Yes to Yummy

Your Biggest Lunch Problems – BUSTED!

August 19, 2013 Leave your thoughts Print this page

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Come lunchtime at work or school, you may feel something like this caveman pictured here. You had to drag yourself out of bed at 6:45, shoved something down your pipe at 7:00, and dashed out the door ten minutes later. You slaved through an entire morning of boring classes, whether at school or college, or endless rounds of your boss discussing who knows what. By the time the clock strikes noon, it doesn’t matter whether you had eggs and avocado or just a banana for breakfast: you’re starving, and you’re extremely close to bludgeoning someone with a large, heavy object.

If breakfast doesn’t slip you up, lunch certainly might. At least with breakfast, you can eat in the comfort of your own home or car without anyone bothering you; at lunch, you’ve got multiple pairs of eyes staring at what you’re eating as well as the looming temptation to gobble down someone else’s unhealthy food. To top it off, if you don’t eat a balanced, filling midday meal, you’ll perish through the 3:00 slump and probably wind up digging through the trash to eat your friend or coworker’s abandoned pizza crust. 

I know that it’s not easy to eat paleo-style in social situations. When I first started bringing different food to lunch, my friends often asked, “Ew, what is that?” or gave me weird looks as I dipped vegetables into chicken liver mousse or roasted eggplant.But you know what? It got better. My friends began to grow curious about what I was eating and why, so they’d ask, and I’d explain. They’d try to guess what certain foods were. They’d talk about times they’d tried a particular food or something like it. They’d tell me how their moms, dads, or grandparents prepared whatever I was eating. Sure, there are still some weird looks once in a while, but I don’t feel embarrassed or uncomfortable about what I eat at lunch anymore.

If I can do it, so can you, and so can your kids. Make lunch into an enjoyable break in the middle of your day, not a depressing time where you lament about the foods you miss.

You’ve got lunch problems? I’ve got solutions!

1. You never have anything to eat for lunch.

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You’re proud of yourself today. You got out of bed 15 minutes early, at 6:30, and now, you’re in the kitchen all stoked to prepare your delicious lunch. You open the fridge in anticipation…and there’s nothing there. No leftover roast chicken from the night before. No slices of roast beef. Sure, there are some eggs, you’re already eating them for breakfast. As you’re thinking of a solution, your fridge begins angrily beeping and your stomach growls in anxious anticipation. Before you know it, you’re abandoning your lunch plan and feeling even more stressed about the coming day.

I’ve been there. You’ve been there, whether for yourself or for your kids. We’ve all been there. Instead of winding up this way in the future, here are a few ideas…

  • Pack your lunch the night beforeAfter dinner every night, set aside some leftovers for yourself in a container and pop them in the fridge. That way, you’ll have extra time in the morning to psych yourself up for the day and won’t have to problem-solve while you’re still half asleep. This is what I always do when I know I have to get up early for something.
  • Have emergency protein. Sometimes, you and your family will be starving at dinner and eat every last morsel. Maybe an unexpected guest will stop by or your dinner will burn or taste awful. Life happens, and you need to be prepared! On Saturday or Sunday, make a point of cooking up some extra protein to have during the week. Simply grilled chicken thighs, stir-fried ground meat, or even sauteed shrimp are all good options. Keep your pantry stocked with canned tuna or salmon, too. If it turns out that you don’t need your emergency protein, you can always eat it for breakfast.
  • Have a solid backup plan. You can’t be prepared for everything, unfortunately. Things come up, time slips away…we’re humans, we’re not perfect. In case you’ve got no food or no time, always keep a small amount of cash and a filling snack (like some beef jerky or nuts) in your purse or backpack. Know your cafeteria and/or nearby restaurants, and if you can, look at menus ahead of time to find the most health-friendly options. When in doubt, salads with lean protein (I always go for chicken) are your best bet.

2. You have absolutely no idea what to eat. 

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It’s the next day, and you’re back at your fridge, ready to go. Today, you’ve got some leftover steak from the night before, as well as a huge bag of field greens to make a big salad. But then…you realize something important. This salad will be booooooringgggg. That loaf of white bread lurking at the back of the fridge begin to call your name, taunting you with its processed goodness. Soon, you’re slamming the fridge door shut, panting from your near encounter with high-fructose corn syrup and soybean oil.

After your whole life of eating a sandwich and a bag of chips for lunch, creating a health-friendly midday meal can seem daunting. By mixing it up and being on the constant lookout for new ideas, you’ll never go back!

  • Make salads exciting. Sure, you can toss a piece of protein on top of a bed of greens and call it a day, but that’s lame, and you know you’re going to be ogling that takeout somebody else has for lunch. The best way to make salads better is to amplify their taste. Buy some good balsamic vinegar and/or olive oil, or mix some fruit juice, spices, or even coconut milk into your dressings. Add chopped fruits or vegetables, like bell peppers, carrots, pears, or apples. Slivered almonds, sun-dried tomatoes, or even a sprinkling of fruit juice-sweetened cranberries are also great embellishments.
  • Get creative with sandwich fixings. Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of “paleo” bread. It’s usually pretty caloric, loaded with nuts, and just doesn’t taste or feel as good as the real thing. (My loaf pans also hate me, even when I grease them, but that’s another story.) Plus, the point of eating paleo is to eat more real food, right?  If you’re craving something sandwich-y, replace the bread with something new. How about fresh, crunchy lettuce leaves for filling with ground meat and veggies? Or slightly salty nori sheets to wrap around smoked salmon, avocado, and cucumber? Maybe roasted eggplant or sweet potato rounds to hold little sliders? Don’t work against the veggies; work with them!

Need some meal ideas? Here’s what I’ve eaten for lunch in the past week (three days at home, four days at camp):

  • SUNDAY: roast beef slices, bell peppers, bowl of bone broth with curry paste, 1/2 an avocado
  • MONDAY: leftover steak slices, bell peppers, plum tomatoes
  • TUESDAY: leftover tandoori chicken, kale salad with balsamic vinegar and olive oil, bowl of bone broth with curry paste
  • WEDNESDAY: beef jerky from our local butcher, 1/2 an avocado, bell peppers, cucumber
  • THURSDAY: leftover pan-roasted chicken thigh, 1/2 an avocado, plum tomatoes
  • FRIDAY: leftover piece of roasted pork, carrot slices, green salad with balsamic vinegar and olive oil
  • SATURDAY: low-fat Greek yogurt with a little peach jam, 1/2 an avocado, cherry tomatoes, baby bell peppers, yellow plum

With every lunch, I’ve made sure I’ve included some protein, some fat, and some carbohydrates. During the school year, I follow much of the same pattern: usually one serving of protein with two servings of vegetables or occasionally some fruit. If the protein’s pretty lean (like chicken breast), I’ll throw in some healthy fat in the way of avocado, olives, coconut, or nuts (usually macadamias, hazelnuts, or pistachios). 

3. Your kids will not eat anything. You. Pack. Them.

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Look at you! You were so jazzed about the chicken, kale, and apple salad with balsamic vinaigrette you packed that you woke up five minutes early today. As you chop up a jicama and put aside some shredded coconut to go with it, your seven year-old comes stomping into the kitchen with bedhead, his shirt inside-out, and one sock on. (This can often resemble me in the morning.) When you put down a plate of scrambled eggs, an apple, and a glass of whole milk on the table for him, he groans and pushes the eggs around to make it seem like he’s eating. At the end of the day, you discover the only thing he touched in his lunch was the cup of strawberries, and you immediately smell traces of ketchup when you open up his lunchbox.

It’s hard enough to get yourself to eat clean; for kids, it must be even tougher. How would you feel if you were eating celery stalks while all of your friends were downing Cheetos, and if you were the only one without Chips Ahoy! or Oreos as an after-lunch treat? 

You’ve got to ease your kids into eating healthfully; a sudden change overnight will be too much of a shock, especially if they don’t understand what’s going on. Whether you have a five year-old or a twelve year-old, try to explain why mom and/or dad are changing how they’re eating in the simplest way possible. Talk fondly and enthusiastically about fruits and vegetables. Keep snacks and treats out of easy reach and focus on limiting as much processed food as possible.

In regards to lunch, there’s a lot you can do to make the experience easier.

  • Let the kids be part of the conversation. When my mom packed my lunch, she’d always ask me what I wanted to eat. If your child knows what he or she is eating beforehand, he or she will be much more inclined to have it at lunch. Take your kids grocery shopping and to farmer’s markets/butchers with you, point them in the direction of the produce and proteins, and let them decide what they might want. Engage them, too: show them how to pick out a ripe avocado or what tomatoes should smell like when they’re good.
  • Find things that resemble what they’re used to in taste/texture/look. Lunch is not a good time to introduce your kids to parsnips or cauliflower rice. Save those expeditions for dinner and give them familiar foods. Baby carrots, bell pepper slices, and cherry tomatoes are all good options on the veggie front, since they’re sweet, juicy, and crunchy. Meatballs are perfect for little hands, and they’re a breeze to make with real ingredients. Little containers of low-fat or full-fat organic yogurt with some all-fruit jam are great solutions if your child isn’t a huge fan of meat. 
  • Make lunch special in new ways. There is nothing like being a kid and opening up your lunch box to find a fresh cookie or a piece of candy inside. Instead of leaving your child out from the fun of having a treat, find different, healthier foods to pack. Rather than pack a daily sweet, pack a serving of fruit (maybe a plum/peach, a cup of fresh blueberries, or even a few dates), and once in a while, include something extra-special, like a piece of chocolate or a homemade mini muffin. Teach your kids that desserts are for special occasions and are even better when they’re a surprise.

4. You miss everything. EVERYTHING.

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You didn’t get a great night’s sleep last night—the air-conditioning wasn’t working properly, you felt worried for some reason, and just as you’re falling asleep, the alarm rings. You realize you’re out of eggs for breakfast and have just a sliver of leftover roast beef from the night before. The only vegetables in the house are a shady-looking tomato and some wilting spinach from the previous week. Your morning at work or school seems like it goes on forever, and when lunch time arrives, you’re ready to just have the day be over with. Unfortunately, your dear friend or coworker hasn’t yet embraced the awesomeness of eating real food, and is currently chowing down on a massive muffin from Starbucks with a whipped, sugary coffee drink. Suddenly, there is nothing in the world that you want more than gluten-laden, sugar-filled bomb for lunch.

Yeah yeah yeah, eating clean is supposed to banish your cravings, but come on, EVERYONE WANTS CERTAIN FOODS. We’re humans, and again, we’re far from perfect. Here are some quick fixes to satisfy your cravings without falling far off the healthy wagon!

  • Miss peanut butter and jelly? Try…sunflower seed butter/organic peanut butter and all-fruit spread on an apple! As an afternoon snack or a light lunch, this should bust your cravings. Right now, I feel indifferent about peanut butter—I know the whole deal about legumes and lectins, but really, peanut butter is a much more well-rounded food than sunflower seed butter. (It’s lower in polyunsaturated fats, which you can read about here, and has much more protein.) If you want peanut butter, I say go ahead and have it.
  • Miss pizza? Try…personal meat pizzas (recipe here) or pizza meatballs (recipe here)! Both will be a much better source of protein and not give you a greasy feeling afterwards.
  • Miss potato chips? Try…sweet potato chips (recipe here) or kale chips! Lower in carbohydrates, higher in nutrients, and free of the mysterious oils of processed food, these two solutions are delicious ways to enjoy your vegetables.
  • Miss Chinese food? Try…a meat and veggie stir-fry! If you’ve got a big wok, some meat or poultry, and a bunch of veggies, you’re set to make great lunches for an entire week. Fry up whatever you’ve got (onions, carrots, peppers, cabbage….), add some seasonings (garlic, ginger, coconut aminos or tamari, a splash of apple cider vinegar…), and stir! Serve over spaghetti squash or zucchini noodles, if you like.
  • Miss candy? Try…dark chocolate sandwiches! Take two squares of your favorite dark chocolate (preferably 70% cacao solids or higher—I like 85% or even 100%) and put some of your favorite fillings in between. You can try almond butter, sunflower seed butter, peanut butter, coconut butter, cashew butter, shredded coconut, chopped nuts, dried fruit, fresh fruit…if you can think of it, you can make it. Just keep it to one little sandwich, OK?

I hope these ideas were of help to you as the back-to-school season rolls around again. My goal is to have you have delicious, healthy food, and enjoy it, too! If you’re not happy eating what you’re eating, I honestly don’t see the point of eating it at all.

If you could have one thing for lunch every day, what would it be? Leave me a comment on Facebook and let me know!


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