Nielsen research indicates that in 2009, meal planning was "one of the largest and fastest growing online activities" [source: Gregori]. Retailers have responded with iPhone and Android smartphone applications that help you check grocery specials and find recipes for your various dietary needs. The big motivations for this trend are spending less money and eating healthier.
By packing your own healthy lunches for work, you can do both. The cost sacrifice is convenience instead of money [source: Pirovano] You can make up for the convenience cost by joining the planning trend and putting together your meals in advance. For example, on the weekend you can prepare recipes to put in single-serving containers to take with you during the week.
If you don't plan ahead and pack your lunch, you might be tempted to use that as an excuse to eat out or grab something convenient instead. You can get healthier single-serving convenience foods, and restaurants often have more nutritious options, but they can be expensive when you're trying to build a nutritious and filling lunch. If the planning, preparing and packing sounds like a hassle, focus on how much healthier you'll be for doing it and use the tips in this article to add convenience back into the equation.
The Key to Successful Healthy Lunches: Planning
When you're planning to pack healthy lunches for work, there are a few questions you have to answer first:
- What am I going to eat and how much?
- What do I need to buy and what do I need to cook or prepare in advance?
- What am I going to pack the food in?
- Does the food need to be refrigerated? If so, how do I keep it cold before lunchtime?
- Does the food need to be heated? If so, do I have a way to do that at lunchtime?
Schedule time to prepare food, including any slicing, chopping, mixing or cooking. After you get your food ready, divide it into serving-size containers for transport. These can include resealable plastic containers of different sizes, plastic sandwich and snack bags, and plastic, paper or foil wrappings. Then, on your way out the door each day, take a few seconds to grab some of these containers and pack the day's lunch to take with you.
Before planning what to pack, consider your options for transporting and preparing your lunch. This will make a big difference in what kind of lunch you put together. The following list breaks down these options and presents some transporting ideas for each:
- No cold items -- You might only need a paper bag for this lunch, though be cautious if there's anything in the bag that might melt if it gets too warm, like chocolate.
- Some cold items -- Use an insulated lunch bag, adding a cooling pack if you have a long commute, you're commuting in hot weather, or if you don't have a fridge at work. If you don't have a cooling pack, drop some ice cubes in a zipper sandwich bag, or freeze a disposable plastic bottle of water which can double as a refreshment for later.
- Some frozen items -- Use the frozen items in an insulated lunch bag to keep other food cold and make sure your workplace has a freezer you can put the frozen items in.
- At least one thing has to be heated -- Be sure your workplace has what you need to heat your lunch, such as a microwave or a toaster oven.
Once you know how you can transport your lunch and what your options are for preparing it, you can choose what to eat. The next pages of this article will help you with this part of your plan.
Packing Weight-loss Lunches for Work
One of the goals of eating healthy is to help lose weight. Shedding extra pounds during the workweek may be easy for some people and difficult for others. On the negative side, high-stress or fast-paced jobs may tempt you to grab a fast high-calorie lunch or snack to keep you going. On the positive side, jobs that keep you busy and stick to a tight schedule give you the opportunity to plan and control your meals. Either way, packing a healthy lunch can help you stick to your weight-loss plan while you're at work.
As we've already mentioned in this article, the key to packing a healthy lunch for work is planning. For weight-loss plans, this includes preparing recipes in advance so you can carefully select the ingredients and track the calories and fat. Plus, when you pack your serving-size containers, you can control the portion size to prevent overeating.
One expert in weight-loss eating on the go is Weight Watchers International. If you're following a Weight Watchers plan to lose weight, one of the most important things you need to do is track what you eat [source: WeightWatchers.com]. Planning, making and packing your lunches make it easier for you to track your food. If the only thing you eat during the workday is what you take with you, you can add that to your journal before work, instead of remembering to write it all down throughout the day.
You can lose weight by lowering or controlling your calorie intake and exercising to burn off the stored energy in your body. Even if you're cutting calories, though, make the most of the calories you consume by combining your weight loss goals with other healthy tips. Consider foods that are good for your heart health and that help you keep your energy up during the day.
Energizing Foods for Lunch
Lunch should help you get the energy you need to make it through your afternoon. Jobs can be stressful and demand a lot from your mind and body. Be prepared for those demands by packing healthy foods that also help boost your energy for the rest of the workday.
While vitamins and minerals provide nutrition, they aren't a source of food energy. Look to carbohydrates, fats and proteins for the calories you need. Carbohydrates, including sugars, are good for quick energy. If you have protein with those carbs, you can slow the rate at which your body absorbs them. The best way to put these together is to combine small amounts of protein, complex carbohydrates and some healthy fats as part of your lunch [source: Zelman].
The following are some foods that are good for you and help energize you for the afternoon ahead:
- Energizing fruits: blueberries, strawberries, cantaloupe, mango, citrus fruit, tomatoes, avocado
- Energizing veggies: peppers, sweet potatoes, spinach, broccoli
- Energizing proteins: pork, salmon, soy, beans, nuts
- Energizing grains: whole grains, oatmeal
- Low-fat dairy products
If you think you'll need another energy boost during the day, combine these with a healthy mid-afternoon snack to pack with your lunch. The following are some energizing healthy snack ideas you can try:
- An orange -- bring the whole orange, or peel the orange in advance and bring the wedges in to work in a small snack bag
- A small snack bag of dried fruit and nuts
- A spoonful of peanut butter on whole-wheat crackers -- you can keep these ingredients in your desk drawer for snacks throughout the week, but keep your portions in check
- Low-fat yogurt with strawberries and blueberries -- chop up the berries ahead of time and bring them in a small container with your lunch, or add them to the yogurt in advance A cup of cantaloupe and mango slices with mandarin orange wedges
- Sliced veggies and hummus dip -- slice the veggies at home and bring them in a small snack bag
- Pita chips and bean dip
Another energizing tip is to make sure you stay hydrated. Your body is about 60 percent water, and it needs that water for digestion and energy. Even the slightest dehydration can make you feel tired [source: Mayo Clinic]. Keep a water bottle or big cup with you at work to remind you to drink plenty of water throughout the day, and refill it as soon as it's empty.
Packing Heart-healthy Lunches for Work
If one of your health goals is to improve your heart, select heart-healthy foods when you pack your lunch. Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States [source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]. As a result, you can find hundreds of well-researched articles on heart-healthy foods on the Web, and in books and magazines. You can find hundreds of heart-healthy recipes, too.
Like weight-loss lunches, heart-healthy lunches include less fat and usually, more fiber. Unlike weight-loss lunches, though, heart-healthy lunches also include ingredients that target improving your circulatory system. This includes whole grains and foods that are high in Omega-3 fatty acids, which help reduce the amount of plaque in your arteries from bad cholesterol.
If you're preparing food to pack for lunch, look for ways to adjust your recipes to cut back on bad cholesterol and saturated fats. You can also substitute ingredients for heart-healthy alternatives, such as whole grain pastas in pasta dishes. The following list includes some heart-healthy foods you might include in your lunch plans along with some lunch ideas to consider:
- Salmon -- Grill and chop salmon in advance, then pack the salmon and some seasoned pasta to mix together for lunch.
- Tuna -- Grab a can of tuna (packed in water), salad greens (including heart-healthy spinach), some apple slices and a light red-wine vinaigrette. When you're ready for lunch, toss them together for a tasty salad.
- Almonds and walnuts -- Pack a small snack bag of sliced almonds or chopped walnuts to add to pudding, yogurt or salad.
- Brown rice -- Pack a microwavable brown rice pouch and a sandwich bag with some pre-chopped heart-healthy veggies like broccoli, carrots and red bell peppers. Heat the rice and veggies, then stir them together for a filling vegetarian dish.
- Sweet potato -- Microwave a sweet potato in a sandwich bag, then add pineapple bits from a commercial serving-size cup.
- Black or kidney beans -- Cook and cool the beans, then toss them with a light Italian dressing. Pack this to eat as a cold side dish or salad topping.
- Flaxseed -- Look for prepared foods such as breads and chips that feature flaxseed, and incorporate those in a healthy sandwich or chip-and-dip combo.
- Dark chocolate -- Buy a bag of individually wrapped bite-sized dark chocolates, and drop two or three into a snack bag to pack with your lunch.
For more information on healthy eating, visit the links on the next page.
- Davis, Jeanie Lerche. "Top Heart-Healthy Foods: Best Foods for Cardiovascular Health." July 12, 2007. (May 9, 2010)http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=56073
- Everyday Health. "Healthy Living with Ellie Krieger: About Ellie." (May 9, 2010)http://www.healthylivingwithellie.com/publicsite/funnel/about.aspx
- Glamour. "7 Seriously Energizing Foods." Aug. 1, 2007. (May 9, 2010)http://www.glamour.com/health-fitness/2007/08/energy-foods
- Gregori, Jeffrey S. "Frugal Consumers Return to Home Base." Neilsen News. Nov. 2, 2009. (May 10, 2010)http://blog.nielsen.com/nielsenwire/consumer/frugal-consumers-return-to-home-base/
- Mayo Clinic staff. "Water: How much should you drink every day?" MayoClinic.com. April 17, 2010. (May 10, 2010)http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/water/nu00283
- Pirovano, Tom. "U.S. Healthy Eating Trends." Neilsen News. Jan. 26, 2010. (May 10, 2010)http://blog.nielsen.com/nielsenwire/consumer/healthy-eating-trends-pt-1-commitment-trumps-the-economic-pinch/
- Redding.com. "Naturally energizing foods: Courtesy of Food Network Kitchens." July 29, 2009. (May 9, 2010)http://www.redding.com/news/2009/jul/29/naturally-energizing-foods/
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "Heart Disease Facts." CDC.gov. (May 10, 2010)http://www.cdc.gov/HeartDisease/facts.htm
- WebMD. "Portion Control and Weight Loss." Sept. 19, 2009. (May 9, 2010)http://www.webmd.com/diet/control-portion-size
- WeightWatchers.com. "How Weight Watchers Works." Weight Watchers International. (May 10, 2010)http://www.weightwatchers.com/plan/
- Zelman, Kathleen, MPH, RD, LD. "Eat to Boost Your Energy." MedicineNet.com. Dec. 9, 2004. (May 9, 2010)http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=56767