Lunchtime can be a real nutritional minefield. You’re hungry, you’re in the middle of a busy day and you don’t have much time to eat. All of these things are huge temptations to go the quick and easy route or to skip lunch altogether. Both are really bad ideas.
A Bad or Non-Existent Lunch Will Sabotage Your Muscle-Gains
The quick and easy option can seem like a good one at the time, especially if you tell yourself you’re going to get a “healthy” salad at the fast food restaurant. But how many times do you end up smelling those fries and throwing down a greasy burger, too? Or you go to the dining hall at your college and chow down on a fattening and high sodium sandwich on white bread?
Skipping lunch isn’t any better. Skipping meals upsets your hunger hormone (leptin and ghrelin) levels, causing you to overcompensate later. It also raises your cortisol levels, which almost guarantees that those excessive calories you eat later will be stored as fat instead of being burned as fuel. Besides those downsides, skipping meals also makes it hard to focus on work or studies and drains your energy, making it more likely that you’ll miss your afternoon or evening workout.
The Makings of a Great, Muscle-Building Lunch
It’s not hard to put together a really healthy and cheap muscle-building lunch especially if you keep some key ingredients on hand. Some of the best foods to stock up on are quinoa, organic eggs, avocados, Greek yogurt, cooked chicken breasts, cooked shrimp (less expensive per meal than you think), water-packed tuna and sprouted-grain bread.
It’s important to get a good helping of clean protein to fuel your muscles for an afternoon workout and keep your brain functioning optimally. Healthy fats curb your hunger longer so you don’t throw yourself at the nearest vending machine mid-afternoon. A decent amount of healthy carbs will give you the energy you need to get through the rest of your day.
Getting this kind of a lunch doesn’t have to take a lot of time (especially if you make your lunch the night before or in the morning) and it doesn’t have to cost a fortune, either. In fact, the recipes I’m going to share with you cost less than most dining hall meals or fast food disasters.
Don’t sabotage your workout efforts or your health because you don’t think you have the time or money to eat properly at lunchtime. Here are five of the best lunch recipes I know and they’re all cheap but very healthy muscle-building meals.
Quinoa with Zesty Shrimp
Quinoa is a complete protein on its own, but tossing in a few shrimp gives this lunch more staying power and a ton of flavor. Cook up a bunch of quinoa one evening for dinner and save the leftovers for breakfast or lunch. Shrimp may be expensive by the pound, but by the meal they’re a great budget ingredient. If you can buy raw shrimp and cook them yourself (they take less than five minutes), they’re even cheaper. Cost: About $2.75.
- 1 cup cooked quinoa
- ½ cup low-sodium beef broth
- 3-4 large cooked shrimp, cut in half
- ½ teaspoon powdered garlic
- ¼ teaspoon mild curry powder
- 1 green onion, sliced
Put the quinoa in a deep, microwave-safe bowl and add the broth, shrimp, garlic and curry powder. Heat for about 1-1 ½ minutes or until hot. Top with the chopped green onion and enjoy. Makes one serving.
Chicken Salad Sandwich
Deli chicken salad is loaded with mayonnaise, processed meat and other things you don’t need. This version is so much better for you and tastes amazing. Make up a double batch; it’ll keep for about three days in the fridge. Cost: About $3.25.
- 1 boneless, skinless cooked chicken breast
- ½ tart apple, cored, peeled and chopped
- 1 tablespoon chopped walnuts
- 1 teaspoon honey or Dijon mustard
- 1 teaspoon plain Greek yogurt
- 2 slices sprouted-grain bread
- Optional: Leaf lettuce, onions, sliced tomato
Place the chicken in a bowl and add the chopped apple and the walnuts and toss. Stir together the mustard and Greek yogurt, then mix this in with the chicken mixture. Spread onto one slice of bread, add any additional fresh veggies and top with the second slice of bread.
Avocadoes are an excellent source of plant-based protein and healthy fats. They also taste great. This recipe calls for the large, Florida-type avocado, not the little Haas variety. To keep the unused half fresh, leave the pit in, squeeze some lemon juice over the flesh and wrap it up. That will keep it from browning until dinner or the next day. Cost: About $2.25.
- ½ large, ripe avocado, pit removed but with the peel on
- 1 can water packed tuna
- 2 tablespoons plain Greek yogurt
- ½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- ¼ teaspoon onion powder
Carefully scoop the flesh from the avocado and place it in a small bowl. Stir in the tuna, Greek yogurt, mustard, salt, pepper and onion powder and mix well with a fork. Spoon loosely back into the avocado and serve. Makes one serving.
If you’re seriously pressed for time or just need your lunch to go, this is a great recipe to fall back on. It tastes great, has 14g of protein from the Greek yogurt, a nice helping of carbs from the yogurt and banana and some healthy fats from the coconut milk. This is also a nice dessert treat. Cost: About $2.00.
- 1 6-ounce container of vanilla Greek yogurt
- 1 medium banana, sliced
- ½ cup unflavored or vanilla coconut milk
- Dash of nutmeg
- Dash of cinnamon
Place all of the ingredients in a blender and blend on high speed until smooth and creamy. Makes one large serving.
Shrimp and Avocado Salad
You can pay a pretty hefty price for a similar salad at a restaurant, but why bother? This one takes just a few minutes to make and costs so much less. You’ll get plenty of protein and healthy fats from the quinoa, shrimp and avocado and just enough carbs to keep you fueled for the day. Cook up extra quinoa and shrimp from some of the other recipes and use the planned leftovers for this, since they’ll need to be chilled. Cost: About $4.50.
- 4 large cooked shrimp, cut in half
- ½ ripe avocado, diced
- 1 medium ripe tomato, diced
- ½ small red onion, diced
- ½ cup cooked quinoa
- 1 cup Romaine lettuce, chopped
- 1 tablespoon light olive oil
- 1 teaspoon Balsamic vinegar
- Salt and pepper to taste
In a medium bowl, mix together the shrimp, avocado, tomato and onion until well-blended. Stir in the quinoa. In a small jar or bowl, mix together the olive oil, Balsamic vinegar and salt and pepper until well-blended. Pour over the shrimp mixture and stir well. Place the lettuce in a bowl or on a plate and top with the shrimp mixture. Makes one serving.
Skipping lunch or grabbing something loaded with empty calories is just undoing all of your hard work in the gym. No matter how little time you have or how tight your budget, you can still eat like a king at lunchtime without going broke or blowing your muscle-building goals.
By stocking up on some of these nutrient-dense whole foods, preparing some of the ingredients ahead of time and committing to eating a healthy lunch, you can further your goals and feel great while you’re doing it.
Looking to avoid the Freshman 15 and pack on 15 pounds of MUSCLE instead?
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