20 healthy and cheap packed lunch ideas

and Laura Williams, Annie Hayes
·11-min read
Photo credit: OksanaKiian
Photo credit: OksanaKiian

From Netdoctor

If you struggle to make it through the afternoon without reaching for high-calorie snacks, it's time to rethink your lunch choices. An unsatisfying lunch won't just have you raiding the biscuit tin – it can affect your concentration and focus, leaving you lethargic for the rest of the day.

If you're feeling sluggish or hungry by 3pm, it's time to seek out fresh lunchbox inspo. Eating healthy needn't mean limp salads and watery smoothies, nor should you have to worry about last night's dinner exploding in your bag. By incorporating a balance of easy-to-transport whole grains, protein, fats, and veggies, you'll stay satiated until dinnertime.

If you're the type of person who tends to work through lunch, it's time to kick the habit and make the most of tucking into your midday meal. Studies have consistently shown that taking a lunch break boosts productivity, motivation and creativity, improves resilience, and reduces stress. And if you squeeze in a 30-minute walk, these benefits are compounded further.

Ready to break the snacking cycle and give your brain a boost? We've picked out a selection of healthy recipes that are simple and quick to make and won't break the bank. Incorporate these cheap, filling, healthy lunch ideas into your weekly shopping list and start looking forward to your lunch break:

1. Tuna pitta pockets

Photo credit: kudryavtsev
Photo credit: kudryavtsev

Wholegrain pitta is loaded with fibre and other essential nutrients like B vitamins, which are vital for energy. Tuna provides a light protein source as well as omega-3 fatty acids which reduce inflammation and curb your risk of heart disease.

✔️ Try this: Halve a toasted wholemeal pitta bread and line it with thinly sliced tomato and cucumber. Combine a small tin of tuna with one tsp of Greek yoghurt or olive oil dressing and chopped spring onion, then add to the pitta.

2. Greek salad

Photo credit: Image Source
Photo credit: Image Source

The combination of antioxidant-rich tomato and cucumber combined with feta cheese makes this a win-win. Feta is rich in bone-boosting calcium and vitamin B12, which keeps your body's nerve and blood cells healthy. Why not add tuna or chicken?

✔️ Try this: Add 40g cubed feta, one tbsp chopped pitted black olives, a handful of chopped tomato, three inches of chopped cucumber, and one tsp of diced red onion to a bowl and mix. Add a pinch of oregano, one tbsp of olive oil, one tsp of balsamic vinegar. Serve with a slice of wholemeal or rye bread.

3. Chicken cous cous

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Couscous is a complex carbohydrate, which means its sugar molecules takes longer to break down – providing long-lasting energy. The chicken is packed with protein, which will keep you satiated.

✔️ Try this: Cut 150g skinless chicken breast into strips and fry in one tbsp of olive oil with one onion and one garlic clove. Add a sliced courgette, one sliced tomato, and a sprinkle of cumin and coriander. Cook for ten minutes before adding one and a half tbsp chickpeas and 100g sugar snap peas. Serve with 40g cooked couscous.

4. Minestrone soup

Photo credit: Claudia Totir
Photo credit: Claudia Totir

Soup might not seem filling, but minestrone soup is different – it's full of gut-filling fibre and protein-rich pulses that will keep your blood sugar levels level all afternoon. The addition of pasta boosts flagging energy levels.

✔️ Try this: Serve 300g minestrone soup (either fresh from the carton, or made at home by combining vegetable stock, tinned tomatoes, pasta tubes, butter beans, plus chopped celery, onion, carrot, cabbage and potato) with three buttered rye crisp breads.

5. Spicy chicken and avocado wrap

Photo credit: Foxys_forest_manufacture
Photo credit: Foxys_forest_manufacture

This potent balance of protein, carbs and healthy fats will ward off mid-afternoon snacking pangs. Avocados are incredibly nutrient-dense, containing more potassium than bananas, along with a bumper hit of vitamin K, folate, and copper. They're also packed with heart-healthy monounsaturated fats.

✔️ Try this: Blend a small avocado with lemon juice, chilli powder, salt and pepper. Spread over the wrap and add a few thin slices of red pepper and spinach, before layering 80g thinly-sliced chicken breast on top.

6. Stuffed jacket potato

Photo credit: Westend61
Photo credit: Westend61

Leaving your misconceptions at the door – as well as being an excellent source of potassium and vitamin C, potatoes contain plenty of resistant starch, which benefits your metabolic health. They score highest on the satiety index, which ranks foods according to their ability to satisfy hunger. Just be sure to leave the skin on, as it's a concentrated source of nutrients.

✔️ Try this: Top a medium-sized baked potato with half a tin of kidney beans and sweet corn. Combine half an avocado, a squeeze of lime juice, half a red onion, a handful of cherry tomatoes and a chopped bunch of coriander in a bowl before adding to the potato. Alternative fillings include cottage cheese, red pepper and hummus, or a healthy take on Coronation chicken made with yoghurt, lime juice and curry powder.

7. Salmon salad

Photo credit: Anna Kurzaeva
Photo credit: Anna Kurzaeva

Salad doesn't have to be dull, and this satisfying lunch dish proves it. The king of oily fish, salmon is one of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids and comes loaded with a potent protective antioxidant called astaxanthin.

✔️ Try this: Sear 100g salmon and serve on a bed of mixed leaves, thinly sliced cucumber and a small avocado. Dress with olive oil, lemon juice and a little coarsely ground salt.

8. Easy pasta salad

Photo credit: dulezidar
Photo credit: dulezidar

Pasta is often demonised, but it's a worthy lunch option. Whole-wheat pasta is a much better bet than the refined white stuff – not only those little swirls packed with fibre, but they're a secret source of selenium, B vitamins, manganese, and iron. Pair with a protein source and veggies to complete the meal.

✔️ Try this: Blend 60g cooked whole-wheat pasta with two tbsp tinned tuna, one tablespoon sweetcorn, a handful of chopped red pepper and onion, and one tsp pesto, mayonnaise or olive oil and vinegar.

9. Spinach omelette

Photo credit: Arx0nt
Photo credit: Arx0nt

Eggs are so nutritious they're known as 'nature's multivitamin', containing significant amounts of vitamins A, D, E, and a range of B vitamins, plus 10 minerals and a bunch of antioxidants: choline, lecithin, lutein and zeaxanthin. This spinach and tomato omelette is a nutrient powerhouse due to its impressive protein and iron profile.

✔️ Try this: Cook two beaten eggs, three handfuls of spinach and five chopped cherry tomatoes on a low heat for a few minutes. Finish under the grill and serve with a large mixed salad.

10. Cold roast chicken

Photo credit: loooby
Photo credit: loooby

Don't have time to meal prep every night? Roast a whole chicken on Sunday and enjoy at lunchtime all week. As well as being a source of lean protein, the bird is rich in immune system-supporting selenium and energy-boosting B vitamins like B3, B6 and B12.

✔️ Try this: Serve a 150g roasted chicken breast with 175g new potatoes and two large handfuls of steamed veg – such as carrot, peas, cabbage or cauliflower.

11. Tofu noodle salad

Photo credit: Westend61
Photo credit: Westend61

Veggie or vegan? No problem. Not only does tofu contains all nine essential amino acids – the building blocks of protein – but it's an excellent plant-based source of iron. The carbohydrates from the noodles and healthy fats in the peanut butter will fill your belly.

✔️ Try this: Add 60g cooked noodles, 90g pan-fried tofu, with purple cabbage, shredded carrot, shredded lettuce and thinly sliced cucumber. Top with coriander and peanuts. Add peanut butter, soy sauce, maple syrup, fresh garlic, fresh ginger, fresh lime juice and sriracha to a blender and blitz until smooth. Pour over the top.

12. Lentil and halloumi salad

Photo credit: haoliang
Photo credit: haoliang

Small but mighty, lentils contain plenty of prebiotic fibre, which feeds the bacteria in your gut and can help lower levels of 'bad' LDL cholesterol. Halloumi is a prime source of calcium, providing 70 per cent of your recommended daily allowance in one portion.

✔️ Try this: Combine 60g pan-fried chopped halloumi cheese, 40g cooked lentils, 20g watercress, half a small onion, one handful of cherry tomatoes, and a small bunch of chopped coriander in a bowl. Add a squeeze of lemon, season and stir.

13. Quinoa bowl

Photo credit: nata_vkusidey
Photo credit: nata_vkusidey

Unlike many other plant-based grains, quinoa is a complete protein, which means it contains all the essential amino acids your body needs. It's a rich source of anti-inflammatory phytonutrients, and has a low glycemic index (GI) – a scale that measures how rapidly foods spike your blood sugar levels – because it's digested slowly.

✔️ Try this: Add 60g cooked quinoa, 80g black beans, 1/2 diced avocado, 1 tbsp shredded cheddar cheese, and 2 tbsp tomato salsa (diced tomato and onion with a squeeze of lime) to a bowl. Add a dollop of Greek yogurt if you prefer.

14. Turkey sausage tray bake

Photo credit: rudisill
Photo credit: rudisill

If you're looking for an inexpensive, healthy lunchtime dish that promises maximum flavour and minimum clean-up, a tray bake is the way to go. Simply chop your favourite veggies, add to a tray with sliced turkey sausages – high in protein, low in saturated fat – sprinkle with seasoning, bake, and tuck into a steaming hot lunch.

✔️ Try this: Chop a few handfuls of veggies (such as sweet potato, asparagus, red peppers, aubergine, onion...) and spread evenly on a tray with several sliced turkey sausages. Add seasoning (paprika, parsley, garlic powder, chilli flakes, etc...) and a drizzle of olive oil. Bake at 200°C for 15 minutes, stir, and then bake for another 10 or until they begin to crisp.

15. No-cook chicken ramen

Photo credit: Yuga Kurita
Photo credit: Yuga Kurita

Packed with collagen, marrow, amino acids and minerals, chicken stock is highly nutritious. With the addition of fibrous wholewheat noodles and peas, a double protein hit from the chicken and the egg, and the healthy fats from the sesame seeds, this no-fuss meal will keep your belly full all afternoon.

✔️ Try this: Add 2 tsp chicken stock, 1tsp soy sauce, 1tsp sesame oil, 60g shredded or sliced chicken, 50g wholewheat noodles, and 60g frozen peas to a ceramic mug with a lid. Fill with boiling water, close the lid, and set aside for 3 minutes. Stir and top with a soft boiled egg, 1 tbsp chopped spring onion, and 1 tsp sesame seeds.

16. Hummus sandwich

Photo credit: JMichl
Photo credit: JMichl

A sandwich is possibly the simplest lunch recipe, and while there are many fillings worth exploring, this option is a reliable way to get a filling fibre fix. Plus, when paired together hummus and whole-grain bread make a complete protein.

✔️ Try this: Spread hummus over two slices of toasted whole-grain (or sourdough) bread. Top with sliced avocado, tomato and cucumber, and season with pepper. Sprinkle feta over the top if you fancy.

17. Chicken souvlaki

Photo credit: OksanaKiian
Photo credit: OksanaKiian

This fresh-tasting recipe takes a little extra prep work, but it's easy to batch-cook the chicken ahead of time. Marinate the chicken in olive oil, lemon juice, garlic powder, dried mint, dried oregano, cumin, dried coriander and paprika for up to 24 hours – and for at least 30 minutes.

✔️ Try this: Fry the marinated chicken over a high heat until cooked, and add to a plate with either cooked brown rice or a toasted pitta bread. Top with chopped mint, parsley, tomato, onion and lettuce, and add a dollop of Greek yoghurt (or tzatziki).

18. Tofu stir-fry

Photo credit: Lisa Romerein
Photo credit: Lisa Romerein

This vegan stir-fry recipe might be low on carbs, but it's big on taste. It takes minutes to assemble and doesn't require a lengthy shopping list. You can even make it ahead of time and microwave it back to life when you're ready to eat. Pair with antioxidant-rich brown rice for a heartier meal.

✔️ Try this: Stir-fry one garlic clove and half a small onion over a medium heat for one minute. Add a handful of sugar snap peas and baby sweetcorn and cook for a further two minutes. Add 100g sliced pre-marinated tofu and cook for another five minutes. Then add 1 tbsp soy sauce, 1 tbsp rice vinegar and a dash of sriracha. Cook for a further minute or so and then serve.

19. Cauliflower fried rice

At first glance, cauliflower doesn't seem any different to any other veggie, but in truth it contains a portion of almost every vitamin and mineral you need. For a nutritious take on rice, shred raw cauliflower in a food processor until it resembles similar-sized grains.

✔️ Try this: Stir-fry onions, garlic and ginger over a medium heat. Add broccoli and red pepper and fry until tender, around three or four minutes. Add cauliflower rice and frozen peas and cook for another three or four minutes. Add 1 tbsp soy sauce, 1 tbsp rice vinegar and a dash of sriracha. Cook for a further minute or so and then serve with a fried egg on the side.

20. Chickpea tacos

Photo credit: ivandzyuba
Photo credit: ivandzyuba

If you're looking for a healthy taco option, opt for chicken, seafood – or chickpeas, like this recipe. Alternatively, you could use black beans, corn, avocado, feta cheese and roasted veggies, or forgo the whole-grain tortillas for iceberg lettuce cups.

✔️ Try this: Heat a small can of chickpeas in a frying pan with olive oil, cumin, paprika, coriander seeds and sesame seeds, while toasting 2 small whole-wheat tortillas under the grill. Separate the chickpeas between the tacos, adding sliced tomato, sliced cucumber, sliced red onion and freshly-chopped coriander. Squeeze lemon juice over and add a spoonful of baba ganoush if you fancy.

Last updated: 31-01-2021

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