How to make a quick, healthy lunch on the cheap

August 26 2015

When you're caught up in the rat race, it's not always easy to stay active and maintain a balanced diet. If you were to stop somebody in the street and ask them about their eating and exercising habits, chances are they'd tell you that the two main barriers they face in their quest for a healthy lifestyle are time and money.

Deadlines are getting tighter, lunch breaks are getting shorter and working hours are getting longer, so we fully understand why people will settle for a quick, cheap and not particularly healthy option when they eat their lunch. It doesn't have to be this way, though. While time constraints are one thing, the cost of eating healthily is often overblown. Sticking to a healthy diet doesn't have to cost the earth, and anyone who saw our recent infographic will know that we've been banging this drum for quite a while.

To further prove our point, we decided to do a bit of good old-fashioned product testing. We created a healthy homemade chicken wrap and then compared this with three similar wraps that had not been prepared with our own fair hands.

We ended up with:

• A healthy homemade chicken wrap
• A pre-packaged supermarket-bought chicken wrap
• A chicken wrap from a fast food chain
• A chicken wrap from a healthy eating food bar

Chicken wrap 1There was nothing at all scientific about what we did. We just wanted to a) show you how quick, easy and cheap it is to make your own healthy lunch, b) highlight the nutritional benefits of the ingredients that we chose to include and how these can enhance your fitness regime, and c) compare how our lunch stacked up against the others in terms of calorie count, cost and taste.

How to make a healthy chicken wrap… quickly

You’ve got in from work, and you’ve even managed to fit in a workout at your local gym. The last thing you want to do for the rest of the evening is slave away in the kitchen. According to Ofgem, we can save more than £735 a year by making our own lunches, rather than paying for convenience foods. That’s the price of a pretty decent holiday right there, which is a good way to think of it.

Our chicken wrap took ten minutes to make, and we made enough to tide us over for two days. All you need to do is grill a chicken breast, chop up a few greens, mix some natural yoghurt with a bit of fresh lemon juice and garlic, and chuck it all into your wrap. Anybody can do it.

chicken wrap 2Here’s what we put in there, and why.

150g of diced grilled chicken: 159 kcal

A great source of protein, white meat like chicken tends to have far less saturated fat than red meats such as beef and lamb, especially if it’s skinless. Make sure you grill it rather than fry it.

50g of lettuce: 8 kcal

You may not think it, but lettuce is packed with nutrients; particularly Vitamin K, which is good for your bone metabolism. With so few calories, you can really pile your wrap high.

100g of green pepper: 20 kcal

Full of vitamins, green bell peppers are best served raw. The more you cook them, the more nutrients you lose.

¼ pot of natural yoghurt (mixed with garlic and lemon juice): 90 kcal

chicken wrap 3Nobody wants a dry wrap. It’s the sauce that makes all the difference from a taste and nutritional perspective. Shop-bought and takeaway variations tend to come with a high-calorie dressing of some description. That won’t do. Mixed with the juice from a fresh lemon and half a clove of garlic, we created a low-fat natural yoghurt sauce that tasted sensational.

50g of spinach: 15 kcal

We’re really ramping things up here. High in fibre, as well as Vitamins A, C and K, spinach is widely revered as a “superfood”, so it takes pride of place in our lunchtime wrap. It’s easy to see why Popeye swore by this fantastic veg.

Carrot shavings: Minimal calorie content

They say that one slice of carrot contains just one calorie. By throwing in a few shavings, you’re getting a near calorie-free hit of essential nutrients. Raw carrot adds some lovely colour and crunch to your wrap.

Whole-wheat tortilla: 92 kcal each

Like the sauce, your choice of wrap can make or break the nutritional value of your wrap. We opted for a whole-wheat version, which is far healthier than a standard white flour wrap (which is what you’ll get at your local fast-food joint and probably in the supermarket too).

50g of spinach: 15 kcal

chicken wrp 4Total calorie count: 384

What about the cost?

We’re not going to pull the wool over your eyes like one of those celebrity chefs who tell you that you can cook a meal for two for less than £5 (only if you happen to have a multitude of expensive herbs and spices knocking around in your kitchen). While the cost of buying the ingredients to make our healthy wrap will outweigh the other options, you need to remember that working in bulk will save you lots of money in the long run.

We bought 1kg of chicken breast for just £5.79, which was the equivalent of six separate fillets. So if you break this down, the piece of chicken that we used in our wrap cost us 96p. Our other costs were thus:

Peppers (3 pack): £1
Bag of spinach: £1
Lettuce: 29p
Tortilla wraps (8 pack): £1
Lemon (3 pack): 59p
Garlic bulb (4 pack): 85p
Natural yoghurt: 45p for 500g (works out at just over 11p per wrap serving)
Carrot: 49p for 1kg (lots of carrots!)
Total overall cost: £11.46

When you compare this sum to the individual cost of the other wraps, it looks less appealing, but look at how much healthy produce you’ve got. You can easily make six wraps from this lot, in which case you’re looking at a cost of just £1.91 for each lunch you take to work. Of course, you won’t want to take the exact same wrap in each day, but this gives you an idea of just how cheap and easy it is to prepare a healthy meal.

So, how do the others compare?

Fast food

chicken wrap 5Cost: £2.99
Calorie count: 322

Yes, we know what you’re thinking, the fast food wrap has come in 62 calories below our homemade version. “That’s the equivalent of around five minutes on the exercise bike in the gym,” we hear you cry.

The evidence may be damning on the face of it, but if we take a look at the ingredients of the fast food wrap, we can see that it carries far less nutritional goodness than our own. It contains a smattering of lettuce, some cucumber and a slice of tomato. No spinach, pepper or carrot in sight. What’s more worrying is the number of ingredients in the fast food wrap’s sauces. All manner of thickeners, sugars, oils and vinegars are included, whereas we know that our sauce consists of just three ingredients. Ask any nutritionist and they’ll tell you that the key to eating clean is to find foods that have minimal ingredients. There’s no processed stuff in our wrap, that’s for sure.

Also, this is a valuable lesson that calories aren’t the be all and end all of a balanced diet. We’ve discussed this topic before, but it’s worth noting at this juncture that not all calories are equal. The calories that you consume through healthy fruit and veg, for example, are far more beneficial to you than those that come from a highly processed, sugar-rich sauce or dressing. While it’s always sensible to keep tabs on how many calories you are taking on board, you should pay more attention to the wider nutritional value of your food.

Supermarket-bought, pre-packaged wrap

chicken wrap 6Cost: £2.45
Calorie count: 476 kcal

Like the fast food wrap, our supermarket-bought lunch teaches us another valuable lesson about what we don’t want to see in our food.

Although the calorie count is not astronomically high, the salt content - 1.7g - represents more than a quarter of a person’s daily recommended consumption, while the amount of fat in this wrap was also worrying high at nearly 25g (saturated fat was measured as 4.4g).

Again, the ingredients list on the supermarket-bought wrap read a little like ‘War and Peace’. There’s an abundance of purees, sugars, salt, palm oil, rapeseed oil and raising agents in there, all of which we really could do without. Supermarkets will tempt you with cheap meal deals, but as convenient as these may be when time is of the essence, this is arguably the worst option of the four.

Healthy eating food establishment

chicken wrap 7Cost: £4.49

Calories: Not known

Earlier this year, the University of Cambridge published a study that showed the number of takeaways opening in the UK increased by 45% between 1990 and 2008, which is a worrying statistic to say the least.

However, we’re increasingly seeing more health food takeaway establishments popping up across the country, which at least gives us some better options if we need a quick, healthy bite. On this occasion, we ordered a lime and coriander wrap, which consisted of fresh, nutritious ingredients.

Although the store wasn’t able to give us an accurate calorie breakdown (much to our surprise), we were more than happy with the quality of the wrap.

It contained:

Grilled chicken
• “Mixed leaves”
• Sweetcorn
• Shredded carrot
• Cucumber
• Red chillies
• Lime and coriander

Of course, the main problem with the fare served up by these kind of establishments is the price. At £4.49, this wrap was clearly the most expensive of the four, doing nothing to dispel claims that eating healthily is too expensive.

What it does reiterate, however, is that it’s far more cost-effective in the long term to make your own lunches.

The taste test

chicken wrap 8We’ve ascertained that if you’re looking for a healthy, cheap lunch, homemade is the best way forward. But how did our homemade wrap stack up against the others in terms of taste?

We didn’t want any accusations of bias, so we did a few blindfolded taste tests to ensure our four wraps were each given a fair crack of the whip. With a random cross-section of the DW office sampling each of the wraps, the overall results came in as follows…

1. The fast food wrap
2. The homemade wrap
3. The healthy takeaway wrap
4. The pre-packaged, supermarket-bought wrap

It’s a little disappointing that the fast food wrap came out on top, but we shouldn’t be surprised. These items are made to taste nice, but their deliciousness comes at the expense of nutritional value.
The homemade wrap performed well, and it’s worth remembering that when you make your own version, you can tailor it to suit your own tastes while at the same time having the peace of mind that everything you’ve included carries some form of nutritional benefit. The lack of customisation ultimately let down the healthy takeaway wrap, as the lime and coriander dressing proved to be divisive among the group.

With this option it’s not just the cost that can be off-putting, but also the limited amount of choice available. Finally, the pre-packaged supermarket wrap proved to be a bit of a disaster. “Dry”, “overly chewy” and “lacking freshness and crunch” were three of the less-than-glowing reviews that this particular wrap received. Considering that this option also falls well short of the mark on the nutritional side of things, we’d suggest that you give the ready meal isle in the supermarket a wide berth when you’re feeling peckish during your lunch break.

How do YOU stay healthy on a budget?

Everybody is different, the world would be a boring place if we weren’t. Lunchtime options that work for one person might utterly repulse you, and vice versa.

While we’ve merely scratched the surface, the purpose of this post was to show that, with a bit of forward planning, you can prepare healthy lunches that won’t cost you a small fortune. You really don’t have to rely on the convenience of takeaways and awful processed foods. As long as you use clean ingredients that you can trust, you can be as adventurous as you like.

So what works for you? We’d love to hear your own tips on how to maintain a healthy diet while holding down a hectic, time-consuming job. Give us a shout on social media, either via Facebook or Twitter. You may also be interested in our latest blog post, which explains how you can stay active in an office job.

As a nation, we’re getting busier, but we’re never too busy to stay fit and healthy.