14 Must-Know Tips for Packing Better Brown-Bag Lunches

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Happy businesswoman having lunch in an office
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If you’re looking for a way to save money and peel off pounds, all you have to do is begin bringing lunch to work from home. That’s right. Packing your lunch means you won’t pay a premium at the deli or popular nearby restaurants, and you’ll avoid tempting break room or cafeteria food. Brown-bagging it is one of the best ways to cut calories, eat healthier and take control of what you eat for your midday meal. Read on for 14 tips to start packing more flavor and power into your lunch hour.

1. Pack It, Don’t Skip It

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Did you know that more people skip lunch than breakfast? It’s true. According to the NPD Group’s National Eating Trends survey, lunch is the most-skipped meal of the day. In fact, on any given day, some 14 percent of U.S. adults skip their midday meal, compared with 10 percent who skip breakfast and just four percent who skip dinner. The survey also found that most adults skip lunch at least one day per week. Because employees have more to do with less time, many simply work through lunch because they don’t have time to go get something to eat. Others may choose to take care of errands during their lunch break. Packing a lunch with you means that you’ll have one less excuse to skip eating it.

Read more: 12 Easy On-the-Go Lunch Ideas

2. DIY Lunches = Bigger Wallets and Smaller Waistlines

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According to a national survey conducted by Visa, Americans eat lunch at restaurants nearly twice a week, spending about $18 each week, or about $936 per year. Packing your own lunch totals, on average, about $3 in food costs, saving about $6 per day, or more than $1,500 each year (if you eat out every workday). If saving your hard-earned money isn’t motivation enough, a study of more than 9,000 adults in Spain reported a 33 percent increased risk of becoming overweight or obese among those who ate out two or more meals per week, compared with subjects who rarely dined out.

Listen now: 'Simpsons' Writer Runs a Marathon and Lives to Joke About It

3. How Many Calories Should You Aim for in Your Lunch?

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A healthy midday meal should provide enough energy to get you through your busy day without being too heavy that you just want to take a nap after eating it. Strive for at least one serving of whole grains for quality carbohydrates (for example, a half cup of cooked quinoa, one slice of whole-grain bread, etc.); four to five ounces of lean protein (about 25 to 30 grams of protein) to keep you satisfied and to optimize muscle protein synthesis; at least two servings of produce (one cup of fresh fruit or veggies or half a cup cooked) and a serving of healthy fats (one tablespoon of nut butter, one ounce of nuts, etc.). For most healthy, active adults, a lunch of 400 to 500 calories for women and 500 to 700 calories for men is a good target range.

Read more: 5 Easy-to-Pack Lunches Under 500 Calories

4. Aim to Include 20-30 Grams of Protein in Your Lunch to Stay Full

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If you want to stay satisfied throughout the afternoon or are looking to get the most of your strength-training workout, try to evenly spread your protein intake across all your meals. A recent study in the Journal of Nutrition reported a 25 percent increase in muscle protein synthesis when protein is divided into three 30-gram doses at breakfast, lunch and dinner, compared with eating the same amount of protein divided into a skewed eating pattern more typical of the U.S. diet, which included 11 grams protein at breakfast, 16 grams at lunch and 63 grams at dinner. A 30-gram portion of meat, fish or poultry is about four ounces, or about the size of an iPhone. And most protein supplements provide about 20 to 25 grams of protein per serving. According to the NHANES 2009-2010 dietary intake data, adult men eat, on average, 27 grams of protein at lunch, and women eat around 18 grams.

Read more: 14 Protein-Packed Breakfasts to Power You Through the Morning

5. Create Make-Ahead Meals (Formerly Known as Leftovers)

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Cook once, eat twice! Who doesn’t love that? The word “leftover” sounds so unappetizing, so when you’re making dinner one night, think about how you can re-create elements of that meal into a “make-ahead” meal. Here are two ideas: From a fish dinner, cook extra and partner with a delicious, nutrient- and fiber-packed mango salsa for lunch. The protein of the fish combined with the fiber in the mangos will help keep you satisfied for hours. Having roasted chicken for dinner? Extra chicken can be diced or shredded and used in an Asian chicken salad for lunch. Just mix chicken with chopped cabbage, shredded carrots, mandarin orange slices, diced bell pepper and an Asian dressing. With a little planning, you can easily prep two meals -- dinner and tomorrow’s lunch -- at the same time!

Read more: 10 Healthy Make-Ahead Meals

6. Easy-Peasy Plant Proteins

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Packing fruit, veggies and grains is easy, but it’s more work to transport high-quality protein from beef, poultry or fish that can spoil if not kept cold. “Protein is always the hardest part of packing any lunch,” says Lisa Stollman, M.A., RDN, CDN, a registered dietitian with offices in New York City and Long Island. Incorporating tasty and convenient protein options is the hardest part of packing a brown-bag lunch, especially if you don’t have access to a refrigerator. “Plant-based proteins that won’t spoil are great options when packing lunches,” says Stollman. Some of her go-to plant proteins include: nuts; nut-butter sandwiches; hummus sandwiches; steamed edamame; bean salads or burritos; and tofu stir-fries.

Read more: 13 Surprising Vegetarian Sources of Protein

7. Mason Jar Meals

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Think outside of the lunch box and into a jar -- as in Mason jar meals. Use large (16 or 32 ounce) jars for salad-based meals and smaller jars (eight ounce) for protein-packed meals. For a Cobb salad: Put your dressing at the bottom of the jar, then layer on the sturdier ingredients like tomatoes, onion, diced chicken and cheese and leave the top layers for your greens, and chopped hard-boiled eggs. For a burrito, layer salsa, black beans, brown rice, shredded lettuce and shredded low-fat cheddar cheese and top with a dollop of plain Greek yogurt. For a Paleo option, layer diced sauteed or roasted sweet potatoes, cooked and chopped breakfast sausage and sauteed baby spinach and top with scrambled eggs.

Read more: 13 Healthy Mason Jar Meals

8. Grown-Up Peanut Butter Sandwiches

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Americans eat some 1.5 billion pounds of peanuts and peanut butter every year. And that’s good news because peanuts provide protein, beneficial poly- and monounsaturated fats, fiber and more than 30 essential vitamins and minerals. Not only is the spread delicious, it’s also diet-friendly. A Harvard University study found that a diet with nuts and peanut butter resulted in greater and more sustained weight loss compared with a low-fat diet without peanut butter. “For a nutritious brown-bag meal that provides sustained energy, spread two to three tablespoons of peanut butter on whole-wheat bread (or a whole-wheat tortilla for a twist). Add banana or fresh strawberry slices and roll it up,” suggests Lyssie Lakatos, RDN, CDN, a Manhattan-based dietitian.

Read more: 9 Healthy Nuts (That May Help You Live Longer!)

9. Pack in the Veggies

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Since most adults fail to get enough beneficial vegetables in their diets, try to include at least one serving in your lunch most days of the week. “Lunch is a great opportunity to up the veggies in your diet,” advises registered dietitian Kathleen Searles, M.S., RD, CSSD, LDN. For example, carrots, radishes, cucumbers, bell peppers, onions, avocado, arugula and baby spinach are all great sandwich stuffers. If you’re having leftovers of a protein dish, have it over a bed of greens to up your veggies. Lunch sides can also be veggie-rich -- like Asian coleslaw, three-bean salad, pickled beets, roasted cauliflower and fingerling potatoes or baked sweet potato “fries.”

Read more: 23 Healthy Salads Nutrition Experts Eat

10. Eggs: More Than Morning-Meal Staples

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In addition to using dinner leftovers for lunch, you can make nutritious midday meals with breakfast staples -- like eggs. A slice of veggie-packed frittata or a wedge of quiche (made with a whole-wheat crust); a veggie omelet; egg salad sandwiches (made with creamy smashed avocado in place of half or all of the mayo); or a BLT-and-egg sandwich are also great protein-rich lunch options. A large egg has six grams of protein, while an extra-large egg packs in seven grams of protein along with more than 15 other essential vitamins and minerals. Plus, egg-based meals may help you whittle your middle. A study reported in the European Journal of Nutrition reported that men eating eggs and toast at breakfast ate fewer calories throughout the day compared with when the men ate equal-calorie breakfasts of cereal and milk and toast (high in carbs) or croissants (high in fat).

Read more: 11 Easy New Egg Recipes

11. Stir Up Soup to Go!

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Don’t have enough time during the week to pack a healthy lunch? We’ve got the solution! Carve out a little time on the weekend for a big batch of soup. Hot or cold, soup is the perfect solution to your weekday lunchtime crunch. For filling protein, cook up a batch of lentil, barley or chicken soup. When the mercury is higher, try a colder soup like a gazpacho. Add a whole-grain roll and/or a side salad and you’ll have a complete and nutritious midday meal. No means to reheat food at work? No problem. Heat soup in the morning before you leave and keep in an insulated thermos until lunch.

Read more: Delicious Minted Pea Soup Recipe

12. Pasta 2.0

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Looking to save time and money on your next brown-bag lunch? Extend last night’s pasta dinner into today’s lunch. Pasta is better as a 2.0 (day after) version because all the ingredients have more time to meld together. While many people shun carbs, they’re missing out on a vital source of energy. Carbohydrates like pasta provide glucose, the crucial fuel for your brain and muscles. Pasta is an excellent source of complex carbohydrates, which provide a slow release of sustained energy to fuel your afternoon activities. Per cup, enriched varieties provide a good source of several essential nutrients, including iron and several B vitamins. Make a complete meal out of pasta by adding veggies, beans, chicken or seafood.

Read more: 16 Diet-Friendly Healthful Carbs

13. Veggie Sushi Rolls

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Want to take the “blah” out of brown bagging it? Try veggie sushi rolls. Most Americans don’t come close to meeting the recommended servings of veggies each day, so this is a good way to help bridge the veggie gap -- and to add some pizzazz to your midday meal. Making the perfect sushi rice can take time, not to mention some expertise, so buy some premade or skip the rice altogether and use cucumber or nori (a type of seaweed) as your outer layer. As an added bonus, nori contains compounds that have been shown to help banish fat. For the inside of the rolls, pick your favorite veggies and get creative -- try sliced carrots, bell peppers, cucumber and zucchini. For a side of protein, enjoy some reheated edamame with sea salt, and for healthy fats, add in avocado.

Read more: 14 Foods to Help You Get Lean

14. Go for Great Grains

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If you’re looking for an alternative to your usual “salad,” switch out some of the greens for wholesome whole grains. Barley, amaranth, quinoa and buckwheat all serve as a terrific base for a salad loaded with veggies, beans and legumes, and they’re perfect for an on-the-go brown-bag lunch. Whole grains like amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat, bulgur and barley are great sources of energy-boosting complex carbohydrates and are good sources of protein too. They’ll help fill you up and also add incredible flavor and texture to your lunchtime salads.

Read more: 16 Diet-Friendly Healthful Carbs

What Do YOU Think?

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Do you bring your lunch or eat out at restaurants? What healthy tips can you share? What types of meals do you eat at lunch? Which of these tips did you find most helpful? Share your thoughts with us in the comment section below -- we love hearing from you!

Read more: 28 Eating Secrets to Help You Lose Weight (and Save Money Too!)

What to Eat for Dinner to Lose Weight

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If you’re looking for a way to save money and peel off pounds, all you have to do is begin bringing lunch to work from home. That’s right. Packing your lunch means you won’t pay a premium at the deli or popular nearby restaurants, and you’ll avoid tempting break room or cafeteria food. Brown-bagging it is one of the best ways to cut calories, eat healthier and take control of what you eat for your midday meal. Read on for 14 tips to start packing more flavor and power into your lunch hour.


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