Struggling to get lunch packed on hectic mornings? If you have a young athlete on the go, you know providing a good meal for them midday is critical to their ability to get through practice. But it’s tough to make time for meal prep and packing a tasty lunch when you’re already busy.
Here, TrueSport Expert Kristen Ziesmer, a registered dietitian and the owner of Elite Nutrition and Performance, shares some tips for packing easy lunches with minimal prep—and these options can feed you as well as your hungry athlete!
We often think of meal prep as something that needs to be done for dinners, but lunches are a great way to utilize a once-a-week hour of meal prep. Alternatively, though, if you’re stretched on time but already are making dinners every night, doubling your dinner recipe and using the leftovers for lunch the next day is an easy way to make packing lunch much simpler. You can combine the idea of meal prep and leftover hacking by making a big batch of brown rice early in the week and using that as the base for the leftover protein and vegetables from each dinner.
Make sure your athlete also has plenty of snacks packed as well. Start each week with a big bag of trail mix with a variety of nuts and dried fruits, as well as options like apples, bananas, and clementines. Athletes often need more than just a basic lunch at school—having a second meal for before or after practice will help to ensure good fueling habits.
1. Oatmeal bowl
Quick oats may not sound like a great lunch option, but if your athlete can bring a bowl with the dry ingredients pre-mixed, plus a thermos of hot water (or the ability to get hot water from the cafeteria), you have a great breakfast-for-lunch option. Oatmeal is a sweet, filling option that’s packed with critical fiber and carbohydrates, and can be boosted with plenty of tasty options suited to every athlete’s preference. But don’t opt for those pre-flavored packets of instant oats, which tend to miss out on protein and overdo the sweeteners. Ideally, you and your athlete share oat preferences and you can make a big gallon Ziplock mixture at the start of the week and scoop out servings each day.
For 10 servings, in a large gallon freezer bag, combine:
- 5 cups quick oats
- Add roughly 1/2 a cup of 3-5 toppings
- Dried fruit: Goji berries, currants, dried cranberries, shredded coconut, raisins, dried apple chunks, and even banana chips are great options
- Fresh fruit: If storing in the refrigerator, feel free to add in fresh fruit like blueberries, raspberries, sliced bananas or diced apples
- Nuts/Seeds: Chopped pecans, walnuts, peanuts, macadamia nuts, chia seeds
- Extras (add sparingly): Brown sugar, pinch of sea salt, cocoa powder, cinnamon
2. Cold quinoa salad
A cold quinoa salad is a slightly elevated take on a pasta salad, and again, can make both you and your athlete happy at lunchtime. Quinoa is packed with healthy carbs and protein, and is a nutty, chewy whole grain that tastes great with veggies, a protein, and some seasoning.
- Make 5 to 10 servings of quinoa
- Veggies: Shredded carrots, sliced cucumber, shredded brussel sprouts, kale, chopped onions and peppers, sliced mushrooms, chopped or steamed broccoli
- Fun toppings: Olives, walnuts, capers, sun dried tomatoes, goat cheese, feta cheese, parmesan
- Protein: Cubed chicken breasts, baked tofu, extra cheese, canned salmon, or tuna
- Balsamic vinaigrette: In a jar, combine 1 cup olive oil with 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar plus 2 tablespoons honey, 2 tablespoons brown mustard, and a sprinkle of sea salt. Shake well before mixing into salad.
- Allow quinoa to cool, before mixing it together with several veggies, a couple fun extras, and a protein. Combine all the ingredients and toss with a balsamic vinaigrette. Pre-portion into 5 containers, and you’re ready to eat for a whole week!
3. Yogurt parfait with granola
A yogurt parfait is a tasty way to pack a big punch of protein, fiber, and healthy carbs into a delicious and easy to eat lunch that looks great and can be prepared ahead of time. It’s also a fun activity to do with your young athlete—build your lunch together on Sundays and they’ll learn how to prep a meal!
- Start with Greek yogurt: Two-percent milk fat Greek yogurt offers a full serving of protein plus some satiating fat. Ideally, choose a plain Greek yogurt, though if you have a picky eater who prefers a flavor, look for a brand with natural flavoring and real sugar or honey as the sweetener. Add around 1 inch of yogurt to each jar.
- Layer on fruit. Cover the yogurt with a layer of fresh blueberries, raspberries, or strawberries.
- Drizzle a thin topping of honey or maple syrup.
- Add a layer of granola. Buy your granola ready-made (look for low sugar options) or bake your own by combining rolled oats with nuts and dried fruit plus a drizzle of honey or maple syrup in a bowl, then spreading on parchment paper and baking in the oven on 300° F for 30 minutes or until crispy (but not burned!).
- Repeat the layers until the top of the jar.
4. Leftover inspired burrito (or bowl)
Use those leftover veggies and meats lurking in the fridge to create tasty burrito bowls with a few added ingredients. Making one big batch of sautéed veggies and protein at the start of the week allows you to divide out portions with rice and toppings for the whole week. This is a great solution for bigger families as it’s a great meal on a budget and it allows each member to tailor their bowl or burrito to their specific preferences.
- Make 5-10 servings of brown rice, which is more fiber-rich and filling than white rice.
- In a big pan, use 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil to sauté ground beef, shredded chicken, black beans, or tofu along with whatever vegetables are languishing in the fridge (mushrooms, peppers, shredded cabbage, broccoli, onions, shredded carrot, shredded beets) along with 1-3 tablespoons of chili powder or taco seasoning.
- Add toppings: avocado slices, tomato chunks, lettuce, arugula, salsa, cilantro, goat cheese or feta cheese, and even some different ingredients like kimchi can make for interesting flavor profiles!
- If your athlete is training hard or always hungry, rather than putting the ingredients into a bowl, get whole grain burrito wraps and make your athlete a burrito. (Folding them can be a challenge: Follow along with this easy video, and consider getting foil that’s backed with parchment paper for more staying power with your wrapping.)
5. Big kid PB&J
The peanut butter and jelly sandwich has stood the test of time as a lunchtime classic because it’s almost universally loved. But you can put together a more grown-up, nutrient dense version of the staple by making a few simple swaps that capture the best parts of a PB&J while making it more filling and nutritious.
- Choose a whole grain bread rather than a white bread.
- Swap peanut butter for almond butter. The flavor is a bit different and the almond butter is higher in healthy fats, iron, Vitamin E, and calcium. Look for a brand that contains only almonds (or almonds and sea salt) and no added sugar.
- Choose a jam that has a lower sugar content. That means less added sugar (typically in the form of cane sugar or high-fructose corn syrup). Most popular brands have a lower sugar option available that tastes remarkably similar.
- Real fruit: Bulk up your jam by actually adding slices of fresh strawberries or raspberries directly onto the sandwich!
Takeaway: The best healthy lunch is an easy lunch. Avoid making more work for yourself by adding lunch prep to dinner prep or taking time one day per week to prep easy options for the entire week. And don’t underestimate the power of classics like PB&J sandwiches!