Shake Up Your Brown Bag Lunch Routine With 13 Healthy, Packable Meals That Dietitians Love
Why is lunch the hardest meal to get excited about? I can eat the same breakfast every day and not get sick of it (banana and a protein bar, baby). When I’m prepping dinner, I have time to get creative and experiment. But when it comes to lunch, I’m stumped. I could go out, but it’s so expensive. I want to try new recipes, but I don’t have time to make a fresh lunch every night, and it’s hard to find dishes that will stay good for a full week after I meal prep them.
I default to making the same quinoa salad every day, and while it’s tasty and healthy, after a year, it’s also gotten boring. I still want to keep things healthy, since it’s the middle of the day and I’m not trying to feel bloated, sleepy, or blah until I head home. So I asked for recommendations from the experts: registered dietitians. Ahead, more than a dozen of them shared their go-to packable, healthy, and filling lunches, ranging from salad variations to grain bowls to sandwiches. I’m shamelessly planning to steal all of them for my next few months of lunches, and I hereby give you permission to do the same.
“I make veggie stir-fry a couple of nights each week, with whatever vegetables I have in the fridge,” said Jessica Knurick, PhD, RDN. She adds beans, bean sprouts, hemp seeds, olive oil, soy sauce, and red chili paste. “It takes less than 20 minutes,” she told POPSUGAR, and she makes enough for lunch, too. “I like that it’s quick and easy to pack in a small container before heading out the door in the morning, while being super nutrient-dense. An easy, healthy meal in a single container.”
Maren Stein, MS, RD, a clinical dietitian at Adventist Health Simi Valley, said her favorite packable lunch is a taco salad: mixed greens, spicy chicken or tofu, corn and black bean salsa, bell peppers, avocado, and tortilla chips with a creamy ranch dressing. “This provides a good balance of vegetables, carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats that is a filling, delicious, and easy lunch,” she told POPSUGAR.
Stuffed Bell Pepper
Registered dietitian Kylie Ivanir, MS, said her stuffed bell pepper recipe is “supereasy, nutritious, and requires no cooking!” Simply pack a whole bell pepper, an avocado, and two hard-boiled eggs for lunch. When you’re ready to eat, cut open the bell pepper, smear avocado inside, and slice the eggs on top. “Super low-carb, high-fiber, high-protein, high-healthy-fat lunch that keeps you full and tastes amazing,” Kylie said.
Almond Butter Sandwich
When she’s traveling (the ultimate test of a packable lunch), Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You From Label To Table, said she munches on a crunchy almond butter sandwich on whole grain bread. “It provides protein, fiber, and healthy fat to help keep me feeling full and satisfied, and it’s decadently delicious,” she said. She’ll also pack a fruit, like an apple, pear, or banana, and a DIY trail mix with mixed unsalted nuts, dried fruit, and cold cereal.
“An excellent packable lunch is a grain bowl,” said Kelly Krikhely, MS, RD, CDN. “The best part is that there are so many different combinations you can try, with a wide range of potential toppings and seasonings, that it helps keep meals exciting.” She recommended mixing up your faves of the following:
- Whole grain base: quinoa or farro
- Protein: chicken, egg, tofu, beans
- Hardy vegetables: bell peppers, broccoli
- Greens: Kelly recommended kale, which holds up better than other greens. You could also pack spinach or arugula separately and add it before you eat.
- Dressing: a squeeze of citrus or vinegar, plus herbs and spices of your choice.
Rachel Fine, RD, owner of To The Pointe Nutrition in New York, also recommended adding avocado on top. Avocados are high in the monounsaturated fats, she explained, “which helps with reducing spikes in blood sugar when incorporated as a balanced meal or snack with other foods.”
“My favorite healthy, packable lunch is a grilled chicken breast with 1-2 tablespoons of honey mustard,” said Staci Gulbin, MS, MEd, RD. To fill out the lunch, she slices up an apple and adds a tablespoon of peanut butter for dipping. “This lunch is simple and easy to prep the night before,” Staci explained. “The chicken can be leftovers from your dinner meal and tastes great warmed or cold.” It’s also rich in protein and fiber to keep you full until dinner.
Almond Butter and Fruit on Bread
“On long days, I look forward to a dense dark rye bread topped with almond butter and 100 percent fruit spread,” said Maya Feller, MS, RD, CDN, author of The Southern Comfort Food Diabetes Cookbook. She usually pairs it with an apple and sliced veggies. “This choice is easy to make, and in my house, mornings are always full of making lunches for everyone else!” Maya explained. “The combination of the fiber-rich dark rye bread paired with almond butter is a good source of plant-based protein and makes for a satiating lunch that travels well.”
Similarly, dietitian Jodi Greebel, MS, recommended spreading almond butter or sun butter on multigrain bread, slicing a banana on top, then drizzling both with honey. “This lunch is easy to make in a pinch, is packed with fiber, minerals, and healthy fat, and it doesn’t need to be refrigerated – a major plus in some offices,” she said.
Another one of Jodi Greebel’s favorite packable lunches is a classic choice: a turkey sandwich with lettuce, tomato, and avocado on whole wheat bread. “The protein from turkey along with the fiber in the vegetables help fill you up,” she explained. “The fat from the avocado is satiating, so you aren’t looking for a snack shortly after lunch.”
Not surprisingly, a big green salad was a popular choice among dietitians. Here were some of their recommendations:
- A bean salad with cannellini beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, feta, and parsley, plus a dressing of olive oil and lemon juice. Registered dietitian Adrianne Delgado, LDN, nutrition manager at BodyMetrix, said she likes this protein-rich bean salad because she can meal prep a week’s worth and eat it on a bed of greens, with pita chips, or scoop it out as is with a fork.
- Vegetable salad with chicken and almond flour crackers. Registered dietitian Jackie Elnahar recommends this simple salad as a nutritious lunch option, with veggies like spinach and tomatoes, plus a light Dijon and olive oil dressing. “Almonds and walnuts are great to add for fiber,” she said.
Yogurt, Peanut Butter, and Oats
Diana Gariglio-Clelland, a registered dietitian at Balance One Supplements, said her go-to packable lunch is plain, whole milk Greek yogurt with peanut butter and raw oats stirred in. “I like this meal because it’s incredibly filling,” she explained. “Greek yogurt has more protein than regular yogurt, and the whole milk variety is more satisfying and filing than the nonfat kinds.” The peanut butter adds flavor and protein, while the oats give the meal texture and fiber. You can also mix it up by leaving out the peanut butter and adding sliced almonds, berries, cinnamon, or any other tasty toppings you want.
“As both a registered dietitian and chef, my favorite healthy, packable lunch is a lentil salad with vegetables, a can of tuna, and a basic oil and vinegar dressing,” said Abbie Gellman, MS, RD, CDN, of Culinary Nutrition Cuisine. “I simply whisk olive oil, my favorite vinegar, Dijon, salt, and pepper together in a portable container, then add in lentils . . . and chopped raw veggies like pepper, carrot, cucumber, and celery,” she said. She brings along a can of tuna packed in water and a sealed bag of baby greens, then mixes it all together for a tasty and healthy lunch. (PS: Abbie says canned lentils or beans work fine!)
Bistro Box "Lunchable"
According to registered dietitian-nutritionist Emily Van Eck, MS, a Lunchable-like bistro box is a great way to keep your foods fresh (no sauces running together and making things soggy) and a “reminder that you need a variety of textures and nutrients.” Added Tori Martinet, RD, director of wellness and nutrition for Restaurant Associates, “This type of lunch gives you a lot of variety in nutrients, plus it gives you an easy way to honor your hunger as it comes. If I get hungry earlier in the day, I’m not faced with a whole meal to tackle, but I can enjoy a portion of my lunch, still have some for later, and have satisfaction all day long.”
Here’s how to pack up your box, according to registered dietitian Danielle Allen, LDN:
- Two types of protein: deli turkey, hard-boiled eggs, protein bar, chicken, chickpea salad, peanut butter, nuts, cheese, hummus
- Fruit or vegetable: baby carrots, celery, strawberries, apples, grapes, dried fruit
- Carb source: whole wheat pita bread, yogurt, pretzels, tortillas
Veggie Protein Wrap
“My favorite packable lunches are veggie-filled hummus wraps,” said Melissa Nieves, RD. She fills spinach tortillas with hummus, chopped spinach, shredded carrots, alfalfa sprouts, and feta cheese crumbles. “It’s filling due to the protein in the hummus and cheese and the fiber in the veggies and hummus. Add some unsweetened apple chips for dessert, and you have all the food groups in one meal!”