While breakfast has the reputation of being the most important meal of the day, lunch may be the real unsung hero. Historically, lunch was the main meal of the day, eaten at home anytime from late morning to mid-afternoon following several hours’ work. During the industrial era, when the workplace moved farther from the home, workers began packing their lunches to sustain their energy during a long shift.

Is lunch important? 

Today, it is well understood that healthy lunches are key to energizing your team in order to improve productivity, increase their overall health and, in the long-term, reduce the onset of chronic disease. A healthy lunch maintains blood sugar levels, avoiding the spike and crash associated with unhealthy snacking. Finally, a midday meal that fits into an overall healthy eating pattern (think fruits/vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, healthy fats) boosts your employees’ overall health and reduces risk factors for heart disease and diabetes, among other chronic conditions. Studies have also shown that taking a break improves focus, allowing the mind to reset and directly improving productivity and performance. 

Yet many employees don’t take the time to have lunch, much less to ensure it is a healthy one. According to a recent survey, 38% of North American employees don’t feel encouraged to take a lunch break and 22% of managers view workers who take a lunch break as less hardworking. This is a problem, as research has found that employees who take breaks report fewer negative health symptoms, higher job satisfaction, and lower rates of burnout.

Interested in how a healthy lunch can help your employees feel and perform their best? Read on to learn more.

Why are healthy lunches so important?

Do you ever feel fatigued during your long workday? Did you know certain foods can boost your energy levels, and even your mood? Refined carbohydrates, like white bread or pasta, break down quickly, providing a burst of energy followed by a slump. It’s true indulgent lunches like pizza or pasta can be part of a healthy diet, however, consuming these types of foods regularly could have negative short term and long term effects. Short term effects include leaving your team feeling sluggish and stressed, decreasing their capacity to work. Long term effects of indulgent lunches on a daily basis could put them at risk for developing obesity, high blood pressure and chronic diseases such as heart disease. Luckily, there are many ways to increase the nutrition of all types of meals and our team of dietitians has some great tips to make it simple and easy. 

What is a healthy lunch? 

A meal that includes:

  • Fruits or vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Lean protein 
  • Healthy fats
  • Minimal amounts of refined carbohydrates (think starchy foods like white bread, pasta) and saturated fats (think fried foods, butter, red meat)

1. Fruits and Vegetables

Rich in essential vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, fruits and vegetables help boost the immune system and can prevent the onset of chronic disease. In fact, data shows that when your diet is high in fruits and vegetables, you are at a lower risk for developing chronic disease, particularly heart disease. Heart disease is the number one cause of death in America and can largely be prevented by following a healthy balanced diet. Add a cup of fruit or side salad to your meal to increase the amount of fruits and vegetables or load up on vegetables in your burrito, sandwich or wrap to add more nutrition bang for your buck!

2. Whole grains 

A whole grain kernel contains all three parts of the grain, the bran, the endosperm and the germ. These components are rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals making it a healthier choice compared to other processed grains, where the grain kernel is stripped of these components down to only the starchy endosperm. Whole grains are rich in fiber, a nutrient that regulates the digestive system and helps stabilize blood sugar levels. Whole grains are also rich in B vitamins which can boost energy levels and antioxidants which support a healthy immune system. Whole grains include quinoa, oats, barley, brown rice, bulgur and buckwheat. You can include whole grains in your lunch in a few simple ways, such as opting for whole wheat bread on your sandwich, quinoa instead of white rice in your customizable bowl or whole wheat crust for your pizza. Many restaurants offer alternatives to the standard preparation of the dish presented on the menu.

3. Lean proteins 

Lean proteins include fish, skinless white meat chicken or turkey breast and plant based proteins such as tofu, beans and legumes. These proteins are low in saturated fats, contain fewer calories compared to other proteins such as red meat and help keep us feeling full for longer periods of time, which helps boost energy levels. Opt for a chicken or turkey burger instead of a traditional beef burger, make sure to include beans in your burrito or build your own poke bowl to make sure you are getting your fill of lean proteins in your healthy lunch. 

4. Healthy Fats

Not all fats are created equal. Unhealthy fats include saturated and trans fats. These types of fats can be found in animal products such as red meat and cheese and can lead to elevated LDL cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein known as the “bad” cholesterol that can cause cholesterol to build up the bloodstream and clog arteries), decreased HDL cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein know as the “good” cholesterol that removes cholesterol from the bloodstream), which can increase the risk for developing certain chronic diseases such as heart disease if consumed on a regular basis. Healthy fats come from unsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids. These healthy fats can be found in foods like fish, avocado, olive oil, nuts, seeds and have the opposite effect in the body. These healthy fats can increase HDL cholesterol, decrease LDL cholesterol and triglycerides and ultimately help prevent the onset of chronic disease like heart disease. There are a few easy ways to add healthy fats to your employee lunch, for example, always adding avocado to your burrito, sandwich or bowl whenever possible. Look for olive oil based salad dressings and condiments for your sandwich in place of cream based dressings and sauces. Lastly, whenever possible, look for dishes that include a fatty fish such as salmon in order to ensure a meal that is rich in heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids (and lean protein, too!). 

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Now that we know what a healthy lunch is, how can we order it successfully?

There are many diet plans out there that claim to be healthy and whether your team is following one of those special diets or eating whatever they want, it’s important to know how to order a healthy lunch that the entire team can enjoy. 

Generally speaking, the Mediterranean diet is known for being high in healthy fats, fruits, vegetables and whole grains and low in saturated fats, refined and processed grains. Research consistently shows that the Mediterranean diet effectively reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease as well as overall mortality. A study of 26,000 women found that those who followed the diet had 25% less risk of developing cardiovascular disease over the course of twelve years. The biggest drivers of this were reduced inflammation, blood sugar and BMI (body mass index). 

Another study found that participants who followed the Mediterranean diet have longer telomere length. Telomeres are a specific part of DNA that gets shorter with age, leading to cell damage and age-related disease. Stress and inflammation accelerate telomere shortening, while antioxidants in the Mediterranean diet can help preserve their length. This is why Mediterranean cuisine is a great option for our team’s next group lunch order. Mediterranean food is a great option for or an energizing, filling, healthy lunch. 

Kalamata’s in Miami, Fl, for example, has a variety of healthy Mediterrean dishes to fuel the team for their employee lunch. The grilled salmon, in particular, is an expertly balanced healthy lunch option. The salmon is rich in lean protein and heart healthy fats. Bulgur is rich in fiber and the side salad gives you your serving of vegetables to round out the meal. Delicious, balanced and nutritious. 

This daily catch salad from Honeybrains in New York, NY is another great example of a healthy lunch. Kale is rich in antioxidants, vitamin C (boosts the immune system) and vitamin K (promotes healthy blood flow and helps build strong bones). Sweet potato is a great source of vitamin A (a crucial vitamin for eye health) and fiber. The crushed peanuts are a good source of heart healthy fats and salmon is a lean protein. A well balanced meal, like this example, will provide sustained energy without the afternoon energy crash. No more blood sugar roller coasters! 

Another great way to create a healthy, balanced meal is to personalize it whenever possible. Burgers, wraps and sandwiches are a few meals that may offer some healthy opportunities to create a delicious and nutritious lunch. Whenever possible, add as many vegetable toppings such as tomato, lettuce, onion, peppers, sprouts and pickles. Healthy fats such as avocado and an olive oil based spread or dressing is another great add-on. Opt for a whole wheat bun, bread, or wrap to include a healthy grain. Swap out your side of chips for a side salad or cup of fruit and you’ve got a completely balanced, healthy and energizing meal. 

For example, Roam Burger in San Francisco, CA gives many customizable options. Create a healthier burger by loading up on the vegetable toppings, opting for a lettuce wrap instead of a bun or choosing a leaner meat such as turkey or a veggie burger instead of classic beef. A high fat meal, like a classic cheeseburger, provides more sustained energy (fat takes longer to digest, therefore keeping us feeling full for longer periods of time) but can make us feel sluggish as the digestive system works harder to break it down. Customizing this meal with more nutritious options can reduce the negative impact.

What if your team isn’t into “healthy” restaurants?

There are a few ways to increase the nutrition of other, more indulgent lunches. Pizzas and pastas, for example, can be high in refined carbohydrates and saturated fats, making them a less than ideal choice for your team’s lunch. Adding vegetables to these types of dishes will increase the vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients that the dish wouldn’t otherwise have. Opting for whole wheat pasta and pizza crust, when possible, is another great option. Choose a pasta dish with an oil or marinara based sauce instead of a cream based sauce in order to decrease the amount of saturated fats in the dish. Lastly, make sure to add a lean protein such as fish, poultry or plant based proteins like tofu or beans when possible. For example, Happy Camper Pizza in Chicago, IL offers an array of delicious pizzas with the option for a whole wheat or gluten-free crust. The Glen pizza is loaded with vegetables. A slice of this pizza and a side salad would be a great option for your team’s office lunch:

Restaurants that offer “build your own bowl” styles of meals are another great way to customize a healthy lunch. Bowls are a great opportunity to select a whole grain such as quinoa or brown rice or vegetables such as lettuce or kale as the base of the meal. From there, load up on vegetables, healthy fats such as nuts, seeds and avocado as well as lean proteins. Throw in some plant based proteins such as beans and legumes which are rich in protein and fiber. Poke bowls, in particular, offer an array of vegetable choices mixed with an assortment of fish options, a perfect pairing for a filling, energizing lunch. 

FOB Poke Bar in Seattle, WA, for example has both pre-made and build your own styles of poke bowls. Perfect for your next group lunch order because your team members that want to customize their lunch can do so, and for those dealing with meal decision fatigue and want their meal made for them, that’s an option too. Check out a few more ideas for healthy office lunches, as recommended by our team of dietitians.

What are the barriers preventing your employees from having a healthy lunch?

As an employer, it is critical to understand what may be preventing your employees from having a healthy lunch. A recent survey found that more than two thirds of employees are experiencing burnout as a result of pandemic-related stressors. Especially in a remote work environment, a longer-than-average work day coupled with family responsibilities and the time it takes to prepare a nutritious meal (and clean up afterwards) can make it difficult for even the most motivated employee to stick to a healthy lunch routine. 

What can you do to make healthy eating easier for your employees?

Figuring out how to order a healthy meal can be challenging. Whether your team is battling mealtime decision fatigue, has limited time to devote to meal planning or is too busy managing their kids schedules on top of everything else, we’re here to make it easy:

1. Make health and wellness part of your company culture

Instituting an employee wellness program that includes food benefits can reinforce the importance of a well-balanced diet and encourage your employees to adopt healthier habits. DoorDash for Work’s Expensed Meals allows you to set a food ordering budget for your team to expense meals no matter where they work, providing time and energy savings that allows them to refuel stress-free.

Don’t have the budget for food benefits? No problem. Simply encouraging your employees to take a lunch break and providing them with the knowledge they need to eat healthy can be just as beneficial. Check out our dietitian-developed nutrition webinars, which includes how to order healthy meals, navigating menus with food allergies, and maintaining healthy habits while working remotely.

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2. Remove time- and cost-related barriers

The perception that food delivery is too expensive or time-intensive can be an hurdle for employees who might otherwise order a healthy lunch. A member of your team who might love to order a grain bowl from their favorite local restaurant may opt instead for a less healthy “quick” option at home simply because they didn’t realize how easy it has become to order delivery.

A solution is to provide your team with a DashPass for Work subscription, which gives them reduced service fees and free delivery on eligible orders and makes it easy to have meals delivered right to their door, anytime, anywhere. DashPass for Work subscribers also have access to a dietitian-curated Healthy Eats carousel, which makes choosing a healthy lunch as quick and easy as possible. 

DoorDash also features an “order ahead” option which is especially great for busy employees. This is a useful tool for days when meetings are scheduled back to back and your team needs to eat lunch during a small window of time. Now they can order ahead to make sure it arrives when they need it. That way, your team is sure to be fueled and ready to conquer the rest of their day. 

  

 

3. Make it social

Another important lunchtime factor is promoting your team to connect over lunch. Setting up Zoom lunches is a great way to bring the team together, encourage team building and ensure everyone gets a set time to break and enjoy a nutritious meal. This will leave everyone feeling refueled and energized to complete the rest of their day as well as foster a healthy and happy company culture

Want to help your employees get the most out of their meals and even boost their productivity? Get started with DoorDash for Work products, which will provide your team with the fuel they need to do their best work. Contact us today to get started and download The ROI of DoorDash for Work to see how you can improve your HR benefits.

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author-kelseygonzalez
Kelsey Gonzalez, RD, MDA
Registered Dietitian

Kelsey Gonzalez is a registered dietitian with a master's degree in dietetic administration and has been working in the health and nutrition field for over a decade. She has worked in a variety of settings including nutrition counseling, corporate wellness and sports nutrition with collegiate athletes. Kelsey’s happy place is the beach. In her free time, you can find her there, along with her tribe: hubby, three kids under the age of four, and their loyal rescue pup.