American College of Nutrition Certified Nutrition Specialist | Author | Professor of Nutrition


The Perfect Lunch

lunch spot in GreeceThe perfect lunch would be served to me on a patio of a beach resort on Santorini. Sunny skies, ocean breeze, fabulous food and plenty of time to relax and enjoy it. That’s not happening for me today, and possibly not for you either.

What to have for lunch when you have to make it yourself.

My struggle with lunch is that I don’t want to take time out of my day to make it. I want it to magically appear in my refrigerator, beautiful and delicious.

The perfect breakfast is oatmeal I can make ahead and just heat to my liking in the morning, and I want my weekday lunch to have the same convenience.

Salads and soups I can make one time and eat all week are the bomb-diggity of lunch.

Lunch should have something crunchy, something hearty, and something creamy. It should energize us and leave us feeling nourished, not sleepy.

A perfect lunch has a few components:

  • At least one vegetable
  • A protein source, preferably low fat like beans
  • A whole grain
  • A serving of fruit, if you don’t eat fruit for snacks

That’s all you need – sounds complicated but it doesn’t have to be.

Leftovers from a healthy meal the night before make a perfect lunch. When I can I cook extra dinner, planing on the leftovers for a quick lunch.


One of my clients says her trick to staying on track is to always make lunch a salad. “If its lunch, its salad” is her mantra and it makes healthy eating much easier for her.

Farro salad, one of my all-time favorites, is something I can make once on Monday and have plenty to eat several times throughout the week. I also love this broccoli salad.

Cauliflower and lentil salad has been my go-to for the past few months, and I still love it. It may sound strange, but give it a try and see if you don’t love it too.

Here’s how to make it:

  • Cauliflower rice (precut from Trader Joe’s)
  • Pre-steamed lentils, or canned beans that you’ve rinsed
  • Chopped scallions (2-3), or anything oniony
  • cherry or grape tomatoes, or a chopped big tomato
  • avocado
  • lemon juice (1/2 – 1 lemon)
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper

There are no amounts because I don’t measure for this salad – that takes too much time. I pull out a big bowl, and add about half of the bag of cauliflower and half the lentil package, the scallions, about half a pint of tomatoes, and enough lemon juice and olive oil to lightly dress it all. Then sprinkle on some salt and pepper.

I add the avocado on top of each serving, since it doesn’t last once its cut. One small avocado or about half of a larger avocado – the salad needs the creaminess of the avocado so add as much as you like.

If I’ve made some farro, quinoa or brown rice I throw that in too. If not, I usually grab a couple of whole grain crackers to have on the side. If I’m on the run I’ll just eat the salad – its plenty to fill me up and keep me going.

Lots of vegetables are good in this salad. Leftover roast veggies, steamed green beans,  zucchini, and bell peppers would all be good. Keep it easy and colorful.

When making a salad, remember the textures: Crunchy, hearty, creamy, and crisp. If you’ve got at least three of them it will be a satisfying salad.


For some reason its still an oven here in Southern California, but if you live anywhere else its a great time to start making soups for lunch. This lentil soup and this white bean soup are my favorites. I also love black bean soup, navy bean soup, split pea soup, and minestrone soup. The beans in these soups give us tons of protein plus fiber and antioxidants.

Barley is a great grain for soup, and its one we don’t eat often enough. Vegetable barley soup is often in rotation for my lunches. Butternut squash, pumpkin, tomato, and broccoli soups are all great too, but not hearty enough for a whole meal. They are a great partner for a salad, or a sandwich.

I wish I could say I always make my own soups, but I don’t. We often grab some from our favorite restaurants or the local grocery store, and sometimes I grab some low-sodium ones by Amy’s brand or Progresso.

When its cold my lunch is often soup plus some veggies dipped in hummus or a quick green salad. I used to add a roll or some bread, but that weighs me down. A few whole grain crackers fill that craving without making me sleepy.

When You’re Out

Lunch at a restaurant can often leave me sleepy all afternoon. Its usually too much fat, too much salt, and just too much. But going out to lunch is fun, and ordering well can give me the best of both worlds.

The soup and salad combo is usually a good choice. Pick a soup that’s got veggies and either a whole grain or some type of bean if possible. That will give you tons of nutrients. A salad that’s dressed with an oil and vinegar dressing will give you more energy than a creamy dressing.

A stir-fry with lots of veggies, tofu or edamame, and brown rice is also a great lunch option. Its quick, tasty and not too heavy. Bowl meals can also be fantastic. There’s one at the Veggie Grill now thats calling my name. Its got seasoned white beans, farro, roasted tomatoes, broccoli pesto, and sweet potato. So delicious!

Big salads can be great or a nightmare. Order the ones without anything fried, only one dressing or sauce, and lots of veggies. Pasta can also be tough at lunch, it always makes me incredibly sleepy in the afternoon.

Sandwiches are popular lunches for a reason. There’s something comforting about eating a sandwich. Pick one with whole grain bread, and add on all the veggies possible. Try to swap avocado for cheese and/or mayo. Skip the bacon – you knew that already.

What to Drink

If your beverage of choice is tea (any kind, just not sweetened) or water you are doing yourself a favor. Often when we feel sluggish in the afternoon we are really dehydrated. A big glass of water and a piece of fruit are often all it takes to perk back up again.

Iced tea is a great substitute for soda. You get antioxidants, plus the caffeine, without the junk. Decaf tea is just as good, but its hard to find unless you make your own. Green tea has less caffeine than black tea.

Avoid the sweetened teas. There is as much sugar in those as soda, if not more. Some are so sweet they will actually make your teeth hurt. Its like you can feel the cavities forming as you drink.

Putting it all together

The perfect lunch combines nutrient dense foods, quick and easy prep, and doesn’t weigh us down with lots of fat and sugar. Sometimes its a peanut butter sandwich and an apple, and that’s okay.

Remember lunch only has to hold you for a few hours. When I find myself thinking I need to stay full all the way until dinner I eat too much lunch and get sleepy. If I remind myself a snack is just around the corner, I can be satisfied with a more reasonable portion and keep my eyes open all afternoon.

What’s your favorite go-to lunch? I want to know!

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