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In many countries lunch is the most important meal of the day. The French take a long break from work and go to a restaurant for a proper meal, often of three courses and a small glass of wine. In Italy, lunch is the largest meal of the day, often home-cooked, at least two courses and always with plenty of time to enjoy it! Unfortunately in the UK it is a different story, often a soggy sandwich out of a packet eaten at our desks or something grabbed on the run is the best we can do!

This is not great for our health for several reasons; firstly what we eat at lunch will determine our energy levels over the afternoon – and that includes our mental energy and concentration, so work performance will be affected. Secondly, our digestive systems don’t work as well when we eat on the go; the system slows down when we are under any kind of stress, so we don’t digest as efficiently and are more likely to suffer with indigestion or bloating. Thirdly, research shows that when we eat mindfully, fully focusing on our food (no TV or computer!), we eat fewer calories.

This week, I would therefore like to encourage you to make more of your lunch. Take your allocated break, get away from your desk, eat something nutritious and energising and even squeeze in a 20-minute walk afterwards to really get the most out of your lunch break.

Taking a healthy packed lunch is a great way to make sure you have a healthy meal and that you know exactly what is in it. It also saves money and once you get into to the habit, can be made in a flash. Here are some ideas and inspiration for healthy packed lunches.

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Healthy Packed Lunch Sandwiches

Sandwiches are quick and easy to make, convenient, portable and also satisfying and filling, making them our number one lunch choice. So, what makes a healthy sandwich?

  • Firstly, a sandwich should be freshly prepared on the same day and never out of a packet. Where possible, make it yourself so you can control exactly what goes in it.
  • Getting the bread right is your first consideration; the traditional 2 slices of white bread or baguette are a disaster for your energy levels and can contain up to a whopping 500 calories in the bread alone! The best option is 100% rye bread, and wholelmeal spelt bread or wholemeal pitta breads are also fine if you tolerate wheat. Oatcakes make a super alternative to conventional bread and work especially well with dips such as hummus.
  • A protein filling will keep you feeling full all afternoon and balance your blood sugar levels. Good choices are egg, chicken, salmon, tuna, or hummus.
  • You don’t usually need to add butter or mayonnaise, instead get creative and add mashed avocado to dry fillings like chicken or tuna, or yogurt instead of mayo with boiled eggs or tuna.
  • Add as much watercress, rocket, tomato, spinach etc. as you can to get one of your veg portions for the day in there. Dark green leaves provide more vitamins and minerals than their paler counterparts, so choose these.

Sandwich Ideas:

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Open Salmon Sandwich

  • 1 slice 100% rye bread
  • 1 small poached salmon fillet, flaked with a fork
  • ½ small avocado
  • Lemon juice
  • A small handful of rocket
  1. Mash the avocado with a squeeze of lemon juice and seasoning and spread on the bread
  2. Top with the salmon flakes, rocket leaves, another squeeze of lemon and freshly ground black pepper
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Spicy Crab Pitta

  • 100g crab meat
  • 1 wholemeal pitta bread
  • 1/5 red pepper, finely chopped
  • 1/3 red chilli, very finely chopped
  • 10g coriander, chopped
  • 1-heaped tbsp natural yoghurt
  • Lemon juice
  1. Mix everything together in a bowl, season to taste
  2. Warm the pitta bread and fill to the brim with the filling
  3. If taking to work, wrap in foil to hold it all together

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Smoked Mackerel Pâté with Oatcakes

3-4 servings

  • 1 packet smoked mackerel fillets
  • 100g natural yoghurt/1 small very ripe avocado
  • Juice of ½ lemon
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tbsp chopped dill
  1. Either mash the mackerel with a fork with the yoghurt/avocado, then add lemon juice, dill and seasoning for a coarse pâté
  2. Or blend all the ingredients together in a food processor for a smoother texture
  3. You can add more lemon juice and/or yoghurt if necessary
  4. Serve with oatcakes and cucumber slices
  5. Keeps in the fridge for 3-4 days

 

Healthy Packed Lunch Salads

Another brilliant lunch choice is a salad, but something lettuce based is unlikely to keep you going all afternoon. Instead, I like to base salads around wholegrains like quinoa, barley, wild rice or farro (an Italian grain similar to spelt), beans, lentils or cubes of roasted starchy vegetables such as butternut squash or sweet potato. Here are some ideas, or you can make your own combinations! These recipes can all be made in advance and make enough for at least a couple of days worth.

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Herby Quinoa Salad with Aubergine Dressing

2 servings

  • 100g quinoa
  • 100g cooked chickpeas
  • ¼ cucumber, diced
  • ¼ red pepper, diced
  • 2 spring onions, finely sliced
  • 2 tbsp coriander, chopped
  • 2 tbsp parsley, chopped
  • 2 tbsp mint, chopped
  • Juice and zest of ½ lemon

Dressing

  • 1 large aubergine
  • 1-heaped tsp tahini
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • Lemon juice
  • Salt and pepper
  1. Cook the quinoa according to packet instructions, allow to cool.
  2. Meanwhile pierce the aubergine and place under a hot grill, turning frequently until the skin is charred all over and the flesh feels soft when you press it (this will take approximately 15-20 minutes)
  3. Chop the other salad ingredients and mix into the quinoa with the chickpeas.
  4. When the aubergine is ready, scoop out the flesh and discard the skin, blitz in a food processor with the other dressing ingredients.
  5. Drizzle the dressing over the salad and serve
  6. Can be kept for 2-3 days in the fridge

 

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Simple Cannellini Bean & Tuna Salad

2-3 servings

  • 1 tin cannellini beans, drained
  • 1 small tin of tuna
  • 2-3 tomatoes, diced
  • ½ small red onion, finely chopped
  • 2 tbsp parsley, chopped
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • Juice of ½ lemon
  • Basil leaves, torn
  1. Simply mix everything together and serve.
  2. Can be kept for 2-3 days in the fridge

Sweet Potato & Squash Salad

3-4 servings

  • 1 sweet potato
  • 1 small butternut squash
  • 1 bag of watercress, spinach and rocket
  • 2 tbsp toasted sunflower seeds or chopped walnuts
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tbsp tahini
  • Juice of ½ lemon
  • Salt and pepper
  1. Peel the vegetables and chop into small bite-sized cubes. Toss in a little oil, season and roast in the oven for 30 minutes, or until tender
  2. Mix the oil, tahini and lemon juice together with some seasoning to make a dressing
  3. Place the leaves in a bowl, then the roasted veg on top, the nuts/seeds and then the dressing.
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Farro with Prawns, Basil and Olives

2 servings

  • 150g farro or pearled barley
  • 150g prawns
  • ½ jar Taggiasca olives and 1 tbsp of their oil
  • 25g bunch of basil
  1. Cook the farro or barley according to the instructions
  2. Cook the prawns, cut into small pieces and mix into the farro or barley with the olives, the oil and some seasoning
  3. Tear the basil leaves by hand and mix those in
  4. Can be kept for 2-3 days in the fridge

 

 

Fast & Healthy Lunch Ideas

When you don’t have time to make a packed lunch, the following can be grabbed from the shops on the way to work

  • A carton of good quality, fresh lentil or bean soup. Serve with oatcakes/wholemeal pitta bread and a piece of fruit.
  • Brown rice sushi & fruit salad.
  • Oatcakes, 1/2 tub of hummus, cherry tomatoes, carrot sticks.
  • Cooked salmon flakes, smoked mackerel fillets or chicken breast slices, large salad, oatcakes or pitta bread.