Easy Low-Glycemic Lunch Ideas
In this article, Kelsey Butler, RDN, shares the best low-glycemic lunch ingredients as well as ideas for sandwiches, soups, salads, wraps, bento boxes, and more.
Do you ever feel like you’re on track in the morning but by the time you get to lunch everything starts going downhill? Let’s break that cycle and get some simple, tasty, low glycemic index (GI) lunches in the mix. Eating low-glycemic meals in the middle of the day will help keep your blood sugar levels stable, energy levels high, and weight loss going. Whether you're looking for a simple sandwich solution or something a little more creative, we've got you covered!
Low GI Meals
A low-glycemic diet includes real foods that are low in added sugar or processed ingredients. They’re balanced with protein, fiber, healthy fats, and nutrients that take longer to break down and digest. Low-GI foods don't cause major fluctuations in your blood sugar levels. Low-GI meals can be anything from soups and salads to sandwiches and wraps. Overall, they’ll help keep you satiated for longer periods and support your health journey.
There are several benefits to low-GI meals. Eating low-GI foods can help control blood sugar and insulin levels, which will lead to a reduction in fat storage around the midsection. Low-GI foods have been shown to reduce food intake at follow-up meals<sup>1</sup>. They also tend to contain more essential nutrients than low-fat, ultra-processed snacks or convenience foods.
Read more about the low-glycemic diet and its benefits.
The Best Low GI Lunch Box Ingredients
Low-glycemic foods cause only small fluctuations in blood sugar levels rather than large spikes from eating only high-glycemic foods. This means more glucose control and less hunger and cravings later on. This also helps keep insulin levels low, which has been shown to help with fat loss since high levels of insulin make it more difficult to burn body fat<sup>2</sup>.
Here are some low glycemic lunch box ideas to fill up on instead of hitting the office vending machine.
It’s important to add carbohydrates to your plate for energy and other essential nutrients. There are a few different types of carbs, from simple, high-GI carbohydrates to complex, low-GI carbohydrates. Focus on whole, high-fiber carbs including whole grains, fruit, and non-starchy vegetables. Some good choices include:
- Winter squash
- Fruits and non-starchy vegetables of any kind
Protein is important for muscle building and cell functions. Protein also helps balance blood glucose when paired with carbohydrates.
Go for lean protein sources including:
- Nuts & seeds
<p class="pro-tip">Read more about the health benefits of beans and legumes</p>
Along with protein, fats assist in slowing digestion to balance blood sugar after eating. They are also used for absorbing certain vitamins. Healthy fats are ingredients that offer omega-3s, which are a type of fatty acid that can reduce inflammation<sup>3</sup>. Choose healthy fat sources such as:
- Fatty fish
- Olive oil
- Avocado oil
- Coconut oil
<p class="pro-tip">Read more about the best nuts for blood sugar</p>
How to Build a Low-Glycemic Lunch
The key to building a low-glycemic lunch is balance and diversity. Keep your plate as colorful as possible with different fruits and vegetables. Balance them with some of the protein, carb, and fat options listed above. It’s important to include a variety of ingredients to make sure you're getting enough protein, fiber, and micronutrients. These nutrients work together to balance your blood sugar and even benefit your gut microbiome as well as energy and mood<sup>4, 5, 6</sup>.
What’s more classic than a sandwich for lunch? They sometimes get a bad rap because they can be high in carbohydrates, but low-GI sandwiches are possible. Look for sourdough or whole-grain bread and use sandwich fillings like lean proteins, healthy fats, and high-fiber vegetables. You can also use sturdy green leaves like collard greens or cabbage leaves in place of bread or tortillas to make wraps.
Low-Glycemic Sandwich Fillings:
- Tuna, salmon, crab, shrimp
- Hard boiled eggs
- Leafy greens like spinach, lettuces, arugula, microgreens, etc.
- Sliced bell peppers, cucumbers, carrots, sprouts, etc.
- Grilled or roasted zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, winter squash, etc.
- Nut butter
Low glycemic pro tip: If you crave that childhood fave, peanut butter and jelly, swap sugary jam for mashed strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, or (pitted) cherries.
Soups are a simple and delicious low-glycemic lunch idea you can tote to work or school. Make sure to go for veggie-packed, broth-based soups rather than cream-based soups, which can be high in saturated fat and refined carbs. A good way to go is to batch-cook homemade soup and pack it full with low-GI ingredients, such as garlic, leafy greens, squash, tomatoes, carrots, leeks, fennel, artichokes, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, and any other non-starchy vegetable. Add protein, such as skinless chicken breast or thigh, turkey, lean grass-fed beef, bison, or fish and shellfish. Plant-based sources of protein can include tempeh or tofu. Add even more fiber and bulk with lentils and beans.
<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn about </strong> <a href="/blog/healthy-work-lunches-weight-loss">planning healthy work lunches</a>.</p>
Low glycemic pro tip: While a little bit of cream or half and half is fine in moderation, you can add creaminess to soups without using cream. Coconut milk makes a great plant-based cream substitute—just use full-fat coconut milk and strain the coconut water from canned coconut milk and use the solid white milk if you want a really creamy consistency. Thicken your soups and add a velvety mouthfeel similar to cream with leftover sourdough bread combined with some broth and pureed or with aquafaba, the liquid in canned beans.
When it comes to easy low-glycemic lunches, salads are the way to go. If you use a salad dressing or vinaigrette made with heart-healthy olive or avocado oil and doesn’t contain added sugar, and you keep any added cheese to a small serving, these lunch bowls are low in saturated fats and higher in low-GI carbs and fiber than other options. They're also super versatile, so you can include any toppings that you like—just make sure those toppings stick to the low-glycemic principles we’ve discussed.
Low Glycemic Salad Toppings:
- Any low-glycemic vegetables
- Lower-glycemic fruits such as berries, pears, apples, dried apricots, grapefruit, cherries
- Chicken, turkey breast, tuna, fish, other lean protein
- Nuts and seeds
- Olive oil and vinegar
- Fresh herbs and spices
Low glycemic pro tip: Top your low-GI salads with crunchy, snappy texture from a sprinkle of hemp hearts; raw veggies like bell peppers, snap peas, or green beans; toasted nuts, sunflower or sesame seeds, and unsweetened coconut flakes; or homemade croutons made with sourdough or rye bread tossed with olive oil and herbs and toasted until crisp in the oven or Air Fryer.
Wraps & Roll-Ups
Wraps and roll-ups can be packed with your favorite low-glycemic ingredients for an easy low-glycemic lunch! Try to find high-fiber whole-grain wraps or tortillas. Fiber plays a big role in maintaining blood glucose because it slows digestion and glucose uptake. You can also make lettuce wraps, where the tortilla is replaced with lettuce or other large leafy greens like collards or cabbage. Top both whole grain or lettuce wraps with lean proteins, healthy fats, and other vegetables.
Another delicious low-glycemic lunch idea is a low-GI bowl. Use simple grains like brown rice or quinoa mixed with lean proteins, legumes, and sauteed vegetables. You can even make a low-GI sauce with high omega-3 ingredients like avocado, nut butter, or tahini.
Bento boxes originate from Japan and include ingredients packed in a box, usually with compartments. While they’re originally made with traditional Japanese recipes, nowadays you can mix and match any ingredients in your bento box for a simple, diverse lunch. Here are a few ideas to mix and match in your customized box:
- Hard-boiled eggs with whole wheat pita bread
- Carrots and hummus
- Cucumber slices with cheese cubes
- Apple slices with peanut butter
- Pineapple pieces dipped in plain yogurt (Greek or coconut)
- Celery sticks spread with almond butter
- Strawberries or raspberries and dark chocolate chips
Never Miss Your Lunch Mark Again
Now that you've got a few ideas for a low-GI lunch, let's make sure you're always prepared!
- Keep low glycemic ingredients like fruits (low GI fruits), vegetables (low GI vegetables), lean protein, and simple grains in your inventory. It’s also a good idea to keep whole-grain wraps, tortillas, and bread in stock to make healthy meals when you're in a pinch.
- Whether you love making recipes or are pressed for time, meal prep is another way you can stay on top of your health, even during the busiest weeks.
- And finally, when you're packing lunches or snacks for school or work, make sure to pack them the night before so you won't run out of time in the morning. You can even set an alarm to ensure that you make it (and grab it on your way out the door) if you need a reminder.