Be Your Own Lunch Lady

In a lunch rut?

You could go buy your lunch at a local restaurant or in your work’s cafeteria, but you will most likely pay $10 for some processed junk that isn’t even tasty. And packing a lunch just seems so tedious and difficult, right? It definitely doesn’t have to be. Save money and your waistline by packing your lunch. Here are some tips and ideas:

TIPS:

  • Pack it the night before. You know you won’t do it in the morning. I like to pack it as I’m putting away dinner.
  • Buy some re-usable containers and a reusable lunch bag. Since you will likely be heating some of your lunches, I recommend buying glass or BPA-free containers. Etsy.com has some great reusable bags (think fabric ziploc bags that you can wash by hand or in the dishwasher) for sandwiches and other snacks. You can also find loads of containers at Container Store or Target. Be sure to get some little ones for dressings, sauces and dips.
  • Don’t be afraid of a little smorgasbord. Experiment with your food. Some of my best lunches have come from me just throwing some random veggies (often frozen) and protein in a container with a little sauce. Plus, you might discover some flavor combos that you can use at dinnertime too.
  • Keep it cold. Many workplaces have a fridge in which you can keep your lunch, but if not, make sure to pack an ice pack in your lunch bag to keep things cold and safe.
  • Baby steps. If you can’t commit to bringing your lunch every day, at least try for a few days.
  • Sides and snacks. Besides the main “entree” portion of your lunch, pack things like cut-up veggies, fruit, nuts (about 1/4 cup), cheese sticks, yogurt, crackers, etc. to have on the side or even as  mid-afternoon snack (also saving you money and calories). One of my favorites is a spoonful of PB or AB (almond butter) – this is where those mini reusable containers come in handy – with some fruit.

THE LUNCH EQUATION:

Protein + Lots of Veggies + Whole Grain = Entree. Entree + Sides (see above tip) = Lunch

PROTEIN:

  • Leftovers: use up your leftover ground beef, chicken, fish, etc. from previous meals (whether you cooked them or they’re leftovers from eating out).
  • Burgers! Everyone loves a burger – whether it’s a veggie, salmon, turkey or beef burger. Look in the frozen aisle at the grocery store and double-check the package to be sure you can microwave it at work (otherwise you can cook it the night before but we all know what a pain that can be).
  • Eggs: hard-boil a half or whole dozen ahead of time so that you can easily stick a couple in your lunch. These are a great option for breakfast too. You can also make an omelet or scrambled eggs ahead of time.
  • Canned fish. Just make sure your co-workers are okay with the smell. Try canned albacore tuna (troll- or pole-caught, from the U.S. or British Columbia, are lower in mercury), canned sardines (okay, I admit that only a small minority of people like sardines), canned salmon (with no bones) or other canned seafood. You can use the fish in a seafood salad (made with low fat or fat free mayo – or even Greek yogurt) or as a topper for stir-fry or salad.
  • Chicken or turkey sausage: there are lots of different varieties (Amy’s apple & gouda and Trader Joe’s jalepeno are two of my favorites). Just makes sure to read the ingredients and avoid those with added nitrates/nitrites (potentially cancer-causing preservatives).
  • Cottage cheese: look for low or non-fat varieties. One cup of cottage cheese has about 30 grams of protein in it (about the same as a chicken breast!). Top a tomato, salad or fruit plate with it, or just eat it as a side. I like to add a Tablespoon of chopped nuts or seeds to give a little crunch.
  • Greek yogurt: make a yogurt parfait with plain nonfat Greek yogurt, fruit, nuts and a high-fiber cereal. Filling, full of protein and other nutrients and different than your usual lunch.
  • Beans and lentils: a vegetarian form of protein. Lentils generally have more protein than beans, but both are great for giving not only protein, but also fiber and loads of other nutrients. Try black, kidney, garbanzo or soy beans and an assortment colored lentils (black, green, orange).
  • Quinoa, barley, amaranth: these are just a few varieties of grains that are higher in protein.
  • Tempeh and tofu: soy-based vegetarian proteins. I prefer tempeh because it has more taste and texture than tofu. Try grilling, baking (in slices or cubes) or sauteeing (cubed) with your favorite seasonings.

VEGGIES:

  • Salad: use lettuce, kale, mixed greens or spinach as the base for your salad. Add extra veggies (carrots, cucumber, radishes, leftover mixed veggies, broccoli, tomato, etc.). Then top with your protein. Try a Mexican salad with corn, peppers, onions and a bit of cheddar (plus chicken or other protein) with a little salsa on top as your “dressing.” Or a fruit and nut salad with apples, strawberries or pears and almonds or walnuts (plus some hard-boiled eggs or other protein). Use your little reusable containers for dressing. *Note: if you cut up apples or pears ahead of time, they will turn brown an look unappetizing. If you can, bring the whole fruit and slice it up for the salad right before eating. Or toss the fruit with a little lemon juice to help with the browning.*
  • Raw: nosh on some chopped carrots, cucumber, tomato, celery or peppers. Bring a little hummus or yogurt-based dip to make the veggies a little more exciting.
  • Steamed: take frozen or fresh vegetable of choice. Put in a microwavable, lidded container with about 2 tablespoons of water in the bottom. Heat with lid on until desired doneness.
  • Sauteed, baked or grilled: the next time you make dinner, cook up some extra veggies.

GRAINS:

  • Sandwich: pretty standard but try spreading some hummus or guacamole on as a spread instead of the usual mayo. I recommend whole grain or sprouted grain bread, sandwich thins or buns for burgers (though buns are very carb-heavy so I am not a big fan of them). Sandwiches are also a great way to squeeze in some more veggies: add extra lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers or even radishes to give crunch and flavor.
  • Grain-based salad or salad topper: top grains such as quinoa, barley, brown rice, whole wheat couscous or amaranth with some beans/chicken/other protein and veggies and drizzle with a little olive oil and vinegar (or other sauce such as teriyaki). You can also add some cooked whole grains to your lettuce-based salads to lend a different texture and flavor.
  • Potato bar: top a baked sweet or white potato (pre-baked or microwaved) with protein and other veggies and sprinkle with a little cheese.
  • Quesadillas or tacos: use small corn tortillas (limit to 3-4 for tacos and 2 for quesadilla), top with a little cheese, protein, veggies and salsa and zap in the microwave for about a minute. Super easy – and cheesy!
  • On the side: try some whole grain crackers with hummus, cheese or a little peanut butter.

CONGRATULATIONS! You have the equation for a healthier, tastier lunch that likely costs 50-75% less than your restaurant- or cafeteria-bought meal!

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