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A woman eating cereal while on the phone at a desk in front of a computer.

Lunchtime again, and it’s that old conundrum: Resort to something vaguely foodlike from the convenience store? Grab a cheeseburger, fries and soda and risk ingesting more than 1,500 nutrient-poor calories at once?

Poor diet contributes to many workplace health issues, from obesity to malnutrition, and it’s costing companies worldwide as much as 20 percent in lost productivity, according to a recent study of food and the workplace by the International Labour Office in Geneva, Switzerland.

Perhaps more important, poor nutrition can contribute to your having a less-than-terrific day. Not getting the nutrients you need, and relying on sugar and caffeine to get you through the rough spots, can leave you with less energy and vitality than you need to tackle your job and make it home with something left to give.

What to do?

If your company lacks a cafeteria with healthy choices, and if nearby restaurant fare is expensive, scarce or equally unhealthy, consider investing some energy in planning and packing a sack lunch. Quaint as it might seem, brown bagging is a nutritional strategy with very appealing benefits. It not only puts control of your lunchtime choices back in your hands, it also gives you the opportunity to fortify your fuel arsenal with extra snacks designed for your daily energy demands.

Think Ahead, Eat Well

A lunch worth packing has to satisfy your hunger and your senses. It should also give you enough energy to groove through your daily activities, from that midafternoon meeting to your after-work workout. But packing a lunch like this requires some strategic planning and preparation on your part. Consider the following tips:

Fuel for the day. Assuming you are going to be at work for eight hours or more, your “lunch” should consist of the makings for a solid midday meal surrounded by a selection of additional midmorning and midafternoon snacks geared toward helping you through low-energy ultradian rhythm troughs. Depending on the length of your day and your after-work activities, you may also want to include a postwork, pre-gym or on-the-way-home snack to help you make it to dinner without developing a binge-provoking hunger.

Strategize sustenance. Base your meal and snack selections on your personal metabolism and energy requirements: Some folks run great on fruits and veggies, particularly in the afternoon; others require small infusions of yogurt, cheese, nuts and whole grains to keep their motors going. If you’re planning a trip to the gym after work, schedule a snack or small meal a couple of hours beforehand, and keep in mind that a small, postworkout snack or nutritional shake (ideally with a 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein, eaten within 45 minutes of your exercise session) will help you make the most of your body’s fitness-building glycogen window. Finally, stock some snacks that will give you alternatives to workplace temptations, like afternoon cookie breaks or vending machine runs.

Balance macronutrients. A lunch bag bursting with refined carbs isn’t going to get you very far. Neither is a snack stash that eschews carbs entirely. That’s because steady energy and adequate nutrition depend on a mix of macronutrients – namely, a proper ratio of high-quality protein, complex carbohydrates, healthy fats and fiber:

  • Protein is essential for the body’s growth and repair, the structure of red blood cells, proper functioning of antibodies, and regulating enzymes, amino acids and hormones that will give your day a good start and help steady your blood sugar (and mood) during midafternoon meetings. Try meat, fish, eggs, legumes, nuts, dairy and soy.
  • Whole-food carbohydrates are your body’s energy mainstay. They provide fuel for sustained mental and physical activity, and they produce a feeling of fullness and satiety that help stave off afternoon candy cravings. Complex carbs from whole grains, legumes and many veggies provide a slow, steady burn; while the simpler sugars in fresh fruit, milk and milk products, and some vegetables, can provide a nice burst of energy to fuel you through slumps. (Avoid the refined sugars in soda, candy and pastries – they’ll only set you back.) Colorful, flavorful fruits and veggies also contain disease- preventing phytochemicals and nutrients galore. Their rich nutrition helps keep your immunity high.
  • Healthy fats, found in fish, avocado, olive oil, nuts and seeds, provide continuous energy and essential fatty acids that support cell health, fight inflammation, and help develop precious brain and nerve tissue. They also help regulate blood sugar, aid in digestion, keep your synapses firing and put your moods on an even keel.
  • Fiber from whole foods and an ample supply of water keep your digestive system working smoothly and help reduce your risk of certain cancers.

Shop selectively. Add your lunch ingredients to your regular shopping list. Whenever possible, plan your lunches and snacks at least a few days ahead of time. If you’re buying prepared foods, consider those from a high-quality deli counter. Many natural markets now offer healthy baked dishes; vegetable, legume and grain salads; made-from-scratch soups; plus a variety of sliced-to-order sandwich makings, including organic meats and natural cheeses. Be sure to watch out for prepackaged foods in conventional markets. Meat, fish, prepared entrées and side dishes often contain preservatives, trans fats, added sugars, and artificial colors and flavors.

Check labels and use-by dates. Buy all-natural whole-grain breads, pitas and tortillas, and freeze what you won’t use immediately.

Prep your plate. Rice, couscous, beans, peas, squash, lentils, pastas and soups can be cooked anytime, from the night before to a few days ahead, and will keep, covered, for three to four days in the fridge. Ditto with most leftovers. Cook hard-boiled eggs a half-dozen at a time and refrigerate them for up to a week.

Roasted vegetables (carrots, onions, red peppers, eggplant, zucchini, corn, sweet potatoes) are great prepared and cooked the night before, especially if dressed with a splash of balsamic vinegar. Fresh, chopped vegetables will stay crisp for a few days in sealed plastic containers or bags, but they tend to lose some of their nutritive value and flavor over time. And there’s nothing sadder than a dry, shrivelled carrot stick looking up at you from the bottom of your lunch pail.

Pack with care. Sandwiches and green salads are best prepared in the morning before work and, like most lunch goods, travel best in reusable plastic containers. Hate soggy bread? Squirt mustard and mayo into a tiny separate tub, and place sliced tomatoes between layers of lettuce or sprouts to prevent moisture from soaking through. Extra ingredients (salmon, chicken) can be added to precooked rice or pasta the night before, but add fresh vegetables in the morning because they tend to get soggy. Wrap fresh fruits in paper napkins to prevent them from getting bruised.

Control climate. Be mindful about storing your lunch: Refrigerate the cold stuff in your company kitchen, or keep foods cool with an insulated bag and an ice pack. For sandwiches or pitas better served warm, scout for an office microwave or toaster oven. Soups stored in an insulated container generally hold their warmth for a few hours.

Drink up. If you’re a regular at the soda machine or the type that totes a cola wherever you go, shift your habit! Bring a small bottle of pomegranate, cherry or açai (pronounced ah-sigh-ee) juice concentrate that you can add, in tablespoon-size splashes, to a tall glass of water. Or keep a quart-size water bottle with a slice of lemon or cucumber or a thermos of weak green tea on your desk. Studies show we tend to drink more water when it’s lightly flavored.

Don’t dismiss dessert. Excessive self-denial can eventually drive you to the vending machine for something less healthy and less satisfying than what you could have packed yourself. Try a small oatmeal cookie, a few bite-size ginger snaps or a square of dark chocolate. A sweet Clementine, a handful of honey-roasted almonds or a small container of vanilla yogurt with berries might also do the trick.

Brown-Bag Inspirations

With a little know-how, you can create satisfying salads, sumptuous sandwiches, savory snacks and healthy desserts. An idea roster:

Salads. Main-meal salads are easy to prepare, and they’re rich in vitamins and minerals. Start with greens or raw veggies and add fruit (apple, pear, fresh or dried figs, apricots) for sweetness. Pine nuts, cashews, seeds and avocados supply extra protein, plus healthy fat and texture. Brown rice, whole-grain pasta, couscous or bulgur give energy and satiety. Add protein with fish (salmon, tuna, crab), meat (chicken, beef, ham) or vegetarian options (beans, peas, lentils, hard-boiled egg). A few cheese crumbles (mozzarella, feta) add substance and flavor. Cold-pressed nut, seed or olive oil provides the base for a healthy dressing.

Sandwiches. Start with whole-grain bread, which is rich in antioxidants, vitamin E, folic acid, zinc and magnesium. Seeded and sprouted grain breads help sustain energy and blood-sugar levels. Be inventive with your sandwich fixings: Add slices of avocado or sliced artichoke to ham, pastrami or salami. Swap iceberg lettuce for arugula, chicory, spinach, endive or thinly sliced cucumber. For cheese sandwiches, add thin slices of apple or pear, or grated carrot and tangy apricot chutney. Consider mayo alternatives like Vegenaise made from grape seed and other healthy oils.

Wraps and pockets. Pita breads and tortilla wraps are a great way to turn a salad into a sandwich. As with breads, choose whole and sprouted grains. Pita bread is especially tasty when filled with Turkish, Greek or Middle Eastern–flavored ingredients. Use hummus or feta cheese, plus a mixture of chopped, crispy salad leaves, tomatoes, and bell peppers. Dressings, used sparingly and made from healthy oils, add flavor. Be sure to store them separately and add them last.

Savory snacks. Cut a selection of vegetables into rounds or strips to dip into guacamole, salsa or hummus. Include whole-grain flatbread or crackers and some string cheese. Organic trail mixes, nuts and seeds, and homemade soups (warmed tomato, chilled gazpacho) make tasty treats, too. If you’ve scheduled a workout during your lunch hour or after work, a well-timed healthy snack can provide the additional nutrients your body needs to function well. Consider stashing a nutritional-shake mix, containing healthy carbs and proteins, in your desk drawer for times when solid food isn’t an option (a half serving can make an excellent snack).

Desserts. Apples, bananas, pears and figs make tasty, easy treats. For a more substantial effect, try a small serving of plain yogurt sweetened with honey and studded with naturally sweet fruits like strawberries, raspberries and cherries. Keep around a mix of raw pecans or almonds with dried cherries, apricots or dried unsweetened coconut, to fill in when others are indulging in doughnuts or candy, or whenever you get tempted to hit the vending machine for quick energy. A mug of stevia-sweetened, vanilla-spiked tea can also satisfy a sweet tooth without pumping you full of sugar.

Lunchtime Payoff

Once you get into the brown-bag groove, you’ll find that the time spent planning, preparing and packing your lunch pays off – with better nutrition, greater variety and a break in the day that lifts you up without weighing you down. Cover the balanced-meal basics, bridge energy gaps with healthy snacks, and you’ll find that less wholesome options lose their lure. Your body will run more smoothly, and your workdays will, too.

Quick, Healthy Recipes for Lunch

Asian Delight

This will make a good-sized meal. The noodles, plus the mango, pineapple and vegetables provide ample carbs (about 80 g), salmon provides protein and healthy omega-3 fatty acids; vegetables and fruit add vitamins, minerals and fiber. Mango is an excellent source of vitamins A and C. Use brown-rice noodles for better nutrition and increased staying power.

Salmon and Noodle Salad — Cooked Chinese noodles, wheat or rice (about 1 cup); one carrot and one zucchini, cut into very thin strips; two to three shallots, thinly sliced; handful sugar snaps, sliced horizontally; one steamed or broiled salmon steak (3 to 4 ounces), flaked

Dressing — 1 tsp. sesame oil, 1 tbs. light soy sauce, 1 tsp. oyster sauce, pinch of sugar, salt, black pepper.

Toss all the ingredients together, flaking the salmon on top.

Exotic Fruit Salad — Half a mango and 1/2 cup fresh pineapple, cut into chunks; handful of black or green grapes. Combine the fruit and sprinkle with lemon juice.

Fruit Fusion

This is a high-octane lunch; if you workout in the morning or midday, you may need two sandwiches. With the fruit, this sandwich provides about 128 grams of carbohydrates. The cheese is relatively high in fat, so slice it thin — a little goes a long way. You can add some sliced turkey or chicken for extra protein, if you like.

Pear and Brie Sandwich — Two or four slices of multigrain seeded bread; one pear, sliced; thin slices (about 3 oz.) of Cambazola, Brie or Blue cheese; handful of mixed field greens or arugula.

Fruit cup — Banana, apple, orange, grapes (pick two; enjoy!) for vitamins, minerals, fiber and disease-fighting phytochemicals.

Eastern Flair

Healthy and heavenly, this brown-bag feast will certainly make you the envy of your colleagues. It contains a balance of carbs (pita bread, falafels, figs), protein (falafels, pine nuts, yogurt) and a wide range of vitamins and minerals from the fruit and vegetables. It’s also low in fat.

Pita Bread With Falafels — Pita, falafel, veggies, lettuce, yogurt one whole-wheat pita bread; four falafels; one grated carrot; wedge of chopped iceberg lettuce; small cucumber, grated; 3 to 4 tbs. Greek yogurt, four to five leaves fresh mint, chopped. Toast the pita bread until softened and cut in half. Stir together the cucumber, yogurt and mint, and spoon into the pita breads. Add two falafels to each half, together with the grated carrot and lettuce. Wrap carefully in foil.

Stuffed Figs — Small fresh figs; 1 tsp. honey; handful of toasted pine nuts; four to five dried apricots and dates, chopped; one orange, segmented. Make these the night before: Cut open the figs in a star shape without cutting right through to the base. Mix together the honey, pine nuts, apricots, dates and orange and spoon into the figs. Bake in a moderate oven for 10 to 15 minutes until softened. When cool, chill in fridge.

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