What's easy AND healthy?
April 12, 2008 7:01 AM   Subscribe

Help me come up with easy, low-calorie lunches.

So I'm going on a diet, as I could stand to lose some weight. It's going pretty well so far, but here's the issue. I stay home all day with five month old twins. Between taking care of them and trying not to let the house get too trashed, I don't have a lot of extra time and energy to fix healthy food. It's easy, and tempting to just pop a hot pocket or something into the microwave.

So far, I'm doing all right by simply not having that kind of food around the house. But, the lack of variety is starting to get to me. I've got a few simple, easy foods that don't take much time, but I'd like more options. They need to be:

Low-calorie (preferably in the 300-400 range)
Relatively low-fat (less than 6g is best)
Quick and easy to prepare.

Even very simple stuff is fine--I'm doing things like turkey sandwiches, oatmeal, pasta, etc. I'd just like to have as wide a range of options as possible.
posted by EarBucket to Food & Drink (26 answers total) 75 users marked this as a favorite
Nothing for me beats Lean Cuisine. Low-cal, tasty, satisfying, absurdly convenient, and I lost weight while eating them without adding any additional exercise (I'm 5'5ish and I went from 146 to 126 at my lowest). How healthy they are...I have no idea. People advised me to drink a lot of water to counteract the sodium. YMMV.
posted by lizzicide at 7:14 AM on April 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

I went on a soup for lunch kick for a while and it was great. Chop up celery, onions garlic, carrots, and potatoes cook those in a little oil for a few minutes. Add a few (or many) frozen chicken breasts (don't bother to thaw), water or broth and cook till the chicken is done. Remove and cut up the breasts, dump them back in with a couple of cans of beans. Cook longer. I also add whatever spices I'm interested in at the time. Invariably cumin, bay leaves and hot pepper. Salt and pepper to taste.

When I calculate the calories in my soups I usually come out with 1200-1500 calories per pot which is divided into 4-5 servings over a few days.

It's not exactly quick, but if you don't mind keeping a pot of soup on lowish heat while you play with the kids and work around the house it gives you tons of free time.
posted by Science! at 7:24 AM on April 12, 2008

Lowfat cream cheese on a low fat, high fiber cracker. Raw fruits and vegetables (possibly with a vinegar based dressing of your choosing). Also, think about precooking things you can heat up later like stir fry or soup or chicken breasts.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 7:26 AM on April 12, 2008

Make a big pot of soup and store it in single portion containers in the fridge. It'll take under an hour to prep and cook and will last you the whole week.

As a base for the soup chop an onion, sauté with a chopped glove of garlic (optional) in a little olive oil. Add finely chopped celery and carrot. Turn down the heat, put the lid on the pan and sweat the vegetables for 10 minutes or so.

Add 2 or 3 pints of stock (vegetable or chicken), salt/pepper to taste and a handful of chopped parsley. Simmer for 20 minutes until the vegetables are soft.

This is your soup base.

From here you can make all kinds of soup, depending on what's available. For instance:

- buy a bag of peppers, de-seed, and roast or grill them until the skin is blackened. Chop, add to the soup, blitz with a hand blender (or in batches in a counter-top blender).

- peel, de-seed and chop a butternut squash. Roast it until soft, add to the soup, blitz with blender. Add a teaspoon of cinnamon.

- slice and roast zucchini, add to the soup, blitz.

- add a can of chopped tomatoes, leave the vegetables chunky, add lots of basil.

A bowl of this soup will be under 100 calories, and it's very filling. With that you could have a medium tortilla (about 140 cals), spread with a tablespoon of fat-free ranch dressing (25 cals), half a chicken breast (140 cals), salad (free). You'll be full after that, believe me.
posted by essexjan at 7:27 AM on April 12, 2008 [5 favorites]

Saute some chicken or turkey breast and serve it over a salad with a low-fat dressing you like (balsamic vinegar and lemon is my favorite).

It is low in fat. It is high in protein, which means you will have energy, longer. And all the fiber from the salad will make you feel full for longer as well.

Fiber-One bars are great for snacks and again, all that fiber will make you feel full. Keep drinking water too for the same reason.
posted by munchingzombie at 7:30 AM on April 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

lots of fruit
yogurt + granola
frozen veggie burgers
hummus (making a batch takes < 10 minutes with a food processor)
pb&j sandwiches
peanut noodles
canned vegetarian chili
turkey or veggie dogs (put that chili on top!)
three (or more) bean salads
simple tuna nicoise
gado gado (Indonesian vegetable salad served with a peanut sauce dressing)
sautee veggies in a pan, melt cheese on top while hot, transfer into pita
posted by alb at 7:32 AM on April 12, 2008

Get some of the thin-sliced chicken breasts or chicken breast tenderloins (Perdue sells some individually wrapped thin breasts that are great). One of these can thaw under running water in just a few minutes. Place it on a cookie sheet, sprinkle both sides with a little cumin, chili powder, and onion powder. Broil it for a few minutes on each side, until it's done through.

Meanwhile, heat up half a can of Amy's Organic Lowfat Black Bean Vegetable Soup (our regular grocery stores have it in the health food/vegetarian section, and it's in all the crunchy stores too). Once the chicken's done, cut it up into bite-sized chunks, mix it into the soup, and you're done. SparkPeople lists this lunch as 255 calories and 3 grams of fat, and it's surprisingly filling.

Another good option is hardboiled eggs. Keep a bunch in your fridge (my husband and I hardboil two dozen at a time) and you can snack on the whites whenever you're hungry. One hardboiled egg white, again according to SparkPeople, is 17 calories and 0 fat. You can also make egg salad by adding some mustard, a tiny bit of lowfat mayo, and a chopped pickle or some relish.

Finally, I've had good luck with microwavable brown rice. Trader Joe's makes a frozen brand that's good, and so does the SteamFresh line from the freezer section at most major grocery stores (I think it might be Bird's Eye, it's one of the biggies). Uncle Ben's has little microwavable pouches on the shelf that can be zapped in 90 seconds. You can then season the rice a number of ways -- I've used soy sauce, or a little lemon juice and sea salt, or a sprinkling of the same spices I suggested for the chicken above. Brown rice is really filling and good for you, and a cup is under 200 calories and between 1-3 grams of fat depending on the brown (the Uncle Ben's, for instance, uses a bit of canola oil to keep it moist in the package).

Oh, and don't forget canned tuna!
posted by justonegirl at 7:45 AM on April 12, 2008

1 can of garbanzo beans (or other)
2-3 tablespoons salsa
2-3 tablespoons cottage cheese
1 dash Tabasco
posted by mrmarley at 7:50 AM on April 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

beans + rice + salsa

posted by fermezporte at 7:59 AM on April 12, 2008

Some times I get called things like "health Nazi" or "Puritan” - that last one was my mother and it hurt. But I don't care, I don't think I am either of those things; I have strong feelings on this issue, which I feel are justified and pretty common sense. So naturally I stick up for them.

Anyway, you're doing the right thing, get the junk out of your house!

Nature has provided us with a vast bounty, and to complain about a lack of variety of healthy food is a bit silly.

The best way to guarantee you know what is in your food is to cook it yourself. Restricting your meals to a specific calorie intake is probably unhelpful, because it really depends on how much of something you eat! Whether you eat two 500 or three 333.333 calorie meals, the end result is the same, surely?

In all honesty if you steer clear of very fatty meats like pork and use sun flour or olive oil, providing you cook your own food and experiment with new vegetables, it is almost impossible not to have a healthy and varied diet. Lower body fat and, increased energy and well-being follow from maintaining a healthy diet, not from the entirely self defeating practice which people refer to as dieting.

I know you said, "Between taking care of them and trying not to let the house get too trashed, I don't have a lot of extra time and energy to fix healthy food." This is often the catch 22 of unhealthy eating, you don't have energy, so you don't cook. You don't cook, so you don't have energy.

Buy a proper Italian cook book (and I don’t mean New York Italian, which as well as being a contradiction in terms, is also usually very fatty), those recipes were thought up by women who - and I hate to stereotype, but its true - were Catholic peasants: i.e. they had like 8 kids and bitchy Italian mother in laws to please. Seriously, real Italian food was designed to be cooked around child care and home maintenance. This means that though they take longer to cook, they are not necessarily as much effort as you might think. It's also an opportunity to find out about an interesting cooking culture, and that really is a nice diversion from the daily grind.

*jumps off high horse*

Please take this advice the right way, I only give it because I think it’s important, and I see so much misleading information out there.
posted by munchbunch at 8:15 AM on April 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

I've been trying to watch my weight a little too, and here's what I like to eat for lunch:

Take two pieces of frozen chicken tenderloins. Add salt, pepper, and either garlic powder or chili powder, or whatever spices you prefer. Microwave for 3:30 on high.

Take as much bagged salad as you want, wash, and put onto a plate. Cut up the chicken pieces into bite sized chunks, and sprinkle them over the salad. Add a little shredded cheddar cheese.

Voila! Reasonably swift chicken salad.
posted by JDHarper at 8:41 AM on April 12, 2008

Fruit! It tastes good, it's easy, and it's great for you. Buy a whole lot of it, cut it up, put it on a plate and enjoy it, piece by delicious piece. Don't just stick to apples, oranges and bananas, explore fruits you've never tried before!
posted by tomble at 8:47 AM on April 12, 2008

I'm with munchbunch on the high horse. The only times I've ever been successful at losing more than 10lbs, I did it by cutting out processed foods and upping my fruit and veg intake. In fact, I'm doing it again now - I'm not restricting calories, but I am eating 8 servings of fruit and veg a day and cutting out most processed foods (I say most, because I will eat processed foods if there are less than five ingredients and I can recognize all of them). I've found it's really kinda hard to eat a ton of calories if you're eating 8 servings of fruit and veg a day.

What I'm doing is I basically buy all the fruit and veg on the weekends, and I pre-prepare them when I get home (I got this idea from another Mefite, but have no idea who). Chop all the veggies, make a salad with some, put others in bags or tupperware for specific purposes (ie, a bag of bell peppers, snow peas and mushrooms for stirfry, a tupperware of spinach to sautee later). I basically bring a salad and a sandwich for lunch every day, so I make enough salad for the week ahead of time, and then put all the sandwich stuff (turkey, washed and torn-up lettuce, sliced tomatoes, etc) in the same part of my fridge. So in the morning, when I'm making lunch, I can grab everything I need to make the sandwich and it's much easier. When that's done, I just grab a salad and the sandwich and go. Incidentally, I know from my calorie-counting days that this lunch is about 300 calories and keeps me full until late afternoon. The key is a really, really big salad.

The preparation does take about an hour of chopping, bagging, etc. I do it while watching something stupid on TV. Maybe you could get your partner to either do the prep, or be on baby duty while you do it?

Oh, a few other things:

- You can also grill or sautee a bunch of chicken breasts at a time, and then eat the leftover breasts cold or heated up through the rest of the week. A foreman grill is cheap and great for this.
- It can help to have some frozen foods as a backup option, for the crazy days. Trader Joe's is great for this, as is Amy's brand and the Whole Foods store brand. Try to have a salad with these, though! That'll help move the salt through your system.
posted by lunasol at 8:49 AM on April 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

Here are a few things I typically have for lunch-

- Jacket potato (sure, it takes an hour to cook, but it doesn't need any assistance, you just pop it in and leave it!!) with any number of healthy toppings plus salad on the side. Some healthy toppings can include prawns in a little bit of creme fraiche or yoghurt (lower fat than mayo), tuna, again with creme fraiche and a little mustard, baked beans, vegetarian chilli, roasted vegetables, ratatouille, hummus. The bonus is, if you make a large batch of some of these toppings you can eat them with other healthy things like rice or pasta.

- Stir fired veg/tofu/chicken with rice or noodles - takes no longer than 10 mins, especially if you use precut veg.

- Soup, as others have said - there are loads of healthy soups, a lot of which can be virtually fat-free.

- pasta is healthy and low in fat too- just make sure you have it with tomato or vegetable based sauces rather than creamy or cheesy ones. Also, buy wholegrain pasta - it'll fill you up for longer.

- Any number of salads can be made in big batches and eaten throughout the week. One of my favourites at the moment is couscous mixed with capers, black olives, artichokes and baby tomatoes. Or another yummy couscous one includes dried apricots, raisins, pine nuts and cannelini beans. You can add low-fat dressing and seasoning to these to jazz them up a bit - but be creative! Any carbohydrate (couscous, rice, pasta, quinoa, bulgar wheat) plus protein (nuts, chicken, beans) and any weg you might have and any additions (chilli, olives, capers, gherkins, small cubes of cheese) make a great salad!
posted by schmoo at 8:50 AM on April 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'm a fan of:
• scrambled eggs made with only one yolk and a few whites, on a slice of high fiber bread, garnished with Texas Pete and pepper. It's also pretty easy to sautee some peppers and onions (can buy in a bag in the freezer section) with a spray of Pam. Quick prep, easy cleanup.
• Low- or nonfat cottage cheese with fruit. No cleanup other than the bowl.
• Kim Chee (fresh from an asian market is the best) and/or miso on brown rice or sushi rice (brown rice takes a long time but is healthier. I bet you could make a bunch and freeze it in small containers and microwave it)
• Tuna salad made with albacore, a bit of olive oil, a squinch of feta (you can get lower fat or fat-free), capers and any other veggies you have to bulk it out. Spinach, red peppers, parsley, etc.
• High fiber WASA crackers with a thin smear of Laughing Cow Light and covered with turkey pepperoni.
•Skim milk over Fiber One (original style) and any fruit you have around.

Essentially my rule of thumb when I'm eating healthily is higher fiber, lower fat, and protein enough to make you stay full. As many veggies as you'd like. Fruit. No juices
posted by Stewriffic at 8:51 AM on April 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

uh, any veg you might have...
posted by schmoo at 8:51 AM on April 12, 2008

Dump some beans on a salad and you'll get a lot of fiber and a good amount of potein. Add canned tuna, chicken, or salmon for more protein.

I have been eating vegetarian chili everyday for lunch. I boil small red beans or other high-fiber variety (kidney beans are higher in fat, starch, and calories than many others) with cumin, chili powder, onion, garlic, salt pepper, canned tomatoes, and some tomato paste. It's delicious and has tons of fiber and protein.
posted by HotPatatta at 8:53 AM on April 12, 2008

I read a couple of good blog posts recently with some really nice, healthy suggestions (and great photos of them!)
posted by jamesonandwater at 9:24 AM on April 12, 2008

Get a book called 'A Week In the Zone' by Barry Sears. Follow the meal plans exactly and not only will you lose weight but you will have plenty of energy.
posted by Soda-Da at 9:45 AM on April 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Don't get too hung up on low-fat. Fat is not the enemy. Figure out what fills you up on the calories you have budgeted before you worry about the fat content. My lunch for a long time was an amy's cheese pizza pocket and a protein shake (essentially, 25g of protein, nothing else). Now it is usually a ham and cheese sandwich on high protein (low carb) bread, and said protein shake. That is enough to satisfy me after a hard lunchtime workout and get me to dinner. And, fwiw, I also find that a nice big salad with a tablespoon of olive oil, walnuts and cheese makes a nice start to dinner.
posted by ch1x0r at 9:59 AM on April 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Fat may not be "the" enemy, but it is quite a foe to a healthy diet. Gram for gram it has far more calories than carbs and protein. By the time you are full, you have consumed way too many calories. Saturated fats carry their own dangers. Keep fat to a minimum, but if you go too far here it is hard to stay in compliance. Also, some fats, like nuts and olive oil, have benefits for you. Just watch the calories. All good things in moderation. Minimizing carbs, or at least the ones that digest quickly and spike your blood sugar also helps. After the spike subsides you tend to get hungry again, much more so than if you avoided the spike in the first place.

You say "Hot Pockets" well how about lean pockets? They are pretty decent for you and taste good too. I agree with the comment above, get all the junk and bad foods out of the house, no chips, no fatty foods, no candy, no doughnuts, etc. Keep carrots and fruit for snacks.

One of my favorite quick snack/lunches is some lowfat cheese, a diced Jalapeño and some corn and some beans microwaved on a low carb tortilla (put a paper towel under the tortilla to keep it from getting soggy). I use a blend of frozen corn, beans and some other stuff from Hanover called Latino Blend which makes it even easier. I skip the beans when I am out of this stuff, or you can add other quick and healthy ingredients instead. Another nutritious lunch is soup but I usually find that soup alone is not satisfying enough. Adding in some frozen (or fresh if you have them) edamame adds protein and fullness, but don't overdo it as they have some calories. Of course, healthy meats and breads for sandwiches also makes a healthy and quick lunch. Skip the bologna, white bread and mayo in favor of turkey, whole wheat bread and honey mustard. A little lettuce and tomato really helps keep these palatable if you have them every day.
posted by caddis at 10:35 AM on April 12, 2008

Do you like seafood? I thrive on various kinds of tinned/pickled fish and whole-grain crackers. Pickled herring, smoked oysters, sardines in mustard, on Ry Krisp or Ak Maks or Triscuits. Totally protein and whole-grain rich, making for good calories, and you can still have a filling light lunch for about 400.

Or tuna salad stuffed tomatoes!

Three-bean salad!

Salmon caesar salad! (or chicken... sorry, I don't eat chicken but it's a good lowcal protein source, certainly.)

Grilled veggies and tofu (Omg I love my cast-iron grill pan. Grilled tofu and veg get better the longer they sit, too.)

or... Roasted veggies! Filling up on yummy vegetables is a diet habit I've become hooked on. Restaurants frustrate me now when they don't have enough vegetables on the menu.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 10:45 AM on April 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Fat may not be "the" enemy, but it is quite a foe to a healthy diet. Gram for gram it has far more calories than carbs and protein. By the time you are full, you have consumed way too many calories.

No it isn't. Fat containing a lot of calories does not make it automatically a foe. Successful healthy eating is ideally about maximizing satiety within a controlled quantity of calories. Satiety, however, is a complex and somewhat individual thing, a mixture of the physical feeling of fullness and the mental feeling of satisfaction. For many people, the best thing to eat for physical fullness/calorie is protein. It sticks with you and fills you up pretty fast. But protein tends to provide little mental feeling of satisfaction because in its leanest form it is kind of blech (plain grilled chicken breasts anyone?). Fortunately, fat added to that protein tends to make it tastier and more satisfying.
Another category of things good for filling you up are veggies. But again, veggies can be somewhat unsatisfying plain. Adding fat makes you able to eat more of them, feel more satisfied by eating them, and oh yeah, more successfully metabolize many of their vitamins.
Carbs usually do not have the lasting power or filling properties of protein (although I think this is highly individual, so you know, dieter know thyself). Carbs plus fat do tend to lead to overeating because they taste really yummy, and don't really fill you up. This is the combination I personally try to limit.
So, if our imaginary dieter is one of those people that does not find plain veggies satisfying, gets quickly sick of lean protein, and finds that carbs (even the good ones in fruit and whole grains) cause her to be hungry again quickly, she might want to consider adding some fat in there to increase the satiety (mental, physical or both) of those veggies and lean meats. If you want to make healthy eating changes for life you'd better figure out how to make them so you don't feel deprived at the end of the day.
posted by ch1x0r at 11:47 AM on April 12, 2008 [3 favorites]

Everything suggested here is great and I do many of the same things:

-make a big salad and bring it 2-3 days in a row. My salad picks:

Tex Mex: It can be easily varied based on season, what's in the kitchen, what you're in the mood. Mix and match the following: shredded poached chicken tossed with chipotle peppers in adobo sauce(just a little)(money saving hint: buy split breast of chicken, it's a lot cheaper, and if you're shredding it you won't get the bones and skin) - greens - black beans - jalepenos - black olives - chopped tomatoes - lowfat sour cream - shredded cheese (just a little) - diced avocado - red onion. Dress with a squeeze of lime juice and a little olive oil, or just some jarred salsa.

Fruit/nut: Mix and match: seasonal greens (spinach or lettuce) - dried cranberries - fresh or dried raspberries - fresh or dried blueberries - sunflower seeds - slivered almonds - pecans artichoke hearts - dollop goat cheese - chunks of chicken or salmon. Dress with a friuty vinaigrette (raspberry, balsamic).

Asian: Mix and match: seasonal greens - chunks of chicken or salmon or cooked shrimp - red onion - orange wedges - crispy noodles (a few) - thinly sliced onion - sesame seeds - carrot shreds - thinly sliced celery - thinly sliced red and green pepper - cilantro - watercress. Dress with a quick mix of 1 T. soy, 1 T. honey, 1 T. rice vinegar 1 T. dark sesame oil.

-One other great lunch I take is just little noshes. Hummus or rosemary/white bean dip (so easy, food-process 1 can of white beans with 1 T. olive oil, a few rosemary needles, some walnuts, and 1/4 cup chopped red onion plus some salt and pepper) - whole wheat crackers or pita or homemade baked tortilla chips - veggies for dipping like carrot pieces, pepper slices, cuke slices, snap peas. This is a fun lunch because you feel very satisfied from all the noshing and snacklike dipping and chewing, but it's super light.

Also, I recommend looking through the magazine Cooking Light. It's wonderful because it's geared to busy people, but concentrates on cooking with real, whole food, and using high-calorie or fat ingredients only where it counts to boost flavor. They have a column called "Superfast" that has meals that can be made in 20 minutes or less - many travel well the next day.
posted by Miko at 3:15 PM on April 12, 2008 [3 favorites]

I regularly eat triscuits, cherry tomatoes and lowfat cottage cheese when it's hot out. I get vitamins, fiber, calcium and protein and there is no cooking involved.

Sub out fruit for the tomatoes if you prefer.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 8:42 PM on April 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

And, when you do get a chance to cook a real meal for the family at dinner, try to make it light and make extra and freeze. Lentil soup with lowfat sausage, for instance-cheap, easy to cook in a crockpot, and freezes beautifully. Beans are great in general, I think, and a crockpot can really be your friend. I've found good recipes for a lentil and brown rice soup, curried chickpea soup that also freeze well. Squash soups are creamy and luxurious tasting but easy to prepare and very low fat usually.

I make quesadillas without oil-tortilla in the hot pan, fill with a little cheese, leftovers-salsa, beans, chicken, whatever is in the fridge. Yummy, and when your kids are bigger, you can make half for you and make the other half more toddler friendly and spit with them. My toddler loves this (she gets more cheese than I do on her half, though, cause she's really skinny. Damn kids).

Hummus and white bean dip as mentioned above are fabulous-and feel really creamy and filling without being full of fat. I find a green salad and some lean protein really doesn't make me feel satisified, but some hummus and pita and lots of veggies does. You can buy these easily, or make them in no time (and they make a ton so you'll have extras-plus they are also fabulous toddler recipes to have on hand). Costco has big bags of sugar snap peas and trays of really yummy baby bell peppers that are wonderful to snack on.
posted by purenitrous at 9:57 PM on April 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

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