Raise your hand if you remember when my every day lunch used to look like this.
Yep, anyone who has been reading CET for more than a year or so may remember that I used to have this same exact lunch every day at work: a sandwich thin with turkey, American cheese, and mayo and/or mustard, plus carrots and hummus on the side. I ate this meal almost every day for years and I never, ever got tired of it. In fact, I bet if you put one of those lunches down in front of me right now, I would still lovingly cherish every bite. Yum.
However, I can’t tell you the last time I ate a lunch that looked like that. Now my lunches look more like this, and I love them just as much. Plus they are more filling, nutritious, and wholesome than the crap I was eating before.
So, what changed?
Last May, I got pretty bored with my fitness routine and decided to switch things up by purchasing the Kayla Itsines Bikini Body program (I still cringe at that name…ick). At the time, I thought the workout guide had the most bang for its buck and I’ve even recommended that if people can’t afford to purchase both the nutrition plan and the workout guide, they should just buy the workout guide. For someone who “already ate pretty healthy,” I didn’t think I really needed a nutrition plan and the workouts could be done over and over again, making them seem like the better option for anyone who didn’t want to buy both. I stuck with this belief for quite a while, but now, more than a year later, I might be changing my tune.
You see, Kayla’s nutrition plan got me in the habit of tracking my meals again. While I have tried almost every food tracking app there is (MyFitnessPal, Weight Watchers, Fooducate, etc.) I usually found it tiresome to track every ingredient in every meal and eventually after a couple of weeks I would stop using the tracker. With Kayla’s plan I started tracking servings – servings of protein, vegetables, healthy fats, etc. – and this ultimately made it easier to stick to.
To track my food I kept a note in my phone, and each day I would compare how many actual servings of each food group I was eating compared to my goal. (The number of servings you aim for can/should be different for everyone depending on your goals, so you may not want to follow exactly what I have shown below.) Having a simple note to keep myself accountable was really easy and helpful, and though I still eventually stopped tracking everything in the note, I did keep it going for much longer than any of my other tracking attempts.
The biggest surprise for me during this time was realizing that I wasn’t getting nearly enough vegetables in my diet. Yes I would eat a serving of fruit or vegetables with every meal, but carrots on the side of my little sandwich thin just wasn’t cutting it. I realized that if I was going to consume enough veggies to meet the goals of the plan, I would need to start boosting up the veggie volume during lunch.
Enter, the salad!
At first, I was pretty crappy at making salads. I just didn’t know what would taste good together and I usually wound up starving and unsatisfied after eating one. Eventually after playing around with a bunch of combinations, I finally found something that really worked for me. Here’s how I make salads that truly satisfy my tummy and taste buds.
What I put in my salads
- Mixed greens. I like buying one bag of spinach and one bag of “power greens” or other mixed greens.
- Pre-cooked chicken. Costco has great grilled chicken breasts that come in a two-pack; I usually keep one pack in the fridge and one in the freezer for later. Sometimes I’ll buy a Rotisserie chicken instead.
- A grain. I usually have quinoa or brown rice.
- Some kind of crunchy veggie. I like buying bags of either broccoli slaw or shredded carrots. If I don’t have these, I’ll just chop up some carrots.
- Something sweet. I suggest either Craisins, sweet corn, or any fresh fruit like strawberries, apples, or blueberries. Roasted sweet potatoes also work great!
- Tasty cheese. I like feta or, on special occasions, goat cheese.
- Healthy salad dressing. Usually I make my own dressing with olive oil + balsamic vinegar + spicy mustard + salt + pepper. On rare occasions I’ll buy a pre-made dressing without a lot of funky ingredients.
How I pack up my salads for work
Sundays are usually my prep days for salads, and on this day I’ll cook up some quinoa or brown rice and package everything together. Once the quinoa or rice has cooled, I’ll divide it into four or five (depending on how much I made) small tupperware containers. Then I’ll add some of the precooked chicken to the tupperware containers and pop them into the fridge.
Next I usually make a big batch of salad dressing and pour them into smaller tupperware containers that are the perfect size for salad dressing (I think I got mine at the Container store, but I’ve seen them in random aisles of the grocery store). Again, I’ll usually make enough dressing for four or five salads, depending on how much quinoa or rice I made. Once these are done, they go into the fridge too!
In the morning to finish up my salad before work, I’ll add the greens, crunchy veggie, sweet item, and cheese into a big salad tupperware container. Then I’ll pack it up in my lunch bag (these days a recycled Lululemon bag that has seen better days) and throw in the dressing and the grain/chicken tupperware (that’s three separate tupperware containers for those who are counting…we use a lot of tupperware!). I then toss in an apple for my afternoon snack and I’m ready to go to work!
How I assemble my salads at work
I start by heating up the grain and chicken mixture because I’ve found that I really enjoy having a warm element to my salads. When it’s hot, I’ll take turns adding the dressing and the grains/chicken to the salad, and then I pop the lid back on my big tupperware container to shake everything up. This is why having a big container is key – it allows everything to move around and get evenly coated with dressing. And then, voila! A perfectly delicious sweet, salty, savory, healthy salad for lunch.
Through all this trial and error, I found that I really need some sort of grain in my salad to keep me feeling full. Otherwise I get hungry again a couple hours later! I also really like having something sweet in my salads since it helps me rein in my sweet tooth after my meal.
If you’ve tried doing the whole salad for lunch thing and you just can’t get into it, I highly recommend playing around with different flavor combinations until you find something that really makes you happy. Now I can’t imagine going back to the sandwich – even though it is still tasty – because of all the crappy ingredients in there. I just feel so good after a giant, wholesome, filling, delicious salad!
Question of the day: What do you usually eat for lunch?
Psst: Read more about my experience with the Kayla Itsines plan here.