The Calorie Wallet: How to Spend Calories Wisely at Lunch
by Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD, FAND ed
A few weeks ago, I introduced the idea of a “calorie wallet” . The idea of the calorie wallet is simply this: if you think of your calories as currency, you might spend them more wisely. Whenever you pull money out of your wallet – whether it’s actual cash or calories – you’re generally seeking the best value. So, when it comes to choosing what foods you’re going to eat, the goals is to get the most nutritional value you can for the number of calories you have to spend.
Related article: Calories: What They Are and Why You Need Them
In the last post, I discussed different breakfast options and their impact on your calorie budget. Today, we’re taking a look at typical lunch options, and how you can make the best choices at your midday meal without breaking the bank.
We ask a lot of our lunchtime calories. For many of us, the meal we have in the middle of the day has to carry us through the afternoon and all the way until dinner. To best do that, this meal will need to be nutrient packed so we can stay sharp and energetic during the second half of the day. In short, we’re looking to spend our calories on a meal that’s filling, satisfying, protein-rich and not too heavy – and that’s a tall order.
What choices are you making at lunch? And how many calorie bucks are you having to pull out of your wallet to pay for them?
- A salad for lunch can be a healthy meal if it’s based on fresh greens and veggies, and has some added lean protein – like grilled fish or chicken, or maybe a scoop of low fat cottage cheese. Even with a couple of tablespoons of light salad dressing, you’ll be pulling out less than 400 calories out of your wallet. But many restaurant salads are often loaded up with high-calorie ingredients like cheese, fatty meats, oily tortilla strips or croutons, and then they’re drenched in heavy dressing. If that’s your idea of a salad, you’ll be bankrupt in no time. If you’re not making your own salad, ask your restaurant server to leave out some of the high calorie ingredients, and ask for dressing on the side so you can control the amount you use.
- A sandwich at lunch can cost you a lot of calories. More often than not, a restaurant sandwich starts with some type of low-fiber white bread, which is then spread with a layer of fatty mayonnaise, and finally topped with a hefty portion of fatty meat and cheese. Stop there and you’ll still be pulling more than 500 calories out of your wallet. And, if you have your sandwich grilled, it will cost you another 150 calorie bucks or so. By the time you add in beverages and sides, you could be nearly broke for the day. If sandwiches are your thing, choose whole grain breads whenever you can (and, leave off one slice of bread and have your sandwich open-face) choose lean proteins, pile on the veggies, and skip the fatty spreads and replace with mustard.
- Fast foods at lunch come at a high calorie cost. Fast food meals are indeed quick – quick at emptying your calorie wallet, that is. A typical cheeseburger and medium sized fries will cost you about 700 calories. Add a soda, and you’ll be pulling two more “big ones” out of your wallet. Mexican-style fast foods can add up quickly, too, thanks to high calorie ingredients like fried chips or taco shells, cheese, sour cream, refried beans and fatty meats. You can save some calories by looking for healthier options – like salads or grilled chicken sandwiches at burger places, or soft grilled chicken tacos at Mexican-style take-out restaurants.
- Don’t forget the cost of the sides and beverages. When you’re counting out the calorie cash you’ll be spending on your entrée, don’t forget the cost of the sides and the beverages. Add chips, fries or potato salad to your meal and you might need to pull another 300 calories or so out of your wallet. And, it will cost you a few hundred morecalories if you wash it all down with a sugary soda or lemonade.
- Packing your own lunch keeps you in charge of the calorie cost. It’s so much easier to know how many calories you’ll be spending when you’re in charge. For around 400 calories, you could pack your own lunch – a grilled piece of chicken and some leftover veggies from last night’s dinner, or maybe some salad greens topped with some canned tuna and avocado slices – and you’ve still got enough calories leftover to throw in a piece of fruit for dessert. If you tend to work through lunch and need something quick and easy, a shake made with some protein powder, nonfat milk and fruit will keep you satisfied. And, with a cost of less than 300 calories, you’ll be able to stash some cash for the rest of the day.
Susan Bowerman is Director of Nutrition Training at Herbalife. Susan is a Registered Dietitian and a Board-Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics.
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