Image of ladies who lunch - from the 40s

What should a woman eat for lunch?

The Good Life Part 03: Advice on healthy eating for women at home, in cafes and restaurants and how to pack a lunch-box.


Ladies who lunch

The body responds well to a rest at lunchtime, as well as some food to power the afternoon ahead.  But unless we’re at home and have time to cook, lunch is probably the meal where we will have the least control over what we eat.  So how does a woman eat well at lunch time?

Make a record

Don’t forget to record your eating using the portion system I explained fully in Part 01. And remember that the act of recording our eating brings it out of the subconscious and into the conscious part of the mind.  If we are conscious of what we are eating there is less chance of us being seduced into eating over sweet, fatty or over processed foods – any of which you might regret.

Cooking at home

Eating at home, it is relatively easy to select five or six portions of healthy food to make a conventional lunch, based on lean protein and two or more vegetables.  For example, choose omelette and salad, cold chicken, mashed potatoes and Brussels sprouts or tofu stroganoff with broccoli and brown rice.  Even if you are alone, allow yourself a little time in the kitchen to create something nutritious and appetising.  The secret of good eating at home is to shop well.  That means store cupboards full and vegetable racks overflowing.  Fresh local veg will keep for a week.  I recommend frequenting your local farmers’ market.  Avoid ready meals – they rarely satisfy.

Eating in cafés

As soon as we get outside the home, our food choices tend to plummet.  For one thing we are forced to rely on the lunch offered by a hundred different cafes and take-aways, almost all of them run by a ravenously venal fast-food industry.  Try to steer clear of the chains.  If you go to a café, hunt out an independent one where you can eat something light and protein rich. Remember that it wouldn’t be too much to eat 25-35g pure protein at lunch time.  That’s the equivalent of 135-190g white fish such as cod.  And lunch is the time to get in all those vegetables.  Three or four portions of vegetables isn’t too much (about 60g/portion).

The healthy lunch counter at my local cafe.
Image: Copyright Wendy Shillam Taken at Gitane

This is one of my local independent cafés where the lunchtime offering is good.  Look at the counter options and decide what you might choose.  Could you have made a better choice? Might you have needed to have a few supplies in your bag to augment the selection.  For example, why not carry a handfuls of seeds or a few nuts to sprinkle onto the salad, or a slice or two of real wholemeal bread to eat with the soup – it’s butternut squash today.

The fruit salad is lovely, but at Gitane they often remove it at lunch time. It is considered a breakfast option. So, perhaps bring an orange or a banana to finish the meal. A little sweetness at the end of a meal sends signals to the body that the blood sugars have been topped up – no need to eat more. Recent studies have confirmed the traditional belief that the sweet course (after a main meal)  tends to switch off hunger signals in the brain and induce satiety (feeling full) [i] . That is why it is traditional to have a sweet course at the end of the meal.

If you are completely stuck and can find nowhere that looks nice, or you are forced to eat where your friend want to go, try eggs and beans on brown toast, soup, fresh fruit or that ubiquitous high protein hot shake – the cappuccino.  These are all available in most cafés.

The packed lunch

For reasons of economy and quality a packed lunch can be a really good idea.  But how do we ensure that what was packed up at 7.30am, still tastes good and looks attractive at one o’clock.

Picture of elderley ladies on a partk bench enjoying a cuppa and a laugh
Credit: British Heart Foundation

Lunch isn’t for wimps

Instead of packing wimpish lettuce leaves that tend to limp, try using kale or shredded cabbage instead. Robust leaves will last far longer in a lunch-box.  Leaves such as Tuscan kale, which are an acquired taste in a fresh salad, will taste delicious after an hour or two in a light dressing.

Think marinades

Many foods that require a marinade taste better after a few hours joggling along in a backpack.  Mix a robust tofu with a bit of tamari sauce, chopped ginger, sesame paste, seeds, salt, pepper and a few chilli flakes and serve with some left-over brown rice topped with fresh rocket.

Layer the food

Layers are fun to uncover. They preserve the individual flavour more than a mixed meal.  Try layering salads in a pot, starting with leaves, then add root vegetables cut into fingers, sliced onions, and finally sliced tomatoes. Top with a dribble of lemon juice or balsamic vinegar and seasoning.  The liquid from the tomatoes will trickle down forming a delicious oil-free dressing.

Small is beautiful

Packaging you buy in the shops is designed to be misleading.  For example, yoghurt pots almost always have a dished or false bottom. But your Tupperware isn’t like that.  So, check quantities.  Very small reusable plastic pots or tiny jam jars make excellent containers. The tiny round ones in the image below come from John Lewis.

Use natures packaging

Hard boiled eggs, nuts, a bread roll, bananas and oranges last well. Soft fruit doesn’t. Prepare and chop soft fruit and sprinkle with a little citrus juice or apple vinegar and half a teaspoon of your favourite sweetener (sugar, honey or maple syrup).  Use reuseable pots, paper or wood.  The bamboo cutlery below comes free in Waitrose and M&S – I wash it and re-use it many times.  It seems indestructible, but is in fact biodegradeable.

Don’t bother with liquids

Liquid is very heavy to carry.  And there is nowhere in the country where you can’t get a glass of water or a hot beverage.   Unless you are hiking in August, you won’t need extra [ii].

Spice up your lunch

Try adding a bit more flavouring than you normally would.  Travelling in air conditioned train carriages, or sitting in a stuffy office, can alter the sensitivity of our taste buds. Air conditioning or refrigeration can destroy the subtle flavour of the food. Consider sliced ginger, garlic and chilli flakes, alongside herbs and spices.

Pack in the protein

Lean protein is difficult to find in a lot of lunch spots. And protein is something that women of a certain age, cannot get enough of. Here’s my list of the most portable:

  • Left-over lean chicken
  • Cooked prawns – eat a piece of citrus fruit to clear away stray fishy odours afterwards
  • Tofu – contains subtle plant oestrogens that may help relieve menopausal symptoms
  • Soup made with meat or chicken stock, with added grains, lentils or rice (top up with julienne strips of chicken or soya)
  • Edamame beans (soya beans)
  • Raw peas, or mange tout, split peas or beans
  • Quorn pieces in a marinade – don’t require cooking
  • Smoked salmon
  • Peanut butter and wholemeal bread sandwiches
  • Yoghurt
  • 2 or 3 chunks of hard cheese (20-40g)

The most easily transported lean protein is probably the hard-boiled eggs. To ring the changes try making a two egg omelette, season and roll it up in waxed paper.

One-pot wonders

many delicious meals can be placed in one insulated pot, or heated up in the office. My favourites use classic combinations such as rice and beans, lentils and tomatoes, couscous and fetta, tinned salmon with fennel and lemon, or tuna salad Nicoise.  If you have an air-tight container you could even take a soup to work with you.

Pick and Mix

I’ve laid out a few of my favourite packed lunch options below.

Typical packed lunch
Packed lunch: Image copyright, Wendy Shillam  * Satiety is that feeling of fullness we get after a satisfying meal.

Deserts for lunch

How many of us select a nice salad from the counter, then ruin it all by digging into something very sweet and sickly afterwards?   Make sure your first course includes some complex wholemeal bread, pasta or grains, these are slow release carbohydrates. Leave a little time to digest your main course before you decide to eat more.

Take a tip from the French, where lunchtime deserts are ubiquitously fresh fruit, petit Suisse (a soft white cheese), crème caramel, or a strong black coffee and a few sugared almonds.  Use desert to consciously supplement with nutrients that might have been missing in the savoury part of the lunch box, such as vitamin C, calcium, protein or minerals.  (Citrus fruit, milkor yoghurt, egg dishes and nutty dishes respectively.) Alternatively keep the servings dainty.

Drinking at lunch time

I recommend drinking quite a bit at lunch time.  Many offices are hot and can be airless. Dehydration impairs the workflow as much as hunger.  Though don’t take a leaf out of the lunching ladies at the head of the post, and augment your meal with a dry martini and a cigarette.  Alcohol is a depressant.  In the short term it will make us garrulous and noisy.  But after an hour or so, alcohol tend to make us moody and moribund, and that’s not a good look mid-afternoon if you’re chairing a meeting.

Should you eat the same thing every day?

In 2017, a poll of 2,000 people, surveyed by the New Covent Garden Soup Company, discovered that 77% of their sample ate the same lunch every day, and had done so for the last nine months. That’s not a great idea.  Eating a variety of foods will ensure that we get enough of all the trace elements, vitamins and minerals that are required in a healthy diet.  And it is simply more fun.  Do change your eating habits according to the season.  It would be shame to miss the winter seafoods, summer fruits, spring greens or the autumn harvest.


[i]Pleger, B. Impact of Hunger, Satiety, and Oral Glucose on the Association Between Insulin and Resting-State Human Brain Activity. (2019)

[ii] If you drink liquid with each meal and have the occasional glass of water, tea or coffee, it is unlikely that you’ll need to carry extra water around with you. Feeling thirsty all the time is either a symptom of illness, or it is due to a malfunction in your heating or office air-conditioning system.  Contact your GP or the facilities manager.

If you’ve enjoyed this post please leave a comment.  If you’d like to read the rest of the series the publication dates and links are below.


13 November – Balanced Diet

22 November – Breakfast

29 November – Lunch

6 December – Dinner

13 December – Snacks

20 December – Commensality (celebrations, parties and eating with friends)

27 December – The New You


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