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  • Mia Raj

What are some good cold lunch ideas?

Whether you're looking for a refreshing pick-me-up or ideas for your brown-bag lunch, this post is for you. Below dives into discussing the health effects of warm versus cold foods, and provides cold, tasty recipes suited for those who don't have the time, option, or will to prepare a 5-star meal.

Regardless of whether you’re always in a time crunch, work in an office without a microwave, or you’re simply not a good cook… These are the perfect recipes. Let’s dive into it:

Combination of different colorful bowls and salads laid out on a table

Is cold lunch better than warm lunch?

The human body digests cold and warm food differently. Our bodies have to work harder to digest cold food because they like to keep their core temperature at 37° C or 100° F. This leads some people to worry about their decrease in proper digestion when consuming cold foods, but our bodies work quickly to warm themselves and don’t vary much more than half a degree.

Though this is true, warm or cooked foods can make several nutrients more bioavailable while supporting digestion. The digestion of hot foods begins with cooking. Cooked foods may be easier to digest because they are typically easier to chew and because it favors our body’s core temperature. When we improperly chew food or quickly scarf down a meal in a hurry, our body has difficulty digesting, leading to GI distress like gas and bloating. Although, when digestion is improved, our body is more easily capable of absorbing nutrients. In addition to this, cooking our food can make some of the nutrients in our food more accessible and absorbable. For example, cooked spinach allows the iron to be more easily absorbed and cooked carrots actually contain more beta-carotene than raw carrots do. However, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever eat spinach or carrots raw. Both have their benefits.

On the other hand, cold, or raw, foods have their own set of health benefits. Eating raw foods inherently means eating more whole, unprocessed foods. This directly translates to consuming more plant-based foods which are shown to aid in weight loss, reduce the risk of chronic disease, and support mental health! Additionally, sometimes certain cooking methods or overcooking can actually reduce the nutritional density of foods. This is especially true of water-soluble vitamins, such as vitamins C and B because of their sensitivity to heat. Boiling reduces vitamin C content more than any other cooking method. For example, broccoli, spinach, and lettuce could potentially lose up to 50% or more of their vitamin C when boiled. The primary sources of vitamins C and B in our diet are fruits and vegetables, which in most cases can be eaten raw without any problems. Therefore it’s a good idea to include salads and fresh fruits in your daily routine. If you would like the additional digestive support you receive from warm foods, then lightly steaming your vegetables is a good way to cook fruits and vegetables while preserving their nutrients.

There is no real conclusion if cold meals are better than warm meals. Really both ways of eating have their trade-offs and both provide different benefits depending on the food. Sometimes cold lunches are simply easier, especially when you’re late to work or spending your whole lunch break waiting to use the office microwave.

What can I make for lunch besides sandwiches?

It's easy to get stuck in the trusty old sandwich-for-lunch routine, but over time, the same meal every day gets boring. You’re looking to spice up your lunch rotation with quick and healthy recipes. Plus, adding variety to your diet will ensure you're receiving essential nutrients from whole foods. Variety is crucial for good health! If you want a healthy lunch that you can enjoy straight from the fridge, here are some great suggestions:

Bento Box

Remember how easy it was to pack and assemble your ham and cheese Lunchables when you were a kid? The simplicity doesn’t have to stop just because you’re grown up. Create an “adult Lunchables” by assembling your very own Bento Box. These lunches have to be one of the quickest and easiest options when it comes to making lunch on the go, and it never gets boring! Throw any combination of protein, fat, and fiber into a divided container and just like that you have a yummy, travel-sized lunch. These are a few Bento Box combinations I love. To build a Mediterranean Box, add chicken kebabs, cucumber, feta, hummus, and pita. Another favorite is the Charcuterie Box made with prosciutto, parmesan, breadsticks, and grapes. If you’re looking to pack a Bento Box for your kids, try deli meat, yogurt-covered pretzels, apples, celery sticks, and peanut butter. You’ll be surprised by how easy a Bento Box is to assemble. Store in the fridge, remove when you’re hungry, and enjoy!

Pita Wrap

Pita wraps are a tasteful way of upgrading from your traditional sandwich. Their “pockets” are great for anything saucy and are great options if you’re looking for something a bit more filling. One of my favorite recipes calls for pita bread, chilled grilled chicken, chickpeas, cucumbers, tomatoes, arugula, and tzatziki. However, you can choose to add or remove ingredients to your liking. For example, you can add feta to your wrap, or if you’re vegetarian, substitute the chicken with falafel. Or if creamy tzatziki isn’t your style, swap in olive oil and a squeeze of lemon instead.

Lettuce Wraps

Another way to spice up your lunches is to make some Asian chicken lettuce wraps. Most recipes often call for the same or similar 5 ingredients - ground chicken, chestnuts, chopped vegetables, soy sauce, and lettuce leaves. Customize your wrap to your liking by trying one of these substitutions: use ground beef instead of chicken, add in rice noodles or crispy wonton strips as your carb, or substitute the cashews with peanuts. I know not everyone has chestnuts laying around in their pantry. Not only can lettuce wraps use a variety of Asian-inspired flavors, but they can also be a great way to incorporate different cuisines. Try using the leftovers from Taco Tuesday in your lettuce wraps, too.

Buddha Bowl

Lastly, buddha bowls are tasty, well-balanced meals that will always leave you feeling full and satisfied when prepared correctly. When making your bowl, remember these 3 key components: whole grains, vegetables, and protein. Use any variety of these three food components to keep your lunches interesting. One of my go-to Buddha Bowl recipes is made with brown rice, diced sweet potato, broccoli, avocado, edamame, sesame seeds, and chilled teriyaki salmon. If you’re not a fan of brown rice, other whole-grain options are wild rice, quinoa, and millet. Add as many different vegetables as you would like. A few other options are Brussels sprouts, cabbage, mushrooms, carrots, cauliflower, and zucchini. Protein is the magic ingredient that will keep you satisfied until dinnertime. Great protein options are grilled chicken, tofu satay, or pan-seared steaks. Because you can mix and match virtually any combination of ingredients to create a delicious Buddha Bowl, they’re a great opportunity to use leftovers or fresh produce nearing its expiration date. A little tip is to add dressings and garnishes such as seeds, herbs, or sprouts to your bowl to increase your lunch's flavor, nutrient, and fiber content. Plus, if you add a fermented food like kimchi, you’ll be getting a good dose of probiotic bacteria to benefit your gut!

What are the 5 types of salads?

Salads are also a great idea with endless opportunities if you’re looking for a cold, refreshing lunch that never gets boring. Similar to bento boxes and buddha bowls, salads allow room for creativity by giving you the freedom to make countless yummy combinations. Salad is an overarching term that can be divided into 5 categories:

  1. Greens salad (spinach, romaine lettuce, kale, arugula)

  2. Vegetable salad (cucumbers, tomatoes, bell peppers, onions)

  3. Fruit salad (bananas, strawberries, oranges, grapes)

  4. Pasta, legume, or grains salad (rotini, kidney beans, chickpeas, tabbouleh)

  5. A mixed salad that incorporates a source of protein (poultry, red meat, seafood)

Preferably, when deciding what to eat, choose a combination of these types in order to maximize the nutrients and satisfaction you’re getting from that meal. For example, adding protein and vegetables to create a mixed salad ensures you’re getting a serving of protein, fat, and fiber, rather than eating a greens salad alone.

A good tip if you’re looking to add some warmth to your salad, is to add some toasty toppings to your usual salad base. For example, top your salad with grilled chicken, or roasted bell peppers, or even heat up your dressing, to add some warmth. Though eating cooked, warm foods improve digestion and can enhance some of its nutrients, it’s not practical to consume hot foods 24/7. So next time you’re stuck in a lunch rut or need something quick to eat at work, remember these recipes and make them your own.

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