Guest post by Linden Hale, Integrative Nourishment
Avoiding the notorious afternoon crash starts with choices you make a few hours earlier at lunchtime. Eating a home-packed lunch is a great way to ensure that you are getting a healthy, whole-foods meal that will keep you fueled through the afternoon. Try these seven tips for packing your best lunch to stay fueled and focused through the afternoon.
Skip the sandwich
Sandwiches might be easy, but the combination of refined carbohydrates and meat in many sandwiches can lead to sleepy afternoons. This comes down to tryptophan, the amino acid that gives turkey its reputation for making you crave a nap after Thanksgiving dinner. Tryptophan is found in all meats (not just turkey) and is the foundation of melatonin, the chemical that makes us feel tired. On its own, tryptophan won’t make you groggy, but the refined carbohydrates in the bread of your sandwich increase tryptophan’s movement across the blood-brain barrier, causing this sleepy syndrome.
Go easy on the pasta and bread
Packing lunches that are built on refined carbohydrates like bread and pasta can do a number on your blood sugar levels: just after eating your meal, blood sugar levels spike from the easily broken-down carbs, and then plummet when this excess blood sugar is carted out of the blood stream. This causes you to go from high energy after your meal to extra sluggish by the afternoon.
Pick fruits and vegetables for lunchtime carbs
Packing a lunch with ample vegetables and some fruit is a better pick to meet your carbohydrate needs at lunchtime. The fiber-filled fruits and veggies help you feel full fast and keep your blood sugar stable long after the meal is over. Try keeping an eye out for in-season produce to get the best tasting fruits and vegetables for your lunch.
Focus on adequate protein
Having enough protein with your lunch will help keep you full and fueled through an afternoon of work. Adequate protein increases the amount of satiety hormones your body produces, leading you to feel full and satisfied. Protein also helps to stabilize your blood sugar levels, keeping you feeling focused through a busy afternoon.
Watch your portion size
Having too much food—even healthy food—in one sitting can make you feel groggy and overly full. Instead, pre-portion each part of your lunch when packing so you don’t have the option to over-serve yourself. If you’re worried about still being hungry after this pre-portioned lunch, pack an optional small afternoon snack that combines protein and fiber. Healthy snack ideas include a small amount of hummus with vegetable sticks, a peach with a small handful of cashews, or a mini-portion of chicken salad with a lettuce cup.
Pack ahead of time
The biggest hurdle to bringing a healthy lunch is finding the time to pack it. If you wait until the busy morning to pack your lunch, you’re much less likely to have time to assemble a healthy meal. Instead, try packing leftovers from dinner into containers the night before. If you want even less work to do during weeknights, try meal prepping on the weekend and assembling lunch containers for the week. Jar salads, grains and greens bowls, and soups make excellent pack-ahead lunch options.
Eating out for lunch
Sometimes eating out for lunch is unavoidable and your sack lunch will have to wait. If you have to eat out, try to pick healthy menu options that fit as many of the above tips as possible. Ask to swap the French fries for a side salad or fresh fruit. Better yet, pick the salad bar to assemble your own protein- and veggie-rich salad. Skip the pasta or sandwich and go for a vegetable and protein-filled soup. Many restaurant portions are much larger than what you would serve yourself, so ask for a to-go container with your order and pack away part of the serving.
Linden Hale is a student at Bastyr working towards her Masters Degree in Nutrition and a Therapeutic Hands-On Nutrition Instructor at Integrative Nourishment where she helps clients implement healthy nutrition practices during in-person cooking sessions. Integrative Nourishment is a Seattle-based counseling center run by Ying Yu, LMHC, CN, offering nutrition counseling, psychotherapy, couples counseling, and parent coaching.