“What can I eat?”. This is one of the questions we get asked most by our clients.
In this series of blogs, we’ll attempt to answer that question. In this blog, we’re talking about lunch.
Read on to find out more.
Why is “What can I eat?” a common question?
All our clients get food coaching. Our mission is to educate and advise so that our clients have the knowledge to continue for the rest of their lives. We never prescribe and we never ban any foods, we simply explain to people what constitutes good, healthy, balanced eating and show them how to assess calorie content.
We help them create a sample day’s eating and then it’s over to them to practise. They can have as much of our time for help, support and advice, but most of the learning is done through the client’s own practice. That practice creates a new eating lifestyle. By immersing our clients in a new lifestyle, we help them develop good habits that will stand them in good stead forever.
So, if we’re educating our clients, how come that question comes up so much? Because our clients have grown up with a particular diet, with the food they are familiar with. In many cases, it’s what they’ve known all their lives. Suggest that they eat any other way and, well, we might get a blank look!
It’s not that they don’t understand the coaching or the principles. They just don’t have the food repertoire and experience to craft new meals. They find it hard to think of ideas and how they might incorporate those ideas into their current lives.
That’s when the question comes up. “What can I eat?”
We find the best way to help people create new eating habits is to give them ideas. That’s what we’ll be doing in this blog.
The problem with lunch – sandwiches
One problem with lunch, especially in the UK, is sandwiches. Sandwiches aren’t a great choice in my view. At least not the vast majority of homemade and shop-bought sandwiches.
For a start, bread is a highly processed and fast-digesting carbohydrate. If you read our blog on sugar, you’ll know this is not going to keep you full for as long as a slower digesting carb. Nor is it as good for your physiology. True, if you combine it with other foods it will digest more slowly, but why not combine a slower digesting carb with other foods for even slower digestion?
Next, sandwiches tend to be high calorie because of fat content. Butter and mayonnaise are abundant in many commercial sandwiches and, I dare say, in sandwiches made at home. Cheese is a common ingredient. So is bacon.
What else? Well they lack nutrients. You can’t fit a big pile of veggies in a sandwich. The salad you get in sandwiches is a paltry amount. As an opportunity to feed your body some goodness, sandwiches rank pretty low. Commercial sandwiches often contain processed or preserved ingredients and have been sitting on shelves gradually diminishing in goodness.
I’m going to sound like a London cabbie here…
And another thing – sandwiches tend to be coupled with crisps, maybe a brownie or a chocolate bar, maybe a sugary drink or a latte. It’s a high-calorie meal, high in sugar and fat, lacking in goodness and it probably won’t keep you going for as long as you’d like.
The other problem with lunch – you’re usually out
The other problem with lunch is that you are generally away from the house. You’re at work or you’re travelling. If you’re not organised then you’ll end up buying something while you’re out and if there isn’t much choice then you could end up eating something unhealthy or fattening.
If you happen to have access to a well-stocked supermarket, you might find that some of those ‘healthy range’ ready to eat lunches, but generally that won’t be the case.
So, I’d like to give a very clear message here.
You’ll be healthier and be able to maintain a healthy calorie intake if you get organised, plan and prepare your own lunches and take them with you.
So, what should lunch look like?
It might be helpful to think of lunch in terms of the components you should have:
- A source of lean protein
- A slow-digesting carbohydrate
- Good amounts of veggies or salad, and fruit.
You’ll note that sandwiches have these components but are usually missing the words ‘lean’, ‘slow digesting’, ‘good amounts’.
Did you also spot that I haven’t included a ‘source of fat’? After all, a balanced diet should include healthy fats. My view is that some of your food choices are going to have some fat in. After accounting for that, you can add some fat sources to suit – nuts, seeds, avocado, olive oil and so on. Remember the government recommends only up to 35% of calories from fat. Fat is calorie-dense so you don’t need a lot to hit that number. I say aim a lot lower than that – most people underestimate the calorie content of fatty foods.
Why ‘lean’ protein you ask? Because in general, that gives you more scope for adding fat content somewhere else in the meal. Oily fish is ok as a protein source but just be aware of the other ingredients you’re putting in your lunch. Cheese, although a good protein source, is a high-fat food and should be an occasional choice, not a mainstay.
What would be good choices for protein?
Ok, so what would be good sources of protein? How about these:
- Chicken or turkey breast
- Tinned or fresh tuna
- Tinned or fresh salmon
- Lean cuts of beef or pork
- Cottage cheese (or Greek yoghurt, although perhaps not for the savoury component).
- Tofu and other soy based products
- Beans, lentils, chickpeas and other vegan protein sources.
Notice that nuts are not included. They are a poor source of protein and a good source of fat. By all means add them to your lunch, but don’t think of them as your protein source.
What would be good choices for carbs?
How about carbs? There are lots to choose from:
- Sweet potato
- Wholegrain, wild or basmati rice
- Wholewheat pasta
- Pearl barley
- New potatoes
- Lentils, beans, chickpeas – and these are also good sources of protein
- Some veg such as parsnips and sweetcorn
What would be good choices for vegetables?
Ok, so finally, let’s look at vegetables. Before we give you some ideas though, let’s assume that your lunch is going to be in a sealed Tupperware pot and is a combination of protein, carbs and veggies all mixed up together. It could be a salad, or it could be a delicious cornucopia of colourful nutritious veggies with a protein and carb source.
Cold veg? Absolutely! Take a look at our vegetables blog for more ideas. To give you a flavour of what you can include in your lunch, the following work well:
- Roasted veg: peppers, onions, courgettes, aubergines, butternut squash, celeriac, fennel, carrots, beetroot
- Broad beans
- Peas and sweetcorn
- Green beans
- Sugar snaps
Personally, I think any veg works in a lunch pot the next day, though some of you might feel it’s an acquired taste. I include in that list spinach, leeks, our red cabbage recipe, spicy cauliflower, sprouts…. the list goes on. If you follow us on social media, you may have seen the occasional post about all the veggies in the lunch I’m having that day.
Remember too, that a large salad will tick all the vegetable boxes and you may prefer that option in the summer.
If you want to add some more flavour to your veg, you can season them, use herbs and spices or balsamic vinegar, drizzle a light dressing over them, eat them with a salsa dip….. there are plenty of options.
So that’s your main course sorted. There’s more? Yes, definitely. A two-course lunch should be the order of the day! Fruit is an ideal finisher. A portion of fresh berries is perfect, but apples, pears, plums, peaches, nectarines, grapes all work well.
Should you weigh your food?
I’d say it’s a good idea to weigh your food to start with. Most people underestimate the calorie content of their food and consume too many calories. Remember fatty foods will add a lot of calories with only a small volume, so be accurate when you measure those.
If you start by weighing, you should find you
- Get good at ‘eyeballing’ food and estimating the calorie content
- Get a good feel for the correct portion sizes
- Develop a list of favourite ‘go-to’ lunch recipes and combinations where you just know how much to have.
- Can stop weighing after a while.
If you make good choices and include lots of veggies, you’ll find it more difficult to overconsume calories. You’ll be able to fill your face and keep within a healthy calorie allowance. Choose calorie-dense foods that are high in sugar and/or fat and you’ll almost certainly overconsume.
By now, I hope, you are starting to construct in your head some lunches you could have that are tasty combinations of the suggestions above.
However, it always helps to see an example so, to that end, here is an idea for a healthy lunch that’s packed with goodness and will keep you going for hours.
Lentil, chicken and broccoli ‘salad’
You can have this with hot chicken and broccoli if you happen to be at home for lunch, or it works just as well chilled.
Here’s what you’ll need:
- 200g chicken breast
- 1 red onion
- 250g of Merchant Gourmet Puy Lentils
- 1 large or 2 small heads of broccoli
- 2 tsp of smoked paprika
- 1 large garlic clove
- 1 tsp English mustard powder
- Balsamic vinegar
And this is how to prepare it:
- Cut the broccoli into florets and steam until al dente or blanch in boiling water for 2-3 minutes, rinse and set aside.
- Slice the chicken breast and coat with the smoked paprika.
- Thinly slice the red onion and fry in a pan using a little cooking spray for 2-3 minutes until softened. Add the chicken and cook until succulent.
- If blanching the broccoli add it to the chicken and onion for 1-2 minutes.
- To make the dressing: crush the garlic and put it into a bowl. Combine it with a pinch of salt and whisk in the mustard and vinegar until it has a creamy consistency.
- Combine the onion, chicken, broccoli and lentils.
- Drizzle the dressing and stir in as required.
These amounts will serve 2 people, each getting 43g protein, 30g carbs, 7g fat, 17g fibre and 382 calories. On its own, this meal is a little low on carbs, so the perfect finish would be a couple of pieces of fruit or a massive bowl of berries. This would take the meal to around 500 calories.
This lunch would be super filling. It has all the components that make a meal filling to keep you going for hours: high protein, lots of fibre and liquid, and slow-digesting carbs. Plus it’s packed with goodness.
This is just one example, one idea for a healthy filling lunch. But there is an almost infinite number of combinations you could create for your own lunches. Use the principles outlined above – protein source, slow-carb, fruit and veg – and you’ll be guaranteed to create healthy filling lunches with lots of variety.
So, to answer the question “what can I eat?”: There are hundreds of options. Swap out your current lunch and get healthy!