Making a balanced lunch is as easy as 1-2-3.
Lunch, the middle child of meals, is an afterthought for many people. While brunch, breakfast, and even dinner hog the spotlight, lunch is often a sad brown-bag affair eaten at a desk or picked up at a drive-through. In fact, the majority of fast-food meals are eaten at lunchtime, according to a 2018 report from the National Center for Health Statistics.
Packing something fresh, well balanced, and portable can be tough, but a healthy lunch you’ll look forward to enjoying isn’t impossible, even if you’re no longer two steps away from your refrigerator. If you only have time to grab three ingredients on your way out the door, you’ll have the makings of a delicious and nutritious lunch that will save you time, money, and calories compared to takeout. Just use these tasty combos to get started.
Related: Weeknight Dinners That Turn Into Perfect Lunches
Quinoa + Black Beans + Red Pepper
This simple vegan meal is surprisingly filling since it packs nearly three servings of plant-based protein, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommendations.
Mix 1 cup of cooked quinoa, a seed that’s treated like a grain, with a ½ cup of canned low-sodium black beans (drained and rinsed) and a chopped medium bell pepper for a fast and easy grain salad. Research shows that eating more plant-based meals like this one can help improve your health while decreasing your carbon footprint. Season this simple salad with whatever you have on hand: olive oil and vinegar, a squeeze of lime juice, or a seasoning blend of salt, pepper, and cumin.
Per serving: 368 cal, 4g fat (0.6g sat fat), 17g protein, 66g carbs, 16g fiber, 7g sugar (0g added), 117mg sodium
Related: Healthy Lunches That Aren’t Sandwiches
Shredded Cabbage + Chicken Breast + Avocado
No time to chop lettuce? Grab some prepackaged shredded cabbage. The red variety contains a whopping 36 types of the powerful antioxidants known as anthocyanins, which benefit your brain and heart, and may have anticancer properties, according to USDA research. Mix 2 cups with 4 ounces (oz) of cooked chicken breast — without the skin for muscle-building lean protein minus unhealthy saturated fat — and ¼ of an avocado, sliced. The creamy green fruit eliminates the need for dressing and is high in healthy monounsaturated fats and fiber that give this lunch staying power.
Per serving: 303 cal, 12g fat (2g sat fat), 38g protein, 12g carbs, 7g fiber, 5g sugar (0g added), 604mg sodium
Related: Meals RDs Make When They Don’t Feel Like Cooking
Whole-Wheat Pasta + Cherry Tomatoes + Mozzarella Cheese
This Italian combo is a classic for a good reason. Toss 1 cup of cooked whole-wheat pasta (or your favorite alternative) with an equal amount of cherry tomatoes and 1 oz mozzarella cheese. The tomatoes contain fiber and the antioxidant lycopene. Some research suggests that lycopene in the diet may decrease risk of heart disease and certain types of cancer. You can also use pasta sauce if you prefer — studies have shown that cooking tomatoes increases the amount of lycopene that can be absorbed from them. Just look for a sauce with no added sugar.
Per serving: 304 cal, 8g fat (3.4g sat fat), 15g protein, 49g carbs, 7g fiber, 5g sugar (0g added), 421mg sodium
Baked Potato + Broccoli + Salsa
Potatoes make a great lunch — they’re fast (poke them with a fork and nuke them on high for about seven minutes), filling, and a neutral base for so many different toppings. Plus, one medium-sized potato packs 5 grams (g) of protein and 4 g of fiber, per the USDA — just be sure to eat the skin, which research shows has slightly more fiber than the flesh alone. Cut it open and drizzle the flesh with olive oil and season with salt and pepper to taste. Top it with ½ cup of cooked broccoli and 3 tablespoons (tbsp) of salsa. You can use different veggies and kinds of salsa or hot sauce to make endless variations on this meal so you never get bored of it.
Per serving: 321 cal, 14g fat (0.6g sat fat), 7g protein, 45g carbs, 7g fiber, 5g sugar (0g added), 391mg sodium
Whole-Wheat Bread + Tuna + Cheddar Cheese
This DIY tuna melt could not be easier, and tuna is a protein source that also delivers heart-healthy omega-3 fats, according to the National Institutes of Health. Most Americans don’t eat the recommended two servings of fish per week, found a June 2020 study published in the journal Nutrients, and tuna is an easy way to fit it in more often. Opt for light tuna canned in water (to keep calories in check) and limit white and albacore tuna, which tend to be higher in mercury, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.
Top one slice of whole-wheat bread with 5 oz of tuna and sprinkle with 3 tbsp of shredded cheddar cheese. Pop in the toaster oven or microwave until the cheese melts and serve. If you’re feeling fancy, a sprinkle of chives or scallions on top will really make this lunch sing!
Per serving: 318 cal, 9g fat (4.3g sat fat), 37g protein, 21g carbs, 2g fiber, 4g sugar (0g added), 638mg sodium
Granola + Greek Yogurt + Berries
Lunch can be sweet as well as savory — just take this midday parfait. Mix 1 cup of fat-free Greek yogurt with 1 cup of sliced berries and sprinkle with ¼ cup of granola. Berries are an excellent source of vitamin C: One cup of strawberries contains more than 100 percent of the recommended daily value of vitamin C, according to USDA data. They’ve also got plenty of fiber and antioxidants, and are naturally sweet to offset yogurt’s tang.
Per serving: 362 cal, 3g fat (0.6g sat fat), 29g protein, 60g carbs, 3g fiber, 40g sugar (8g added), 158mg sodium
Whole-Wheat Tortilla + Mixed Veggies + Monterey Jack Cheese
You can make this vegetarian’s delight in a flash without any fancy ingredients or cooking skills. Arrange 1 cup of defrosted frozen mixed veggies (or any leftover veggies you have on hand) on one taco-sized whole-wheat tortilla and sprinkle with 3 tbsp of cheese. Layer the ingredients, fold, and microwave for 30 seconds, and you’ve got a healthy quesadilla. If you don’t have frozen veggies you can incorporate almost any veggie you have on hand: Tomatoes, black beans, corn, or a combination will all work well.
Per serving: 336 cal, 12g fat (4g sat fat), 12g protein, 45g carbs, 2g fiber, 9g sugar (2g added), 553mg sodium
Whole-Wheat Pita + Arugula + Hummus
This Mediterranean-inspired meal couldn’t be easier or more satisfying: Each sandwich delivers more than one-third of the fiber you need in a day, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so you’ll stay full until dinnertime. Plus, the chickpeas in the hummus are a rich source of plant-based protein, per USDA data. Fill half a whole-wheat pita with 2/3 cup prepared hummus and 2 cups of arugula. Hummus adds just the right dose of creaminess — you won’t miss mayo!
Per serving: 346 cal, 17g fat (2.3g sat fat), 17g protein, 38g carbs, 3g fiber, 1g sugar (0.5g added), 732mg sodium
Baby Spinach + Farro + Goat Cheese
If you haven’t tried farro yet, it’s time to give this whole grain a try. It’s got a nutty flavor, chewy texture, and a ¼ cup dry provides 20 percent of your daily fiber needs, per USDA data. Toss 2/3 cup cooked with 2 cups of baby spinach and 2 tbsp goat cheese (or feta, if you prefer) for a grains and greens bowl with a tangy, creamy twist.
Per serving: 303 cal, 6g fat (3.5g sat fat), 13g protein, 48g carbs, 9g fiber, 0g sugar (0g added), 162mg sodium
Kale + Lemon Juice + Almonds
This low-calorie lunch is high in nutrient density, delivering 100 percent or more of your daily needs for vitamins A, C, and K. Toss 4 cups of chopped kale with 3 tbsp of lemon juice and ¼ cup slivered almonds. The citric acid in the lemon juice will help tenderize cruciferous kale’s tough leaves. Kale offers disease-fighting benefits as well as fiber, according to the Mayo Clinic. Drizzle with 1 tbsp of olive oil and garnish with a touch of freshly grated Parmesan cheese if you’d like.