A midday meal can be hard to plan, especially when you’re training for a race or event and have to consider not only your daily workout intensity and schedule, but your fuel requirements for optimal performance, recovery, and energy levels as well. However, once you develop the necessary time management skills (and the kitchen know-how to make it all happen), you can use meal prepping to maximize your nutrition during lunchtime and have a better, more productive second half of the day.
Try setting aside a day or two during the week to dedicate time to meal prepping, so that you have healthy meals to grab and pack on busy mornings. This helps you prepare for the uncertainty of any given day and combat the hassle of picking out a healthy lunch before or after training, when you might be tempted to indulge in overpriced or unhealthy lunch items that are convenient, quick, and close to your home or office.
A good tip is to save Sunday afternoon or evening, along with another day in the week — like Wednesday — if needed, to make sure you’re fueling well with ready-to-eat meals and snacks that’ll last you all week long. And the more you do it, the easier and more natural it’ll start to feel. Consistency is key, and when you're consistently getting a healthy, training-approved lunch to satisfy midday hunger and keep your energy stable, your noticeable gains will make keeping up with the habit a no-brainer.
Do You Need to Eat Lunch Every Day When Training?
“Even if lunch isn’t just before or after a workout, it’s an important meal to maintain energy stores and ingest additional protein and antioxidants," Kelly Jones MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, says. "Skipping lunch or having one that’s too low in energy can lead to nutrient gaps.”
This can signify to your body that you’re not able to properly store glycogen or create a supply to use for workouts and daily tasks. Glycogen is the most efficient and readily-available source of energy to fuel workouts, so sufficient food intake can prevent weakened performance and subpar post-workout recovery. (Having enough fuel in your tank will also lessen your body's tendency to turn toward using and depleting muscle protein during physical activity.)
How to Build the Ideal Lunch When Training
“It’s important for health and performance that your lunch is large enough and well balanced, so that you aren't left overly hungry later in the day, without enough energy and nutrients for recovery," Jones says.
However, the Standard American Diet (SAD) causes typically a culture of overindulging on fattening, calorie-laden foods in excess portions, with lunch being a meal that’s more prone to such influence, too. (This is often due to daily factors, like office culture, stress levels, and convenience.)
“Overeating is not a great idea regardless of your goals, and for an athlete, overeating at lunch can quickly throw off the rest of the day," Trista Best, MPH, RD, LD, says. "So, you should monitor the quantity and type of food you’re eating at lunch to avoid going overboard on fuel in just one meal."
For instance, if you're planning a workout in the early afternoon, you want to avoid an overly-full stomach – which, for many, results in gastrointestinal discomfort — by eating a balanced breakfast that’s not too dense in calories or fat, which can weigh you down and worsen performance.
“It’s especially important to limit saturated fat and avoid fried foods if you have an afternoon workout, as they will likely weigh you down and cause digestive upset,” Jones cautions.
Find the sweet spot in size, and then focus on macro and micronutrients.
“Aim to have a large enough meal with a source of carbohydrates to maintain energy levels, protein for consistent recovery, and some healthy fats for satiety and regulation of inflammation,” Jones says.
Your carbs should be complex, meaning they contain a good dose of fiber and aren’t white and refined, such as white rice or flour, packaged chips, sweets, and baked goods. And don’t forget to emphasize color on your plate, too, as colorful fruits and vegetables provide heart-healthy antioxidants that promote muscle recovery and building as well as nutrient absorption of a variety of vitamins and minerals.
Balanced Lunch Ideas to Fuel Training, Muscle Building, and Recovery
Salad With Protein, Healthy Fat, and Fiber
Start with greens as a base — spinach, kale, collard greens, or Swiss chard — and then pile on the protein and a bit of clean, healthy fat to improve satiety and muscle function.
“You can use salmon that’s been prepped in advance, or even canned salmon as your protein,” Jones says.
Diced and roasted sweet potatoes, chickpeas, or beets can add some fiber and starch. Finish it off with your favorite dressing, like a Greek yogurt or avocado-based dressing, or even just a simple drizzle of lemon juice and olive oil.
Sandwich With Protein on High-Fiber Bread
A sandwich is a great lunch idea when you choose the right kind of bread to benefit your training. Choose a whole grain bread that is high in fiber (with some protein per slice), and make sure that it’s low in sugar. Pair it with a source of protein or two — Jones suggests lean turkey or sliced tempeh — as well as vegetables. Then, spread avocado or hummus on the bread and drizzle a bit of hot sauce for flavor and electrolytes — the latter being great for replenishing depleted stores post-workout.
Go with bright vegetable options, such as sliced bell peppers or carrots, which provide antioxidants and aren’t too heavy on fiber, making them perfect pre-workout fuel.
Protein Bowl With Lean Protein and Grains
“Grain bowls using quinoa or brown rice — or even whole grain pasta — are an excellent way to stock glycogen stores and take in protein for muscle building,” Best says.
Use a base of grains, greens, or cauliflower rice, depending on your dietary goals (or go with a mixture), and then polish it off with roasted vegetables, protein, and fat.
“Choose roasted vegetables since they’ll digest more easily than raw,” Jones says. “Mix in some arugula, but not so much that you feel overly full afterward."
Top it all with seasoned tuna, grilled chicken, diced turkey breast, or hard boiled eggs, then toss in nuts and seeds, like pumpkin seeds, almonds, or pistachios for crunch.
“Avoid high-fat meats and fried proteins, as well as creamy, dairy-based dressings with saturated fat, which can cause digestive upset during an afternoon workout,” Jones says.
Poke Bowl With Omega-3-Containing Fish
If you tend to have digestive upset when you exercise too close to consumption of high-fiber meals, rice is a great base that is not laxative or fibrous. Using it for a grain bowl or a poke bowl is a terrific lunch option before a training session later that day.
With rice as your base, top your bowl with protein and omega-3s from fish like tuna or salmon (or include a mixture of both). And don’t skimp on colorful, antioxidant-dense toppings: a quarter of an avocado, roasted peppers, sweet potato, peanuts, sprinkled sesame seeds, or shredded carrots.
Tacos or Lettuce Wraps
To make your tacos training-friendly, go with a soft tortilla or lettuce wrap to keep excess fat down, and then add lean protein such as ground turkey, scrambled tofu, and beans.
“A cashew-based cheese can keep these lower in saturated fat,” Jones says.
Feel free to add salsa and shredded lettuce, too, but keep the spice mild if you’re working out after lunch and have a sensitive stomach.