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How to get the most nutrients out of your work or school lunches

When it comes to lunch, home-made is best.

QUESTION: I work and have three children, so I’m always on the lookout for healthy lunch-box ideas. What do you suggest?

ANSWER: Portable lunches are a daily reality for many of us. So, given their significant contribution to our daily diet, it makes sense that we pay them as much attention as we do our dinners.

By my calculations, most full-time workers and students eat two-thirds of their lunches each year at work.

Putting aside the latest debates on the minutiae of diets, most of us understand what we should be eating: plenty of plant-based foods, fibre-rich grains, some dairy products, legumes, nuts, seeds, seafood and poultry and a limited amount of red meat.

The goal is to avoid processed foods and eat ones that are closer to their natural state, such as bread made from wheat grains and whole-wheat flour rather than white flour, or leftover roast chicken rather than processed ham.

Home-made lunches are best. Research clearly shows that meals brought from home are more nutritious than those bought from school tuck shops or cafes. The key to preparing nourishing lunches is planning, as it is likely to result in more fruit and vegetables being eaten.

Some people prefer to dedicate their Sunday afternoons to prepping lunches for the week. Others take it day by day. At the very least, consider what you’ll be having for lunch the next day as you’re preparing dinner, then you can decide whether to make extra for leftovers. Can you chop extra veges while making dinner and set them aside for lunches? Can you boil eggs while the dinner cooks? Can you bake an extra chicken breast for the next day?

Protein is the most satiating of the food groups, so including protein-rich lean meats such as pork tenderloin, chicken, seafood, boiled eggs, beans or lentils in your lunch will make it more satisfying. For example, make a fresh wholegrain sandwich with salad and just a spoonful of leftover meat from last night’s dinner. Taking leftover stir-fry is a great idea, too.

It is best to eat vegetables more frequently rather than just piling them on to the dinner plate. Lunch and morning and afternoon snacks are good times to include more vegetables (and fruit), but make sure they’re ones you enjoy so eating them isn’t an effort. Add a small tub of salsa or hummus to dip the vegetables in for a tastier experience.

It’s not rocket science, but don’t underestimate the health benefits that a home-made peanut butter sandwich and an apple can have compared with processed foods from the school tuck shop or a local bakery.

Work-lunch ideas

  • Last night’s leftovers are a fantastic solution. Even a little leftover meat or chicken and veges are useful; pop them in a wrap with extra salad greens and hummus for the kids.
  • Bake a couple of chicken breasts on Sunday, then shred them to use in wraps, a salad, or a burrito bowl with rice, salad greens, avocado, tomato, capsicum and a tasty dressing.
  • Prepare a jar of nutty granola or oats topped with greek yogurt and fresh chopped peaches or nectarines.
  • Toss leftover wholegrain pasta, brown rice or quinoa with tinned salmon or tuna, salad leaves, veges and a light dressing.  

This article was first published in the February 1, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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