If you work in an office, chances are you eat a third (or more) of your meals on the job. And you’re not alone. A surprising 62 percent of us eat lunch at our desks and another 27 percent do breakfast there . Often, that means a hurried trip to the corporate cafeteria to grab something you can inhale in five minutes flat. But eating at the office doesn’t have to be a challenge. Among the burgers, fries and grilled cheese, many companies are upgrading their grub with healthier options.
If you want to eat right at work, these simple strategies make navigating the corporate cafeteria a cinch:
Outsmart the morning rush – No time for breakfast at home? No problem. If you don’t have any dietary restrictions (and in some cases even if you do) something good to eat may be as close as your company’s cafeteria. Instead of grabbing a bagel or a donut, go for a meal that contains whole grains and you’ll stay full all morning long. Unlike highly processed white flour, whole grains are slowly digested so they put the breaks on mid-morning hunger pangs. Get yours from oatmeal with fresh berries, a whole-grain English muffin with peanut butter, or a veggie-stuffed egg white omelet with whole-wheat toast.
Don’t wait until you’re starving to eat – If lunch is usually an afterthought you’re probably ravenous by the time you hit the lunch line. But when you wait too long to eat, you’re more likely to overdo it. Instead, schedule lunch (that’s right – write it in ink on your calendar) about 3 to 4 hours after you normally finish breakfast. That’s when hunger just starts to kick in, but before you’re so famished you can’t think straight.
Boost your productivity with protein – If a bowl of pasta makes you want to take a mid-afternoon snooze, it’s not your imagination. Research reveals that carb-based meals - like pasta - make you sleepy. On the other hand, protein rich foods like lean meat, chicken, tofu and fish keep you energized and focused so you’ll be more likely to nail your afternoon presentation or stay awake during that never-ending meeting.
Give your sandwich an overhaul – Many cafeteria sandwiches are big enough to feed two people. That not only means lots of gratuitous fat and calories, it also spells way too much sodium. In fact, many cafeteria sandwiches pack more than a half a day’s worth of salt which is not good for your blood pressure. Ask for your sandwich with half the normal amount meat and skip the cheese entirely. Then, swap the white bread or roll for whole-wheat. You’ll get two-thirds of your daily whole grain quota in one shot.
Find the fish – Having trouble squeezing your two weekly servings of fish? Try sushi. Not only is it an easy way to score a serving of heart-enhancing omega-3 fats, it’s neatly packaged for desk side dining. Or make a better burger. Instead of your usual turkey, chicken or beef burger, grab a grilled tuna or salmon sandwich on a whole-wheat bun. Pile it with lettuce, tomato and onions and you’ll sneak in a serving of vegetables to boot.
Go produce crazy – Making a b-line for the salad bar makes working in produce a no-brainer. Just keep in mind that those salad fixings aren’t all created equally. Steer clear of calorie-packed ready-made salads (potato and pasta salad are two that come to mind). Instead, focus on naturally low-calorie fresh produce. Since color is an indicator of nutrient content, the brighter the better. Start with a healthy base of deep, dark greens – like spinach or arugula - and then top your salad bowl with as many different colored fruits and veggies as you can find. A little dressing is fine (its fat actually helps you absorb many of your salad’s nutrients), but you’ll want to limit the amount to two soupspoons worth, max. Top it all off with a heaping handful of grilled chicken, sliced turkey, water-packed tuna or beans and dig in.
Lastly, don’t leave empty handed. A healthy snack is key for keeping your energy up when you have a long afternoon ahead of you – and the cafeteria is just the place to get it. Instead of trudging down to the vending machine at 4pm, buy a fruit cup, container of yogurt, or bag of mixed nuts to bring back to your desk for smart snacking. You’ll thank yourself later.
Karen Ansel, M.S., R.D., C.D.N. is a nutrition consultant, journalist and author specializing in nutrition. She is a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and a contributing editor for Woman’s Day magazine. Her work has been published in magazines such as Cooking Light, EatingWell, Prevention, Fitness, Women’s Health, Woman’s Day and Oprah.