Taking a healthy lunch to work is one of the simplest ways to trim your budget. Most people think nothing of spending $10 or so for a restaurant lunch, but over the course of a month -- or a year -- the expense can really add up.
Beyond the cost savings, most meals packed at home are healthier than foods at restaurants. When we eat out, we're often faced with whopper portions and fattening extras -- like the french fries that routinely come with sandwiches. But when you pack lunch at home, you can control your portions and choose healthier ingredients.
Still, unless you're willing to eat the same peanut butter sandwich day in and day out, it's easy to run out of ideas and fall back into the restaurant rut. So WebMD asked the experts to recommend healthy, creative lunch ideas that are not only cheap, but easy to prepare.
What Makes Up a Healthy Lunch?
First of all, make sure your lunch is balanced, experts recommend. Lunches that include some lean or low-fat protein along with carbohydrates will keep your body fueled for the afternoon, says Connie Diekman, RD, president of the American Dietetic Association.
"The combination of protein and fiber from whole grains, beans, nuts, vegetables and/or fruit will give you the most satisfying and nutritious combination of foods that will keep you feeling full until dinner," she says
If you love sandwiches, use a variety of whole-grain breads, pitas, and wraps. Choose lean fillings like sliced eggs, tuna fish, cheese or lean meats. Then jazz up your sandwiches with assorted greens, fresh basil, sprouts, sliced cucumbers, onions, and/or tomatoes.
But sandwiches are far from your only option when you're brown-bagging it. Last night's dinner, hard boiled eggs, vegetarian wraps, cereal -- anything you enjoy at home can be packed up and eaten for lunch.
In fact, you might want to make extra food for dinner so you'll have leftovers to bring for lunch, experts suggest.
"Leftovers are the perfect food to pack and take for lunch because you can control the portions and calories in the meal to ensure it will be nutritious, filling and delicious," says Diekman.
For example, she suggests packing the leftovers of a black bean, brown rice and salsa dinner casserole, topped with shredded cheddar cheese, into a reusable container that can be microwaved at the office. Add some carrot, celery, and pepper strips for a hearty and satisfying lunch.
To take this idea a bit further, try cooking in bulk. On the weekend, make a big pot of chili, soup, or rice and beans and freeze into individual portions that are ready to take to work in a flash.
Convenience foods can also make quick and easy lunches. Canned soups and frozen meals can be inexpensive, especially if you stock up when they're on sale, and all you have to do is grab one when you're running out the door. Pair these portion-controlled items with a side salad or piece of fruit to provide enough calories to keep you feeling full.
10 Easy Lunch Ideas
American Dietetic Association spokesperson Angela Ginn-Meadow, RD, says planning ahead is essential for quick lunch assembly. "A planned menu with all the ingredients in the kitchen will make it easy to put together tomorrow's lunch after dinner," she says.
She compiled this grocery list for a week's worth of lunches costing $5 or less a day (assuming you already have salad dressings on hand):
Whole wheat pita bread
1 bag baby carrots
1 bag of apples & oranges
1 can of light tuna in water
1 can of salmon (split for two meals)
1 prepared grilled chicken
3 cans of low-sodium, broth-based soup
With this list of foods, you can prepare:
- 1 pita with lettuce and grilled chicken with light Caesar dressing; baby carrots; and an apple.
- Salmon lettuce wraps with light sesame Asian dressing; 1 can of broth-based soup; and an orange.
- Tomato & cucumber salad with olive oil and vinegar; tuna salad on pita; baby carrots; and an apple.
- 1 can of soup; and grilled chicken on a bed of romaine with sliced apple and light vinaigrette.
- Garden salad with salmon, tomato, cucumber, and baby carrots; an orange; and 1 can of soup.
Diekman offers 5 more cheap lunch options that are also simple to prepare:
- Whole-wheat tortilla wrap of hummus, lettuce, sliced tomatoes, feta cheese and black olives; plus a carton of fat-free vanilla yogurt, and berries.
- Whole wheat pita stuffed with vegetarian refried beans, salsa, lettuce and shredded cheddar cheese; and apple slices with peanut butter.
- A green salad loaded with canned chunk light tuna, carrot strips, pepper slices, tomato wedges, red beans, and dried cranberries topped with balsamic vinaigrette; with a cup of low fat chocolate milk.
- A peanut butter and banana sandwich on whole wheat bread; a piece of fresh fruit; and low fat yogurt.
- Whole-wheat tortilla roll with sliced turkey, sliced low-fat mozzarella cheese, red pepper strips, and lettuce leaf (chill and slice into bite size pieces); with fruit salad and a glass of skim milk.
To save money on beverages, use the water cooler at work instead of buying bottled water or a soda from the vending machine. And bring coffee in a to-go mug instead of stopping at your favorite coffee shop. Got a sweet tooth after lunch? Have fruit, a few pieces of hard candy, or a few low-fat Graham crackers or vanilla wafers.
Keep Your Lunch Healthy and Safe
Don't forget: Lunches that include meat, fish, poultry, or dairy need to kept refrigerated. Toss your lunch in the refrigerator at work. If you don't have access to refrigeration, invest in a lunchbox, Thermos, reusable plastic containers, plastic baggies, and ice packs to keep your lunch at the proper temperature.