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Nutrition Made Easy For Busy People

Sandwich, Soup or Salad? – Lunchtime Picks and Pitfalls

The autumn menus are here, so it’s time for my annual review of the lunch options from some of the more popular outlets. If the dreaded mid-afternoon slump is a familiar scenario, then making sure that you choose the right lunch is incredibly important. Here are three top tips to ensure a healthy and sustaining lunch that keeps sugar cravings to a minimum and to help explain the thinking behind the review below.

  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 a couple of different vegetables, whether you’re having a sandwich, salad or hot meal.

If you’re not sure what to choose, here’s my list of picks and pitfalls from some popular lunch outlets, based on these three principles.

Pret a Manger
Enjoy: Pret have got into protein in a big way recently, which is great news at lunchtime. Their hearty soups have always been full of protein, but in the past few months they’ve introduced a range of protein snack pots and two new hot pots that definitely merit your attention. The Korean Pulled Pork and Quinoa pot is cooked in a tasty blend of spices, and despite the slightly sweet sauce, it’s incredibly rich in protein and will keep you going all afternoon. If you want to steer clear of red meat, then the Sweet Potato and Cauliflower Quinoa pot is for you, as it comes with plenty of protein and has the added benefit of immune boosting antioxidants in the vegetables.
Avoid: there’s little in the way of good news on the sandwich front, however. Pret’s baguette sandwiches are best avoided. 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 generally best to steer clear of large amounts of bread if you’re prone to bloating, as high levels of wheat can be hard to digest, especially if you’ve had a stressful morning.

Enjoy: clever Crussh have found a way to avoid a high-starch lunch with their Zero Noodles pots. Wheat, gluten and dairy-free, they’re made from sheets of mung bean and pea, so are a much lighter option at lunchtime, as well as containing a good portion of protein. Their Energi pots tick all the boxes too, with a special shout out for the Moroccan Lamb and Lentil, which is a particularly sustaining option. Keep an eye out for the brown rice Hot Pots too – they’re full of magnesium which helps to calm the nervous system and regulate the body’s response to stress. That could be just what you need before an important meeting!
Avoid: watch out for the classic soups. They have a high vegetable content and there’s no doubt that they’re full of protective antioxidants which is good news, but most of them are fairly stingy on the protein. This means they won’t be very satisfying after a hard morning’s work and will definitely leave you wanting more.  It’s probably best to team them up with one of the smaller Healthpots if you don’t want to be reaching for the biscuit tin later on.

Enjoy: Pod have always been expert at creating inventive and delicious salads that are packed with protein, fibre and superfoods and this autumn is no exception. Check out the new Lebanese Red Pepper Chicken Tabbouleh, it’ll keep you going for hours. Their autumn Hot Pod menu features a Moroccan Chicken Tagine and a Moroccan Vegetable tagine which are definitely worth a look. Pod is brilliant at flexible offerings: there’s a wholegrain rice version and a rice-free Skinny Pod, made with extra vegetables and they both come in three portion sizes. Even the mini size of either version contains so much protein and fibre that you’ll have a spring in your step all afternoon.
Avoid: 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, it’s very important to maintain a balance of nutrients in your diet. This box really doesn’t contain anything else, which means you’ll be missing out on some vital food groups if you choose this on a regular basis.

Enjoy: EAT’s Hot Pots are probably their best option for a satisfying and healthy lunch. Opting for the Poached Egg, Bean and Mushroom Pot is an excellent way of avoiding the hefty portion of starchy rice that comes with most of the Hot Pots. This is an excellent blend of protein and fibre to help reduce sugar cravings later in the afternoon. Beans are an all-round superfood, full of soluble fibre which helps to regulate cholesterol levels and monounsaturated fats which support heart health.
Avoid: keep an eye out for soups and Hot Pots with noodles, as they add an extra layer of starch you really don’t need, as well as taking the place of vegetables which are more nutritious. And steer clear of the pie and mash – it’ll have a big impact on your waistline as it contains half the daily recommended amount of calories and a generous portion of potato and pastry is likely to leave you nodding off at your desk by 3pm.

Enjoy: you’re onto a winner if you pick one of the boxed hot meals, as Leon’s focus on healthy fast food with a Mediterranean twist means that you’ll be tucking in to a low GI mix of vegetables, wholegrain rice or sweet potato with a healthy serving of protein. The Chicken, Lemon and Olive tagine packs a powerful health punch – not only will it keep you going all afternoon, but it’s full of protective antioxidants, energy-rich B vitamins and contains a blend of healthy poly and monounsaturated fats to support heart, brain and hormone health.
Avoid: Watch out for the Fish Finger Wrap (especially if you add fries), as it’s quite a starchy option that may provide short-term satisfaction but it’s likely to lead to an energy dip mid-afternoon that could encourage you to reach for the office biscuit tin.

Enjoy: try the Chicken Okonomyaki, which is a Japanese savoury pancake made with a base of shredded cabbage. As well as being a low GI blend of fibre and protein which will keep you going for longer, cabbage is rich in a range of protective antioxidants so this could be a smart move as we head into the cold and flu season. If sushi is your preference, opt for the Sashimi Set, as this comes on a bed of mixed leaves and edamame, adding a much-needed dose of fibre to the protein-rich sushi.
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. Excessive portions of 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: although sushi may be your first choice here, don’t neglect the salads, as there are some stunningly good options which make a balanced and sustaining meal. The Low Carb range is rich in protein and full of omega 3 fatty acids, a combination that will really keep you going. Look out for the Chicken and Avocado or the Poached Salmon salads which tick all the health boxes. Mixed Sashimi or Omega 3 Salmon Supreme are more balanced sushi options, as they contain mixed leaves and edamame. Any of the Brown Rice Potsu with 7 vegetables are worth a try as the weather gets colder as they offer the ideal blend of protein and fibre for a sustaining lunch.
Avoid: approach the On a Bed salads with caution, as they’re served on a layer of white sushi rice, which means that the fibre content is pretty low, and that isn’t going to help matters. 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.

Enjoy: the Chargrilled Chicken Oval Bite from their Balanced Choice range (less than 400 calories) is the one to go for, as it comes with fibrous wholemeal bread, lean protein and plenty of added salad. It’ll keep you going far longer than the refined white bread options.
Avoid: the pasties and bakes. 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 this is definitely one to watch if blood pressure is a concern.

Enjoy: a low fat Sub, preferably with either chicken or turkey, will offer a healthy dose of lean protein and if you opt for the 9-grain bread, this will add a healthy dose of fibre, which is boosted by the added salad vegetables. 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 adds up to just over half the recommended daily limit.