Packing healthy lunches and snacks to take to work or school offers many benefits. Healthy brown-bag meals can reduce fat, calories, and sodium in our diet, improving overall health. Smart choices can help us maintain a healthy weight. And brown-bag lunches just may improve your child’s IQ, energy and stamina.
According to research published online in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, a diet high in fat, sugar, and processed food starting at age 3 may lower IQ in later childhood, while a diet packed with whole foods and important nutrients may do the opposite.
To move lunch and snack time into a healthful direction:
- Choose foods with higher amounts of the nutrients we need: fiber, protein, calcium, potassium, and vitamin C.
- Avoid foods loaded with things we need to eat less of: saturated fat, sodium, and added sugar.
An easy way to accomplish both goals is to include more whole foods -- and less processed foods, junk food, and fast food at meals and snacks.
Quick Lunch and Snack Picks
Cold Cheese and Fruit Kit: Make your own “lunchables” by filling a reusable container with assorted cheese slices, easy-to-eat fruit like apple slices and grapes, and whole wheat crackers.
Falafel Pita Pleaser: Purchase ready-to-bake falafels in the vegetarian refrigerator section of some supermarkets. Bake them up ahead of time, then insert them in a whole wheat pita pocket spread with some hummus (homemade or store-bought).
Fish in a Pinch: Work a fish serving into your week by adding tuna or salmon to your green salad, pasta salad, or sandwich. For a satisfying snack, toss some tuna or salmon with balsamic vinaigrette and enjoy with whole grain crackers.
Love Your Leftovers: One of the easiest ways that corporate nutritionist Maggie Moon, MS, RD, makes sure she has a healthy lunch tomorrow is to start with dinner tonight. Before serving dinner, she packs some of it away in portable containers, stores them in the refrigerator, and then takes one to work the next day.
Pasta Salad Prep: Make cold pasta salad with leftover pasta shapes from last night. Toss chilled whole grain pasta with cheese cubes, lots of bite-size vegetables, and a homemade or bottled vinaigrette dressing made with olive oil or canola oil.
Pizza Bagels or Pizza Calzones: Bake a mini pizza in 5 minutes by spreading pizza sauce or pesto on whole wheat bagel halves or a whole wheat pita pocket (use the whole pita as a crust). Top with shredded cheese and your favorite veggie toppings (green onions, tomatoes, chopped red peppers, onions, olives, minced garlic, sliced mushrooms), then broil in a toaster oven until the cheese is bubbling. If using a pita, fold one half over to make a calzone! Wrap it up for your bag lunch or, if your office has a toaster oven, bring it to work unbaked and bake it there.
Stock Your Work Fridge With Salad Dressing: To make it easier to enjoy salads at the office, Moon keeps her favorite salad dressing in the work refrigerator. Look for salad dressing with the least amount of sodium and made with canola or olive oil.
Southwest Wrap: Toss some drained canned black beans with salsa, avocado, red onions, shredded romaine lettuce, and cheese and wrap in a softened whole wheat tortilla. This is a favorite five-minute grab-and-go lunch for nutritionist Karen Ansel, MS, RD, co-author of The Baby & Toddler Cookbook.
Sushi with Veggies: Pick up a tray of premade vegetable sushi at your supermarket or favorite Japanese restaurant. It makes a great grab-and-go lunch the next day. Because it features veggies and avocado, there’s no chance the sushi will smell “fishy” the next day.
Wrap It Up: Make your sandwich wrap the night before, using a whole grain flour tortilla and spreads like green or sun-dried tomato pesto, olive tapenade, or honey mustard. Layer it with slices of lean meat or cheese, assorted vegetables, tomato, onion, and lettuce. Because it’s whole grain, the tortilla won’t get soggy overnight.
4 Lunch Salads You Can Make in 10 Minutes
Reusable containers can hold the makings of a delicious lunch salad. The salad will stay fresh if you add the dressing at lunchtime, so pack a small container or packet of your desired dressing (look for those made with canola or olive oil). Here are four different lunch salad ideas.
Cobb Salad: Toss together spinach leaves or chopped romaine with a hard-boiled egg, crumbled blue cheese (or similar), diced avocado and tomato, and lean ham cubes or strips.
Chinese Chicken Salad: Toss together salad greens, shredded chicken, shredded carrots, sliced green onion, and toasted sliced almonds.
Chicken Caesar Salad: Toss together romaine lettuce, chopped tomato, chicken strips, any other vegetable desired, and croutons.
Berry & Walnut Salad: Toss together dark green lettuce, fresh or frozen berries, blue cheese (if desired), and toasted walnuts (add chicken or salmon if desired). This salad is best with a raspberry or balsamic vinaigrette.
4 Freezer-Friendly Lunch and Snack Tricks
Fun-to-Eat Edamame: You’ll find bags of edamame (in pods) in the freezer section of most supermarkets. Keep a bag in the freezer, add some to your brown bag in the morning, and by lunch they will be thawed. Open up the pods and snack away at the high-protein, high-fiber green soybeans inside.
Leftover Breakfast Becomes Lunch: When you have leftover whole grain pancakes from breakfast, wrap each of them around a soy or chicken sausage and freeze a serving in a reusable container or zip-lock bag. If you are making healthful egg entrees over the weekend (egg and cheese sandwich on toasted wheat english muffin, quiche, frittata, French toast) and have a couple servings left, wrap them up and freeze them for a fast grab-and-go lunch or snack. Just warm in the microwave for 2 minutes!
Mini Muffins: Homemade muffins can be a healthful alternative to processed snacks and junk food when made with mostly whole wheat flour, moderate amounts of canola oil (2 to 3 tablespoons per 12 muffins), and minimal added sugar. Just pop a serving of mini muffins in each zip-lock bag and store in the freezer. Pack them in the brown bag, and they’ll be soft and ready to eat by lunch or snack time.
Spanakopita Triangles: These spinach-and-cheese-filled phyllo dough triangles are available in the freezer section of some supermarkets, such as Trader Joe’s. Brown them ahead of time in your toaster oven and wrap them up for tomorrow’s lunch or snack.
4 Fun Foods to Pack as a Snack or Lunch Treat
The following foods double as a satisfying snack or as a fun treat in a bag lunch because they contribute some protein and some fat (and some have fiber).
Nuts or Trail Mix: If age- and allergy-appropriate, nuts offer a satisfying combination of fiber, protein, and smart fats. Trail mix pumps up the carbohydrate calories by adding dried fruit to the nuts. A 1-ounce snack-size serving of mixed nuts (i.e., Planters NUTrition Heart Healthy Mix) contributes around 170 calories, 6 grams protein, 5 grams carbohydrate, 3 grams fiber, and 8 grams monounsaturated fat.
Cheese Sticks: Individually wrapped cheese sticks are available in part-skim mozzarella and 2% sharp cheddar, and even pepper jack. Two part-skim mozzarella cheese sticks have around 160 calories, 14 grams protein, 2 grams carbohydrate, 0 gram fiber, 6 grams saturated fat, and 40% Daily Value for calcium.
Kettle Korn Fun: For something a little sweet but crunchy, pop up some Orville Redenbacher’s Smart Pop Kettle Korn (or similar) and pack half of the 2.9-ounce bag of popcorn for a brown-bag treat or snack. Each serving satisfies with 140 calories, 4 grams protein, 29 grams carbohydrate, 6 grams fiber, and 1 gram saturated fat.
Yogurt and Fruit Cups: Stir 1/2 cup fresh or frozen berries into 8 ounces of low-fat plain yogurt to make your own naturally sweetened yogurt cup. It has a nice balance of nutrients—185 calories, 12 grams protein, 24 grams carbohydrate, 3 grams fiber, 2.5 grams saturated fat, and about 40% Daily Value for calcium and 30% for vitamin C.