Being the busy professionals that we are, finding time to prepare healthy foods for work lunches can be challenging. All too often, the easiest and most convenient lunch option is anything that can be grabbed and eaten on the run. Unfortunately, most prepared or ready-to-eat meals are flooded with fats, added sugars and tonnes of sodium.
To the hungry worker, food courts present themselves as an enticing and tempting lunch option. With their array of choices, bright lights and myriad of smells, even the healthiest of eaters can easily get thrown off course when given so many tempting food delights. The good news however is that if you find yourself at a food court on an empty stomach, all is not lost when it comes to ordering sensibly. Here are my top tips to making wise food choices in any food court:
Hit the salad bar
Even the most dingy of food courts should have at least one outlet that offers salad. Whether you have to order “off the menu” and ask the cook to put it together as a special order, most places are happy to do this. Pair as many fresh vegetables as you can with a lean protein (think grilled chicken or quinoa) and steer clear of the fatty and deep fried cuts of meat. Be wary also of salad dressings – most, (even the “low fat” ones) pack a tonne of added calories onto your once-healthy meal. Dress salads in olive oil or a lemon vinaigrette only. If in doubt about what is in a particular dressing, make sure to ask. I was at Sydney airport recently and almost made the mistake of ordering a pre-made salad without first asking what it was dressed in. The answer, not surprisingly, was that the dressing had a heap of sugar and salt. Food outlets can get tricky with this so have your wits about you. Remember – things like sweet chilli sauce equal sugar too, so make sure you’re aware of what you’re ordering.
Soup is a favourite on a cold, wintery day and once again, you should find it relatively easy to get some version of soup in a food court. There are also pitfalls here though, so watch out. For a healthy option, try to stick with stock-based or clear soups (chicken noodle, minestrone, bean/lentil) and avoid heavy, cream-based varieties (potato and leek, cream of pumpkin etc.)
Asian stir fry
Similar rules apply here as to the salads (see above). Opt for lean cuts of meat and avoid anything battered or fried. Make sure you load up on as many veggies as you can get but once again, watch out for the sauces/dressings here. Soy sauce is packed with salt (and MSG, and gluten), and most other Asian-style sauces are extremely high in sugar – think oyster sauce, sweet chilli, black bean etc. Try to order your stir fry with the most basic of ingredients. Pair with a side of steamed brown rice (if available), or stick to the veggies only. Avoid the white rice, it is nutritionally void and will only send your blood sugar levels raging.
Most food courts feature a yiros or gyro shop. With all that fatty meat dripping from the rotisserie, it can be very easy to get led astray here. There are healthy options however. Ditch the heavy bread wraps and opt instead for a hummus platter, with fresh veggies, hummus dip and perhaps some falafel. Commercial falafels can be a fat bomb though, as they are deep fried in low quality vegetable oils, so keep that in mind. If you do want to go for the meat, choose a few shavings of leaner meat to top on salad. Dab the meat with a paper towel or napkin if you feel that it is too fatty still.
Roast of the day
If you are a fan of the Paleo diet, you will easily pick up roast meat and roasted vegetables at practically any food court. Watch out for the common traps here though – try to choose leaner cuts of meat, and avoid too many starchy vegetables, like potatoes, opting instead for greener varieties.
Once again, making healthy food choices comes down to being educated about the options you have at hand. It is virtually possible to eat healthily anywhere you may find yourself in your lunch hour, you simply need to be smart about it.