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health noodles and vegetables

Breakfast may be known as the most important meal of the day, but it’s lunch that has to carry us through the long afternoon, the commute home, perhaps a workout — even dinner preparations. In many cultures, the midday meal is the most well balanced and substantial. But for many Americans, lunch is little more than a reflexive habit. We rely on restaurants, cafeterias and vending machines to supply our noontime nutrition, and these meals aren’t always the healthiest options.

To help illustrate how easy it is to accomplish a lunchtime makeover, we’ve taken three classic “before” candidates — a Cobb salad, a ham-and-cheese combo, and fettuccini Alfredo — and assessed their shortcomings. From there, we offer up “after” options: restaurant upgrades, plus brown-bag improvements you can leverage when you prepare your lunch at home (a task well worth doing at least a couple of times per week).

Before—Cobb Salad

Iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, bacon, diced chicken, hard-cooked eggs, avocado, Roquefort cheese and creamy dressing.

bland looking cobb salad

Critic’s Review: There is a common misconception that a salad is, by definition, healthy. But a bed of lettuce does not equal nutrition. Take the classic Cobb or chopped salad: With its virtually nutrient-free iceberg lettuce, heavy toppings, and dressing filled with sodium and unhealthy saturated fats, it’s an edible hazard.

“Iceberg lettuce was developed to withstand the rigors of shipping, which tells you a lot about its nutrient content,” says Jack Challem, coauthor of Stop Prediabetes Now: The Ultimate Plan to Lose Weight and Prevent Diabetes. Bacon usually contains cancer-promoting nitrates and nitrites and is full of saturated fat. Cheese should be used sparingly in most dishes, he notes.

“And then there are creamy dressings, which are generally made from soybean oil — a junk oil — and a lot of them are also thickened with hydrogenated oils,” he adds. These oils are full of omega-6 and trans fats that can leave you feeling sluggish and, gradually, affect the body’s ability to process glucose properly, which can make you more susceptible to conditions like diabetes and heart disease.

cobb salad with an overhaul

Out-to-Lunch Alternatives: Be picky about the entrée salads you choose. If possible, have your salad made from spinach, romaine or other mixed greens rather than plain iceberg. Ask the kitchen to go heavy on the greens, avocados, tomatoes, and other fruits and veggies, and easy on the cheese or meat (on salads that come with both, consider eliminating one or the other). Skip the croutons and opt for vinaigrette over creamy dressing, and have it served on the side so you can use it sparingly.

At-Home Improvements: Stock your crisper with loads of fresh (and ideally prechopped) vegetables. “Salads can make great portable lunches if you pack them with fiber, deeply colored vegetables and lean protein, and steer clear of all the unhealthy extras,” says Kathie Swift, MS, RD, nutrition director at The UltraWellness Center in Lenox, Mass.

In your Cobb salad, for example, you can go heavier on the existing veggies and add other vitamin- and antioxidant-packed bonus ingredients such as carrots, red peppers and broccoli. You might want to choose between the chicken or the egg, says Swift, and skip the bacon. In fact, if you’ve got enough legumes, seeds or nuts in the mix, you might skip the animal protein entirely.

“I encourage my clients to eat vegetarian at lunch if they are going to have animal protein at dinner,” Swift says. In that case, you can get more protein by throwing on some garbanzo beans or crumbled baked tofu. If you want some meat, choose a modest portion of roasted turkey breast or flaked wild salmon. Add chunked citrus, sliced apple, raisins, dried blueberries or cherries, or fresh pomegranate seeds for more flavor.

To make a healthier (and cheaper) salad dressing, start with a good, cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil and add some vinegar, mustard and fresh herbs. You can even whip up a bottle’s worth on Sunday night and use it all week. And, instead of pairing a roll with your salad, choose one or two seeded flax crackers, which are high in heart-healthy omega-3 fats and provide crunch without all the processed flour.

Before—Ham-and-Cheese Sandwich With Fries

White bread, processed ham, American cheese, mayonnaise, potatoes, oil, salt.

grilled sandwich and fries

Critic’s Review: No big surprise here: “This sandwich is a nutritional train wreck,” says Swift. The white bread has very little nutritional value, she explains, and because it is so processed, the body responds to it much as it responds to sugar. Ham is high in fat, sodium and cholesterol, and it often contains nitrates. American cheese contains lots of sodium, as well as artificial emulsifiers and colors. “Sure, a sandwich like this is going to fill you up, but an hour or so later you’re going to feel weighed down and sluggish,” says Ann Gentry, host of Naturally Delicious on the Dish Network station Veria TV, and owner of two organic and vegan Real Food Daily restaurants in Los Angeles.

And as good as they might taste, French fries are one of the least healthy foods you can eat. “The Idaho potato is higher on the glycemic index than an ice cream cone,” says Challem. Plus, French fries are usually fried in low-grade corn or soybean oil, which when heated to high temperatures can become rancid and artery clogging. Some are still cooked in hydrogenated fats. Bottom line: You get a whole lot of calories and potential toxins, and very little nutrition, in the bargain.

a healthy looking wrap

Out-to-Lunch Alternatives: To start with, give preference to sandwiches made on reasonably thin slices of whole-grain bread or wrapped in a whole-grain tortilla. Avoid footlong hero, club and French-roll varieties, which tend to deliver excessive refined carbs and calories overall. Don’t hesitate to request that the kitchen substitute mustard for mayo, or go easy on the animal products and heavy on the veggies (spinach, cucumbers, sprouts, peppers and tomatoes are all easy add-ons). And if you’re choosing a pre-made sandwich from a deli case or cooler, don’t be afraid to remove some of the sauce or filling, eliminate one piece of bread, or eat half for lunch and the rest later in the day. Skip the side of fries and get a side salad or cup of soup instead.

At-Home Improvements: Sandwiches make perfect portable lunches, but they need the right ingredients to be a healthy choice. Start with whole-grain bread, but make sure it’s free of unnecessary sugars, bleached flours, trans fats and other nasties. Dark bread and sprouted whole-grain varieties with seeds you can see are a good bet, and look for loaves that are cut into thinner slices.

“Mustard is a better choice than mayonnaise, but if you love mayo, choose one that’s made from canola, olive or grape-seed oil,” says Challem. Or use some thinly sliced avocado or red-pepper spread for extra creaminess (try the Balkan specialty called ajvar, or the Tunisian chili-pepper favorite, harissa).

“Whether or not you add meat, make the bulk of your sandwich vegetables, ideally an inch or so thick of roasted peppers, tomatoes, greens, grated carrots, zucchini or any other veggies you like,” says Swift. Veggies, even leafy greens, provide some protein, but for a more substantial dose, smear on some hummus, white-bean spread or tahini for a protein boost.

Try a sprinkling of grated, high-flavor cheese (asiago, aged cheddar or parmesan) instead of a slab of the bland stuff. And if you are craving some meat on your sandwich, choose grilled skinless chicken breast, sliced roasted turkey, chunked salmon or another minimally processed option. Again, a dotting of dried fruit (cherries, cranberries or currants) or some thinly sliced apple can add flavor and texture to your sandwich, allowing you to go easier on the meat and cheese while upping your phytonutrient and fiber content.

Pack a robust enough sandwich, and you won’t be hungry for sides. Still craving those fries or chips anyway? A handful of natural, whole-grain (and trans-fat-free) corn chips or rice-and-bean chips will beat out most other fried-snack options from a health perspective. Just go easy on your packable portions (a handful is plenty), and don’t make any kind of fried food a daily thing.

Before—Fettuccini Alfredo

Refined wheat pasta, Parmesan cheese, heavy cream, butter.

bland looking fettuccini

Critic’s Review: “The first thing to ask when choosing a lunch entrée is ‘Where are the veggies?’ And this pasta dish has none,” says Swift. Aside from the minimal protein supplied by the cheese, you’re getting a mixture that breaks down mostly to pure starchy sugar (refined-flour pasta) and animal fat (butter, cream and cheese).

You can make things a little better simply by asking for some steamed veggies on the side or on top. As noted, plants supply a good amount of protein, and it’s just as usable by your body as animal sources: You can get the same 22 amino acids your body needs, without saturated fat or cholesterol. (For more on the power of plant-based foods, check out “Garden-Variety Protein”.)

health noodles and vegetables

Out-to-Lunch Alternatives:  If you’re really in the mood for pasta, scan the menu for a dish that’s heavy on the veggies and maybe contains some lean protein such as fish or chicken. Ask if any whole-grain pastas are available. Steer clear of cream and cheese sauces in favor of noodles tossed in olive oil or tomato sauce. Or, perhaps you could ask to have your favorite pasta sauce served over some sautéed veggies (skipping the noodles entirely).

At-Home Improvements: First, consider featuring pasta-based dishes as sides or complements rather than main attractions. Pasta is an extremely dense food, and when given an opportunity, many people tend to eat way too much of it at once. Even when serving noodles as a main dish, a good serving guideline is 1 cup cooked pasta per person (restaurant portions are regularly two or three times that size).

And don’t limit yourself to refined-flour or wheat-based noodles, says Swift. “There are plenty of whole-grain and alternative pastas that contain more protein and fiber than conventional pasta, such as those made from lentils, soy, brown rice, spelt or buckwheat.”

A final suggestion: Move beyond cream sauce. Instead, toss your noodles in some high-quality olive oil, garlic and fresh herbs, or some better-than-average tomato-based sauce. Be sure to add lots of vegetables, such as broccoli, carrots, green beans and mushrooms, as well as some lean chicken or even lean, grass-fed beef, which is lower in cholesterol and fat. Better yet, serve a half-size portion of pasta on a large bed of greens or veggies.

A Good Trade

Making smarter lunch choices will pay off in immediate energy returns, and also in long-term health, immunity and weight management. But remember that setting yourself up for a better lunch experience begins well before noon. “You have heard it before, but eating breakfast and then a small, midmorning snack will prevent you from feeling ravenous at lunchtime and making bad choices,” says Ann Gentry.

Then, when you are poised at the deli counter, or a restaurant server is waiting to take your lunch order, you’ll know just what to do — and your body will thank you.

Lunch Swap

A few quick fixes to your favorite lunches can mean the difference between a healthy, energizing meal and a snooze-inducing dish. Here are a few simple upgrades to try.

  • Beef and cheese burrito: Swap out the beef for beans and veggies and go light on the cheese. Consider losing the tortilla altogether and eating the mix in a bowl or on a bed of greens.
  • Peanut butter and jelly sandwich: Try almond butter instead, as most many commercial peanut butters can contain unnecessary sugar and hydrogenated oil. Top with sliced apple, banana or pure fruit spread instead of jarred jelly.
  • Tuna salad sandwich: Canned wild salmon is lower in heavy-metal toxins than tuna. Mix it with olive oil–based mayo — or simply a little olive oil — and eat open-faced on one slice of dark, seeded bread.
  • Chicken fried rice: Instead of white rice as a backdrop, have a veggie stir-fry with a dollop of rice on top, or serve yourself some sautéed chicken breast over quinoa.
  • Pepperoni pizza: If you gotta have pizza, choose a thin-crust style, light on the cheese, and top with vegetables and fresh herbs instead of meat — or in place of at least half of it.
  • Cream of mushroom soup: Switch to a broth-based soup with wild mushrooms, kale, garlic and fresh herbs.
  • Caesar salad: Choose a Niçoise salad instead. Or invent your own salad made with an array of veggies, some beans, pumpkin seeds, turkey breast and an oil-and-vinegar dressing.

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