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.
Collectively, and without realising, over a day added sugar intake can pile up. 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 people, 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 are we share how to make a lunch box that is low in added sugars and comprised of delicious, nutrient-dense real, whole foods, for the health (and enjoyment) of adults and kids alike!
Whole food lunching
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!
Choose a source of good quality protein, healthy fats, and 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 veggies, topped with a handful of fresh leafy greens
- Quinoa and vegetable salad
- Soup, that includes a load of different veggies, 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 and can tolerate bread, 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. Too easy!
2. Simple snacks
Depending on how active you or your kids are, consider packing one or two additional snacks that include some source of protein and healthy fats, such as:
- Raw veggies, such as carrot or cucumber sticks, with hummus and/or pieces of cheese
- Roasted and spiced chickpeas or pumpkin seeds (a.k.a. pepitas)
- Apple, pear, carrot, or stalk of celery cut up to dip into 1-2 tablespoons of 100% unsweetened peanut or other nut butter or cottage cheese
- Homemade snack balls or bars, made with nuts/seeds with a little dried fruit (check out our nutty banana bread balls)
- Homemade, no added sugar whole food cookie, muffin or piece of slice
- Coconut, seed and nut trail mix that could include coconut chips, almonds, cashews, walnut, hazelnuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and more. Option to add a small amount of unsweetened dried fruit, such sultanas, dried apple, and apricot (but be aware that dried fruit is a concentrated source of naturally-occurring sugars).
- Hard-boiled egg
- Plain yoghurt with 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. Yet instead of recognising this was your body’s cry for old fashioned H2O, we turn to beverages loaded with free sugar such as soft drinks, juices, or flavoured milk for 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 like 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 ultra-processed foods to a 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.)