Breakfast may have been declared the most important meal of the day, and many people look forward to relaxing later over a leisurely restaurant or homemade dinner—or at least some delicious takeout. However, you might tend to work through lunch, staying chained to your desk while you gobble up a sandwich from a nearby fast-food restaurant or deli, nosh on a microwave meal or grab a protein bar or smoothie and call that good enough."
None of these habits are doing our health any favors, dietitians confirm.
"Lunch is often where people, myself very much included, get tripped up," admits Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, a New York-based dietitian and the author of Smoothies & Juices. "Whether you're working from home or in an office, we tend to work until we're starving, either forgetting to take a break for lunch or working through lunch. Then, once we're hangry, we start grabbing every snack that's available, often never feeling satisfied."
The ripple effects of that all-afternoon snacking can impact your dinner choices as well, Largeman-Roth adds, plus, she says, "You're likely missing out on some key nutrients you should be getting at lunch."
Research bears this out: A July 2019 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that individuals who tend to eat a less-nutritious lunch make less healthy food choices later in the day. Skipping lunch altogether isn't a wise strategy, either. According to a short-term July 2020 study in Public Health Nutrition, people who skip breakfast or lunch have lower overall diet quality than those who eat all three meals. Specifically, lunch-skippers tend to eat fewer vegetables, seafood and plant proteins than their three-meal-a-day peers.
"Lunchtime is a great opportunity to include foods that we need to support our overall health. Foods that many of us are not eating enough of, including fruits and veggies, can be a main focus of a lunchtime meal, helping us meet your daily quota," says Lauren Manaker M.S., RD, LD, a registered dietitian and owner of Nutrition Now Counseling in Charleston, South Carolina.
How to Build a Better Lunch
In case we didn't shout it loudly enough yet, the biggest lunch mistake is skipping it. "You're missing out on important nutrients for sure and setting yourself up to overeat once you're around food later in the day," Largeman-Roth says. Since it falls in the middle of busy days, it does take some planning. But no need to feel like you must do a whole week of meal planning and prep to make a healthy lunch part of your day.
Read on for four tips to make the most of this VIM (very important meal):
Time It Right
Delaying or skipping lunch can make that 4 p.m. slump even worse. "When you don't eat regularly, your blood sugar level will drop and that can leave you feeling tired, irritable and distracted," Largeman-Roth says. Timing is definitely a personal choice based on how much you ate at breakfast and how active you've already been, Largeman-Roth explains: "But if you've had breakfast between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m., you'll likely find yourself hungry by noon or 1 p.m., even if you've had a snack in between."
Aim for Balance
Lunches could have a mix of all three macronutrients—protein, quality carbs and healthy fats—to help support energy levels and promote satiety, Manaker says. Tack on some produce to boost your vitamin, mineral and fiber intake, Manaker suggests. Score some inspiration from these midday faves from Manaker and Largeman-Roth.
1 cup lentil soup, 1 slice whole-grain bread and ½ cup berries
DIY snack box of ½ cup baby carrots, 1 ounce manchego cheese, 1 cup fresh cherries, 12 whole-grain crackers and 1 ounce uncured salami bites
4 ounces grilled chicken (leftover or rotisserie works!), 2 cups salad mix and 1 banana
1 medium baked potato, ¼ cup shredded cheese, ½ cup black beans and ½ cup steamed broccoli
Really Green Smoothie, 1 slice whole-grain bread and 1 tablespoon nut butter
Tuna Salad Sandwich and 1 apple
Largeman-Roth likes to toss an ounce of toasted walnuts into her tuna salad sandwich for more flavor, texture, fiber, protein and plant-based omega-3 fats.
Feel Free to Outsource
Snag a supermarket salad kit to pair with shredded rotisserie chicken or leftover protein from last night's dinner. You can also buy precooked quinoa or microwaveable brown rice to act as the base of a grain bowl and add leftover fresh or roasted vegetables and a scoop of rinsed canned beans.
Make It an Occasion
Instead of eating in front of the computer or phone, step away from your screen and take a few minutes to focus on your meal. "Mindless eating makes it really easy for us to overeat or not make the best food choices," Manaker says. Try to tune in to what you're consuming, how it tastes and smells, and when your body is getting satisfied. "It's even better if you can eat while being outside in nature," Manaker adds, since an alfresco environment can boost your energy, lower stress and clear your brain for a more inspired afternoon.
The Bottom Line
"Since many of us don't have that 'ideal' breakfast that's full of protein and fiber, lunch gives us another chance to get those important macronutrients and micronutrients in," Largeman-Roth says.
A healthy lunch need not be a perfectly Instagrammable salad. Turn to one of the dietitian-approved options above or fuel up with these cheap healthy lunch ideas or healthy lunch ideas to make in 10 minutes or less. Prioritizing your lunch will score some energy and nutrition to power you through your afternoon. Bonus: You'll also be set for healthy eating success for the rest of the day.