Whether at the workplace or school canteen, lunch can often be the meal we buy on the run or piece together with various packets of ultra-processed, pre-made, instant foods.
Yet buying out all the time can be expensive, and take-out and pre-made foods are often high in unhealthy types of fats, added salt, and added sugar.
Without realising, added sugar intake can pile up over a day. You may recall Damon’s “Last Supper” toward the end of That Sugar Film. The lunch box was full of seemingly healthy foods, yet was overflowing with added and free sugars! (Think: juice, a jam sandwich, and sugar-coated ‘fruit salad bites’, to name a few.)
For most, occasionally having take-out or packaged, processed foods is fine. But when such foods are eaten every day, we aren’t leaving a lot of room for nutrient-dense whole foods that help us fight illness, boost energy, and feel good.
With that in mind, here we share how to make a lunch box that is low in added sugars and composed of delicious, nutrient-dense real, whole foods, for the health (and enjoyment) of adults and kids alike!
Whole food lunch
When designing a lunch box consider including the following components:
- a nutritious main meal
- a snack
- fresh vegetables and fruit (incorporated into the main meal and snack)
1. Main meal
For the main event, we want food that will fuel us through the remainder of the day. Yet often we tuck into foods that make us sleepy!
Include a source of good quality protein, healthy fats, and fibre (or complex carbohydrates), which can look like:
- Sustainably sourced tuna or sardines, avocado, and a big leafy green salad with a squeeze of lemon juice and drizzle of olive oil
- Lentil ‘meatballs’ with a herbed plain yoghurt dipping sauce
- Egg muffins or frittata with leftover roast veg, topped with a handful of fresh leafy greens
- Quinoa salad, with olives and seasonal veg (raw or cooked) and greens, topped with a spinkle of sunflower or pumpkin seeds (peptitas)
- Soup that includes different veg, made at home in advance for lunches the week ahead, carried in a jar (served cold or to be re-heated) or thermos. If you like, have with it a slice of high-quality whole-grain, sourdough or dark rye
- A salad in a jar that can be assembled quickly with what you have in the kitchen
If you are consistently low on time, make double quantities of dinner and enjoy leftovers the next day’s lunch. Too easy!
Old faithful – the sandwich
Sandwiches are a familiar and easy go-to for lunch. However, the quality of bread and filling used can be the difference between a relatively healthful lunch or something akin to cheap take-out that isn’t beneficial to health and wreaks havoc on blood sugar levels.
If sandwiches are favoured in your household, create them with high-quality ingredients and get creative using whole or minimally processed ingredients.
- Start with a whole-grain sourdough or dark rye, or a wrap made with minimal ingredients.
- Use spreads that offer healthy fats and protein, such as 100% nut butter, cottage cheese, avocado, or hummus.
- Fill with veg such as leafy greens, marinated vegetables, shredded cabbage, grated carrot, sliced tomato or cucumber, and quality protein such as sustainably sourced tuna or salmon, smashed beans or free-range eggs.
2. Simple snacks
Depending on how active you or your kids are, consider packing one or two additional snacks that include some quality protein and healthy fats, such as:
- Raw and sliced veg and fruit, such as carrot, celery, cucumber, apple, or pear, enjoyed with a dip such as hummus, 100% unsweetened nut butter, or cottage cheese
- Roasted and spiced chickpeas, nuts, or pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
- Homemade snack balls or bars, made with nuts and/or seeds and a little dried fruit (check out our nutty banana bread balls!)
- Homemade whole food baked goods with low or no added sugar, such as a cookie, muffin, or piece of slice
- Trail mix composed of coconut, seed, and nuts. Make your own, and consider including coconut chips, almonds, cashews, walnuts, hazelnuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and more. Optional: add some dark chocolate or cacao nibs, and a small amount of unsweetened dried fruit, such as sultanas, goji berries, dried apple, or apricot (but be aware that dried fruit is a concentrated source of naturally-occurring sugars).
- Hard-boiled egg or a few slices of cheese
- Plain yoghurt with fresh fruit and seeds mixed through. Think berries or passionfruit pulp with sunflower, chia, or hemp seeds
A serve of whole fruit is always a super simple and tasty snack, such as an apple, a banana, or a handful of berries or cherry tomatoes.
3. H2O is the way to go
Always pack a water bottle. It is important to stay hydrated throughout a day for many reasons, one being to maintain focus at your place of work or learning.
When we are dehydrated, we feel foggy and tired. Instead of recognising this as your body’s cry for H2O, we turn to beverages loaded with free sugar such as soft drinks, juices, or flavoured milk, seeking an energy boost. These liquid sugars may initially seem appealing, but consuming them results in a sugar high followed by a sugar crash. This can dramatically affect energy, mood, and cognition. Not ideal.
Want to jazz it up? Experiment with flavours by infusing water with whole foods.
Great options include berries, slices of lemon, lime, apple, ginger, or cucumber, and fresh herbs such as basil or mint.
Add one or two different foods to water, infuse for 5-10 minutes, and enjoy. There are heaps of combos to try – let your imagination run wild!
Make lunch real
While it may take some planning initially, it won’t take long to get into the swing of buying what you need and undertaking a little prep to create your low sugar lunch box.
If you feel the switch from mostly packaged, pre-made or ultra-processed foods to a homemade lunch box of whole foods will be expensive, be sure to check out our suggestions for good value foods that pack a nutritional punch and eating healthy on a budget.
Finally, do not put too much pressure on yourself to undertake an immediate and drastic overhaul. A switch to a healthier lunch can be a gradual transition, swapping out one food at a time.
By Angela Johnson (BHSc Nut Med)