Simple, healthy and low-cost lunch ideas

Giving your kids a jam sandwich for school, or buying a sausage roll during your lunch break might seem quick and simple, but in the long run they’re not providing the nutrition needed.

Making a simple, nutrient-packed lunch to have at work or school doesn’t take long. With a bit of planning to get the right ingredients, you can make healthy, low-cost lunches.

Start with a good quality protein

Protein is an essential “building block” for your body, and helps you feel full throughout the day, says Kate Di Prima, Accredited Practising Dietitian and Spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia.

“Having a good protein gives you those building blocks for hair, skin and nail repair, as well as hormones inside the body.

“Protein makes you feel fuller for longer because it delays stomach emptying and it fills up a hungry appetite.”

For kids, protein is just as important, and a vegemite or jam sandwich that lacks protein will leave them feeling hungry again soon after lunch.

Adult women need about 46 grams of protein daily, while adult men require about 64 grams of protein. Importantly, children need anywhere between 14 and 20, Di Prima says.

For meat eaters, use a good quality protein such as:

  • Beef
  • Lamb
  • Chicken
  • Turkey
  • Pork/ham
  • Fish
  • Seafood

For non-meat eaters choose a protein such as:

  • Eggs
  • Tofu
  • Hummus

Dairy and dairy alternatives are also important sources of calcium and protein.

  • Plain or flavoured milk (just watch the sugar content)
  • Cheese – with crackers or on a sandwich
  • Smoothies
  • Yoghurt in a tub or squeezie pack
  • Custard (but may be high in sugar)

Nuts and seeds are proteins but don’t have the same amount of protein as meat, eggs, dairy and legumes.

“You have to eat a truckload of nuts to get the right amount of protein,” Di Prima says.

Add nuts and seeds to salads for extra nutrition and taste, but not as the main protein.

Add lots of vegetables for fibre

Only a small percentage of Australians get enough fibre in their diets, and with that comes a whole range of health problems, Di Prima says.

Fibre, or roughage, is the prebiotics that feed the good bacteria, called probiotics, in your gut. Without fibre, the good gut bacteria die.

“Prebiotics are the wonderful fuel that lands in the colon to feed the gut bacteria which is called a probiotic, and that gives you that healthy biome.”

If you leave your fibre intake until you have vegetables with dinner, it’s impossible to get enough fibre for the day.

Di Prima says she is seeing a spike in the number of adults and children with irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, diverticulitis and general bowel complaints. “Most of the time it comes down to a really inadequate fibre intake.

“If you think about how our grandparents ate, it was all beetroot out of the ground, spinach and tomatoes, and we really filled up our plates with vegetables.

“They had soups, casseroles and stews that were all absolutely laden with vegetables, and we've moved away from that and our health status has gone downhill.”

Fruit stops you snacking on junk food

For adults, having a piece of fruit with you at work means you’re less likely to snack on something sugary like a muffin or chocolate, or buy something from the vending machine at work.

“You might not feel like fruit at the time, but cut it up and have a first bite,” Di Prima says.

Chances are, once you start eating some fruit, you’ll no longer crave sugary foods.

“Sometimes it's just the association with hunger that we're looking for pure sugar or pure refined foods.”

If you are strictly vegan and eat proteins such as tofu, combine it with a source of vitamin C such as citrus, to unlock the iron in the tofu.

“It's quite a complex process to balance these things if you are removing a whole food group,” Di Prima says.

“If you are restrictive in any particular nutrient you've got to make sure you're filling that gap.”

6 fast and fresh lunch and snack ideas

If you’re looking for fast, fresh and nutritious lunch ideas on the go, then give these a try:

  1. Cook a bit extra at dinner and take last night’s leftovers for lunch the next day. It’s a cheap and easy lunch, and almost always tastes better the next day.
  2. Load up a sandwich with salad. To avoid your sandwich going soggy, pack salad ingredients such as lettuce, tomato or sprouts in a separate container or ziplock bag. Add to your sandwich at lunch time.
  3. Make a quick rice paper roll by wrapping leftovers in rice paper. Soften the sheet of rice paper in boiling water when you boil the kettle to make tea in the morning.
  4. Take a panini or baguette to work and scoop out most of the bread from the middle. Pour leftovers – such as Bolognese sauce – into the middle.
  5. Cut up vegetables such as carrot or celery, and fruit such as apples and oranges to snack on during the day.
  6. For breakfast, soak chia seeds in milk, coconut milk or almond milk overnight. In the morning, add yoghurt, nuts and fruit.

For more nutrition advice or to read dietary guidelines go to Eat for Health.

Read some more easy lunchbox ideas from the Dietitians Association of Australia.

Kate Di Prima is an Accredited Practising Dietitian and Spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia.

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