Being a healthy vegan is all about making choices. You’ve already made one great choice by taking part in Veganuary 2015 (or maybe you’re planning to take part in 2016), so you’re well on your way. If you’re after a healthy lifestyle, one of the main things to think about when preparing your own food or eating out is what your meal is actually made from – which is no different to being healthy before you became vegan! Too much sugar, salt, processed and refined ingredients have been shown to have a negative impact on our bodies and long-term health. But being a healthy vegan doesn’t mean eating bland and boring food, or denying yourself anything you love; cakes, burgers, pizzas and roast dinners are still on the menu – it’s how you prepare them that makes the difference.
In these posts I’m going to guide you through some of these options; to help you make informed choices at the dinner table, desk, or on the go and eating out. You’ll love the food and you’ll feel better for it – believe me, I started out as a junk food vegan, but my life is so much more enjoyable now that I’ve found a balance.
Lunch isn’t just about sandwiches, tinned soup and pasta salad! All you need to get a variety of ingredients, flavours and textures into your midday meal is a tiny bit of imagination and experimentation. So let’s get started and come up with some new lunch ideas and make this a meal to look forward to!
I want to begin by addressing the misconception that you can’t buy a vegan lunch. I know – from my own experience – that lunch on the go can induce worry, particularly for those following a healthy diet. But fear not! Lots of our friends on the high street now offer clearly-labelled vegan options, which are happily now also more in line with the ‘eating whole’ movement. Pret, to take an example familiar to nearly everyone, have some great options including a Superfood Salad and a Veggie Sushi Protein Pot which make delicious and healthy alternatives to a wrap or sandwich. For some other great high street regulars with fantastic healthy vegan options, check out Le Pain Quotidien (think Baba Ganoush with organic bread) and Pho, whose bright and spicy soups are made only with fresh vegetables, are low in fat and saturated fat and full of vitamins and minerals. Wonderful!
As I mentioned in my previous piece on healthy breakfasts, being healthy isn’t just about being low in fat. If eating out, it’s always good to consider the sugar and salt content of what you’re ordering (particularly in soup and bread), and to take the approach of ‘what am I gaining from something?’, rather than ‘what can’t I have?’. So the message here is to pile up the fresh vegetables and whole food ingredients and add lovely splashes of flavour with spices, homemade dressings and pickles.
With this in mind, here are a few suggestions of how to make your lunch delicious every day (especially if you’re eating it at your desk), whether you have the time to spare in the evenings to prepare, or need to put something together as you run out the door.
Soup: I absolutely adore soup! It’s a simple and super healthy way to ensure you have a whole week’s worth of healthy lunches ready to go in advance. To keep it as healthy as possible, only use a tiny drop of oil (or none at all) and pack as many fresh vegetables as possible into the pot. Simmer for 20 minutes, leave to cool and freeze in separate containers until you’re ready for lunch. Once you’ve made a few of different batches you’ll have a variety of flavours to choose from during the week, so you won’t get bored. To add extra flavour, use a few drops of good soy sauce in place of table salt, and include fresh herbs and chillies. If you want something even simpler, packets of organic miso soup (the Clearspring brand are delicious) are a great healthy alternative – just pour on hot water!
Sandwiches: Aside from the pitfalls of most pre-made sandwiches coming laden with mayonnaise, the ‘unhealthy’ factor is often lurking in the bread used, so making your own is going to win every time! How about a wholemeal pita with hummus, spinach, smoked tofu and pickles? Or a slice of toasted rye with avocado, chilli and lemon? You can even mash up chickpeas with different spices to resemble a tuna mayo sandwich… Try to avoid any processed white breads, as these have the lowest nutritional value and are often full of chemicals, sugar and preservatives. If you’re pushing the boat out a little, why not give sprouted breads a try?
Salad: Many supermarket salads can leave you feeling cheated, that you’ve paid for a healthy lunch but have ended up with something that isn’t that tasty (or healthy). Making your own means you can include what you like, down to inventing your own delicious dressings and toppings. How about making a kale caesar salad with cashew sauce and a handful of seeds or grilled tofu? Or a chopped salad with lots of different colours and flavours – think carrot, apple, lime and walnut for something with a real power boost for the afternoon. If you have the time in advance, roast up some chickpeas with rosemary and spices until they’re crispy, to sprinkle onto your salad as healthy croutons – these make a delicious partner to spring greens!
Bowls: By creating your own ‘bowl’ for lunch, you’re essentially giving yourself licence to create whatever healthy and hearty concoction of your favourite ingredients you feel like that day (just think of a bowl as a supercharged salad)! Some of my favourite combinations are falafel (homemade or shop-bought – just keep an eye out for options that aren’t high in sugar or lots of preservatives) with heirloom tomatoes, gherkins, hummus (or a spoonful of tahini) and steamed greens like broccoli or mange tout: refreshing greens in cold water after cooking means they taste just as lovely and fresh the next day. Bowls are also a handy way to enjoy your favourite wrap or pasta dish, without the heavy bread or starch.
Baked potatoes: Everyone loves a baked potato! Not the lightest of lunches, but cooked with care this can be a great option for a wholesome and filling lunch. Sweet potatoes are the best option in terms of nutrition, however all varieties have a health value. The best thing about baking potatoes is that you don’t need any oil (the same goes for wedges, but we’ll talk more about that when we come to dinner). For healthy toppings; hummus, beans, tofu scramble and salad are all good – just remember to check the sugar levels if you’re dousing your jacket in shop-bought baked beans.
Pasta salad: A lunchtime classic – but often not the most nutritious option. Most pre-packaged pasta salads are created from white pasta and are covered in sauce with a high saturated fat content, so making your own is a great alternative. Opt for wholemeal or gluten free pasta, or try out an alternative such as puy lentils, freekeh, quinoa, orzo or even raw cauliflower (whizz it up in a food processor until it resembles rice!); then think about making some healthy changes to the sauce or dressing. Have you tried liquid aminos yet? A little spritz of these is a great alternative to soy sauce to bring an Asian flavour to your dish. One of my favourite summer lunches is zoodles with avocado sauce, tomatoes and olives – it’s all raw, super healthy, fresh and so simple to make!
Dips: If you’re less of a ‘full meal’ for lunch fan, how about making a big batch of healthy guacamole, tapenade or hummus at the start of the week? Enjoy it with your favourite raw veggies, toasted wholemeal pita or sugar-free oatcakes. Simple and delicious!
Leftover dinner: If you make a healthy dinner, why not turn it into a healthy lunch? Leftovers need not be boring or repetitive – they can be transformed into something else entirely! Last night’s lentil bolognese can quite happily become today’s burrito by encasing it in romaine leaves with some spring onions, avocado and fresh tomatoes. Even if I only have a few leftover vegetables from dinner I still combine them with a miso soup for a quick and healthy lunch.
Snacks: Crisps are almost a lunchtime institution, aren’t they? A long-standing favourite as something crunchy to go with our sandwiches, but also an addition to our diets that can make an otherwise wholesome lunch into something not so good for us. Why not make your own kale chips when you next have the oven on low (sprinkle on some nutritional yeast for cheesy chips), or choose a healthier brand for your bag of crisps. Food Doctor have a lovely range, or for something entirely different Propercorn popcorn makes a delicious and healthy snack! If none of these take your fancy, don’t forget that unroasted nuts and seeds are a fantastic source of nutrients and protein and go with pretty much everything.
Sweet treats: Fresh fruit will always top the charts for a healthy sweet snack at lunchtime (especially when all those lovely antioxidant-rich berries come into season!), but there are lots of other easy to make options that are perfect for a midday treat – I always have a little container of homemade bliss balls in my bag to see me through the afternoon. All you need to make these healthy, nutritious and tasty snacks are a few ingredients including nuts, dates, dried fruit and raw cacao (or cocoa powder) for some instant chocolate truffles! Why not experiment with your favourite flavours?
You can find recipes for some of my healthy and delicious lunch suggestions over on The Whole Ingredient, and of course don’t forget to check out the Veganuary Recipes for some great-tasting inspiration!