Midday meals

Eating healthy lunch vital to overall well being

By Jessica Arsenault Rivenburg


In our busy, hurried lives, it can be difficult to find the time to eat right.

According to a new study, workplace lunch breaks can be one of the most challenging times to eat a healthy, well-balanced meal.

According to the recent survey by the American Heart Association and Aramark, the largest U.S.-based food service company, 56 percent of employed Americans who typically eat lunch during work hours struggle to eat a healthy lunch at work.

The online survey conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of the AHA and Aramark collected responses from 907 working American adults aged 18 and older.

“The finding that healthier food choices at work may impact food choices throughout the rest of the day presents a unique opportunity for the workplace to have a positive influence on not only the employee’s health, but also the health of the employee’s family,” said Anne Thorndike, vice chairwoman of the AHA’s nutrition committee and associate professor at Harvard Medical School.

Ninety-one percent of respondents said they are interested in improving the healthfulness of their typical workplace lunch. To achieve that, planning is key, said Crystal Hein, owner of Crystal Clear Nutrition PLLC in Herkimer.

“I am a firm believer that having a plan makes us more successful in meeting our health goals and choosing healthy foods,” Hein said. “Not packing a lunch for work can leave you looking for food when you are starving, and this often leads to poor food choices. Packing a lunch does, however, take work, motivation and dedication.

“Make it part of your nightly routine. Reinvent leftovers — if you had tacos for dinner, bring a taco salad for lunch. Or cook an extra meal on Sunday to pre-portion and put in the freezer to have for the week. Also have some staples prepared or on hand at home, such as hard boiled eggs, tuna, frozen vegetables, and instant rice.”

What you plan is just as important as the act of planning itself, said Rachel White, dietitian care manager at Excellus in Buffalo.

“When planning your lunch, make sure you are including a lean source of protein, a whole grain, plenty of vegetables, and a little fruit,” White advised. “For example, a turkey sandwich on whole grain bread, with a side of cucumbers and a small apple. Make sure your drink is low in sugar. Pick options like water, unsweetened iced tea, or naturally flavored seltzer water.

Keep it light

“For days that you are unable to pack a lunch, keep some healthy options on hand like whole grain crackers, light tuna pouches, low-fat cheese sticks, no sugar added canned fruit, nuts, and low-sugar protein bars,” she added. “This way you can build a healthy meal quickly or when you are on the run.”

But if you just don’t have time to pack a healthy lunch one day and have to turn to a workplace cafeteria or vending machine for sustenance, all is not necessarily lost. Healthy choices can be found in such places, said Hein.

If a workplace cafeteria or nearby café is an option, Hein suggests sticking with a salad bar while avoiding large amounts of rich creamy dressing, or cold cut sandwiches on whole grain bread with vegetable fillers and a piece of fruit on the side rather than chips.

For hot lunch options, Hein advises to look for grilled, broiled and baked options, and to make half your plate vegetables. Avoid things that are fried or involve heavy, creamy sauces, and sugary desserts and snacks.

If a vending machine is your only option, go for granola bars, trail mix, Newtons and pretzels, Hein said. If you’re able to pair those options with a yogurt or a piece of fruit, you’ll be able to put together a reasonably healthy and satisfying meal, she said.

The AHA/Aramark survey also found that 77 percent of respondents say they are more likely to make healthier decisions at other times of the day if they eat healthy at lunch. That fact is most likely not a coincidence, said White.

“When you eat a balanced and healthy lunch, you are better able to focus on your afternoon tasks and you are less likely to experience an afternoon energy slump,” she said. “Also, when you have a healthy lunch versus an unhealthy lunch or no lunch at all, you are more likely to opt for a healthy dinner meal and less likely to overeat at night.”

Hein agrees.

“I do believe that making one ‘good’ food choice can lead to others. When we treat our bodies well, we feel better about ourselves and want to continue this effort,” she said. “Being successful in [reaching] small goals increases our self-confidence and internal motivation.”

The survey says …

— 91% of those surveyed are interested in improving the healthfulness of their typical workday lunch, with employees younger than 40 more likely to be extremely/very interested compared to employees aged 40-plus (65% vs. 55%).

— 82% agree that having healthy food options at work is important to them and 68% value help from their employer in becoming healthier.

— 79% whose workplace has on-site cafeteria, food service or vending machines get food there at least some of the time.

— 86% prepare work lunches at home at least some of the time, with women more likely to do so than men (91% vs. 82%).

— When eating an unhealthy lunch, employees under age 40 are more likely to be impacted at least a little bit by cost than those older than 40 (91% vs. 79%), and are more likely to be impacted by the choices of their peers or coworkers (75% vs. 50%).

— On a stressful day at work, about 1 in 3 (35%) say their lunch is less healthy than a typical day, with women more likely to say so than men (40% vs. 32%).