What should I eat for a healthy, satisfying lunch?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

Can you give me some tips for eating a healthy but satisfying lunch?

DEAR READER:

Yes, I can, but first let me observe that many of my patients seem to think that what doctors recommend as a “healthy” diet is just today’s latest fad. They think the advice could change next year.

That’s wrong. The advice I’ll give you is based on 50 years of studies involving millions of people whose diets and health have been studied for decades. In other words, it has a strong scientific basis. At least as important, you can follow the advice and have delicious meals — healthy food can taste really good!

Back to your question. Breakfast may be the most important meal of the day, but don’t give your lunch short shrift. Eating lunch helps maintain your blood sugar level so your energy won’t take a midday dive. A healthy lunch will also help you concentrate and function better in the afternoon, and it will help you avoid hunger that can lead to overeating at dinner.

Do you tend to forget about lunch until you’re starving, and then reach for the nearest bagel or burger? If so, you know the importance of planning ahead. When possible, bring your lunch from home. If you’ll be eating in a restaurant or cafeteria, make healthy selections.

A healthy, balanced lunch should include three food groups: lean protein, whole-grain carbohydrates, and fruits and vegetables. Roughly half of your plate should be vegetables or fruit. One-quarter should be lean protein. That can include fish, chicken, turkey, tofu or low-fat cottage cheese. And one-quarter of your plate should be whole grains; for example, one slice of whole-grain bread, or a half cup of brown rice, whole-wheat pasta or quinoa. I’ve posted a number of specific lunch ideas in at the end of this article.

Frozen microwavable entrees tend to be a popular lunch choice. Look for those with no more than 350 calories, 4 grams or less of saturated fat, 15 grams or more of protein, and 600 milligrams or less of sodium per serving. Supplement the entree with a handful of baby carrots or fresh fruit to make it more filling and nutritionally complete.

If you tend to grab food on the fly — perhaps eating a croissant on the way to a meeting — mentally account for those calories. Say to yourself, “This is part of lunch.” Then fill in with an apple and a carton of nonfat plain yogurt as soon as you get the chance. Or consider alternatives to croissants that also taste delicious, but that deliver healthier calories. For example, I snack most afternoons on a small bag of mixed nuts. Nuts are full of “good” fats, whereas croissants are full of “bad” fats.

Finally, use your lunchtime as an opportunity to get away from your desk. Eat a quick, healthy meal, and then go for a brisk walk.

What’s for lunch?

1 serving whole-grain crackers, baby carrots, ½ cup hummus, and an orange
1 whole-wheat tortilla, topped with ½ cup beans, 1 ounce low-fat shredded cheese, and 1 tablespoon salsa, heated in the microwave and rolled up, plus an apple
2 slices whole-grain bread with ½ recipe tuna salad with curry and apples, plus plenty of tomatoes and romaine lettuce
1 serving whole-grain crackers and 2 ounces low-fat cheese, with carrot and jicama sticks (a root vegetable), apple, and flavored seltzer
California turkey wrap (whole-wheat tortilla, 4 ounces turkey, hummus, sprouts), plus a fresh fruit cup
1 whole-grain roll, 1 cup lentil soup, grape tomatoes, and a peach
Peanut butter sandwich made with 2 tablespoons peanut butter on whole-grain bread with a side of carrot sticks, plus a small banana
Wasabi roast beef sandwich (whole-grain bread, 3 ounces lean roast beef, 1 tablespoon low-fat wasabi mayonnaise, and spinach) and 1 cup melon
Chicken Caesar wrap (whole-wheat tortilla, chicken, and romaine lettuce with 1 tablespoon low-fat Caesar dressing), plus an orange
1 cup low-sodium soup (minestrone, chicken noodle, or lentil) with a serving of whole-wheat crackers
1 cup chili made with lots of vegetables and ground turkey
1 cup whole-wheat pasta salad made with 4 ounces chicken or tuna and vegetables
Pizza made with a whole-wheat English muffin or whole-wheat pita topped with vegetables and 2 ounces of low-fat cheese, such as part-skim mozzarella or reduced-fat shredded cheeses
Stuffed peppers made with roughly ½ cup brown rice and 4 ounces ground turkey
1 cup low-fat or nonfat plain Greek yogurt with berries or fresh fruit and 2 tablespoons nuts
Vegetable quesadilla made with 1 whole-wheat tortilla, 2 ounces part-skim mozzarella, and vegetables
Veggie burger with lettuce and tomato on a whole-wheat bun, with a small green salad
Soy or vegetarian hot dog on a whole-wheat hot dog bun with homemade coleslaw made with healthy vegetable oil
1 cup low-fat cottage cheese and a cup of fresh fruit
Beans with a whole-grain tortilla and salsa, shredded lettuce, and tomatoes
Hard-boiled egg with a green salad and ½ pear
Whole-grain crackers or bread with ¼ cup hummus and 2 ounces low-fat cheese and sliced vegetables on top.