The memory of bringing a brown bag lunch to school or camp is one that remains with us from childhood. Your lunch probably contained a sandwich in a plastic baggie, a “snack-size” bag of chips, a cookie and a juice box. Needless to say, if you’re aiming to eat nutritiously, that brown bag lunch from your past looks a little sad.
That’s where adult-ifying your lunch box comes in today. First, if you don’t regularly BYO to work, you’re missing out on a big opportunity to make lunch a slam-dunk health-wise. “Packing a lunch allows you to be in control of everything you’re putting in there, including the amount of sugar, sodium and unhealthy saturated fat, all of which tends to be high in meals that are bought at restaurants or fast-casual spots,” says Cait Elf, MS, RD.
In addition to saving money, you’re more likely to lose weight and keep it off if you make your own meals. People who eat home-cooked meals more often tend to eat more fruits and veggies and are less likely to have excess body fat, research shows.
Elf, an expert in packing lunches, notes it’s worth making at least two different options for the week. “You may feel less and less satisfied the more you’re exposed to the same dish,” she says. As a result, “it can leave you craving something less healthy immediately after.”
Here, Elf shares tips and recipe ideas for packing a lunch that’s tasty, nutritious, looks good and is one you’ll be excited about come noon.
Storage containers that have multiple compartments, like these glass storage containers or a bento box, let you portion off lunch, keeping food separate so nothing gets soggy. Also recommended: small containers for dips and dressings.
Whole grain + lean protein + heart-healthy fats + fruit/veggies
These foods supply a combo of “fat, fiber and protein, which provides sustainability to carry you through the rest of the afternoon,” says Elf. You can include as many vegetables and fruits as you like, and remember the more colorful the preparation, the more nutrients your lunch contains.
Start by making a batch of roasted veggies (like zucchini, carrots, broccoli, eggplant) and cooking a pot of whole grains (like quinoa or farro), suggests Elf. Then, you can mix and match with different proteins throughout the week such as roasted tofu, chickpeas, chicken and salmon. (Your proteins can come from the night before if you have leftovers.) “This is the easiest lunch to bring because you can switch it up and it’ll feel like you’re eating a different grain bowl every day,” she says.
Tiny tweaks to what you’re eating not only make the meal feel special and satisfying, but they also add nutritional variety to your diet. Elf recommends toppings for salads or grain bowls like crushed nuts (almonds, pecans, walnuts, to name a few); dried fruit (cranberries, blueberries); cheeses (feta, goat and blue tend to be high in flavor for a small serving); avocado or your favorite dressing (balsamic, creamy tahini).
Sandwiches are great; however, if you’ve been eating one for the past 789 days (or so it feels), it’s time to switch things up. Now that you’re using an easy-to-take container, your world is open to bringing foods that may seem hard to transport. For instance, “stuff a sweet potato with black beans and salsa and bring a container of Greek yogurt to dollop on top,” says Elf.