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The Midday Meal

By Catherine Newman

Healthy and delicious feel-good pack-and-go lunches for busy days

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Of all the meals I try to eat healthfully (i.e., all of them!), lunch is the trickiest. Sometimes I’m at work, eyeballing Cheetos in the vending machine; sometimes I’m at home, feeling like the quickest thing would be Cheerios, or maybe popcorn. And really, none of these is the satisfying option I’m looking for. My best bet – and this is for me and my poor school kids, eating out of lunch boxes and thermoses – is to make good things ahead of time so that when I open the fridge, there they are. Soups and salads and dips that fill and nourish, but that are also appealingly delicious enough that when you see them you think, “Yes! That. Is. Perfect.”

Full disclosure: You will note a certain breadlessness here, and it’s not accidental. A nice grainy piece of toast can be a lovely little part of your life – by all means – but in general, the carbs are more likely to make you full, then tired, and hungry – and we’re going for happy, then satisfied and energetic. (One good approach is simply to try eating less bread and note how you feel, or to make lower-carb bread using almond flour.)

Read on for some great, low-carb lunch inspiration! (Click a link to go directly to that recipe.)

Lemony Hummus
Zippy Egg Salad
Zippy Tuna Salad
Green Roll-Ups
Mason-Jar Salads
Perfect Vinaigrette
Any-Veggie Soup

Lemony Hummus

Makes about 4 (1/4-cup) servings   Total carbohydrates: 16 grams per serving
Hands-on time: 10 minutes  
Total time: 10 minutes                       

Good hummus is tangy, creamy, and versatile. (As opposed to bad hummus, which is bland, gritty, and pointless.) It’s full of protein and fiber, thanks to the chickpeas, and you can scoop it up with veggies, roll it up in a tortilla or collard leaf, or include it on a salad plate. If you like tahini, which is a traditional ingredient, by all means swap some in for the oil here. You should also feel free to tinker in other ways: I sometimes change the flavor up by adding a handful of mint leaves or a few gratings of orange zest.

Ingredients

1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas, drained and liquid reserved (or 1 1/2 cups freshly cooked chickpeas)
1 clove garlic, smashed and peeled
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice plus ½ teaspoon freshly grated zest
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (or half as much table salt)
6 tablespoons olive oil (plus optional additional for drizzling)
1 teaspoon aleppo pepper or other chile flakes (optional)

Instructions

  1. In a blender or the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade, whir together the chickpeas, 2 tablespoons of the chickpea liquid from the can, the garlic, the lemon juice and zest, the cumin, and the salt.

  2. With the motor running, drizzle in the oil, and process until creamy and light. Add another tablespoon or two of the chickpea liquid if the hummus is not perfectly creamy. Taste it and add more salt, lemon juice, lemon zest, or garlic, if the flavor needs a boost.

  3. Scoop into a bowl and, if you’re serving it as a dip, drizzle with olive oil. (If you like it a little spicy, warm the oil with the chile flakes before drizzling.)

Sidebar: Garbanzo Bonanza!

I love chickpeas, even when they’re called garbanzos (which sounds a little like an Italian clown made out of trash, but maybe not to you). The carb count might seem high (45 grams in 1 cup of cooked chickpeas), but the beans are full of fiber (12 grams per cup), which helps offset some of the carbs and keeps chickpeas lower on the glycemic index (i.e., less of a spike in blood sugar). In 5 minutes, you can turn 1 can of chickpeas into lunch for 3 people, just by adding lemon and olive oil, along with:

  • Red onion, mint, and feta

  • Radishes, green olives, and parsley

  • Cherry tomatoes and a spoonful of pesto

  • Arugula, parmesan, and toasted walnuts

  • Cucumbers, canned tuna, and dill

Zippy Egg Salad

3 (½-cup) servings or 2 (3/4-cup) servings
Total carbohydrates: 1-2 grams per serving
Hands-on time: 10 minutes
Total time: 20 minutes

Homemade egg salad is a wonderful treat – which is kind of amazing, considering how easy, cheap, and full of nutrients it is. If you’re not in the habit of making it yourself, give it a try. Just be sure to season the salad vigorously, and not to cook the eggs too long. Over-boiled eggs, especially ones that aren’t cooled quickly after cooking, risk developing the kind of chalky, green-ringed yolk that makes people think they don’t like eggs. And they’re wrong! They love eggs! They just don’t know it yet.

Ingredients

4 eggs
1/3 cup mayonnaise (Hellman’s or Best Foods)
1 tablespoon brine from the caper jar (or 2 teaspoons white vinegar, if you’re not using capers)
1 tablespoon capers
1 tablespoon finely chopped dill
2 stalks celery, diced
Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

  1. Put the eggs in a medium-sized pot and cover them with cold water. Cover the pot, put it on the stove, and bring it to a boil over high heat. Turn the heat off immediately and leave the eggs in water. After exactly 9 minutes, drain the eggs and run cold water over them until they’re cool enough to handle, then peel and chop them, making them as coarse or fine as you like. (You can mash them with a fork if you prefer.)

  2. Meanwhile, whisk together the mayo, caper brine or vinegar, and dill. Stir in the eggs and celery, add a grinding of black pepper, and then taste the egg salad. If it needs more zip – either salt or tang – add salt and/or more caper brine or vinegar.

Zippy Tuna Salad

Makes: 4 servings (1/2-cup each)
Total carbohydrates: 1-2 grams per serving
Hands-on time: 10 minutes
Total time: 10 minutes

Crazily enough, I make tuna salad pretty much the exact same way. I mean, except for the part about the eggs. Drain 2 (5-ounce) cans of oil-packed tuna (I like the Italian brand Genova), then stir in the same ingredients as above, increasing the mayo to ½ cup and the dill to 2 tablespoons.

Green Roll-Ups

Makes: 1 serving
Total carbohydrates: 2 grams in leaf, plus 1-15 grams additional, depending on filling
Hands-on time: 10 minutes
Total time: 10 minutes

If you’re counting carbs, or thinking about carbs, or wondering why you’re tired after lunch or your blood sugar is all over the place, well, bread is kind of an obvious place to cast your side-eye. Which doesn’t mean you can never eat it, but maybe you’d like to mix up your routine a little! Low-carb tortillas are one way; eating your sandwich filling with a fork or atop a salad is another; and wrapping it in something green is my favorite. The collards are sturdy, packed with nutrients, and incredible – for lack of a better adjective – green tasting. In a good way. It might take a little getting used to, but try it a couple times before you make any big decisions.

Ingredients

1 large, flat, clean collard leaf
olive oil and salt
½ cup primary filling: hummus, or egg, tuna, or chicken salad
Toppings: sprouts, avocado, cucumbers, tomatoes, pickles, red onions

Instructions

  1. Lay the collard leaf on a cutting board so that the veiny side is facing up, and carefully slice out the thick stem. You’ll end up with a tapered v-shaped cut-out, but you don’t need to cut every last bit of stem out – just a couple inches of it.

  2. Drizzle a bit of olive oil over the leaf and sprinkle it with a little salt, then massage it briefly with your fingers. The leaf will get nice and dark and supple, which is what you want, so that it will be easier to roll and more tender to eat. (If you’ve ever massaged kale for a salad, then this step will be at least marginally familiar to you.)

  3. Arrange your filling just where the cut ends, in a little row that extends nearly from one side of the leaf to nearly the other – that is, perpendicular to the cut you made. Lay down the main filling first, and then the toppings.

  4. Roll it up like a burrito made from a tortilla that you cut a V-shape out of: Tuck the sides in first, then roll the leaf up over snugly the filling.

  5. Cut in half just before eating.

Mason-Jar Salads

Makes 1 serving
Total carbohydrates: 10-20 grams per serving
Hands-on time: 15 minutes
Total time: 15 minutes

This is the most perfectly portable lunch ever, and it’s pinterest-pretty and exciting to boot! Plus, you can make 2 or 3 at one time and eat them a few days in a row. I wish I could say you can just eat it out of the jar, but the truth is that you should start keeping a large-ish bowl at work – then when you dump the jar into the bowl, the dressing and marinated beans at the bottom will end covering the whole salad with deliciousness.

Just be sure to layer the ingredients from the sturdier ones to the more fragile so that the dressing marinates the ones that take best to being marinated.

Start with a 1-quart jar, then layer these ingredients in more or less this order:

  • Perfect Vinaigrette, below (2-3 tablespoons)

  • ¼ cup canned beans or chickpeas

  • 2 cups torn or chopped lettuce, fragile greens (arugula, spinach), and fresh herbs

  • 1 ½ cups total other ingredients:

    • Vegetables, with those that take well to dressing closest to the bottom: slivered cabbage or kale, sliced fennel, carrots, cucumbers, celery, radishes, bell peppers, corn kernels, broccoli or cauliflower florets, green beans, snap peas, cut-up asparagus.

    • Fruit: strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, sliced apples or pears, orange segments

    • Marinated things: artichoke hearts, hearts of palm, olives, beets

    • Protein: canned tuna, cooked chicken or steak, tofu (skip or store separately if you’re going to keep the salad longer than a day or two)

    • Cheese: Shaved parmesan, crumbled feta or blue cheese, grated cheddar, goat cheese

    • Seeds or nuts: Toasted pumpkin or sunflower seeds, or walnuts, pecans, or almonds

Tip: If you happen to have one, or live with your grandma, a canning funnel is really helpful for filling the jar.

Perfect Vinaigrette

Makes: 1 cup

Total carbohydrates: 0 grams
Hands-on time: 5 minutes
Total time: 5 minutes

This is a dead-simple salad dressing, but, weirdly, people ask me for the recipe all the time. It makes a lot, which is handy because it is so good and it keeps well. Simply shake together in a jar: 1 clove garlic, minced or put through a garlic press, 1/3 cup white-wine vinegar, 2/3 cup olive oil, 2 teaspoons kosher salt (or half as much table salt) and a grinding of black pepper. Store leftovers in the refrigerator more or less indefinitely.

Any-Veggie Soup

Makes: 12 (1-cup) servings or 8 (11/2-cup) servings)
Total carbohydrates: around 15 grams per 1 cup serving; around 22 grams per 1 1/2 cup serving
Hands-on time: 30 minutes
Total time: 2 hours

Vegetable soup is a lovely thing to have for lunch, which is why this recipe is here. But the truth is that I usually make a big pot for dinner, and then we bring leftovers to work and school in our thermoses the next day (and the day after that). This is a very forgiving recipe that takes well to lots of vegetal odds and ends. (You might even call it, just to yourself, Crisper-Drawer-Clean-Out Soup.) You can use 4 cups of a single vegetable or 2 cups each of 2 kinds, or 1/3 cup each of a dozen different veggies. But I do have a few caveats here: I don’t include winter squash in the list because I feel like it, kind of, takes over if you add it. But if your family loves winter squash, then that would be a good thing, so feel free! Likewise, while I like to put green cabbage and kale in the soup, I find other veg in the cabbage family – including Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cauliflower – to be a bit strong-tasting in here but don’t let me rain on your parade if those are your faves.

Ingredients

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped, or 1 large leek, halved lengthwise and washed well, white and pale green parts sliced thin
1 teaspoon kosher salt (or half as much table salt)
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 carrots, scrubbed or peeled and diced 

2 celery stalks, diced (if there are celery leaves inside your bunch, yank out a handful, chop them fine, and add those too)
4 cups diced or shredded vegetables – any combination of cabbage, chard, kale, spinach, summer squash, fennel, beets and beet greens, and green beans (up the amount a bit if you’re using lots of leafy greens)
1/3 cup lentils (any kind)
1 (14-ounce) can diced, crushed, or pureed tomatoes (with their juice)
4 cups chicken or vegetable broth (for the latter, I like Better Than Bouillon No Chicken Base)
4 cups water
1 (15-ounce) can beans (garbanzo, pinto, black, red, or white), drained
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar (or sherry vinegar or lemon juice)
Olive oil and freshly grated Parmesan for garnishing

Instructions

  1. In a very large soup pot or Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium-low heat and sauté the onion or leek with 1 teaspoon of kosher salt, stirring occasionally, while you start preparing the other vegetables.

  2. When the onion or leek is wilted and translucent, around 5-10 minutes, begin adding the other vegetables as they’re prepped, starting with the garlic, then adding them in vaguely the order listed, or else in some other order of your choosing, until they've all had a chance to be sautéed in the pot.

  3. Now add the lentils, tomatoes, and broth, along with 2 cups of the water. Raise the heat to high and bring the pot to a boil, then lower the heat to low, cover the pot with the lid just barely ajar, and cook the soup, stirring occasionally to make sure it’s not sticking, for 1 hour.

  4. Taste the soup, and, if it’s woefully undersalted at this point, add some more salt. Add the remaining 2 cups of water, bring it to a vigorous boil, and stir in the beans and the vinegar. Cook another 20 minutes or so. Taste the soup for salt, and keep adding it, a little at a time, until it tastes perfect.

  5. Serve, topping each bowlful with an additional drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of parmesan cheese.

Or you could. . .

You’ll notice that there is no seasoning in this soup besides the soup ingredients themselves, and I love it like that. However, I sometimes do one of the following:

  • Add 1 teaspoon of smoked paprika at the end of the sautéing stage

  • Add ½ teaspoon cinnamon plus 1 teaspoon each of cumin, turmeric, and finely minced ginger at the end of the sautéing stage and use chickpeas for the beans (this approximates a Middle Eastern soup called harira)

  • Add a bay leaf for the simmering

  • Add a ½ cup of dry red wine and a pinch of thyme at the end of sautéing

  • Add a dollop of pesto to each bowl before serving

 

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