Healthy & Easy Vegan Lunch Ideas for Work (or School)
You’re ready to make the switch - you’ve swapped out your morning french vanilla creamer for a vegan friendly creamer, and you’ve been swapping out meat for beans in your favorite chili recipe.
Then Sunday evening rolls around, and you find yourself staring at an open fridge, completely stuck - with bologna sandwiches and tuna salad out of the picture, what will you bring for lunch?
It can be tempting to purchase a vegan lunch every day from your local salad or sandwich shop, but this can add up over time, and you’re guaranteed to be eating healthier when you’re in control of the ingredients that go into your meal.
While it’s fun to go out to eat with co-workers or fellow students every now and again, brown-bagging is a healthy and economical option.
Packing a vegan lunch doesn’t have to be challenging or elaborate - with just a few simple guidelines and some basic menu items to customize to your taste, you’ll be able to whip up a lunch in no time, without even a mere mention of meat, dairy, or eggs.
Components of a Stick-With-You Lunch
When you find yourself lingering around the vending machine around 2 pm, you know that your lunch just didn’t pack enough “oomph.” To keep feeling full and satisfied well into the afternoon, you should make sure your lunch contains these components:
Make all the “where’s the protein” jokes you want, but protein is no joke when it comes to keeping you feeling full!
A recent study showed that protein increases satiety to a greater extent than fat or carbohydrates.
Those trying to watch their waistlines should also focus on protein in their meals, as they keep you from snacking on extra calories throughout the afternoon and can even increase your energy (read: calorie) burn.
You can incorporate tofu, tempeh, beans, lentils, TVP, or protein powder into your lunch for a healthy energy boost, to help you lose or maintain weight, and to keep you full and sated until dinnertime.
For more reading check out our full guide to vegan protein sources.
2. Complex Carbohydrates
Today, it’s understood that it’s a healthy move to swap out simple carbohydrates for complex carbohydrates - think whole wheat bread instead of white bread, brown rice instead of white, rolled oats instead of sugary breakfast cereals.
Not only is this healthier, but studies show that complex carbohydrates help you feel fuller longer.
In a study published in Nature, vast differences in satiety and energy levels were found 30, 60, and 90 minutes after a meal depending on whether the person consumed a breakfast of simple carbs or complex carbs.
This is hugely important when you’re thinking of what to pack in your lunch since the only thing more inconvenient than needing a snack at your desk at 2 pm is needing a nap at 2 pm!
Complex carbs will stick with you and carry you through that dreaded afternoon slump.
These two factors come together to create a meal that will keep you full and focused throughout your day. Now let’s start translating those nutrients into actual meals and plans you can use for inspiration as you fill your lunchbox.
Keep It Simple, Silly
It’s an old adage, but I’m a big fan of the K.I.S.S. method - keep it simple, silly!
Of course, this can be easier said than done in the age of the Internet and digital aggregation sites like Pinterest.
Seeing the creative ideas people post can create pressure to overcomplicate things, which can lead to frustration and burnout.
Remember that not every lunch needs to be Pinterest - or Instagram - ”worthy” to be delicious, filling, and nutritious! Certain foods are staples for a reason, so don’t be afraid to add small, fun, modern twists on foods you already know and love.
By taking these steps, you’ll keep things easy on yourself and will guarantee that you’ll look forward to eating your packed lunch once noon rolls around!
The simplest option of all is also one of my favorites - bringing leftovers from last night’s dinner. To cut most the thinking about of the next day’s lunch, I simply make extra of whatever dinner I’m preparing.
This also cuts down on almost all the effort involved in packing a separate lunch - it’s not like it costs me double the time or energy to make four servings of stir-fry or pasta instead of two.
It’s easy to just pack up the extra servings in containers for lunch, and eat the fresh stuff for dinner.
Most of the time, I find the flavors are even better once they have been able to sit and mingle in the fridge overnight. The best of both worlds!
Think Big...Batch, That Is
Like leftovers on a bigger scale, you can engage in what’s called “Meal Prep Sunday” (which, of course, can take place any day of the week).
This takes the concept of leftovers and puts it in overdrive - the basic idea is to take a few hours out of your weekend (or whatever days you have free) and prepare a large batch of meals that you can simply pack and bring along during your busier week.
Many of your favorite recipes for a crowd lend themselves well to Meal Prep Sunday - it’s super easy to make a big pot of chili or soup, a tray of lasagna, or a giant wok full of stir fry for a few hours on the weekend and pack these away in separate Tupperware.
Dishes like these also tend to freeze well, so you can stick a few containers in the freezer and defrost them later in the week, so they stay as fresh as possible when you’re ready to eat them.
Big Batch Recipes for Lunches:
- Ultimate Vegan Lasagna - Vegetarian Times
- Classic Vegan Falafel - Minimalist Baker
- Red Lentil Thai Chili - The Post-Punk Kitchen
Veganize Old Standbys
Of course, there are some people who are grossed out by leftovers, or who get bored eating the same thing several days in a row. In these cases, it’s an easy option to take what you might typically bring for lunch and make it vegan.
- Sandwiches are popular lunch foods because they’re fast, convenient, and travel well. The king of sandwiches, peanut butter & jelly, already happens to be vegan, but you can fill your bread with a variety of ingredients depending on your taste.
- Spread hummus on your bread and stack veggies like tomato, lettuce, cucumbers, and bean sprouts for a hearty vegetable sandwich, or tuck in a few Tofurky deli slices, lettuce, tomato, and a smidge of vegan mayonnaise.
- You can go the sweet route with crunchy peanut butter, sliced banana, and a drizzle of agave nectar - I have a friend who adds a few slices of crunchy vegan bacon to her peanut butter and banana sandwich! It sounds crazy, but the salty-sweet-creamy-crunchy tastes and textures of the sandwich are a perfect combination.
- One of my favorite sandwich fillings - regarding taste, and to impress co-workers in the break room - is to veganize my childhood favorite, chicken salad. For this easy sandwich filling, simply mash chickpeas and add vegan mayonnaise, some chopped veggies, and salt & pepper to taste.
A little-crumbled seaweed turns this into “tu-no” salad, and you’ll be impressed at how similar the two options look to what you’re used to. This is also a great option for people who are nervous about eating “weird vegan food” in front of friends or co-workers, as it looks familiar and unassuming. If you’re avoiding bread or are gluten-free, chickpea salad is also delicious with sliced cucumbers and bell pepper.
You can find a great recipe for chickpea salad here.
To change things up, try stuffing any of the fillings above into a whole wheat wrap or pita!
Hot or Cold
If you work in an office, you likely have access to at least a small refrigerator to keep your food cold until lunchtime. However, if your office doesn’t offer this, or you’re looking for foods that will stay fresh at room temperature, you still have plenty of options!
My husband’s favorite lunch is a big pasta salad, because it’s easy to assemble, extremely versatile, and doesn’t need to be refrigerated. We make a huge batch on Sundays, and he brings it in his lunch throughout the week.
In the table below, pick one (or several!) items from each column and add them to your pasta salad - the flavors only get better the longer it sits in the fridge. Remember that even using vegan mayonnaise still means your food will be fresh by lunchtime - there are no eggs involved!
For best results, pick lots of options from the veggies column to bulk up your salad, and cram lots of nutrients into fewer calories.
Roasted Red Pepper
Ratatouille is also a versatile dish that can be eaten hot or cold, with bread or as a pasta topping. Its flexibility means you can use it in your lunches throughout the week without feeling like you’re eating the same thing all the time.
This easy French favorite involves combining cooked onions, eggplant, zucchini, and peppers with a fresh, herby tomato sauce.
You can find a recipe for ratatouille here.
Snacks and Treats
What would lunch be without a tasty side or treat to look forward to? Most snacks and sides that you’d already pack into lunch are already vegan-friendly, or can be with the addition of a few tweaks.
For savory lunchbox additions, think tamari roasted almonds, salted light popcorn (pop and bag your own dry kernels to keep the oil content low), rice cakes, roasted chickpeas, or hummus with sliced fresh veggies.
Making the Most of a Vegan Lunch
By incorporating protein, complex carbs, and lots of flavors, you can pack a vegan lunch that’s convenient, economical, and will keep you full and satisfied well into the evening.
Whether you like to use a big batch of a dish as your weekly staple, or you prefer to change things up by adding small vegan tweaks to your typical lunches, it’s not hard to find inspiration and brown bag a tasty cruelty-free lunch for every day of the week.
And who knows, you might inspire a co-worker or two to venture into the world of veganism by setting a good example in the break room, too!