Nutrition Made Easy For Busy People

Healthy High Street Lunch – Grab & Go Picks and Pitfalls

The spring menus are here, so it’s time for my latest review of the popular High Street grab-and-go options. If you’re not sure what to choose, here’s my list of picks and pitfalls from a range of outlets, including Pret, Leon, Itsu, Subway and Greggs.

The first thing to focus on is how to make the right choices. If the dreaded mid-afternoon slump is a familiar scenario, then you’ve probably made a couple of basic mistakes when choosing your lunch. Here are my top three tips to help you choose a healthy and sustaining lunch that keeps sugar cravings to a minimum.

  1. Keep starch to a minimum. This means avoiding pasta-heavy salads, excessive helpings of refined white rice and hefty baguette sandwiches. Overdoing the starch can make you feel sluggish and sleepy, as well as going straight to your waistline.
  2. Have a generous serving of protein. Vegetables are great, but your salad really needs a proper helping of protein as well, such as a chicken breast, a salmon steak, a large serving of houmous topped up with chopped nuts or a base of quinoa. Protein helps to maintain blood sugar levels and will keep you going for longer.
  3. Focus on fibre. This will maintain blood sugar levels and provide sustained energy.  Opt for wholegrain breads, brown rice or quinoa-based dishes and make sure you include at least a couple of different vegetables, whether you’re having a sandwich, salad or hot meal.

These are the principles I’ve applied in choosing my Enjoy and Avoid options from each grab & go outlet.

Pret a Manger
Enjoy: I’m rather excited by Pret’s new Protein Box which features in their spring menu. People often don’t eat enough protein at lunchtime, but there’s no danger of that with this meal which includes chicken, egg and avocado. Combined with a broccoli and spinach salad, this is the perfect blood sugar-balancing option which will keep the sugar cravings at bay all afternoon. Vegetarians might want to take a look at the Sweet Potato Falafel Veggie Box which contains yummy beetroot houmous and is super-rich in fibre, thanks to the brown rice, quinoa and broccoli.
Avoid: Pret’s hot foods have taken a bit of downturn lately, and I’m still in mourning for their fabulous Pulled Pork and Quinoa hot pot which they took off the menu despite my protests. The current hot offerings mainly consist of various carby toasties with fillings that are pretty high in saturated fat and salt and best avoided if you’re trying to keep things healthy. Steer clear of the baguettes, toasted or otherwise, because high levels of refined wheat are likely to leave you feeling pretty sluggish in a short space of time and your body will burn through the refined white flour pretty quickly. This is likely to lead to a blood sugar crash and serious sugar cravings by mid-afternoon.  It’s also generally best to avoid large amounts of bread if you’re prone to bloating, as wheat can be hard to digest, especially if you’ve had a stressful morning.

Enjoy: if you want to keep carbs to a minimum, look no further than Crussh’s Zero Noodles broth pots. Wheat, gluten and dairy-free, which makes them an ideal option or anyone with a  food sensitivity, the noodles are made from sheets of mung bean and pea, so they’re a much lighter option at lunchtime for anyone who’s watching their weight. A special shout out for the mini health pots which are packed with protein and make a great quick and easy snack. Check out the Glorious Greens health pot if things are getting a bit fraught at work, as it’s packed with calming magnesium which will keep your stress levels to a minimum.

Avoid: Crussh’s soups remain their weak point. It’s a pretty stingy serving which mainly focuses on vegetables which no bad thing, of course, but without a proper injection of protein they won’t be very satisfying after a hard morning’s work and will definitely leave you wanting more.  Beware of the toasties which average at 500 calories each. They tend to be more calorie-dense than nutrient-dense which probably won’t keep you going for very long, so that you’re likely to struggle with a mid-afternoon energy slump.

Enjoy: regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a big fan of Pod. They’re so clever at creating delicious, balanced options that it’s very hard to go wrong here. The Naked Burrito Bowl has caught my eye in their spring menu – it’s a fabulous combination of chicken, black beans, avocado and all the delicious things you’d find in a burrito without the refined carb wrap. Super-filling and full of immune-boosting vitamins and minerals, it’s the perfect choice if you have a busy afternoon ahead. I’m also rather keen on the Slow Burner, which does exactly what it says on the tin, and will keep you going for hours. It’s a protein-packed combination of Greek cheese, lentils, edamame and pistachios with lots of lovely green veg to balance it out.

Avoid: I said it last year, and I’ll say it again, don’t get too carried away with the Protein Box! While protein is a key nutrient for growth and repair and helps to promote smooth muscle tone, sustained energy and blood sugar levels, you can have too much of a good thing and excessive levels of protein over a long period may cause health problems, such as impairing kidney function or reducing bone density. It’s very important to maintain a balance of macro-nutrients (protein, fat, carbs) in your diet.  Fine to have this as one-off, but if it’s a regular fixture, you’ll be missing out on some vital micro-nutrients as well, because there isn’t much else except protein in this.

Enjoy: I’ve been a bit sniffy about EAT in the past, but they’ve really upped their game of late and there are some great new options on their spring menu. The Roast Chicken and Avocado salad comes with a fabulous celeriac and carrot slaw which is packed with protein and has a lovely omega seed mix to boost your essential fats. There’s also a rather good vegan option of Mexican Guacamole and Quinoa with black beans. It’s not so high in protein, but it’s very well balanced with plenty of fibre which should keep you going nicely.

Avoid: there are still just too many options to take you off piste, for my liking. A large Mac n Cheese or a Vietnamese Chicken will take you over 800 calories per portion, which is just too much if you’ve been sitting at your desk for most of the day. And don’t fool yourself into thinking the Cauliflower, Cheese and Kale is the best of the pie options – kale may be a superfood, but a large portion adds up to almost 1,000 calories in one sitting!

Enjoy: I’ve always been a fan of the Leon hot boxes, because they use lovely low GI options like brown rice, sweet potato and cabbage slaw which are rich in fibre to keep you fuller for longer. Sadly, there’s not much that’s new in this menu but the Original Super Salad is a really good warm weather option – the combination of quinoa, avocado, seeds and cheese mixed with lovely green vegetables will definitely keep you going and provide an antioxidant boost at the same time. The Sicilian Chicken Meatballs are a good option for meat-eaters, although I’d advise a side of crushed pea salad to up the veg content and make it truly balanced.

Avoid: Watch out for the Grilled Halloumi wrap, as it won’t do you any favours. Halloumi is super-salty and you’ll be consuming almost half of the daily recommended maximum for salt with this product. It’s also very high in saturated fat, containing half the daily allowance. It probably won’t keep you going for very long and you’re likely to give into temptation mid-afternoon if there are any cakes or biscuits around.

If your local Wasabi is one of the few that features sushi with brown rice, then you’re onto a winner. Your best bet is the Salmon Nigri set, as you’ll benefit from the lean protein plus the omega 3 of the sashimi. As well as the brown rice, there’s the added bonus of a mixed leaf salad with edamame, which makes this an ideally balanced combination of protein and fibre for a health and sustainable lunch

Avoid: Almost all of the hot food available at Wasabi is accompanied by a very large portion of refined white rice which won’t do you any favours in either the short or the long term. Too much refined carbohydrate will break down to glucose in the body, leading to a blood sugar spike and encouraging the body to store fat. This will be followed by a crash and some serious sugar cravings over the course of the afternoon. Steer clear, if weight management and/or sustained energy is your goal.

Enjoy: As well as the obvious sushi option, there are some stunningly good salads at Itsu. The Perfect Chicken Bento Salad is very high in protein, so ideal after a lunchtime workout. It’s a really tasty combination of chicken, avocado, muki beans and salad with a spicy sesame dressing and chilli flakes to add a bit of punch. The Zero Salads are also worth a look, if weight management is your goal. If lunch is your main meal, check out the rice bowls – whether you choose the Quinoa Falafel and Rice or the Chicken Thai Rice Bowl, they’re super-filling so you won’t need much else for the rest of the day.

Avoid: The Potsu noodles are also best avoided, as the high carbohydrate content could lead to a post-lunch slump and add a few inches to your waistline if you tuck in on a regular basis. And watch out for the wraps – some of them contain the equivalent of 3-4 teaspoons of sugar, which will set you up for a mid-afternoon crash.

Enjoy: If you’ve written Greggs off as a pasty and pastry store, think again, because they’ve recently launched some rather exciting salads. The Lemon & Herb Chicken with Roast Vegetables is full of protein, has lots of veg and comes with a dollop of tasty red pepper houmous. There’s a similar salad with beetroot and feta that would work well for vegetarians. Either would be a really good option if you want to keep things healthy and maintain blood sugar levels all afternoon.

Avoid: The traditional Greggs pasties and bakes are all still there of course and smell very tempting, but try to walk away if you can! They’re all high in starch and saturated fat and won’t do your waistline or your energy levels any good. They also contain almost 1/3 of the daily allowance of salt, so you definitely need to take care if blood pressure (or water retention) is a concern.

Enjoy: While Subway do offer some salads, you’ve probably dropped in for a sandwich, so the first thing to do is make sure you ask for the 9-grain bread, as this will add a healthy dose of fibre, which would be boosted by any added salad vegetables. The tuna salad option is a good bet, as it’s low in saturated fat, is nicely balanced with protein and fibre and should keep you going. A note of caution though: even if you have the wholegrain version, this 6-inch sub is a lot of starch at one sitting, so don’t be surprised if you feel a bit heavy and lethargic later in the afternoon.
Avoid: Steer clear of the foot-long Subs with Italian white bread or you’ll be heading for double trouble with an overdose of refined carbs which can add up to more than 80g at one sitting. Keep an eye on the Melts, as these tend be full of processed meat with very high saturated fat content – the Spicy Italian Melt contains more than half the recommended daily limit.

There’s lot more handy advice like this in my book The Right Bite. (Nourish Books, £6.99), which is full of smart food choices for eating on the go.