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7 quick and healthy at-home lunches that aren’t a sandwich

Need some lunch idea inspiration? Reward your palate and boost your energy levels by choosing from these 7 alternatives to sandwiches.

With hybrid working becoming a mainstay in the post-pandemic era, employees working from home can whip up a nutritious and delicious lunch that’s worth looking forward to from the moment breakfast is finished.

And while what we eat for lunch is important, so too is how we eat our lunch.

In a perfect world, lunch shouldn’t be eaten at your desk or in a rush. When we eat too quickly, we’re likely to consume more kilojoules than we actually need. That’s because it takes approximately 20 minutes from the time you start eating for your brain to send out signals of fullness.

Don’t hang out too long for lunch either – for a start, being over-hungry will probably result in you eating too quickly. In addition, a 2018 Australian study into the relationship between eating patterns of Aussie adults and the prevalence of hypertension (high blood pressure) found that women who ate a late lunch were more likely to have hypertension. It’s also a good idea to eat lunch mindfully and slowly. In 2019, a UK study found eating more slowly can make people feel full for longer, which may reduce overeating.

Listen to your hunger cues and eat intuitively, says Associate Professor Shelley Wilkinson, a principal research fellow in nutrition and dietetics at the University of Queensland. An active morning could mean that a bigger lunch is needed, and the reverse is true if you’ve been sedentary in front of your screen. 

“Lunch is the replenishment for the afternoon’s activities,” says Assoc Prof Wilkinson. “A well-planned lunch gives us energy to tackle what's ahead and it can help prevent that afternoon slump, and maybe the less desirable choices that come with it.”

Why a good lunch is more than just tasty

Children and adults of all ages will benefit from eating a nutritious, satisfying lunch. Recent studies have found a direct link between a healthy lunch and improved academic performance in children. A 2017 Californian large-scale study that focused on school-aged children over a 5-year period found that healthier school lunches raise test scores by an average of 4 percentile points.

And retirees should approach lunch with a focus on providing sustenance for the second half of the day. “The link between adequate nutrition and quality of life in older persons is well-established,” says Wilkinson. “As people get older there are physiological changes, which mean that digestion isn't as good and metabolism slows down. Making good choices for lunch that are nutritious will boost wellbeing and can help maintain independence and quality of life.”

What’s for lunch? Try these 7 lunch ideas

1. Warm pasta bowl

Cook spiral or bowtie pasta al dente and then mix a spoonful of pesto through it, plus salt and pepper to taste.

Add a protein like canned tuna – make sure to drain the oil or use tuna in spring water. Finally, toss in some sundried tomatoes, wilted baby spinach and half a tin of corn.

This goes well with shaved parmesan cheese sprinkled on top.

2. Mini pizza

Toast an English muffin and then spread on tomato paste.

Then add capsicum strips, olives, mushrooms, basil, baby spinach and a little mozzarella or tasty cheese (remember: moderation is important when it comes to cheese). You can even add anchovies for that extra kick, or a sprinkle of dried oregano.

Place it under the grill for a couple of minutes, until the cheese is melted.

3. That’s a wrap

Depending on the filling, a wrap works well either fresh or toasted in a sandwich press. A cold filling could include falafel with grated carrot, tomato, lettuce, cubed tasty cheese and a little diced avocado. A spread such as cream cheese should be used sparingly – hummus makes a great alternative.

A warm filling could include chicken, black beans or mushrooms, or a combination of all 3.

“Take it to the next level with a little less filling and toast it as a quesadilla – make a quick side salad or add some carrot sticks, cucumber or lettuce to the side,” says Wilkinson.

4. A healthier burger

For those with bread cravings, try the sandwich's older brother – the burger.

Slice up steak or chicken from dinner the night before and place the strips on a toasted bun. A low GI-bread like sourdough or wholegrain is a great choice, but it’s fine to have a white bun sometimes for variety. (GI refers to the glycaemic index, which rates how quickly simple sugars are broken down in your digestive system. Low-GI foods are typically linked with feeling fuller for longer.)

For something that more closely resembles a traditional burger, turkey mince is a healthier alternative to lamb or beef mince. To form a patty, add a lightly beaten egg (to bind), crushed garlic, chopped parsley, salt and pepper, and even a splash of Worcestershire sauce to turkey mince. Better still, the patties can be frozen after cooking for an even faster lunch next time.

Add some sliced beetroot, red onion, baby spinach and a slice of reduced-fat Swiss cheese. Swap the store-bought tomato sauce (which is high in sugar) for tomato relish as a healthier alternative.

5. Eggs on toast

This is a super-quick, low-maintenance lunch that will leave you feeling full and energised.

Simply toast and butter a piece of bread, and then add scrambled eggs with a little ricotta stirred through while it’s cooking. This will create a lovely creamy texture. Add some chopped parsley if you like the flavour.

Alternatively, boil 2 eggs and then simply grate the egg with a grater onto the toast. This works best when the eggs are cold, so you could pre-boil the eggs the night before or at breakfast. Add some wilted baby spinach and shaved parmesan.

6. A nutty salad

Using cos lettuce as a base, add in a quarter of sliced avocado, chopped cherry tomatoes and sliced red onion. Toss in a tin of tuna or some bocconcini.

For extra crunch, toast a handful of cashews by putting them in a frypan without any oil. Sesame seeds are also great in a salad. Small florets of broccoli also have a delicious crunch when cooked for just a couple of minutes. If you’re a fan of roasted cashews, you could also try this Thai Chicken, Herb and Cashew Salad for that nutty crunch and lunchtime protein.

Enjoy crispbread or crackers on the side.

7. Hearty vegetarian soups

“Make a batch of soup and freeze it in portions for a no fuss lunch that is really nutritional and warming in the winter months,” says Wilkinson. “What I love about this potato and leek soup recipe is that it is a return to eating whole foods, as well as being hearty and comprising a couple of serves of veggies.”

Wilkinson says for a no-fuss tasty soup, combine mashed potato with leek, garlic, onion, vegetable stock and a little thickened cream.

Cut sourdough bread into cubes to sprinkle on top as croutons, or have a side serve of crusty bread. Garnish with chopped chives.

To make this soup next-level delicious, mash up roasted potato rather than boiled potato with the onions and leek.

“The roast potatoes could be leftovers from the night before – in which case it’s still a quick and easy lunch, and so flavoursome.”

For some more batch-cook soup wonders, try this quick Iranian-inspired lentil soup or enjoy a thick and creamy roasted cauliflower soup.

Add this drink to your new lunch routine

“Water is always the best choice when it comes to drinks,” says Wilkinson. “But for that extra refreshment, try adding a slice of orange or lemon or a small handful of mint leaves."

Premixing a jug of citrus-infused water is great for easy access during the day and it will ensure you stay well-hydrated. You can buy glass jugs with an inbuilt infuser.

Words by Jessica Mudditt
First published April 2022

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