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Brown-Bag Lunches That Make the Grade

Get lunch in the bag -- in a hurry
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WebMD Feature

Bringing a lunch to work is a great idea for lots of reasons: it saves calories, it saves money, and it even saves time, allowing you to relax at lunch instead of fighting the crowds at fast-food restaurants.

When you're packing a brown-bag lunch, you'll almost always do better, calorie- and fat-wise, say experts.

"The more home-cooked meals you have, the better," says WebMD Weight Loss Clinic "Recipe Doctor" Elaine Magee, MPH, RD. "Studies have shown that when people eat meals away from home, they eat more food, more calories, and more fat."

So why do so many adults resort to the drive-through at lunchtime? Maybe it's because the idea of bag lunches conjures up memories of the mushy peanut butter sandwiches and warm sodas we suffered through during our school years. But there are plenty of delicious, grown-up options you can prepare just as quickly.

Start With the Bread

Building a better brown-bag lunch starts, in many cases, with the bread. Not only are whole-grain breads such as wheat and rye more healthful than white bread, they'll hold up better until lunch. Pita breads or bagels -- preferably whole-grain varieties -- are sturdier for sandwiches as well, Magee says.

"A turkey sandwich on whole grain with a bean salad on the side" is an excellent choice, says Magee. Make it interesting by using peppered turkey breast, part-skim mozzarella, and arugula. Instead of smearing the bread with mayonnaise, try a little hummus. And to be sure the bread won't wilt, keep the hummus (along with some fresh sliced tomato) separate from the rest of the sandwich until lunchtime.

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic Dietitian Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, is a big fan of using spinach in place of lettuce for sandwiches and salads.

"I keep a package of fresh spinach on hand. It's more nutritious than most greens and has virtually no calories. Try to layer it with vegetables like bell peppers."

For vegetarians, stack up the veggies, says Zelman. Add slices of low fat cheese and tomato to the spinach and bell pepper, and stack them between two slices of pumpernickel bread. To come up with more combos, check out your local gourmet deli for inspiration.

"I'm always looking for the gourmet sandwich shop to see how they put things together," Zelman says.

Beyond The Sandwich

Sandwiches aren't your thing? No problem.

If you have access to a refrigerator, or can invest a few dollars in an insulated container, there's no end to your brown-bag options. Fruit or green salads, hard-boiled eggs, sliced lean meat, and chicken and tuna salad will all keep well if chilled.

If there's a microwave at your workplace, last night's dinner extras make a super-easy lunch.

When grilling chicken breasts or baking pork chops for dinner, Zelman always makes more than the family can eat. To save steps, prepare your lunch at the same time you're making dinner, she says.

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