Easy Grab-and-Go Lunch Ideas for Athletes
With busy weekday schedules it can be helpful for athletes to have easy grab-and-go lunch ideas. Let’s take a look at what to include in a healthy lunch for athletes. Then we will explore a variety of grab-and-go lunch ideas athletes can enjoy during the week.
Importance of Lunch for Athletes
Even when athletes do not have time for a sit-down meal, making time for lunch is important. Lunch provides athletes with the energy needed to fuel their afternoon activities.
Building a Healthy Lunch for Athletes
Lunch does not have to be a complicated meal to meet an athlete’s sports nutrition needs. By planning ahead and keeping a few key items on hand, athletes can be prepared to fix nutritious grab-and-go lunches.
Healthy lunches for athletes should include the following key nutrients:
- Good source of carbohydrates
- Moderate amount of lean protein
- Healthy, unsaturated fats
- Vitamins and minerals from fruits and vegetables
- Nutritious beverage
Meal Prep Grab-and-Go Lunches
On the weekend, athletes should take time to review their schedule for the upcoming week. Based on their schedule, athletes can identify which days a grab-and-go lunch will be needed.
It can be helpful to meal prep some of the grab-and-go lunch items in advance to save time on busy weekdays. Some simple ideas for meal prep include:
- Chop fresh fruits and vegetables
- Hard-boil eggs
- Individually package whole grain crackers, pretzels, and pita chips
- Grill or bake extra chicken breasts
- Prepare a large batch of rice or quinoa and portion into individual servings
Deli sandwiches can also be made ahead of time to have ready for the week. Just make sure to wait to add condiments and toppings that could make the bread soggy until you plan to eat the sandwich (i.e., mayonnaise, mustard, guacamole, hummus, pickles).
Grab-and-Go Lunch for Athletes: Healthy Beverages
Including a healthy drink with lunch can help athletes with meeting their hydration goals. Staying hydrated is important for an athlete’s health as well as sports performance. Ideas for beverages to enjoy at lunch include:
- Low-fat milk
- 100% fruit or vegetable juice
- Sparkling water
Grab-and-Go Lunch Ideas for Athletes
Now that you have an understanding of the components of a healthy lunch, let’s look at a variety of grab-and-go lunch ideas for athletes.
Enjoying a sandwich with your grab-and-go lunch is an easy way to add carbohydrates, lean protein, healthy fats, and veggies to your meal.
Choose Whole Grain Breads
Athletes should focus on choosing whole grain breads to enjoy their sandwich on. Whole grains contain fiber, vitamins, and minerals, making them a healthy part of an athlete’s lunch.
When selecting whole grain items, read the package to ensure the product is 100% whole grain. As you read the ingredient list, the word “whole” should be listed as the first ingredient in the product, such as whole wheat, whole rye, or whole oat.
When making sandwiches, you do not have to limit yourself to regular sandwich bread. The use of wraps, sub rolls, English muffins, and bagels will all give your sandwich a different twist.
The great thing about sandwiches is that you can change the fillings and have a different sandwich variety each day. Here are some healthy ideas for fillings to include in your sandwich.
- Deli Meat: When selecting deli meat, choose leaner varieties, such as turkey, chicken, roast beef, and ham. Also, when possible, purchase deli meat that is sliced fresh for you at the store.
- Chicken: Grilled or rotisserie chicken is perfect for adding to a wrap or to use to make chicken salad.
- Cheese: Low-fat sliced cheese is a great way to add protein and calcium to your sandwich. If making a wrap consider adding feta cheese or blue cheese crumbles for added flavor.
- Tuna and Salmon: Tuna and salmon both provide lean protein and healthy omega-3 fatty acids, making them a nutritious addition to sandwiches.
- Hard-Boiled Eggs: Eggs are rich in nutrients, providing protein, vitamins, and minerals. Hard-boiled eggs can be sliced and enjoyed on a sandwich. Also consider making egg salad to enjoy as a sandwich spread.
Pro Tip: Plain Greek yogurt can be used in place of mayonnaise when making chicken, tuna, or egg salad. If you add a squeeze of lemon juice and some Dijon mustard it will further enhance the flavor of your recipe. Substituting Greek yogurt in your recipe is an easy way to add protein and calcium to your meal.
Plant-Based Sandwich Fillings
In addition to the ideas above, consider adding the following plant-based fillings to your sandwich.
- Hummus: Hummus is a plant-based spread made with chickpeas. Hummus provides protein, carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, and minerals, making it a nutritious topping on sandwiches and wraps.
- Healthy Fats: Sliced avocado, guacamole, olives, olive oil-based dressings, and nut butters all provide healthy, unsaturated fats making them great options to include on a sandwich.
- Veggies: Load a variety of fresh vegetable toppings onto your sandwich or wrap; ideas include: spinach, tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, red onions, sliced mushrooms, shredded carrots, capers, and roasted red peppers.
Grab-and-Go Sandwich Ideas
Putting this all together, here are some easy grab-and-go sandwich ideas for your lunch.
- Classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich
- Turkey, spinach, tomato, and avocado wrap
- Tuna salad on a wheat sub roll
- Hummus and vegetable wrap
- Egg salad on an English muffin
- Turkey avocado bagel sandwich
- Ham and Swiss on rye bread
- Greek chicken wrap (add tomatoes, red onion, feta cheese, and black olives)
Combination Grab-and-Go Lunch Ideas
Another easy way to make a grab-and-go lunch is by throwing together several individual items to create a meal. Athletes can enjoy a different lunch each day by selecting different combinations of favorite food items.
Here are some food ideas to keep available for grab-and-go lunches:
Foods Containing Protein
- Greek yogurt
- Cottage cheese, string cheese, cheese sticks
- Hard-boiled eggs
- Single-serving pouches of tuna or salmon
- Shredded rotisserie chicken, grilled chicken
- Nuts and seeds
- Edamame, beans, lentils
- Individual containers of hummus or nut butter
- Crackers, pita chips, pretzels, whole grain cereal
- Whole grain bread, bagels, wraps, rolls
- Brown rice, quinoa
Fruit and Veggies
- Seasonal fresh fruit, dried fruit
- Baby carrots, sliced cucumber, celery sticks, cherry tomatoes
- Sugar snap peas, mini peppers
- Raw broccoli and cauliflower
- Roasted potatoes or sweet potatoes
- Avocado, guacamole
Leftovers for Lunch
When preparing meals for the week, don’t forget that leftovers are a great option for a grab-and-go lunch. Consider preparing extra so you have plenty to enjoy for lunch later in the week.
Some great leftovers to take for lunch include:
- Burrito bowl: Leftover taco meat or grilled chicken, brown rice, and black beans, top with diced tomatoes, salsa, and sliced avocado for a great lunch.
- Spaghetti with lean meat sauce
- Turkey chili with beans and brown rice
- Grilled chicken, quinoa, roasted vegetables
Reminder: When packing leftovers to take for lunch, make sure you have access to a microwave to appropriately heat the food before eating.
Grab-and-Go Lunch Options for Athletes at Restaurants
In addition to packing nutritious grab-and-go lunches from home, it can be helpful for athletes to have ideas for healthy meals they can order at restaurants. Here are ideas for quick grab-and-go meals from a variety of restaurants.
- Deli Restaurant: Turkey sub sandwich on wheat bread with extra vegetable toppings, pretzels, fresh fruit cup
- Mexican Food / Burritos: Chicken burrito bowl with brown rice, black beans, lettuce, tomato, salsa, pico de gallo, and guacamole
- Burger Restaurant: Single patty burger on wheat bun, apple slices
- Chicken Restaurant: Grilled chicken sandwich on wheat bun, side salad, fruit and yogurt parfait
- Pizza Restaurant: Pizza topped with ham and pizza veggies, side salad
Food Safety with Grab-and-Go Lunches
When packing your grab-and-go lunch it is important to keep food safety in mind. Holding foods at the correct temperature is a critical aspect of food safety.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines the temperature range between 40°F and 140°F, as the “Danger Zone” in which bacteria can rapidly grow. Perishable foods should not be left in the temperature danger zone for more than 2 hours.
This time frame decreases to 1 hour if the temperature exceeds 90 °F, such as at an outdoor summer practice. Food left in the temperature danger zone should be thrown away, as you do not want to risk getting a foodborne illness.
Food Safety: Foods to Hold Cold
Perishable food items that athletes need to make sure are held cold (below 40°F) include:
- Dairy: Milk, yogurt, cheese
- Deli meat, hard-boiled eggs
- Meat, poultry, seafood
- Produce that has been cut or sliced (i.e., sliced melon)
- Mayonnaise or products containing mayonnaise (tuna, chicken, or egg salad)
- Cooked leftover food items
Athletes should make sure all perishable food items are packed in an insulated lunch bag with an ice pack. It is important to ensure perishable food is kept cold until it is time to eat.
Easy Grab-and-Go Lunch Ideas for Athletes
You are now set with a variety of easy grab-and-go lunch ideas for athletes. Remember to take time on the weekend to plan ahead so you have easy lunch options ready for the week.
For additional sports nutrition meal ideas, check out my blog: 3 Keys to Building Healthy Breakfasts for Athletes.
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About the Author
Mandy is a Sports Dietitian Nutritionist in the San Antonio, TX area. She is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian, a Board-Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, a Licensed Athletic Trainer, and is a Certified Exercise Physiologist through the American College of Sports Medicine. Mandy has experience working with athletes at the high school, collegiate, and professional levels. She believes the key to reaching one’s full potential, both in everyday life and in sports performance, relies on a healthy nutritional foundation. Learn more about the work Mandy does here.