Are your eating habits out of control or not very healthy? Maybe you’re looking to find ways to shore up or develop good eating habits that will give your body and mind the nutrition they need. One of the easiest places to start is with the lunches we eat! Why not take the 7 Day Healthy Lunch Challenge? You’ll learn new recipes and habits that will stay with you for life while providing yourself with health and vitality. Who doesn’t love that?
What is the 7 Day Healthy Lunch Challenge?
For seven days commit to avoiding processed and fast food lunches in favor of whole and real foods. This means passing on pizza, pasta, soda, frozen or microwavable meals, and your typical fast food restaurants like McDonald’s and Taco Bell. These processed foods will hurt your health and we don’t want that!
Next, you’ll want to eat lunches that give your body the nutrition it needs to repair, maintain and operate with optimum performance. You do this by eating meals made from whole and real foods like fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, tubers, nuts and seeds. For carnivores this means fresh meats and seafood as well.
Your boxed meals and kits, heat and serve meals are not whole or real foods. Typically they are processed or laden with additives, sugar, emulsifiers and unpronounceable chemicals all designed to preserve your food or make it visually or texturally appealing so you’ll buy it – at the expense of nutrition and your health.
For seven days we want to
- Avoid the foods that make us sick or contribute to disease
- While eating the foods that build, repair, and maintain our body with energy and vitality, i.e. whole foods.
This is the real definition of eating healthy.
Why Focus on Lunch?
In a culture where tons of people skip breakfast and eat out or buy heat and serve lunches, we could use a high dose of nutrition! Lunch is a great place to start in reclaiming our faltering health.
Currently, the standard American diet is roughly 62% processed foods, 26% meat, and only 12% good, body and mind nourishing whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, whole grains, tubers and legumes (however, french fries make up half of the whole foods category). As reported in Newsweek, over 50% of the American diet consists of ultra-processed foods that can be bought at 7-Eleven. This way of eating is horribly unhealthy and we see its consequences in high rates of obesity, diabetes, cancer, stroke, autoimmune disorders, and chronic kidney disease, among others.
We are actively destroying our health with the foods we eat – whether bombarding it with foods and drinks that harm our bodies or by not giving our bodies the nutrition we need to repair and maintain ourselves in optimum health. Our unbalanced food choices also have dire consequences for our beneficial bacteria which do so much for our gut and digestive health but which also work hand in hand with our immune health. When we wreck our beneficial bacteria colonies, we set ourselves up for a dysfunctional immune system and autoimmune issues.
Processed foods, high in salt and sugar, are destroying our beneficial bacteria. After all, salt and sugar are preservatives – which prevent spoilage of food by killing bacteria. When we ingest salt and sugar in the large amounts we currently consume today, they kill off our good bacteria as the preservatives travel through our digestive tracts. Additionally, we’re eating more processed foods at the expense of healthier foods that would feed and support our gut biome.
On top of this, eating processed foods (which we do in great quantities at lunch) deprives us of vitamins, minerals, fiber, enzymes and so much more that build and repair our bodies and keep them and our minds working in good condition. Processed foods and diets high in sugar and refined carbs also are linked to diabetes, metabolic disorders, cancer, autoimmune problems and other diseases afflicting modern society.
Pivoting our eating habits away from processed foods and to whole foods can only help reverse our terrible modern disease trends. If the standard American diet is your diet, definitely do the 7 Day Healthy Lunch Challenge! It’s probably one of the easier of food changes to undertake and keep up.
In reclaiming our health and waistlines, the place to start is with diet. That means a two-pronged attack of cutting down our over-consumption of processed foods which actively destroy our health while at the same time consuming mostly whole foods which will build, maintain and repair our bodies in maximum health.
What are Whole foods?
Whole foods are plant foods that are unprocessed and unrefined, or processed and refined as little as possible, and are free from additives or other artificial substances like preservatives, emulsifiers, conditioners and artificial or natural flavors before being consumed.
Examples of whole foods include fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, tubers, and whole grains. Everything else is not a whole food. See my article What are Whole Foods? to get a good understanding of whole foods. For the carnivores out there, I would add that fresh meat in the butcher and seafood sections of grocery stores can supplement a whole foods diet even though they are obviously not plant-based. Same with eggs and milk. The healthiest and most long-lived cultures in the world eat this sort of diet.
Why Whole Foods?
The benefits of whole foods are amazing:
- Cancer prevention
- Beating heart disease
- Lowering blood pressure
- Preventing and reversing diabetes
- Prevention of gallstones, kidney stones and osteoporosis
- Asthma prevention
- Better digestion
- Autoimmune disorder prevention
- Most sustainable diet for the planet
In the Kitchen for the 7 Day Challenge
During the 7 Day Healthy Lunch Challenge, you’ll want avoid processed foods and drinks for lunch and instead eat whole food based meals each day at that time.
While the 7 Day Healthy Lunch Challenge does not require dropping the standard American diet or greatly changing your current way of eating, adopting a mostly whole foods diet during the challenge will reap greater health rewards. If you choose to try more whole foods during the challenge, avoid added sugars and processed foods. Focusing on whole foods should be the center of every meal, making up at least 70% of everything that goes into your mouth.
This will mean passing on processed foods – full of refined carbs, added sugar, salt, processed oils, and additives – which include most boxed meals and kits, frozen meals, heat and serve meals, and fast food. Try to limit your pasta and bread consumption as these are both processed foods. I realize that might be biting off more than you can chew for most people. However, making whole foods the stars of any meal and giving things like pasta or bread a limited supporting role will really help your health.
Why 7 Days?
One week isn’t a large commitment and is easy to plan. Plus you won’t feel overwhelmed by learning a ton of new recipes or feel like you’re completely giving up your eating lifestyle for good – though, hey, if you like the changes and the benefits, please continue!
Seven days are good for dipping your toes into a life of eating more healthily or starting down a whole foods diet. You will learn new recipes and eating patterns which can help you transition to eating healthier overall. And besides, who doesn’t enjoy a new challenge to get excited about?
Whenever we try something new or try to change habits, we should remind ourselves of a few things:
Firstly, we’ve been doing things a certain way for a while. When it comes to food, we’ve trained our bodies and minds to like what we’re already doing. When we try new foods, we may go into withdrawal from the removal of our usual foods. That and our gut biomes have adapted to our old eating habits and will undergo a shift when our foods change. Most people don’t realize this and think their body is reacting negatively to the new foods when really, it’s mostly withdrawal symptoms. If you’ve ever tried to give up coffee or colas for a week, you know what I’m taking about! The same is definitely true for sugar or refined carbs. Use this week to learn how addicted your body is to your current way of eating. You might find it eye-opening.
Secondly, we are creatures of habit. Don’t expect to like or love all the food recipes. If you’ve never tried something before, try it with an open mind. Think of this week as a way to experience new foods or find new recipes to incorporate into your meal rotation. See it as a fun exercise, not a drag, and you’ll have better results.
Thirdly, when we take on a food challenge, the experience is usually new. The recipes will take longer to organize and prep simply because you haven’t spent years making them. In time the ingredients and recipes become second nature and you can modify them as easily as your current meal rotations. Expect the learning curve rather than be upset by it. Most of the recipes included for the challenge are quick and easy for beginners.
Fourthly, food is culture. If your family and friends have never seen a whole food they didn’t hate, you may feel peer pressure over your new food selections or feel tempted to cheat and eat like normal. Remember that this is only a week-long challenge. If others tell you to cheat or give you grief, you can point out gently:
- Your health issues if you have any
- Any health issues in your family
- That you are trying to alleviate or prevent any health issues
- And that you could really use support since this isn’t easy
Many people if approached this way will be more considerate and helpful, especially if you tell them you don’t expect them to eat like you (some immediate family members will fear any food changes). Accept this and remember that you are the only person who can truly make the changes you want. Respect and love yourself enough to try what you’re wanting to do, no matter what others think.
All this said, we’re human and we get cravings. Don’t beat yourself up if you lapse during the challenge, just continue on with the next meal and be proud for what you do follow. Also, try not to make the challenge impossible by scheduling it around holidays. Only the most willful and possibly masochistic can survive holidays and their associated foods. On the flip side, if you’re trying to give up the excesses of the holidays, by all means, use this challenge as an excuse!
Now onto the nuts and bolts.
How It Works
The 7 Day Healthy Lunch Challenge is pretty straight-forward. You’ll be eating healthy lunches focused around real, whole ingredients for a week. To do that:
- Pick a week to do the 7 Day Healthy Lunch Challenge.
- Make room in your pantry and in your mental space for the change.
- Plan out and organize your meals for the week for best results. Design them with your family or friends for added support and team-building if they’re willing.
- Make your grocery list.
- Buy the food.
- Prepare the meals yourself or for best results, with your family. Healthy food habits are teachable moments, as is food preparation. Children can’t learn healthy food habits if not exposed to them or taught the recipes. Cooking together means time together. Make cooking social.
- Eat and enjoy – the more the merrier!
7 Day Healthy Lunch Challenge Suggestions
It’s easiest to enjoy the challenge and keep with it if you include healthy meals you already like. Love your homemade chickpea salad? Bust it out this week!
We tend to make the same handful of meals so don’t feel like every single meal for the week must be new and original. That gets expensive and stressful fast because you have to buy a larger variety of food and learn too many new recipes you may not be at all familiar with. Also, why waste any leftovers?
Check out the recommended week-long plan and more general pantry list so you can take the challenge and run with it. Feel free to mix and match however you like to make this challenge your own!
Now onto the week’s meal plan!
Healthy Lunch Ideas
You may think not much is left that sounds appealing to eat once you take out pizza, pasta and fries but you would be wrong! Plenty of delicious and satisfying lunches exist for every pallet. I never eat salad and I do just fine so have no fear. Here are some wonderful lunch ideas, many of which can be made vegetarian or vegan to suit your needs:
- Tacos, fajitas and burrito bowls
- Bean salads (see my article Lunch Made Simple: Bean Salad Basics)
- Grain bowls or Buddha bowls
- Stir fries
- Soups and stews
Not only are these delicious and healthy lunches, they’re chock full of energy so you won’t experience a food coma or that 3pm sugar crash from typical carb-loaded or sugar-heavy meals.
Seven Day Healthy Lunch Plan
Need a menu for the week? Check out the following suggested meal plan. Mix and match or repeat the meals you like. All of them are simple to make and easy to take to work.
Day 1: Lentil, feta and tomato salad with vinegar and olive oil dressing; optional add-in – sunflower seeds
Day 2: Burrito bowl of black beans, rice, your choice of protein or veggies, and topped with salsa and guacamole
Day 3: Ginger veggie stir fry with miso soup (optional add-in: beef, pork, chicken or seafood)
Day 4: Coconut black lentil curry; substitute any type of lentil
Day 5: Hearty beef and vegetable stew
Day 6: Tabbouleh topped with broccoli and beef; substitute any protein
Day 7: Salmon with sauteed asparagus, green beans and carrots; substitute any white fish
A Note About Drinks: Remember to pass on the soda and sugar-heavy drinks, including syrupy coffees and teas. Instead, opt for drinks like regular tea or coffee, water, kombucha, or coconut water.
If none of these ideas tickle your fancy, feel free to find ones that do! So many recipe resources exist on the internet that you’re bound to find more than you could ever hope to make. One of my favorite sources is allrecipes.com.
In order to eat a whole foods diet, it’s helpful to know how to stock your pantry. This is a general list, so don’t think this is your shopping list for the healthy lunch challenge. While a few items on this list are not whole foods, the vast majority are and these ingredients can make up a fantastic pantry for eating healthy and deliciously:
Nuts and seeds – walnuts, pecans, cashews, almonds, sunflower seeds, etc.
Nut and seed butters like peanut butter, almond butter and tahini
Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries
Olive, sesame or coconut oil
White or apple vinegar
White cooking wine
Tilapia or cod fillets
Canned or fresh tuna, anchovies, mussels, oysters, clams
Canned or dried white beans, chick peas, lentils, black beans
Fresh cuts of meats (be careful as even ground pork or ground turkey often now includes natural flavors – check the ingredients)
Fresh or canned diced tomatoes
Yellow squash, zucchini, butternut squash, acorn squash, etc.
Spinach, kale, greens
Nut milks – almond, walnut, cashew milk
Oat or soy milk
Rice, barley, buckwheat, oats, kasha
While fresh and from scratch is best, let’s face it, not everyone has the time or willingness. Here are time savers and substitutions:
- Instant oatmeal and cream of wheat
- Canned beans and vegetables: drain and rinse them though
- Frozen vegetables and fruit
- Frozen fish fillets
- Canned diced tomatoes
- Store-made guacamole, salsa and hummus
A Week of Healthy Eating
And there you have it – everything you need to know to take the 7 Day Healthy Lunch Challenge! Hopefully you will enjoy the foods and the benefits they quickly bring in terms of better health, energy levels, mental clarity, sleep and digestion, and a range of others. If you enjoy these foods and their benefits, why not permanently include these and other deliciously healthy meals in your routine?
Good luck with the challenge and happy eating!
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