastic bag, and keep everything chilled until lunch.
4 hard-boiled eggs
8 hard-boiled egg whites
2 tablespoons light mayonnaise
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
8 cups fresh spinach
2 beefsteak tomatoes, sliced
In a food processor or blender, pulse eggs, egg whites, mayonnaise, and mustard until well mixed, blending for less time if you like chunky egg salad and for more time if you prefer it smoother. Season with salt and pepper. Serve with spinach and tomatoes.
Nutrition score per serving: 187 calories, 7.5g fat (2g saturated), 7g carbs, 15.5g protein, 2g fiber
Chicken Blackberry Salad
Give your heart a boost at lunch with this recipe from Amie Valpone, a culinary nutritionist and blogger behind The Healthy Apple. Flaxseeds and their oil contain omega-3 fatty acids, and the whole seeds have lignans, which have been shown to lower cholesterol levels.
Tote-it tip: Pack this in a salad jar, layering the dressing and heavier ingredients on the bottom for a super fresh meal that’s a cinch to toss as soon as you are ready to eat.
1 chicken breast (6 ounces)
1 teaspoon flax oil
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon fresh lemon zest
1/2 cup blackberries
1 tablespoon ground flax seeds
2 cups mixed greens
Poach chicken breast in 2 cups water over medium heat for 10 minutes until fully cooked. Remove from heat, drain, and slice chicken into 1/2-inch pieces. Pour oil, salt, pepper, lemon juice, and lemon zest into a salad jar. Add chicken, blackberries, flax seeds, and greens in that order. Pour into a serving bowl just prior to eating and mix with a fork.
Nutrition score per serving: 339 calories, 11g fat (1.5g saturated), 15g carbs, 40g protein, 7g fiber
Veggie Pasta Salad
A little pasta goes a long way—and for minimal calories—when you mix it with lots of fresh, low-calorie vegetables. This Mediterranean-inspired meal from registered dietitian Jackie Newgent also forces you to sit and eat with a fork (hopefully not at your desk!) instead of shoveling something in on the run.
Tote-it tip: This salad stays fresh in a sealed container for up to three days, so portion out individual servings and bring two to work on Monday and save one for Wednesday.
1 box (16 ounces) whole-grain rotini pasta
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups chopped broccoli florets
1 large clove garlic, minced
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
3/4 cup grated Pecorino-Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 jar (6 ounces) marinated artichoke hearts, drained and chopped
1 large orange bell pepper, diced
1 pint grape tomatoes, halved lengthwise
1 small red onion, halved and thinly sliced
1/2 cup sun-dried tomatoes (not oil-packed), thinly sliced, rehydrated (if necessary)
1/3 cup hot banana pepper rings, drained
1/2 cup thinly sliced fresh basil
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh oregano
1 1/4 teaspoons sea salt
3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Cook pasta according to package directions until al dente. Drain (do not rinse) and toss with 1/4 cup oil, broccoli, and garlic in a large bowl. Set aside to cool for about 30 minutes. Add vinegar and cheese, tossing to coat. Add artichoke hearts, bell pepper, grape tomatoes, onion, sun-dried tomatoes, hot pepper, basil, oregano, salt, and black pepper, and toss to combine. Chill until ready to serve, then toss with remaining 1/4 cup oil. (If you prefer room-temperature pasta salad, take out of the fridge about 30 to 45 minutes prior to serving.)
Nutrition score per serving (about 1 1/2 cups): 360 calories, 18g fat (4g saturated), 42g carbs, 12g protein, 6g fiber
Grilled Chicken and Veggie Wrap
With four different vegetables, this handheld lunch from Nutrition Babes Lauren Harris-Pincus and Kathy Siegel (both are registered dietitians) is a feast for your eyes and your stomach—which will stay content until dinner thanks to the protein and fiber.
Tote-it tip: Use up leftover grilled chicken from dinner to pack lunches for the whole house the night before.
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon nonfat Greek yogurt
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
3/4 teaspoon honey
4 100-calorie whole-wheat flour tortillas
8 ounces grilled chicken breast
12 sundried tomatoes (not packed in oil), sliced
2 roasted red peppers (fresh or jarred), sliced
12 baby bella mushrooms, grilled and sliced
1/2 cup shredded 2% mozzarella cheese
1 large handful field greens (or spring mix)
To make dressing, combine first four ingredients in a small bowl. Add salt and pepper to taste and whisk until well combined. To assemble wraps, divide and layer all ingredients and dressing evenly onto each wrap. Roll and wrap up in foil or plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve.
Nutrition score per serving: 311 calories, 10g fat (2g saturated), 34g carbs, 29g protein, 10g fiber
Black Bean, Corn, and Cilantro Salad
If you're not eating legumes, you should be: According to one study, bean eaters have smaller waists and lower body weights than people who shun beans. This Mexican dish from Kara Ellis, lead dietitian for Community Health Center, proves how tasty this vegetarian protein can be.
Tote-it tip: This salad is best packed the night before so that all the flavors have a chance to fully develop, but add in the avocado just before you leave in the morning to prevent browning.
2 cups frozen corn, thawed
1 can (14.5 ounces) black beans, rinsed and drained
1 small jalapeno pepper, seeds removed, chopped (optional)
1/2 red onion, chopped
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1 quart cherry tomatoes, cut in half
1 small red (or orange) bell pepper, chopped
2 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Juice of 1 lime
In a medium bowl, combine corn, beans, jalapeno, red onion, cilantro, tomatoes, and bell pepper. In a small bowl, combine olive oil, vinegar, and lime juice. Pour liquid mixture over vegetables, mixing well, then add salt and pepper to taste. Cover and refrigerate until morning. Chop avocado and add to salad, packing all ingredients in an airtight container.
Nutrition score per serving: 433 calories, 20g fat (1.5g saturated), 53g carbs, 12g protein, 12g fiber
Cucumber and Tomato Salad
Registered dietitian Lauren O’Connor's lunch provides a good dose of vitamins C and K to fight free radicals, as well as lycopene, which may protect against certain cancers. She adds goat cheese since it has the creamy flavor you crave for less fat than cow's cheese.
Tote-it tip: This salad tastes better the longer it sits, so make it the night before and store it in the fridge until you are ready to eat (just pack the pita separately so it stays dry).
1/2 cucumber, sliced
1 medium tomato, sliced
1/4 cup crumbled semi-soft goat cheese
5 large basil leaves, chopped
2 teaspoons grapeseed oil
1/2 whole-wheat pita pocket
Combine first five ingredients and lemon juice to taste in a bowl and toss to distribute flavors. Keep in refrigerator and serve with pita on the side, or stuff salad into pita.
Nutrition score per serving: 290 calories, 14g fat (6g saturated), 31g carbs, 12g protein, 5g fiber
Crunchy Cherry Sunflower Seed Wraps
Talk about balanced: This to-go lunch has whole grains, protein, healthy fats, fruit, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. "If I’m traveling on a train or plane, it's great to throw in my bag since it’s pretty sturdy and difficult to squish,” says Sharon Palmer, a registered dietitian and author of The Plan-Powered Diet.
Tote-it tip: Immediately wrap up your wrap in foil or plastic to keep it from drying out before it's time to eat. Bonus: There's no need to refrigerate.
2 8-inch whole grain tortillas (or wraps)
2 tablespoons almond butter
2/3 cup microgreens or sprouts
2 tablespoons sunflower seeds
2 tablespoons raisins
2 tablespoons dried cherries
Spread almond butter evenly over each tortilla. Top with microgreens, sunflower seeds, raisins, and dried cherries. Tightly roll up each tortilla, slice in half, and wrap up tightly. Store in foil or plastic.
Nutrition score per serving: 362 calories, 17 fat (1g saturated), 48g carbs, 9g protein, 7g fiber
"Cold water fish such as tuna are good for your brain, heart, and muscle mass thanks to omega-3 fatty acids," says registered dietitian Tina Ruggiero. But check the label on pouches and cans, as the amount of omegas varies widely by brand and product. A squeeze of lemon juice and dash of lemon zest give the fish a bright, fresh flavor.
Tote-it tip: Since you'll want to make the whole can of tuna once you've opened it, use the leftover tuna mix on a salad, stuffed into a pita, or on its own as an energizing snack.
Serves: 1 (with leftovers)
2 tablespoons low-fat mayonnaise
1 tablespoon nonfat Greek yogurt
1/8 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 slices multigrain bread, toasted
1 leaf crisp lettuce (such as Boston, romaine, or Bibb)
1 thick slice beefsteak tomato
1 thin slice Vidalia onion
3 thin slices avocado
1 can (5 ounces) tuna fish, drained
Freshly ground black pepper
In a small bowl, combine mayonnaise, yogurt, lemon zest, and lemon juice. Spread each slice of toast with 1/4 mayo mixture. Top one slice with lettuce, tomato, onion, avocado, and half the tuna. Season to taste with black pepper. Place second slice of toast on top and refrigerate until ready to serve. Store remaining lemon-mayo and tuna (separately or mixed together) in an airtight container.
Nutrition score per serving: 345 calories, 14.5g fat (2.5g saturated), 35g carbs, 26g protein, 13g fiber
Spicy Black Bean and Veggie Chili
The combo of nutrient-rich veggies, plant-based protein from the black beans, heart-healthy olive oil, metabolism-boosting spices, and slow-burning carbs from the brown rice will leave you feeling light and energized all afternoon, says Cynthia Sass, R.D., M.P.H., author of
Tote-it tip: Store the chili in a BPA-free glass container and eat it straight from the fridge cold or pop it in the microwave to heat up.
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
1/4 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup sliced mushrooms
1/4 cup thinly sliced carrots
1/4 cup minced green bell pepper
1/2 cup halved grape tomatoes
1/2 cup spinach
1/2 cup water
1 dash cayenne pepper
1 dash black pepper
1 dash crushed red pepper
1/2 cup cooked brown rice
1/2 cup canned low-sodium black beans, rinsed and drained
Pour oil into a small saucepan over medium heat. Add garlic, onion, mushrooms, carrots, and peppers and saute about 6 minutes until tender. Add tomatoes, spinach, water, and spices. Quickly bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and stir for 10 to 12 minutes. Stir in rice and beans to heat through. Remove from heat, and store in a sealable glass container until ready to serve.
Nutrition score per serving: 400 calories, 15g fat (2g saturated), 53g carbs, 11g protein, 12g fiber