Packing a healthy lunch is hard work. All the traditional lunch choices, i.e. sandwiches, soups, and salads, get so boring after a while. The internet teases me with posts like, “40 Salads That Are Great For Lunch!” but they all seem to require 27 ingredients, so no, that’s not gonna happen. My salads are lettuce, chicken, dressing, or bust. My soups are chicken noodle, lentil, or bust. My sandwiches are peanut butter, or bust. Burnout is a very real possibility, because I simply can’t justify spending an hour crafting some hipster salad that tastes funny and doesn’t fill me up, and I end up falling back on the classics. Which are boring.
Besides the snooze-factor, those kinds of lunches aren’t really portable. You need a can opener, bowl, microwave, and table to eat at when you bring soup to work. It’s really freaking hard to eat a salad while walking somewhere. And sandwiches, while easy to eat on the go, just suck after a while. Leftovers? Fugetaboutit.
My work recently opened a gym for employees. It’s pretty basic but right now my workouts are pretty basic, so I was stoked. Logistically, working out at the new gym posed a big problem for me: when to go? Let’s be real, I ain’t gonna go before work. After work, I’m usually tired and hungry and want to go home. Buuuuuut I was already in the habit of walking during my lunch breaks (catching Pokemon with all the cool kids), so that seemed ideal. That presented a new problem: when to eat?
Here’s how my lunch hour breaks down if I wanna work out, too:
- 10 minutes walking from my desk to the gym
- 5 minutes changing clothes
- 30 minutes working out
- 5 minutes changing clothes
- 10 minutes walking from the gym to my desk
Do some simple math, and you’ll see that there’s no time in there to actually eat my lunch. Sure, I could shave ten minutes off my workout to eat, but then what’s the point of even going? The solution, I finally saw, was to eat during the walk to-and-from the gym. This meant I needed to pack portable foods.
The first week of this new schedule, working out 3 times a week, I ate nothing but sugar. Why? Because all the portable foods are sweet. A peanut butter and honey sandwich, even on whole wheat bread, is pure sugar. Apples, pears, grapes, bananas (which I don’t eat because they’re the devil), whatever other fruit, is straight sugar. Granola bars? Sugar. Protein shakes? Sugar. By Friday of that week I was feeling barfy and murderous.
The second week of my gym schedule, I bought those “protein packs” things at the market. They usually have cheese, nuts, and some kind of deli meat. I also got little packs of veggies and hummus or ranch. This week went better than the sugar week, but my grocery bill was outrageous, I felt awful about all the packaging waste, and many days I still felt hungry.
WHAT WAS I TO DO???????
I finally found the magic combination of portable foods that tasted good, kept me full, and didn’t cost an arm and a leg. My lunches are still a work in progress and I try something new nearly every week, but this formula right here is a tried and true winner.
Let’s examine this line by line. I usually eat between 400 and 500 calories at lunch, and at 470 this is in that “perfect” range. The apple is the only sweet item, and also brings water, fiber, and vitamins (unlike most granola bars and protein shakes). The cheese gives calcium and protein, the almonds bring protein and fat (don’t be afraid of fat!), and the jerky brings straight protein. All told, this meal has 37 grams of protein (!!!!), 8 grams of fiber (not too shabby), 23 sugars (not great, but none of them are added sugars), and 25 grams of fat.
I know you’re thinking right now, “holy shit, that’s a lot of fat!” but 17 grams of the 25 total grams come from the almonds. Nuts are hella good for you, and fat isn’t the enemy. Your body needs fat. Don’t fear the fat.
If you’re interested in macros, you’ll see that most of your calories are coming from, yes, fat, with protein in second and carbs making up only 26% of your calories. Eating these macro ratios *all the time* would not be very healthy, no. However, on a typical day my breakfast is very carb-heavy (think fruit smoothie or English muffin), and at dinner the emphasis is on lean proteins, so my daily macros usually align with my overall macro goals. One fat-heavy meal a couple days a week won’t kill you.
Another critical matter, like PAY ATTENTION TO THIS PART RIGHT HERE, is that I monitor portion sizes. Wanna know what a serving of almonds looks like?
A handful. YEP. That’s all you get. That’s how much jerky you get, too. I know it’s not much, but the high fat/high protein/low sugar combination of foods keeps me full until dinner, which is a freaking miracle because I’m typically hungry, oh, idk, 24/7.
So on gym day, I’ll eat my cheese and almonds on the way to the gym, and the jerky and apple on the way back. My gym workout is weight lifting, so I like to save the sugar and protein as recovery food (although it probably doesn’t make a difference unless you’re doing hardcore lifts or crazy cardio). These are things I can comfortably eat while walking the halls at work, keep me full until dinner, and are all whole, non-processed food. In fact, if you eat turkey, chicken, or salmon jerky instead of beef, this meal lines up well with the Mediterranean diet. If you swap the cheese for something else, it’s paleo and dairy-free. Customize to your heart’s content.
Voila! After tweaking my lunches, I now have a fast, portable, whole-foods, filling meal that allows me to get in several more workouts each week than before. How do you guys plan meals around your workouts?