Think Outside the (Lunch) Box

As far as meals go, lunch is overlooked and underappreciated.

Busy schedules mean folks are exercising or running errands instead of enjoying a leisurely noonday meal. Maybe they can’t face another ham-and-cheese sandwich, and instead they hit the drive-through for a burger and fries.

“Lunch tends to be tough for people, because we don’t necessarily think about it. So, we need to have a plan of action,” said Autumn Ehsaei, a dietician with Perennial Nutrition in Cary.

People might plan for breakfast and dinner, she says, but lunch tends to fall through the cracks. They might not have time to eat, or they are eating out for lunch a lot. Financially and nutritionally, those are not always the best choices.

“Folks want healthy options that are actually going to fuel them during the day, and help them feel good and not lagging after lunch,” Ehsaei said. “When we think about the traditional lunch, it’s kind of boring.”

But easy lunches don’t have to be humdrum. We asked Ehsaei and some other experts for their tips to liven up the lunchtime routine.

Snacks instead

According to a 2016 report on The Future of Snacking, 91% of consumers snack multiple times during the day. All that nibbling means no appetite at noon.

Bento box tips

  • Use silicone muffin liners to hold dips like hummus and peanut butter.
  • If your bento box isn’t leakproof, placing pasta or bean salads in a lettuce leaf “bowl” can prevent dressing from migrating to other compartments.
  • Soak apples, pears and other fruit in lemon juice to prevent them from browning.
  • For a gluten-free alternative, wrap sandwich fillings in Swiss chard, lettuce or rice paper

But instead of fighting this behavior, why not embrace it? Some people just do better with several small meals throughout the day, Ehsaei says, and a bento box full of healthy bites is one way to keep your diet on track. The sectioned containers also help manage portion sizes.

“It’s such a great way for all of us to eat and to think about it,” she said. “You have all these little compartments, so you’re getting your protein, your starch, your whole grain, your veggie and your fruit. You have your bases covered.”

Deli delight: Ham and cheddar pinwheels, cherry tomatoes, black olives, blueberries and walnuts.
Mediterranean mix: Hummus, pita wedges, grilled chicken, bell peppers, carrots and fruit.

Those who don’t have time for an extended lunch break can eat a little bit at a time, between meetings or phone calls. Or if you spend your lunch hour running errands, the portable containers make it easy to grab a nosh in the car between the dry cleaners and the grocery store.

The lunches don’t have to be elaborate to be visually appealing, and they can be assembled quickly.

“Even if it’s the same food, presented in a different way can reignite that excitement around eating,” Ehsaei said. The bento box “keeps it simple enough, that it still feels achievable, but elevates it so it’s a little more exciting, and a bit more fun.”

Tacos are Tasty: Black bean and corn salad (recipe follows), grilled chicken, tortillas, cheese and fresh berries
Deconstructed PB&J: Sliced apples, nut butter of choice, carrots, celery, whole wheat crackers and sweet trail mix with dried fruit, nuts and dark chocolate chips

Special thanks to LunchBots for providing the three- and five-compartment stainless steel bento boxes, $39 and $42 at

Substantial salads

Jocelyn Midgett has built a business around convenient, healthy food. The executive chef and co-owner of Living Fit trained at the Culinary Institute of America, and she is also a certified personal fitness trainer and nutrition specialist.

Her Cary-based catering company delivers roughly 1,500 meals a week to homes and 18 pickup locations— mostly gyms and fitness studios — from Wake Forest to Fuquay-Varina.

“People are looking for options that allow them to continue working through the day, so they don’t have to stop and take an hour to go out and get something,” said Midgett. “They’re looking for convenience, but also being able to know that it’s healthy. That’s not always easy to find.”

Caveman’s Garden Greens: This Paleo/Whole30 compliant salad consists of mixed organic baby butter lettuces, grilled chicken, roasted butternut squash, shaved beets, sunflower seeds and bacon tossed with an orange-basil vinaigrette dressing
Power Caesar with wild-caught salmon: mixed organic baby butter lettuces, kale, red cabbage, tomatoes, shaved Parmesan cheese, and a Power Caesar dressing, made with nonfat Greek yogurt

She says many people find it challenging to create healthy lunches, especially as the week goes on. People may cook on the weekend, but by Thursday, they are tired of eating the same thing. This is especially true for those following special eating regimens like the low-carb, high-fat Keto diet or the Paleo diet, which excludes dairy, soy, grains and legumes.

“Services like mine allow people to stay on track with their healthy lifestyle, especially when they’re making big shifts, without it feeling like so much work,” Midgett said.

Her menu includes several hearty salads with lots of nutrient-dense ingredients. Among these are “winter” vegetables like butternut squash, sweet potatoes and beets. She also incorporates dark leafy greens like baby kale, Swiss chard, collards and mustard greens, along with the more run-of-the mill lettuce and cabbage. Midgett also enjoys using alternative grains like sorghum and millet.

Her philosophy of using familiar ingredients in new ways can be copied at home, the next time you are looking to liven up your lunch-time salad.

Vegan Green Goddess: mixed greens, kale, red cabbage, carrots, sorghum, sunflower seeds, dried cranberries, grilled tofu strips, vegan Green Goddess dressing
Café Classic: mixed greens, quinoa, feta, bacon, walnuts, grilled chicken (or steak) and pear, tossed with a white balsamic vinaigrette dressing

Open near you

The tried-and-true sandwich might be ready for an (open) facelift.

Losing the top slice of bread is an easy way to boost the nutrition and appeal of this lunchtime staple. More ingredients can be piled on, incorporating diverse flavors, complementary textures and vivid visual appeal.

“A lot of people are trying to eat less grain and more healthy fats and good sources of protein, so by eliminating one slice of bread you’re cutting the grains and carbs in half. Then you’re left with a nice balance of carbohydrates, healthy fats and protein,” said Kristen Preissner, co-owner of Fount Coffee + Kitchen in Morrisville.

“Also, a lot of people like taking pictures of their food, so a nice artisan toast is picture-worthy as well.”

Honey Nut Pear: pear, goat cheese, local honey, and walnuts
Avocado Smash: avocado, lime, red pepper, heirloom tomatoes, toasted pine nuts, and sea salt
Spinach Mushroom: sauteed mushrooms, spinach, garlic, parsley
and hemp seeds

At Fount, the open-faced sandwiches begin with a hearty, whole-grain sourdough bread, made by Simple Kneads, a gluten-free bakery based in Burlington, N.C. It helps that the bread is also vegan.

The café doesn’t follow a strict formula for their five toast stacks, but Preissner says they strive to balance nutrition and flavor components. Powerhouse ingredients include eggs, spinach, hemp seeds, avocado, pine nuts and walnuts.

“For the savory ones, you definitely want to balance fats and protein, that’s our mindset,” she said. “For the sweet stacks, it’s really just flavor. We like a little bit of salty, tangy with the sweet. We incorporate healthy fats in those as well.”

To make the open-faced sandwich appropriate for work, try packing the components separately and assembling right before digging in. Don’t forget the napkin!

Healthy lunch checklist

Whether packing a bento box, assembling a salad or stacking a sandwich, a balanced and satisfying lunch should have the following components, says nutritionist Autumn Ehsaei.


  • Meat or chicken
  • Fish or seafood
  • Cheese
  • Beans or lentils
  • Eggs
  • Nuts/seeds/nut butter
  • Edamame or tofu

Whole grain or starch

  • Whole grain pasta, bread or crackers
  • Quinoa or faro
  • Baked sweet potato
  • Butternut squash
  • Corn
  • Green peas

Non-starchy vegetables

  • For the salad base, try spinach, kale and cabbage in addition to lettuce.
  • For bento boxes, think bite-sized broccoli, cauliflower, celery, bell peppers, tomatoes, carrots and cucumbers.
  • Elevate sandwiches with roasted bell peppers or sauteed mushrooms along with the lettuce and tomato.

Healthy fat

  • Olives/olive oil (maybe in your salad dressing)
  • Avocado
  • Walnuts or flax seed
  • Fish/seafood in your protein option.

For dessert, add a colorful fruit

  • Berries, oranges, melon, peaches, grapes or apple slices

Black Bean and Corn Salad
Serves 4

1 15-ounce can black beans, rinsed and drained
2 cups frozen corn kernels
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
¼ cup fresh cilantro, chopped
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Juice from one lime
½ teaspoon ground cumin
1-2 teaspoons Chipotle Pepper Tabasco Sauce, or other hot sauce

Combine all ingredients, and let stand 15 minutes for corn to fully defrost. Toss again and serve.

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