Packing Lunch

Janis Hunter
Home & Garden Information Center

Are you looking for ways to stretch your budget and trim your waistline? Then join the millions of Americans who pack a lunch for work or school every day. Taking a bag lunch from home can save both money and time compared to eating out in a restaurant or cafeteria. After eating your lunch from home, you’ll have spare time to relax, check email, take a walk or run errands. That’s better use of your time than waiting to be served at a restaurant or in line at the drive through window.

Packing a lunch is usually cheaper than eating out. Let’s say that the average cost of your restaurant meal and beverage is $8, and you eat out twice a week. By taking bag lunches instead, you can save $16 a week or up to $800 a year, minus the cost of your homemade lunches. The more home-prepared lunches you pack every week, the more money you will save.

Bag lunches let you control the content of your meals and portion sizes. You can better manage the total calories, fat, saturated fat, fiber, sugar and sodium you consume daily. On the other hand, it is hard to know the nutrient content of foods that are prepared away from home. So, when eating out, choose a variety of healthful foods and make every calorie count. The National Restaurant Association reports that the average American eats out at least four times a week, including two lunches. For “Generation Y,” the young adults under age 27, that total soars to as many as 30 times a week!

A nutritious lunch should include a variety of foods from at least three of the five food groups in MyPyramid, USDA’s food guide pyramid found at www.mypyramid.gov. Choose a protein source from the meat & beans group, such as lean meat or fish, dry beans, hard-cooked eggs, nuts or peanut butter. Include some fruits and vegetables, especially deeply colored ones, which contain the most vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Select a serving of bread, cereal or pasta, preferably whole grain. For a good quality sandwich, pack lettuce, tomato and other moist foods separately and add just before eating.

Your beverage can count toward the servings you need from MyPyramid if it contains nutrients, such as protein, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin C and folic acid. Milk is the most nutritious beverage. However, if milk isn’t your choice, pack another calcium-rich food like a low-fat variety of yogurt, cottage cheese or cheese in bite-size chunks. Other good beverage choices are 100% fruit juices, vegetable juices and plain water. Skip the sodas, energy drinks and fruit beverages, which may contain only 10% fruit juice.

Dessert is optional, although it can be a nutritious part of your lunch, too. It should be low in fats, added sugars and other caloric sweeteners. Fresh fruits are best, and other good choices are graham crackers, vanilla wafers and oatmeal-raisin cookies. Avoid high-fat cookies, cakes, candy bars and other prepackaged sweets that contain trans fat and high fructose corn syrup. If you crave an occasional sweet “treat,” then eat a small portion with under 150 calories. It doesn’t take much to satisfy the sweet tooth, so enjoy a couple of chocolate kisses or a small handful of chocolate chip morsels.

Pack a few extra items for an afternoon snack or to eat just before you go home. Snacking on nutritious foods (e.g. yogurt, cut up veggies or a handful of nuts) keeps you from being tempted to fill up on junk food from the vending machine or raid your refrigerator before dinner.

Refer to HGIC 4246, Packing Lunches for Work or School to learn more time-saving tips for packing appetizing, low-cost lunches. For recipes and ideas to liven up your child’s lunch box, see HGIC 4114, Packing Lunches for School-Age Kids. For additional food safety tips, see HGIC 3600, Bag Lunch Safety.

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