Editor’s Note: Lisa Drayer is a nutritionist, an author and a CNN health and nutrition contributor.
If you’ve been trying to eat healthfully, you’ve probably heard about the benefits of eating breakfast. But you might be wondering whether it’s also important to pause for a midday lunch break – even with a very busy schedule.
“Carving out time for a satiating, balanced lunch can really help organize the eating day and keep us in better touch with our actual hunger cues,” said registered dietitian nutritionist Tamara Duker Freuman. “So we can eat when hungry and be less likely to snack our way through the entire workday.”
Even if it’s just for 30 minutes or so, a midday lunch break “will help to avoid a late afternoon slump and keep you energized throughout the afternoon,” said registered dietitian nutritionist Lisa Young, author of “Finally Full, Finally Slim.”
Skipping lunch can cause more than hunger pangs, low blood sugar and irritability. It will also almost guarantee that you consume the majority of your calories in the evening. That can wreak havoc on your waistline and health, according to Freuman. It can contribute to sleep problems, too.
“I often find that patients who struggle with excess, uncontrollable night eating find it much easier to manage when they are heading into the dinner meal feeling quite satiated and not particularly starving, because they’ve had a great breakfast and a very filling, balanced lunch,” Freuman said.
How to make time for lunch
Taking time for lunch doesn’t have to mean preparing a big meal. The key is thinking about lunch as any other appointment during your day and planning for it from the moment you wake up.
Planning your lunches will help ensure that you won’t get cravings for junk food when your blood sugar starts to sink.
First, select an approximate time that you will break for lunch. Next, figure out what it is you will eat. If you are working from home, it’s a good idea to prep lunch the night before, so you can just grab it from the fridge when it’s time to break for a bite.
While a noon lunch break may not work for everyone, it’s a good idea to avoid eating lunch in the late afternoon, especially if you are trying to manage your weight. In one study involving 420 individuals with obesity, those who ate lunch before 3 p.m. lost more weight than later lunch eaters during a five-month period, despite eating the same number of calories and comparable amounts of fat, protein and carbohydrates.
Don’t forget to use lunchtime as an opportunity to unplug and refresh your mind. Taking a screen break can slow down the pace of eating and allow you to pay more attention to the textures and flavors of foods, allowing you to savor every bite.
And it’s not just work: People who played a game of solitaire on a computer during meals ate faster, ate nearly twice as much and felt less full than people who were not distracted while eating, according to a study that Young cites in her book.
Simple, scrumptious lunches
An easy way to think about lunch is to pair combinations of vegetables, healthy proteins and fiber-rich carbs. If you wish to add fat, go for healthy fats such as olive oil, avocado and nuts, Young said.
For a simple lunch strategy, you can use your plate as a visual guide.
Fill half of your plate with nonstarchy vegetables. Divide the second half into proteins – such as grilled fish or chicken – and slowly digested high-fiber carbohydrates, such as beans or quinoa. (Note: beans and chickpeas can count as protein, too).
“It’s a formula that most people employ for dinner, though maybe not in these same relative proportions,” Freuman said.
“One of my favorite lunches is to throw together a Mexican-flavored bowl of crunchy purple cabbage, chopped tomatoes, pickled onions, black beans, cheese, avocado, cilantro, hot sauce and some leftover shaved corn off the cob or a handful of crushed tortilla chips. It easily carries me through five or even six hours until dinner,” Freuman said.
A salad with grilled chicken is fine, but try adding a heaping scoop of chickpeas or a thick, hearty lentil soup on the side, Freuman said. A turkey or tuna salad sandwich on whole wheat bread is another good lunch option, but add some spinach slices, and pair it with veggies such as cucumbers, baby carrots or pepper strips with hummus.
Another one of Freuman’s favorites is a chicken cutlet (which you can cook ahead of time) tossed with cucumber, tomato and pepper, eaten alongside a few crunchy crispbreads topped with hummus and everything bagel seasoning.
“These are substantial lunches that help me get through the second half of my workday without being distracted by hunger, and make sure I don’t arrive upstairs ravenous after a day of working from home in the basement, ready to eat everything in the cupboard,” Freuman said.
One of Young’s lunch favorites is a hummus veggie wrap: a whole grain wrap with hummus, assorted vegetables, chickpeas and avocado. And if you want to eat something but aren’t super-hungry, Young recommends a protein-rich Greek yogurt with berries and flaxseeds.
Finally, last night’s dinner leftovers can be eaten during lunch. In my house, that can be a small piece of rotisserie chicken or grilled salmon with veggies and wheatberry salad.
5 lovely lunches
Here are some other creative lunch ideas to consider:
1. Flatbread pizzas with spinach and egg: “This easy recipe is a go-to for me any time of day, but it makes an especially satisfying and energizing lunch,” said registered dietitian nutritionist Ellie Krieger, Food Network and Public Television host and award-winning cookbook author.
It turns pizza into a quick, balanced meal by using whole grain flatbread as the crust and topping it with spinach and sundried tomatoes, plus a protein-packed egg and just the right amount of melt-y cheese, Krieger explained.
2. Lemony herb “orzotto” with garlicky chickpeas: This “orzotto” is kind of like risotto, but it’s based on orzo along with chickpeas to punch up the protein, according to Jackie Newgent, a plant-forward culinary nutritionist and award-winning cookbook author.
“It becomes a complete and delicious lunch — warm or cool – with its addition of veggies and a generous amount of fresh herbs,” Newgent said.
3. White bean tomato avocado bowl: This light lunch bowl is packed with spinach leaves. They are rich in lutein, an antioxidant that keeps eyes clear and bright. It also has juicy tomatoes and creamy avocado. White beans and quinoa provide satiating protein.
4. Grilled hummus “quesadilla”: Filling a whole grain tortilla with hummus instead of cheese boosts fiber and reduces saturated fat, according to Newgent. “Topping it with an easy-to-fix, fresh, Mediterranean-style salsa makes it a colorful, satisfying meal.”
5. Black bean mango avocado wrap: This delicious and nutritious lunch option combines garlicky black beans, sweet mango and creamy avocado for a filling, fiber-rich lunch.