Tips for Buying Lunch at Work

Try as you might, are you still finding it difficult to prep your meals in advance for the week?  Or maybe you just really hate cooking and want to do it as little as possible.  Whatever the reason may be, I understand that preparing every meal of every day in advance isn’t a lifestyle that suits everyone.  To each their own!  If buying lunch is something that you do regularly, it’s so important to make well-informed and smart decisions to stay on track with  your goals.  I’ve been out of the buying lunch game for a while now, so I decided that for a week I would buy my lunch instead of bringing one from home, and use my experiences to come up with some tips and tricks for you on buying lunch.

As an extra little side experiment, I didn’t tell my team at work about my lunch-buying research, and wanted to see if/when they would become alarmed and concerned by my sudden change in routine.  I didn’t have to wait very long – it happened on Tuesday.

 So for my week of buying lunch, I tried to go to places that are chains, and places that are typical lunch spots. I wanted my experiences to be able to translate into general guidelines for you, but also provide specific and relevant examples.  Here’s what I wound up munching on this week for lunch:

  1. Poke (I went to a spot near my job, but all poke places are pretty similar so my tips here can be applied wherever it’s convenient for you)
  2. Sweetgreen
  3. Chipotle
  4. Stamina Grill (Ok so this one isn’t a chain, but it looked so good I had to try it)
  5. Buffet style deli (again, I went to a spot near my job, but my tips here can be applied to any buffet style deli)

Before I get into the details of each individual day, here’s a few things that I learned as general notes:

First, this might seem silly to even mention because it’s pretty obvious, but it’s so much easier to plan out your day when your lunch spot posts its nutrition facts online.  It’s important to assess the accuracy of the facts posted once you actually get your meal and can see what’s in it, but it’s so much easier to estimate when you have a starting point.  Also, don’t automatically assume that a place doesn’t have macro information online.  I am pleasantly surprised at the amount of restaurants lately that post nutrition information.  Best practice would be to Google ‘[Eatery name] nutrition information’ for any place you’re interested in eating at.  You might be surprised at which of your favorite restaurants actually post information!

Second, when you are estimating the calories/macros in a meal, break it down by each individual ingredient or component of the dish, rather than just trying to place a guesstimated number on the dish as a whole. When estimating, you’re already by default not really getting an accurate number, so by taking a general high level assessment of a dish as a whole and slapping a number on it, you’re almost positively going to be pretty far off.  Also, taking each ingredient/component individually ensures that you don’t accidentally leave something out in your consideration.

Third, keep the blinders ON at the checkout line.  I know there’s a ton of good stuff on those impulse shelves just begging to be purchased while you wait patiently on line to get rung up.  I fell victim to these impulsive purchases this week too…sometimes they’re so hard to resist!  If it’s not something you would normally eat, or if it’s not something you would have brought from home to go with your lunch, then don’t impulsively grab it while you’re waiting on line.

Fourth, when you’re at an eatery that offers ‘signature’ dishes as well as ‘build-your-own,’ it’s almost always better to make your own.  The signature dishes always have more ingredients than you’d have thought to order on your own and probably use dressings and sauces that you wouldn’t have otherwise selected.  Although they’re delicious, they have a ton of extra calories as opposed to if you were to build your own.  Best practice would be to skip directly to the build your own portion of the menu so you aren’t tempted by the signature dishes.

Fifth, on a similar note, best practice is that bowls are always better than wraps or burritos.  The wrap/tortilla adds a lot of avoidable carbs and fills you up with fairly empty calories.  I personally much rather get a bowl and fill it with protein and veggies instead.

Sixth, another best practice – plan your dinners in advance so you know exactly what macros you need to hit on lunch in order to meet your goals for the day.  Since lunches are going to be spontaneous on a day-to-day basis, dinners will need to be well planned.

Seventh, even if you’re buying lunch, you can always bring certain components from home to make it the most ideal meal.  For example, if you make your own salad dressings or dipping sauces, bring them with you and add your own flair to your store-bought lunch!  Also, if you’re having trouble hitting your protein, which was often a struggle for me this week, you can always bring some extra protein from home to supplement.

Eighth, check the restaurant’s menu prior to your arrival, and preferably right after you eat breakfast, so that you can settle on what you’ll order at a time that you’re not starving.  They say you’re not supposed to go the grocery store hungry, otherwise you’ll blow your life savings in one shop getting one of everything because you’re so excited to eat.  This follows that same idea.  Once you get to the eatery and smell all the delicious flavors in there, it’s going to be really difficult to settle on one of the more healthy options.  So check the menu early, and stick with your original decision once you get there.  It helped me to log into my macro tracking app in advance the lunch that I chose, because then it felt like a more final decision that would require more math and planning if I wanted to change it. And who has time for that, right?

Lastly, choose a solid rotation of 5-6 eateries that you like, and try to generally stick to those same places.  The more you eat at the same place, the better you will get at estimating the macros in your meal.  You’ll be able to track patterns about a certain place based on how your body reacts to its food over time.  To take an extreme example, if you eat at the same lunch spot every single day and are tracking your macros at a deficit but you aren’t losing body fat, it’s safe to assume that you’re underestimating for lunch.

Ok, with those general observations out of the way, let’s get to each day’s meals!

Monday – Pokegreen

poke 1

poke 3

I absolutely love sushi in general.  It’s really refreshing, especially now that it’s starting to get warmer out, and I like the fact that all ingredients are raw and visible.  The way sushi will get you, though, is with the rice and the sauces.  When I order my poke bowls, I always skip the rice and have them put my mix-ins over a bed of lettuce instead.  Also, instead of getting one of the mayo-based dressings, I will get Ponzu sauce, or plain soy sauce.

On this day, I ordered a bowl with lettuce as the base instead of rice, salmon and tuna as my proteins, and the following mix-ins: cucumber, edamame, corn, seaweed, and roe.  I chose Ponzu sauce as the dressing (but I even recommend soy sauce, which is equally as delicious and essentially free of calories).  I generally try to order as many low-cal veggies that a place like this has to offer, such as cucumber, celery, tomato, etc. And I will choose a maximum of two higher carb mix-ins like corn and edamame.   Once I got back to work, I googled each of the ingredients in my bowl to get an estimate on the nutrition facts of each.  I also estimated that they gave me a full serving of each fish (about 3 oz), and that an ice cream scoop (which is what they used for the mix-ins) is 1/4 cup.  After taking each ingredient into consideration, my meal came out to P – 71, C – 52, and F – 29.  It was a whopping 750 calories, which is almost double what I usually eat at lunch, so needless to say I was pretty full after.  Retrospectively, I thought about how I could have changed my order to have a more favorable spread of macros.  I decided that I could have done double tuna instead of half tuna half salmon, which would have saved a lot of fats.  I also could have done without the corn, which has a lot of carbs.  Lastly, I could have done soy sauce instead of the Ponzu.  Had I made those three simple alterations to my order, I’d have saved about 200 calories.

Tuesday – Sweetgreen

Sweet green

After yesterday’s accidental huge lunch, I decided to play it ‘safe’ and get a salad on Tuesday.  Believe it or not, I actually had never tried Sweetgreen before.  In general, the salad was tasty and the ingredients were fresh, but my experience here wasn’t the most ideal.  Maybe I had gone at an off-hour, but a bunch of popular ingredients weren’t restocked so I had to wait quite a bit of time for my salad to get made.  Also, maybe I’m spoiled but I really wish they had chopped the salad.  Either way, I enjoyed it and will go back again before jumping to any conclusions, since it was my first time trying it out.

I know I just mentioned that I wish Sweetgreen had chopped my salad.  When you read that, I’ll bet you said out loud, excitedly, ‘but Madeline, there’s a place specifically KNOWN for chopping their salads – you HAVE to try it!’  Let me take just an extra minute of your time here to talk about Chop’t.  I used to be an avid Chop’t goer, a few years back.  When I started counting my macros, though, I educated myself on the nutrition facts and ingredients in their salads, I had a really hard time getting any of their signature bowls to fit my diet plan.  I still wanted to go there, though, so I decided to just build my own salad, and it came out to literally $17.  That was my last time going to Chop’t.

I actually forget the exact ingredients I ordered in my salad since I didn’t write them down immediately afterwards.  I do remember that after looking up the nutritional information of corn yesterday, I decided to do without it in my salad.  For protein, I got chicken and an egg, and as dressing I just got a squeeze of fresh lime.  I estimated this lunch at P – 30, C – 20, and F – 12.

Wednesday – Chipotle


This might come as a surprise to you, as it did for me when my fitness guru told me, but Chipotle is a macro counter’s heavenly dream.  The food is delicious, obviously, and you can walk out of there with literally any spread of macros that your heart desires.  It’s a great option for grabbing a quick bite out, and you don’t even need to plan much ahead of time for it since it’s so customizable.  If you aren’t aware of all of the customizable options at Chipotle, you’re absolutely doing it wrong.  If you remember one thing only from reading this post, I hope it’s the following customizability hacks at Chipotle that can totally save your macros:

  1. I’ll start small.  Omit any ingredient you don’t want.  Low carb day?  Skip the rice and beans altogether.
  2. Customizable scoop sizes!  I know it’s difficult to tell exactly how much is in each spoonful of goodness that goes into your plate, but you can request baby scoops, half scoops, large scoops, and double scoops of any ingredient you want.  The price of your lunch might vary, but at least you’ll be getting a meal you’re comfortable with.
  3. Unlimited veggies!  I don’t know why, but I always forget about the fajita veggies until my bowl has already passed along to the next assemblyman behind the counter, and then I have to ask them to go all the way back to the beginning of the process just to get me my veggies.  I’m the worst.  But seriously, don’t skip those veggies.  They’re really tasty, filling, and add some greens to your day.

I ordered my typical Chipotle order – burrito bowl, no rice, 1/2 scoop beans, double chicken, double fajita veggies, tomato salsa, corn salsa, and lettuce.  P – 75, C – 45, F – 17.  633 calories total, but they’re 633 calories I’m totally fine with.

Thursday – Stamina Grill

stamina grill

So if you’re not in this specific area, you unfortunately can’t go to the Stamina Grill.  This place was very cool.  Everything is made to order using fresh ingredients.  For wraps, the tortillas are whole wheat and low carb, and the french fries are baked instead of fried.  They also do juices and smoothies, but I didn’t get one of those so I can’t speak about them from experience.  On this day, I got the Stamina Wrap (chicken, spinach, and egg whites), and I added low-fat mozzarella cheese.  I used the internet to estimate the macros for the low carb whole wheat wrap and the lowfat mozzarella, and I eyeballed the chicken and egg whites once I got the wrap in order to try to get the portions right.  I settled on P – 45, C – 19, and F – 14 for the whole wrap.

Friday – Essen Deli

essen 2

Essen 3

I both love and hate buffet style deli lunches, mostly because they’re so hit-or-miss.  Generally speaking, they’re pretty good because you get to pick and choose exactly what you want to fill your plate with.  The downside is that you never really know what’s in each dish and how it’s prepared.  I was a little bit disappointed when I walked into this particular Essen location and perused the hot and cold buffet because there wasn’t any option that wasn’t already pre-seasoned and pre-dressed.  Usually at these buffet spreads, there’s at least something that’s steamed, and at least one salad option that you get to dress yourself.  Not here, though.  I definitely had the most difficulty on this day because it was just really difficult to estimate my macros.  A little trick that I do when trying to decide which options to choose when at these types of eateries is to take the serving spoon and move aside all the food in a plate until I can see the bottom.  If there’s a pool of oil down there, chances are the food is also covered in it.

I wound up choosing a salad as a base to my dish that was dressed with a sweet dressing and tossed with strawberries, almond slivers, and dried cranberries.  It was definitely a high carb/sugar salad, but I chose it because it was the only salad option that didn’t have a creamy salad dressing.  croutons, or a visible pool of oil in it.  I topped my salad with a generous portion of grilled chicken, and roasted cauliflower.  All of the veggies had oil on them, so I accounted for about 2 servings of olive oil for the veggies alone.  Overall this meal was really tasty, but probably the highest calorie salad I’ve had in years.

Let’s recap.

Buying lunch out definitely has its pros and cons.  The pros include that the food is certainly tasty, and you can have a nice variety every day.  Also, if you pack your lunch the night before like I do (instead of preparing every single container for the week at once) it does save a lot of time and energy spent cutting things up and planning/packaging a meal every night.  Oh, and so much time saved not washing dishes.  Lastly, there’s the social aspect of it.  I joked around earlier that my team was concerned with my sudden behavior change, but kidding aside it was really nice spending that extra 20-30 minutes with them while we walked to lunch and waited on line together.

The cons, though.  Buying lunch every day is way more expensive than prepping it yourself.  It also prevents you from being accurate in tracking your macros.  Lastly, buying food out is very high in sodium.  I rarely cook with any salt, so I was very aware of the amount of sodium in the lunches that I bought.

Overall, I enjoyed this experience.  And while I’ll never be the type of person at work to buy lunch every day, I will definitely remember that there are viable options out there if I do want to buy lunch occasionally but don’t want to totally blow my macros.

I hope this post was helpful!  What are your favorite lunch spots?  Do you run into the same difficulties I ran into this week?  I’d love to hear your experiences!

Stay fit and fueled, all!

essen 1

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