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Brown Bag Cuisine: Ten Healthy, Simple Lunch Ideas

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Just as recess was my favorite time during school, the one-hour lunch period I’m granted during the nine-to-five is what I look forward to most. And the one thing that’s guaranteed to dampen my noontime high spirits is a boring lunch. Since my food budget is limited (whose isn’t these days?), that means I brown bag it daily, just like I did as a kid.

My taste buds have somewhat matured since those days, and PB&J, while delicious, can get old. We adults need lunches that are healthy, require minimal ingredients and prep time, and still excite us, so I compiled a recipe guide to help us avoid the brown bag rut. Each basic recipe can be formatted to fit your culinary preferences (e.g., replacing one type of cheese or vegetable with another, using meat in lieu of tofu or beans, and so forth). Enjoy!

Pasta Salad: Beyond Macaroni

Photo source: jugglerpm on flickr (cc)

Pasta salad is a great way to incorporate all the essential food groups into one dish. Plus, it’s versatile, makes large portions for leftovers, and only needs a few simple but stellar ingredients.

Quick and Easy Pasta Salad
Ingredients: One package bow tie pasta (try using whole-wheat pasta to add nutritional punch), two cucumbers (sliced thinly), two tomatoes (chopped), Italian dressing (enough to lightly coat the pasta), crumbed goat cheese
Directions: Boil pasta as directed on package. Rinse under cold water and drain. Add cucumber, tomato, and drizzle Italian dressing to taste. After portioning out your lunch serving, sprinkle goat cheese on top of the pasta salad.

Thai-Style Pasta Salad
Ingredients: One package of angel hair pasta, 1 cup of peanut sauce (or enough to coat the noodle mixture), one can of peas, 1 cup of julienne carrots, 2 cups of chopped spinach
Directions: Boil pasta as directed on package. Rinse under cold water and drain. Add peas, carrots, spinach, and peanut sauce. Stir until all ingredients are mixed.

Pizza, Pizza!

Photo source: roland on flickr (cc)

This common favorite seems like a daunting dish, but it’s so easy to make! All we need are a few delicious ingredients and a hearty appetite.

Individual BBQ Chicken Pizza
Ingredients: One whole piece of pita bread, 1/4 cup of barbecue sauce (depending on how saucy you like your pizza), 1/4 cup cooked shredded chicken, 1/4 cup bell peppers (sliced into strips), a handful of mozzarella cheese
Directions: Preheat the oven to 350° F. Pour enough barbecue sauce on the pita bread to evenly coat the surface without making it soggy. Sprinkle mozzarella cheese on top of the barbecue sauce, and then add chicken and tomato slices. Put on a cookie sheet and place in the oven for fifteen to twenty minutes, or just long enough for the cheese to melt.

Mexican Pizza
Ingredients: Two flour tortillas, one can of refried black beans, 1/2 cup of Monterey Jack cheese, 1/2 cup of tomatoes, 1/2 cup of shredded romaine
Directions: Preheat the oven to 350° F. Heat the tortillas on the stovetop so they get a little crispy, then remove from heat. Add half of the black beans and jack cheese to the top of one tortilla, then place the other on top of that. Add the remaining beans and cheese to the top of the second tortilla, then sprinkle on tomatoes. Put on a cookie sheet and place in the oven for fifteen to twenty minutes, or just long enough for the cheese to melt. Add romaine to the top for extra crunch.

Sandwiches Spiced Up

Photo source: moriza on flickr (cc)

There are roughly one billion different ways to make a sandwich, and it can come in wrap or pita form, too. A variety of condiments, some crunchy vegetables, and a protein source can lead to a satisfying lunch.

Tuna with a Twist
Ingredients: Two pieces of multigrain bread, one can of tuna fish (packed in water), mayonnaise (light or regular), one green apple, curry powder to taste
Directions: Drain tuna fish. Add mayo to taste, but keep it on the low side or it will be too rich (and less healthy). Sprinkle curry powder into tuna, tasting until you get the right taste. Core apple and cut it in half. Chop up half the apple and mix into the curried tuna. Leave the other half as an addition to your lunch!

Greek Delight
Ingredients: One whole wheat tortilla, 1/2 cup of hummus (try a flavored variety, like red pepper or cilantro jalapeno), 1 tablespoon brown mustard, 1/2 cup of spinach, bell pepper strips
Directions: Spread brown mustard onto tortilla. Spread hummus onto tortilla and top with spinach and bell pepper strips. Wrap so that both ends are closed, protecting the insides, and then wrap the closed tortilla with aluminum foil or plastic wrap to keep its shape.

Succulent Salads: No Iceberg Allowed

Photo source: Neeta Lind on flickr (cc)

Salads are the easiest way to get in essential vegetable servings, and they’re quite tasty with the right ingredients. By making our own salads, we can exclude the vegetables that used to make us dread salads, and we can add in fun toppings like nuts, raisins, and quality cheese.

Southwestern Salad
Ingredients: 3 ounces of rotisserie-cooked chicken, 2 cups of spinach, 1/4 cup of black beans, 1/4 cup of white corn (fresh or canned), your favorite salsa as dressing
Directions: Put spinach into a bowl or on a plate. Add the chicken, black beans, and corn and mix. Drizzle salsa (I recommend chunky salsa for a heartier texture or a smooth lime-tomatillo salsa for zest) so that it evenly coats the salad. Don’t forget the tortilla chips or Spanish rice on the side!

Simply Divine Salad
Ingredients: 2 cups of romaine lettuce (shredded), 1/4 cup of chopped red onion pieces (less if you’re not a red onion fiend like me), one hardboiled egg (cut into slices), 1/2 cup of shredded carrots, 1/4 cup of red kidney beans
Directions: Put romaine into a bowl or on a plate. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix thoroughly. Pour your favorite dressing over the top, or use what you have on-hand (olive oil mixed with balsamic vinegar, for example).

Stir Things Up with Stir-Fry

Photo source: rusvaplauke on flickr (cc)

For a hot, filling meal with a plethora of flavors and textures, stir-fries are an easy and efficient choice. Grab a big pan or a wok, throw together your favorite vegetables and meat/meat substitutes, and pick a sauce to bring it all together.

Teriyaki Tofu
Ingredients: 3 ounces of tofu (cubed), 1 cup of chopped broccoli, 1 cup of chopped bell pepper, 1 cup of chopped yellow onions, 1 cup of shredded green cabbage, generous pour of teriyaki sauce
Directions: Heat a little oil (olive or canola) in a large pan. Adjust the heat to medium and add the onions to the pan. When the onions are translucent, add in the tofu, broccoli, bell pepper, and cabbage, stirring it around the pan until the vegetables are cooked and the tofu is slightly firm. Pour enough teriyaki sauce to coat the vegetables. Serve with rice, quinoa, rice noodles—any grain you prefer!

Spicy Ginger-Garlic Marinade
Ingredients: 1 tablespoon of garlic (crushed), 1/2 tablespoon of ginger (crushed), 1/4 cup soy sauce, 2 tablespoons of black bean chili sauce, 1 teaspoon of cornstarch
Directions: This is a spicy, flavorful sauce to add to stir-fries. You can replace the teriyaki sauce in the recipe above with this sauce for a new, fresh flavor. Sauté the garlic and ginger together, then add the soy sauce and chili sauce. To thicken, take out 2 tablespoons of the mixture and add to it 1 teaspoon of corn starch. When the cornstarch is completely dissolved, pour the separated sauce back into the mixture and stir. This will prevent the cornstarch from clumping.

These recipes are manageable enough for the novice cook, can be whipped up in thirty minutes or less, and include many of the same ingredients for shopping (and budgeting) convenience. By using ingredients with bold flavors and mixing them in a variety of ways, it can be easy to create lunches that tantalize our taste buds.


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