Lunch can be a daily dietary black hole, one that we often fill with fast food, huge portions or (worse) nothing at all. A healthy lunch sets you up for a high-energy afternoon and curtails evening bingeing, but a skimpy or fatty pick can wreck your mood and bring on cravings. Our guide to a good lunch will help you be healthier, happier and slimmer.
By Sarah Robbins
A SELF survey found that lunch leaves most women hungry again in a few hours. Here's what to eat if…
You're tied to your desk for the afternoon.
Best choice Dark, leafy greens with grilled steak, red peppers, broccoli and orange slices, topped with vinaigrette. Any lunch should provide 400 to 500 calories (probably more than you eat now), made up of 30 percent protein (4 to 5 ounces of fish, lean meat or tofu), 50 percent complex carbs (whole grains, veggies and fruit) and 20 percent healthy fats (olive oil and nuts).
The reason When you know you're going to be inactive for the next several hours, try to eat fewer bread-based carbs, says Lisa Young, Ph.D., author of The Portion Teller Plan (Broadway Books). The vitamin C in the vegetables and fruit will help your body absorb more energizing iron from the beef.
You're giving a presentation late in the day.
Best choice Grilled or baked wild salmon, a medium sweet potato and spinach sautéed with olive oil will help your brain stay sharp, Young says.
The reason The omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon can contribute to an upbeat mood, Young says. And spinach offers folate-a B vitamin that may improve your memory-while the fiber-packed sweet potato will stabilize your blood sugar level to clear your head and stave off end-of-day hunger.
You're headed to Spinning after work.
Best choice One cup of whole-wheat penne with 4 oz grilled chicken breast, tomato sauce, a sprinkle of Parmesan, broccoli and sliced zucchini
The reason The protein in the chicken will keep energy humming and allow your muscles to store much-needed glycogen from the pasta to fuel your cardio efforts, says Carrie Wiatt, a private nutritionist in Los Angeles. Slow-burning carbs leave you feeling full, while veggies add vitamins and fiber.
Your evening will include cocktails and cake.
Best choice A stir-fry starring shrimp, pea pods, onions, mushrooms, 1/2 cup soba noodles and half an ounce of sliced almonds (about 5 nuts)
The reason If you know you'll be tempted later, a light, filling lunch is a crucial defense. Shrimp is low in saturated fat and calories but high in protein, and almonds deliver heart-healthy monounsaturated fat that will help you feel satisfied for hours, Wiatt says. Pea pods and mushrooms offer a gratifying crunch, and soba noodles add complex carbs and extra protein.
Avoid fat bombs at the salad bar
Keep your greens lean by using this simple checklist from diet whiz Keri Gans, R.D., of New York City.
SKIP IT Iceberg lettuce is a near-zero nutritionally and has little flavor.
SCOOP IT Spinach or romaine lettuce The darker your greens, the better-you'll get iron, B vitamins and other nutrients.
SKIP IT Bacon bits Do not consider these salty, fatty bites a protein source.
SCOOP IT Parmesan "A little goes a long way in terms of both taste and nutrition," Gans points out. One tablespoon delivers almost 2 grams of protein and 55 milligrams of calcium.
SKIP IT Pasta salad Anything mayo-based will be high in fat. Besides, how long has it been sitting out?
SCOOP IT Beans All varieties are good for you, but black and kidney beans are among the highest in protein and fiber. If beans are your main source of protein, aim for half a cup, Gans says. If you've got meat or tofu in the mix, serve up a quarter cup or less.
SKIP IT Croutons "Not worth it; they're loaded with calories and fat," Gans says.
SCOOP IT Fresh bell peppers or nuts Peppers are crunchy enough to rival croutons but contain vitamins A, C and K instead of fat and calories. "Walnuts are a source of omega-3s, but they are calorie-dense," Gans says. Crush three (78 calories) to sprinkle over salad.
SKIP IT Creamy salad dressings such as Thousand Island, French, ranch or blue cheese. Two tablespoons can contain as many as 16 grams of fat. "The truth is that most women can eat as big a salad as they want," Gans says. "It's the dressing that's the problem."
SCOOP IT Oil-based salad dressings (or use straight olive oil and vinegar). Drizzle, don't douse: Aim for 2 tablespoons if the dressing is lowfat; pour less if it contains oil.
SKIP IT Grilled veggies Anything that glistens has been brushed with fat, Gans says. If you must have them, take a small portion and toss with fresh veggies and lowfat dressing. You'll get the taste with minimal fat.
SCOOP IT Beets Despite their sweetness, these often-overlooked veggies typically have no sugar added. They provide fiber, folate and lots of flavor.
Lighten up a working lunch
Order in advanceIf your coworkers all get burgers, it's easy to mindlessly do the same. Check the menu ahead of time, and pick a light, flavorful dish (such as veggie chili or chicken fajitas), suggests Mary Tabacchi, Ph.D., professor of nutrition at the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
Be a little picky Don't let a catered lunch throw you. Keep portions in mind (protein the size of your palm; starch the size of your fist), and peel the skin off chicken or fish and eat the meat.
The coolest heat-and-eat meals
"Frozen entrées are fine once or twice a week," Young says. Look for low-sodium options with less than 4 g saturated fat, 3 to 5 g fiber and 300 to 400 calories per serving (supplement those under 400 calories with yogurt or skim milk and fruit). Or eat what we liked.
The dish Annie Chun's Sprouted Brown Rice Sushi Wraps
The benefitsIn minutes, this kit transforms whatever's in your fridge-chopped veggies, tofu, last night's leftovers-into 10 pieces of sushi. Use half of the soy sauce for less sodium
The facts 300 calories (per 10 pieces sans filling), 1 g fat (0 g saturated), 60 g carbs, 4 g fiber, 8 g protein, 920 mg sodium
The dish Kashi Lime Cilantro Shrimp
The benefitsThis tasty, nutty pilaf includes oats, brown rice, barley and winter wheat. The shrimp tastes fresh, plus the veggies contribute 120 percent of your daily vitamin A requirement.
The facts 250 calories, 8 grams fat (2 g saturated), 33 g carbs, 6 g fiber, 12 g protein, 760 mg sodium
The dish Smart Ones Cranberry Turkey Medallions With Stuffing
The benefitsTrue Thanksgiving flavors, minus most of the saturated fat. The turkey is tender, and even the stuffing tastes like the real thing. And green beans and carrots add fiber.
The facts 350 calories, 4.5 g fat (1 g saturated), 59 g carbs, 4 g fiber, 18 g protein, 560 g sodium
The dish Healthy Choice Smokehouse Apple and Chicken Panini
The benefitsThis bread miraculously tastes "toasted," even after being nuked, and is as satisfying as a sandwich. The lowfat cheese fulfills 25 percent of your daily calcium needs.
The facts 310 calories, 4 g fat (1.5 g saturated), 44 g carbs, 5 g fiber, 23 g protein, 600 mg sodium
The dish Taste Above Tuscan Marinara Sauce with Veggie Chicken and Penne pasta
The benefits Even though it's vegetarian, this meal manages to provide more protein and iron than many meat-based offerings. It also has less sodium than any of the meals we tested.
The facts 320 calories, 19 g fat (2 g saturated), 22 g carbs, 8 g fiber, 26 g protein, 300 mg sodium
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Spiced Turkey Empanada
Pinto Bean and Cheddar Patties
Curry Chicken Salad Tacos With Cashews
Greek Bulgur-Chicken Salad