Lunchtime or any mealtime has the potential to cause stress and anxiety for people who struggle with food. In this post, I’ll share my experience in learning to eat healthier lunch as an adult picky eater with 14 healthy lunch ideas for picky eaters.
As a recovering adult picky eater, I know firsthand the challenge of finding healthy lunch ideas that feel safe, satisfying and you feel comfortable eating in front of others.
All too often, being a picky eater or fussy eater is something that is only associated with kids or teens, but the truth is thousands of adults struggle each and every day with picky eating. Many think they are the only adult who struggles as a picky eater, so this post is for you! It is not just you, you are not alone, and you can find healthier food options even when you have limited food choices.
I want to honor that it is unlikely that all the foods in this post will be safe or tolerable food for you, and that’s ok. Some days you may be up to trying new foods, other days, that’s not an option—honor where you are at and do the best you can with where you are at.
My intention is not to provide you with the biggest checklist of lunch ideas or the most delicious meal there is, but instead some inspiration for some new healthy ideas to change up your current lunch routine, whether it’s by shifting to healthier versions of your comfort foods or considering a new lunch idea. The best part is you get to decide which foods are best for you and what you are most comfortable trying.
When it comes down to it, regardless of the variety of food you choose to eat, eating healthy meals is important for your health. Eating healthy doesn’t necessarily mean you need to eat lunch like everyone else. It means eating food that will help you to fuel your body with nutrition.
In order to eat a healthy and balanced lunch, your ideal goal is to have protein, healthy fat, a vegetable, and/or fresh fruit and grains. You want to minimize processed foods, which means packaged foods. Increase foods made from real ingredients- real ingredients come from Earth, not a lab. You also want to limit the amount of added sugar in your foods.
If you prefer a hot lunch and don’t have access to a microwave or stove, you can find great insulated thermos containers to keep food warm or cold if that’s what you prefer. Get creative, make it your own, breakfast foods can go great at lunch too, or you may even consider creating a snack platter.
Taking time to make yourself lunch or meal prep is a way of taking care of your body. Taking the time to enjoy prepare and enjoy your food is also part of the healing journey to developing a better relationship with food. Lunch is a meal that is not always eaten at home, but wherever it is that you are eating your lunch, try to create a peaceful and calm space to enjoy your meal.
Trying Different Foods
Before getting into the lunch ideas for adult picky eaters, I want to mention the importance of “food chaining.” “Food chaining” is the idea that you can use one safe food to lead you to another new food to try to begin to expand your diet in a slow and safe manner. This could be a lateral move, like changing the type of chips you eat to a similar but healthier version. We’ll talk more about this throughout this post as a simple way of eating foods that you already enjoy and just finding a healthier version, which tends to be easier for many than finding an entirely new food to eat. Food chaining also includes taking the chips you like and eating them alongside a new dip or another new food, so you have a safe food and a taste of a new food. All done at a comfort level that feels good to you!
Lunch Ideas for Picky Eater Adults
When it comes to healthy peanut butter, opt for a butter that has the fewest ingredients. If you like peanut butter, it is a great food that can open you up to possibly other nut butters or adding some fruit or fresh jelly along with it to a healthy bread. You can also dip a fresh vegetable such as celery sticks in peanut butter.
Picky eaters seem to either have lunch meat they tolerate or like, or they don’t do lunch meat. If you are a picky eater who does eat lunch meat or already eat other types of meat and are open to giving lunch meat a try, buying quality lunch meat can be a really healthy choice. Look for meats that are hormone-free and pasture-raised if applicable. You also want meat that is real meat and not artificially processed with who knows what else.
Homemade or Healthy Pizza
While pizza may not be on the list of every picky eater, it is certainly a common and popular food among picky eaters in general. The great thing about pizza is that you can start making healthy pizza at home. Making your own pizza is also a great way to become more comfortable in the kitchen. Many grocery stores sell pre-made pizza dough, which is a great jumping-off point add some fresh tomato sauce and any toppings you choose.
Pizza is a great food to serve as a base for trying additional ingredients or different variations. You can customize it any way you choose, which makes it a great option for the whole family. Pizza also works as a great leftover, making it an option for lunch.
Grilled cheese is another common picky eater food. If you are a grilled cheese fan, you don’t need to give it up. But instead, try to make a healthier version. For bread, consider sourdough or whole-grain bread. You can swap out butter for grass-fed butter, olive oil, or ghee. And what’s grilled cheese without the cheese of course! The key is to use real cheese, not processed. Consider cheese that is pasture-raised or grass-fed.
Oatmeal can make a great food any time of day, especially if you are craving a hot meal. There are different types of oatmeal, a steel-cut you would have to probably meal prep ahead if you are eating lunch out of the home. Instant oatmeal packets are great on the go and just need to be combined with hot water. Many hotels, conference rooms, and office spaces provide access to hot water for tea- which you can use for your oatmeal. If you are eating it in a more on-the-go space, you can even make it in a smaller drink cup; just add a spoon!
I also find oatmeal as a great base food, where you can spice such as cinnamon, fruits, nuts, or seeds in time if you like. Oatmeal is also great because you can control the consistency and make it the way you like it!
Cereals can be a great healthy option for picky eaters of any age! Cereals are often fortified with vitamins and minerals, which can help you meet daily nutritional value intakes. The key to finding healthier cereal is to “put your blinders on” when it comes to all the sugar and artificially flavored cereals. You want to find some cereals, such as rice cereal or whole-grain cereal, that is low in sugar and has only a handful of real ingredients (always read the ingredients on the back of the box). You may have to look at some healthier grocery stores to find healthier options.
If you already eat salad, salad is a great lunch option as over time, you can begin to add more toppings to it. If a salad is not already on your tolerable foods list, you could try a romaine or spring lettuce mix with a simple dressing such as olive oil. Romaine is going to be crispier and crunchier overall than a spring mix. If you already like a dressing that is used as a condiment such as a ranch, give that a try. Once you learn to tolerate a lettuce, it is a great base to work with as over time, you can begin to add new toppings such as another vegetable, fruit, nuts, seeds, or protein.
Raw vegetables can be eaten alone or dipped in a sauce such as a ranch, peanut butter, or hummus. A few great lunch options are carrots, sliced cucumbers (remove the skin first), celery, sweet bell peppers, and cauliflower.
Strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and apple slices can be great options for new fruit that is bite-sized. If you already eat apple slices, try a different color or type of apple or keeping it whole instead of sliced or vice-versa. Changing the way in which you eat foods is a way of expanding your options.
Chicken Nuggets or Chicken Strips
Since chicken nuggets can be a common food for picky eaters, let’s keep them on the table and look for healthier options. Making homemade chicken nuggets or chicken strips is a great way to ensure you are eating healthy ingredients and real chicken without fillers. If this is a safe, comfort food of yours, try to get creative with how you might be able to eat them, given your lunch options. Maybe you can transition to eating them cold or discovering how to perfect reheating them in a microwave.
Whole Grain Pasta or Chickpea Pasta
Mac and Cheese or pasta and tomato sauce can be a common food for picky eaters. Try using a healthier version of pasta such as a whole grain pasta, chickpea, or quinoa pasta. Pasta dishes can be made at home for lunch or meal prepped ahead of time. If you need to eat pasta warm and do not have access to a microwave or stovetop during lunch, try using an insulated thermos bowl container, which is great for keeping pasta dishes and soups warm.
Healthier Chips and Snacks
When it comes to chips and snacks, the good news is, there are many healthier options available while I understand this may take retraining your taste buds some (as I know picky eaters can often have only one brand they like), you do have some healthier options available for you. Siete brand foods have a great variety of chips made with real ingredients if you like tortilla chips. If you like potato chips, look for kettle-cooked in avocado, coconut, or olive oils, which are healthier oils and more minimally processed. When it comes to pretzels or other snacks, look for whole grains and ingredients that are “real” foods meaning the ingredients aren’t a bunch of chemicals.
Healthy dips such as great guacamole, salsa, or ranch can make great additions to these snacks. Most dips are available in healthier options, check out healthier grocery stores or make your own at home!
Smoothie or Fresh Juice
I’m a big fan of smoothies and fresh juices. My experience has been that they are a great way for everyone, especially picky eaters, to get a ton of nutrient-dense foods into their bodies. I’ve also found liquids easier to try and have more of than solids. If you are new to smoothies, you may try getting one from a smoothie shop or with some frozen fruit. Start with flavors you may already like. For instance, a raspberry smoothie would be a great first choice if you like raspberry candies. Over time, you can try new flavors of juices or smoothies. The textures may vary between flavors, but they are still somewhat similar, and the taste is the main variable that changes. I’ve found that it can also be easier for people. Smoothies are also a great way to gently expose your taste buds to new flavors.
There are many different types of protein shakes available nowadays. With such a variety of choices, it takes some skill to navigate the options. Some protein shakes are also marketed as meal replacements. If you are underweight, protein shakes can be a great addition to your current diet. If you are happy with your weight, you can use them as you see fit.
In looking for a protein shake, you want to turn the packaging around to look at the ingredients. You may also choose to go to a health food store and ask for recommendations. You ideally want protein shakes that are lower in sugar. There are many flavors to choose from; some mix well with juice or make a great addition to a smoothie, while others are flavored and can be mixed with water in a shaker container wherever you are.
Making healthy food choices is not always the easiest thing to do, even for people that don’t have picky palates, so honor each step forward you are taking towards incorporating more healthy recipes and healthy eating more of a priority in your life.
Interested in 1:1 support for overcoming picky eating as an adult? I can help! Book your free 20-minute consultation.
Karla Kueber is a Certified Evidence Based EFT Practioner and Health Coach, with a double Masters Degree in Education. She works with people to overcome emotional eating, curb cravings, and overcome resistance to eating new healthy foods. You can learn more about coaching with her here.