If you’re looking to drop stubborn weight fast, it may be time to rethink your lunch strategy. While many people consider breakfast the most important meal of the day, lunch gives you the energy to finish work, keep those 3 p.m. sugar cravings at bay, and maybe power through an evening workout. However, not all midday meals are created equal, and if weight loss is your priority, making the right choices is a must.
If you’re unsure about what to eat or how to structure your lunchtime, you’re in luck. We have rounded up some expert-approved pointers and science-backed tips that will help steer you onto the right track. With these dos and don’ts, you’ll have all the information you need to transform your lunch hour into a fat-burning, nutrient-dense midday refuel session.
Make sure your breakfast is equally weight loss-friendly by adopting The 13 Best Breakfast Habits to Drop 10 Pounds.
Repurpose What You Have
Your favorite healthy dinner recipe can easily turn into tomorrow’s noon time meal. “If I brown bag it, often I’ll take whatever leftovers I have from the night before and wrap it up over a bed of greens (I buy the boxed organic spinach or arugula— it’s easy, fast and washed!),” Amy Shapiro, RD, CDN of RealNutritionNYC, explains in What 11 Diet Experts Eat for Lunch. She recommends throwing in some quinoa or brown rice if you have any left over.
Using your lunch hour to make new friends will not only help your social life; it may also boost your weight loss efforts. A study published in Physiology and Behavior shows that while socializing during a meal can cause an increase in food consumption, eating with strangers does not. Take this research as a sign that it’s time to branch out from your standard lunch crew and catch up with some coworkers you’re less familiar with.
Choose Green Tea
If you think Coke pairs perfectly with your salad or sandwich, think again. Instead of tacking on plenty of empty calories and sugar, pair your healthy lunch with a beverage that is equally beneficial. In 18 Lunch Rituals to Help You Lose Weight, we named green tea as a great weight-loss beverage, thanks to its metabolism-boosting catechins and caffeine, which will act as the perfect midday pick-me-up.
Starting your meal off with a salad will add fiber and antioxidants to your diet and decrease your overall calorie consumption, according to a study published in the journal Appetite. Research shows that subjects who ate salad before their main course consumed less calories than those who enjoyed their greens with their meal. The salad first group also drank more water, a huge plus given H2O’s metabolism-boosting potential.
Skeptical of water’s calorie-burning capabilities? Check out why we named hydration as one of the 55 Best Ways to Boost Your Metabolism.
Mix it Up
You’re bound to get sick of your healthy lunch staple sooner or later. Instead of struggling to fight off midday hamburger cravings, keep some creative afternoon meal ideas in mind. If you’re drawing a blank on appetizing recipes, check out our list of 30 Healthy Lunch Ideas That Aren’t Salad.
You might think of brunch as a weekend-only affair, but there’s no reason you can’t enjoy some healthy breakfast foods in the afternoon. In fact, Marisa Moore, MBA, RDN, LD, shared in What 11 Diet Experts Eat for Lunch that her favorite midday meal is a vegetable omelet with a side salad. Some of her go-to vegetables to toss in are mushrooms, spinach, and onions.
Don’t Under Eat
Yes, maintaining a calorie deficit will lead to weight loss but skimping on lunch will not do your diet any favors. A satiating mid-day meal will help you power through the rest of the day and resist cravings, so don’t be afraid to eat a full, balanced plate of food. “Include adequate protein and healthy fats like walnuts or avocado to boost satiety,” Moore advises. “Instead of an all-vegetable salad try a bed of salad greens with grilled salmon, snap peas and walnuts for crunch, and an olive oil vinaigrette for a more satisfying meal,” she recommends.
Nix Liquid Lunches
Blended beverages such as protein shakes can be a healthy way to pack in nutrients, but they will not fill you up the same way a proper meal will. “Skip the smoothie shop,” Moore cautions, because drinking your meal will not keep you as satisfied. “That empty feeling may lead you back to the vending machine,” she warns.
Go on (Healthy) Autopilot
If going home and cooking a nutritious lunch is impossible for you, you’re not alone. Instead of throwing in the towel and ordering something decadent, have a plan for what you’ll eat once noon strikes. “Having a healthy lunch in the fridge or identifying your go-to restaurant for healthy meals can help you achieve your goals,” according to Moore. She recommends filling half of your plate or bowl with vegetables and rounding out your meal with protein, a healthy carbohydrate, and a drizzle of a heart-healthy fat.
Say No to a Carb-Fest
A pasta feast will not only hurt your dieting efforts; it may harm your productivity for the rest of the day, too. Shapiro cautions that a high-carbohydrate meal will cause you to feel sluggish and ready for a nap. “Eat until you are satisfied, NOT full,” Shapiro recommends, so that you can avoid that food coma feeling and stay productive throughout the afternoon.
Pile on the Protein
Protein is a must if you’re looking for a lunch with serious satiating power. Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD, credits the macronutrient with helping people stay fuller longer, but understands that plain chicken breasts can get boring fast. Instead, Rizzo favors chickpeas, lentils, and dry peas, because their combination of protein and fiber is extra effective when it comes to quashing hunger. Some of her favorite high-protein options include lentil soup, bean salad, and greens with chickpeas on top.
Up Your Veggie Intake
“You can’t go wrong with adding more veggies to your meal,” according to Rizzo. She explains that fresh produce is loaded with water, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, all for very few calories. Rizzo recommends throwing a handful of spinach into your smoothies, adding an extra veggie or two into your salad, and eating soups that are made with leafy greens and produce. “Try adding an extra serving of veggies to your lunch, and your waistline will thank you,” she summarizes.
While meat is rich in protein, it’s often a high-calorie choice. Challenging yourself to go meatless at lunch once in awhile will help you cut calories and work more veggies into your diet. Rizzo encourages her clients to adopt “meatless Mondays” and eat midday meals where produce and beans take center stage. Talk about a weight loss-friendly way to start your week!
Opt for Whole Grains
The difference between wheat and white goes far beyond bread color. “It’s amazing how much of a difference it can make on your weight to swap in whole grains for refined grains,” Rizzo explains. Complex carbohydrates have more protein and fiber—two nutrients that are key to feeling fuller longer. “That fullness will help prevent the mid-afternoon munchies, where you are likely to reach for something unhealthy,” Rizzo concludes.
Snacks Are Not the Enemy
While raiding the office candy bar at 3 p.m. may harm your diet, a balanced afternoon snack will not do any damage. In fact, Shapiro recommends an afternoon snack to help prevent overeating at lunch and dinner. If you need some healthy snack ideas, check out our list of The 50 Best Snacks for Weight Loss.
You Can Cheat Occasionally
Even the most devoted dieters and nutrition experts advocate splurging once in awhile. Leah Kaufman, RD, explains that planning out occasional cheat meals can help keep you on track the rest of the week. If you want to indulge a little on Friday afternoon, try to make your lunches leading up to it as healthy and veggie-packed as possible.
Don’t Make Decisions on an Empty Stomach
It’s a lot harder to make responsible food choices when you’re starving. Instead of waiting until the absolute last minute for lunch and chowing down on everything in sight, Kaufman recommends eating every four to five hours. Regular meals and snacks will help keep your blood sugar in check and your food cravings under control, so make sure to grab lunch when you are hungry, not starving.
It may not always be possible, but avoid staying indoors all day whenever you can. Instead, take some time to walk outside and get fresh air. Lauren Manganiello, MS, RD, CDN, explains that getting even a little physical activity can help you relax and clear your mind. Since stress often leads to overeating, taking some time to unwind after a busy morning may help you consume less calories during the afternoon.
Step Away From Your Desk
Even if you cannot sneak in a lunchtime walk, make every effort to step away from your desk when consuming your afternoon meal. “When we eat at our desk, we are usually trying to multitask but this can lead to a lot of distractions and mindless eating,” Manganiello explains. Instead, look away from your computer and focus on enjoying your food in order to make the most of your meal.
Your deadlines can wait. Do your mind and body a favor and don’t rush through lunch in order to get back to work as quickly as possible. “When we eat in a rush, we don’t give our minds enough time to catch up with our bodies and we tend to overeat,” Manganiello says. In order to avoid this, try to chew slowly and concentrate on tasting all of your food. It may sound silly, but eating slowly and mindfully will help you feel more satisfied and prevent overeating.
If you need more healthy lunch ideas, be sure to check out our list of 25 Super-Healthy Lunches Under 400 Calories.