How Packing Your Lunch Can Help You Stay Healthy All Year

It’s no secret that we are a country full of busy people. However, all the extra hours and responsibilities are leading to health consequences: both physical and psychological. Chronic illnesses and obesity are on the rise. One of the contributing factors to obesity may be what’s lurking in your take out lunch.

A 2013 study found that all Americans, regardless of socioeconomic status, are cooking less at home than they have in the past. Households in the late 2000s are eating an average of 69% of meals at home—down from 92% in the mid-1960s. On average, Americans spend about $20 per week getting lunch in restaurants. That adds up financially, but what about the cost to your health?

The actual cost of eating meals out

You know that eating meals out costs money, but what else might it cost you? Studies have shown that eating out on a “calorie budget” is next to impossible. The menu items you may believe are healthier options—salads, rice bowls, grilled protein—are likely not. The same researchers noted that meals consumed while dining out on average contained 151% of recommended daily salt intake, 89% of daily fat, and 60% of daily cholesterol. Frequent dining out trips may cost you your health and contribute to unwanted weight gain.

Benefits of making lunches at home

There are many benefits to preparing lunches at home. According to David Levitsky, a professor of nutrition and psychology at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., preparing your own meals at home cuts your calorie consumption by 20-35%. It can also save you an average of $4.70 per day to prepare your own lunches. Additional benefits include knowing exactly what is in your food; having more time to actually enjoy lunch, since you’re not waiting in line for it; and less likelihood to cave into temptation.

Common excuses

There are many excuses out there for not packing lunches and one of the most frequent gripes in not knowing what to make (read further below for some ideas). If you typically make dinner at home, consider making extra portions to use for lunches during the week. If lack of time is your reason to eat out, consider packing deconstructed lunches like sandwiches that are not already assembled or using ready-made veggies for salads that you toss when you’re ready to eat. If you have to pack for a large family, consider taking time before the busy week kicks off to make lunch items in bulk and let your family members tell you what should be on the menu that week.

Lunch ideas

To ensure healthy lunches, try to follow the dietary guidelines established by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Using a typical dinner plate as your guide (see Choose My Plate as a reference), include one quarter plate of veggies, one quarter plate of fruits, one quarter plate of whole grains, one quarter plate or less of protein and also include one whole serving of dairy. If you haven’t already, consider investing in durable storage containers to bring your lunch back and forth with you.

Consider “portable” fruit and veggie options when packing lunches. Mandarin oranges, apples, bananas, grapes, baby carrots, celery, and other fruits and vegetables you don’t have to prepare saves time on the back end.

Sandwiches and salads are tried-and-true lunchtime staples. Save time using packaged salad greens and pre-sliced, low fat cheeses and lean proteins. Canned tuna and salmon make great options, as do hard boiled eggs. Nuts make a nice addition to any lunch and can be pre-portioned in plastic containers. Low fat string cheeses also make easy and affordable additions to any lunch.

Feeling inspired to make something more exotic for lunch? Consider whole wheat sesame ginger yakisoba noodle salad which tastes great cold or a wheat berry salad with blood oranges and feta cheese. Soups also make tasty, on-the-go lunches; look for recipes packed with veggies and use reduced sodium broths. For more delicious lunch recipes ask your friends, go online, or read that cooking magazine you’ve had on your coffee table for the past several months.

With some simple planning, packing your lunch doesn’t have to be such a chore. Your health and waistline will thank you for it. Looking to dive further into your nutrition needs? Northwest Primary Care offers complete nutritional counseling services.

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