Create a Healthy Lunch in Four Easy Steps


Did you know that what you eat or don’t eat at lunch affects your afternoon mood and performance? Heavy lunches that are high in calories can weigh you down and make you feel tired. Light lunches that don’t provide enough fiber and protein can leave you feeling hungry and cranky by late afternoon. In honor of National Pack Your Lunch Day on March 10th, follow these easy steps to packing a healthy lunch with staying power.

Step 1: Pick A Protein

Protein at lunch helps you to stabilize blood sugar and insulin levels, making you feel full for longer. Women need at least 15-25 grams of protein with lunch, while men need a minimum of 20-30 grams. As you can see from the chart on the right, dairy foods can help you meet your lunchtime protein needs because they contain high-quality protein and are recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans for people following a plant-based diet as they contribute key essential and under-consumed nutrients.

Protein Content of Select Foods:

  • 1 cup Greek yogurt: 20g
  • ½ cup cottage cheese: 10g
  • 8 ounces of cow’s milk: 8g
  • 1 ounce of cheese: 7g
  • 3 ounces of beef, fish or poultry: 20-28g
  • 1 large egg: 6g
  • ½ cup dried beans, cooked: 7-8g
  • 2 tbsp peanut butter: 8g
  • ¼ cup nuts: 4-5g

Step 2: Add Colorful Fruits and Veggies

Fruits and vegetables are naturally low in calories but full of vitamins, minerals and disease-fighting phytochemicals. They also provide fiber to help manage blood sugars, improve heart health, and reduce the risk of cancer. Eating fruits and vegetables helps you live a vibrant, healthy life. Aim to fill half your plate with colorful fruits and vegetables.

Step 3: Control the Carbs

Carbohydrates provide the body with energy and are the brain’s preferred fuel source. However, low-quality carbs, like white bread and foods made with refined flour and added sugars, create blood sugar and insulin fluctuations that can lead to cravings. To feel your best, choose minimally processed carbohydrate-rich foods, like whole grains, fruits and vegetables and aim for 40-75 grams at lunch. 

Step 4: Check for Healthy Fat and Calcium

Finally, add some healthy fat and calcium-rich food to your lunch. Healthy fats, like unsaturated fats found in nuts and seeds, olive oil, fatty fish, and avocado, help the body make hormones, absorb nutrients, and lower the risk of heart disease. Calcium is essential for many body functions including bone growth and density, muscle contractions, and heart healthCalcium needs vary based on age and gender. Dairy foods are a wonderful source of calcium and taste great too!  

Now that you know the four easy steps to creating a healthy lunch, get packing! For recipe ideas, visit

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Pam Speich is a Registered Dietitian and the Director of Nutrition Services at American Family Fitness, a fitness club located in Richmond, VA. What Pam loves most about being a dietitian is the opportunity to witness lives changed for the better through the power of food.

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