How to answer that daily question: what's for lunch?

Li Anlan
With the holiday over and many people returning to work, the question of what to have for lunch is back on the agenda.
Li Anlan

What's for lunch?” is a question asked almost every weekday by office workers.

It’s difficult to find the ideal lunch from the restaurants listed in the delivery apps that have already gotten tiring, and packing your own lunch is a big project requiring planning and extra cooking time that must be fitted into a busy schedule.

Skipping lunch is not a good idea, even though some people eat their breakfast quite late. Skipping a meal is harmful for the body and especially the metabolism. One may feel weak in the late afternoon and eat too much food for dinner as compensation.

Snacks are not an ideal alternative, as most snacks are “empty calories” that don’t provide a feeling of fullness, yet add huge numbers of calories to the daily consumption.

Cookies, crackers and biscuits are especially bad ideas. A couple of crackers might be a good snack between meals, but replacing lunch with a whole packet of crackers is adding too much sugar and fat to the body.

For example, the Jiangzhong Hougu cookie marketed as a ‘healthy meal replacement” is said to contain monkey head mushroom, but the top ingredients of the cookie are ranked as flour, sugar, butter and oil. Every 100 grams of the cookie contain 20.3 grams of fat. That accounts for at least one third of the recommended daily intake.

The savory cookies may not contain much added sugar, but check the nutrition information label for the amount of fat, the result might be astonishing, as well as the high amount of sodium which is harmful to the heart and veins.

As the Spring Festival holiday is over and everyone is back to answering the lunch question (and to lose some of that holiday weight), here are some options and guides on choosing a healthy lunch.

How to answer that daily question: whats for lunch?

Deciding what’s for lunch during the week can be a challenge for office workers, especially finding healthy options.

Restaurant, cafeteria and delivery

Going to restaurants or ordering delivery are many people’s solution to workday lunches. With dine-in one can get away from work for an hour to enjoy some personal time, and deliveries are quick and hassle-free.

Dining in the cafeteria is a preferred and more economical choice for people working in companies that operate cafeterias during lunch and dinner hours. The menu might not be interesting but most cafeterias have a good range of vegetables, staples and meat dishes to cater to different tastes.

To eat healthy in restaurants, cafeterias or with deliveries, it’s simply about avoiding some “red line” items that provide the body with fat rather than nutrients.

It’s known that fried chicken and spring rolls contain lots of fat, but the deep-frying technique is used widely in Chinese stir-fries. Such as the sweet and sour pork loin that fries the meat in advance before coating with a sauce (which is also mostly sugar and oil as ketchup is usually used to enhance the flavor), or malaxiangguo, the hot and spicy pot that seems healthy with its huge number of vegetables, but the rich flavor actually comes from deep-frying the ingredients in advance before stir-frying with a chili sauce.

The local favorite youbaoxia, a glossy sauteed shrimp dish, is also deep-fried and very greasy.

One vegetable that requires some extra caution is eggplant, as many stir-fry recipes involving the vegetable require frying them in lots of oil to achieve the meaty texture, and the spongy eggplant can absorb much more oil. Eggplant salad with a light vinegar-based dressing is usually the healthy choice, as the soft texture is achieved by steaming the vegetable.

A lot of lunch sets offer simple soups and beverages to go with the meal. A humble tomato and egg drop soup or nori and dried small shrimp soup is great, while juices come with more sugar. The hearty, thick cereal and grain drinks featuring black sesame, taro, Job’s tears, red bean and more are great for winter, but they may contain quite some added sugar to elevate the flavor, so ask the staff in advance for more information.

With noodle dishes, the key is to select better toppings. The stir-fried toppings with a great, visible amount of oil floating in the dish contain unhealthier fat, alongside more condiments including salt.

How to answer that daily question: whats for lunch?

Stir-fried noodle with vegetables

Lighter-flavored broth is also healthier than the heavily spiced soups, which can contain an excess amount of sodium and fat and it’s not very wise to drink it up, especially with the spicy noodle dishes.

Dumplings, buns and wontons with less fatty fillings can make quick lunches that provide carbohydrates, protein and vegetables for the body. Fast-food items such as burgers and tacos are not to be denied as a healthy lunch. There was once discussion on Chinese social media on whether eating McDonald’s could help with weight loss, and people offered tricks of ordering the burgers the healthiest way — take away the sauce which is made of mostly fat, and go for grilled meat instead of fried. Also replace the fries in the set with corn, salad or fruit cups.

Sandwiches are great, easy-to-carry lunches when they are layered with healthy, fresh ingredients. Avoiding very salty cured meats and sauces such as full-fat mayo can make the sandwiches much healthier.

Japanese-style curry with rice is among the foods that make one feel very happy, but that curry sauce is usually prepared with curry cubes that contain a large amount of fat and salt, and they are often finished up with the rice, not to mention the deep-fried pork chops, chicken or shrimp that come as toppings. It’s great to satisfy the craving once a while, but not an ideal option for everyday consumption.

How to answer that daily question: whats for lunch?

Curry rice with fried pork chop

Packing your own

A packed lunch is considered a healthy, cost-efficient lunch solution, and especially with the COVID-19 pandemic, many have started to cook and bring packed lunches over the past year. It is time-consuming of course, but office workers that have grown accustomed to the lifestyle are eating cleaner, more nutritionally balanced lunches without answering the question every day.

In China, the lunches are usually prepared in the morning or the night before as part of the dinner to preserve freshness. A more convenient way compared with cooking fresh batches of food is to simply portion out some food from the dinner.

A perfect workday lunch consists of three parts: staple, vegetable and protein.

Rice is a preferred option compared with noodles which can get soggy and mushy when they turn cold. It’s easier to heat up rice in the microwave as well. Those taking a stricter diet may opt for fiber-rich carbohydrates like steamed taro and sweet potatoes.

How to answer that daily question: whats for lunch?

A packed lunch featuring chicken and rice.

Chinese-style steamed buns aren’t very suitable for packing as lunch because heating them up in the microwave can result in very dry texture, so a special microwave container is needed. Pancakes, tortilla and pita bread made without a significant amount of oil or butter are also good for packed lunches.

Stir-frying is the most popular technique to cook the vegetables and protein for packed lunches. It’s not only quick and preserves the nutrition, but also lasts longer in sealed containers. Dishes that don’t much emphasize unique textures, like a pork and potato stew, can be heated easily in the microwave to keep the ideal shape and taste.

Besides some fresh shrimps and prawns that have been processed neatly and cooked delicately, most seafood items are not ideal for packing as lunch as there can be an unpleasant fishy smell and taste as soon as they become cold.

Packing a sandwich is also a fast and nutritious choice, and the guideline to create a healthy sandwich is the same as ordering one mentioned above.

And as for containers, leakproof glass containers are the ideal choice — easy to clean, microwave-safe and free from unpleasant odors.

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