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 what are some 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.
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.
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.
For example, 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.
To prevent brown bag lunches from getting boring (and to resist going out so frequently) try some of these strategies:
1. Add Dipping Sauces: baby carrots aren’t really exciting until you add garlic hummus or some sweet Thai chili sauce, for example. Dipping sauces can give some life to tons of things, from fruits and veggies to pre-cooked shrimp and grilled chicken.
2. Mix Up Sandwich Toppers: don’t get stuck in a sandwich rut. Try a variety of budget-friendly toppers such as large banana pepper rings, pickle slices, fresh cheese, sprouts and fresh basil.
3. Garnish Your Soup: if you regularly bring in a thermos of soup to work, spice it up by tossing in a few chopped scallions, homemade croutons or a dollop of yogurt to give it a creamy texture.
4. Include Fun Snacks: small containers of homemade trail mix, sandwich bags of bargain pretzels that you buy in bulk and custom-season in the oven, or even a couple of homemade cookies will give you something to look forward to at lunch or during a coffee break. Anything to break up the monotony of your sandwich and apple combo will make that brown bag a little less boring.
5. Make Meals Ahead of Time: try occasionally making large batches of entrees that freeze well. Put things like lasagna and chicken pot pie into single-serving Tupperware dishes and put them in the freezer. Then just grab one on your way to work for an easy, frugal freezer meal.