Beat Brown Bag Boredom: Make Fun, Healthy Lunches

Do you dread packing lunches ? Does packing a brown bag seem like a never-ending exercise in blah-dom? It’s like groundhog day packing the same pb&j and baby carrots day in and day out. 

It’s easy to get into a lunchtime ritual that is packed with equal parts boring and panic when you’re not sure what to take. But it pays to pack a lunch -- eating out usually costs you more (in calories AND money). A typical fast food meal of large fries, a cheeseburger and soda can have about 2,100 calories and 100 grams of fat.  

Stock Up on the Right Stuff
To make sure you don’t have last minute stress trying to figure out what to take for lunch, stock your fridge and pantry with less expensive, healthy foods like hard-boiled eggs, peanut butter, tuna, vegetables and beans.

And lunch meats are convenient and often low in fat and calories, making them a solid lunch selection; however, they can have high sodium, so read the label. A daily value of less than 20 percent is best. Be sure to avoid or limit high-fat luncheon meats like salami, corned beef, or liverwurst. Items with 13g fat or more are considered high in fat.

Tips for Packing Lunches
Use reusable containers. It saves money and it’s better for the environment.

Keep it cold. To keep your lunch cold, pack it with re-freezable soft ice packs or even frozen water bottles or juice boxes. You can prepare your food the night before and keep your whole lunch bag in the fridge overnight. Keeping your food items cold is especially a good idea if you are packing anything with mayonnaise. Use an insulated bag if you can. Perishable foods, such as meats, dairy and leftovers can harbor harmful bacteria if left at room temperature for more than two hours.

Ban the boring bread. Use whole-grain choices, like pita pockets, tortilla wraps, hot dog buns, flatbread or mini bagels. Or try flaxseed chips, crispbread, pumpernickel, muesli or dark rye. Bread can be high in sodium and added sugar, so take a look at the labels.

Prep work pays off. Pick times during the week when you have some extra time to wash and cut fruits and vegetables in advance so they’re ready for packing. Most cut fruits and vegetables will keep for two to three days. If they’re easier to access, it’s more likely you will choose to eat these rather than chips or other unhealthy snacks.

Sassier salads. Chicken, egg, farro and quinoa are all tasty, healthy ingredients for your salad. You can prep the salad ingredients separately and then throw them together each day to prevent sogginess.

Nuttin but options. Try peanut butter and pickles, bananas or cornichons. You can even substitute almond, cashew or sunflower seed butter for peanut butter. For kids, cut your nut butter sandwiches with cookie cutters to keep it fun!

All about the base. Toast some bread and try an interesting base layer of ricotta, avocado with lemon, hummus or Greek yogurt with a honey drizzle. Top at lunchtime with your choice of any of these: sautéed mushrooms, peaches, arugula, spinach, cucumber, roasted peppers, radishes or sliced figs.

Surprising sides. Slice up jicama or green and red pepper strips; or, pack sugar snap peas, a side of almonds or whole grain crackers and sliced cheese. Dish out hummus with pita chips and carrots, bag some popcorn or layer some Greek yogurt with berries and honey. Make fruit kabobs or slice a kiwi in half and eat it with a spoon.

Blaze a trail mix. Store-bought granola or trail mix can be high in fat, salt and calories. But trail mix can make a great substitute for salty snacks like pretzels and potato chips. Make your own to control the content and quantity. Choose almonds, peanuts, pistachios, dried apples, cranberries, pineapple, blueberries, raisins, shaved coconut, pumpkin and sunflower seeds.

Try New Recipes
Here are a few lunchtime options to try.

Salad mix mash.  Combine finely chopped hard-boiled eggs and a tablespoon of capers or diced pickles with Dijon mustard and mayonnaise. Spread it on a slice of multigrain bread. Blend drained canned tuna, chopped celery and red onion, mayonnaise and lemon juice. Spread that on the other slice of bread. Add chopped dill and mash together when ready to eat.

Roll-up. Mash an avocado with lemon juice, and then spread it on a thin, whole-wheat tortilla. Top with cooked and crumbled turkey bacon, chopped tomatoes and arugula. Roll up and wrap in parchment or wax paper to pack it up.

Not-so-basic beans. Whisk 1 part lemon juice to 2 parts olive oil; season with black pepper. Add finely chopped green onion and let it sit for a few minutes. Then toss with 1 can of rinsed garbanzo beans, feta cheese crumbles, cucumber chunks, and chopped fresh dill or parsley. Pack with multigrain pita chips or pockets. You could also add a can of drained tuna or chicken for more protein.

Take our poll and let us know how you pack a healthy lunch!

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