Building a Better Lunch: The Framework

Making lunches was the bane of my nine-year-old existence. Everyone else’s parents still packed their lunch–a bag of chips, an apple, PB&J with the crusts cut off. The luckybutts. Me, on the other hand, I had pull something together that involved a fruit, some protein, and a sweet only once in a while.

In the intervening decade, I’ve gotten better at making lunches. I’ve mastered batch cooking and freezing. I’ve figured out my go-to ways of adding fruits and veggies. So many veggies, nine-year-old me would probably gag (but then she didn’t know about sautéing or the magic of beta-carotene with your skin).

Figure Out What You Need

Building a healthy lunch is not a science as much as a basic pattern that you jazz up with different combinations and flavors. But before we can figure out that pattern, we need to answer a seemingly-simple question: How much food should you bring?

It depends on your eating patterns, height, weight, and activity level. And a bunch of other things, besides. But to keep it simple, we’ll just focus on those.

Basal Metabolic Rate

It starts with figuring out just how many calories your body needs to do all of the amazing things it does each day–starting with breathing, pumping blood, and keeping your brain running. This is your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), the amount of energy your body requires just to keep functioning. It can be easily calculated here. For the example, we’ll use a twenty-year-old, five foot five, 125 pound female called Adeline.

This site offers two ways of calculating BMR and thus gives the hypothetical  Adeline a range of at least 1339 to 1409 calories needed, per day, just to keep her vital organs running happily. But this is not the end of the story, oh no! Because BMR is calculated based on the assumption that you never got out of bed–essentially, that you just laid still all day, and I am pretty sure you didn’t.

For each of these calculations, there is range of possible amounts of activity, from low to very high. We’ll say Adeline is your standard non-athlete student and she is lightly active, walking 10 minutes to and from campus everyday and doing some yoga on the weekends. That gives her a range of about 1841 to 1938 calories needed per day to maintain her current weight.

Pick Your Pattern

Now, we can get down to figuring out meal patterns. Maybe you only eat three meals a day, or three and a snack. Maybe you eat a light breakfast since eating doesn’t sound so appealing when you wake up, so  you want a bigger lunch. In this example, we’re going to say that Adeline eats three equal meals per day, meaning she’ll need about 600 to 650 calories for her lunch. But how does she make sure that she gets a good balance of nutrients?

Here we can turn to a modified version of MyPlate. MyPlate suggests that young women who are lightly active need about 5.5 ounces of protein, 6 ounces of grains, 2.5 cups of vegetables, 2 cups of fruit, and 3 cups of dairy per day. There are a bunch of ounce and cup equivalents (one slice of bread is one ounce of grain, a third cup of shredded cheese is a cup of milk, etc.). Some people, of course, can’t partake in dairy, and the focus on milk (and soy-milk) products as the only source of calcium (the whole reason dairy is a ‘food group’ is because of the calcium therein) strikes me as silly–lots of vegetables are high in calcium!

The modification comes in with your own dietary needs and preferences (to a point): you might be vegan or lactose intolerant, knocking out most of the “dairy” category. That means you need to find a different way of getting your calcium, like eating more vegetables, or even fortified foods, like soy milk or cereals. Perhaps you are a Paleo Person afraid of grains (you probably don’t need to be!) or you need to avoid grains for medical reasons, so you don’t have much of a grain option, and need to make up those calories and volume some other way. But for the most part, these guidelines are pretty solid and almost universally applicable.

Make Your Framework

Now that we know her meal pattern and how to get a good balance of food groups, let’s figure out Adeline’s lunch framework. Since she needs three meals a day, let’s break lunch down into 1-2 ounces of protein, 2 ounces of grains, a cup of dairy (we’ll say she’s not vegan and not lactose intolerant), a cup of fruit (she’ll eat the other at breakfast), and a cup of vegetables (she’ll eat the rest at dinner).

 Build Your Lunch

What do these meals look like based on this pattern? They can be Mediterranean inspired or take a cue from Southeast Asia. They could take the form of single entrée or two smaller courses. They can like the quintessential “health conscience” meal or comfort food. All this while still hitting daily requirements and remaining healthy. Here are some ideas:

  • A cup of yogurt and a cup of mixed berries; a cup of pasta with tomato sauce and a cup of steamed veggies; and a hard-boiled egg
  • A turkey sandwich (two slices of bread, two ounces of turkey, two slices of cheddar cheese), an apple, and carrot sticks
  • A hearty salad with a cup of lettuce, a half cup of assorted veggies (cucumbers, carrots, bell pepper, etc.), a cup of Israeli couscous, an ounce of chopped chicken, an ounce of pecans, Parmesan cheese, a quarter cup of dried currants (equivalent to half a cup of fruit) and a sweet basil dressing served with half a grapefruit (the remainder of the fruit serving).
  • About a cup and a half of veggie-chicken (or veggie-chickpea, or veggie-tofu) curry with a cup of rice, followed by a cup of just-sweet-enough vanilla pudding and sliced banana with cinnamon.
  • A slice of homemade cheese pizza (for the two grains and dairy), a salad with an ounce of chicken and an ounce of walnuts, and on orange.

And that’s just one school week of lunches!

In the comments, share your meal framework and some lunches you are excited to build!

*Note that I am NOT a Registered Dietitian or other medical professional. This information is only meant for illustrative and illustrative purposes–not as a diagnostic tool. Therefore, please talk to your physician or nutrition professional before making any changes to your diet.


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