Planning — and surprisingly little of it — is the key to a nutritious lunch at work and school.
Making a healthy lunch in the morning takes about 10 minutes. Buying an unhealthy lunch at the office cafeteria takes about 10 minutes, too. It's easy to reach for the greasy, fatty foods when you're stressed or on a deadline. But if you're just going to shove something in your mouth anyway, why not make it healthy?
How do you succeed where so many other have failed? Planning, planning and planning.
1. Plan lunches around an assortment of whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
2. Plan the week's lunches in advance to make shopping easier. Make a list, and stick to it. Don't give in to the temptation to buy extra sweets, junk food or fatty deli meats.
3. Plan for the next day's lunch the night before. Time is tight in the morning, and rushing through lunch prep often means compromising on nutrition or skipping prep time altogether in favor of vending machines and drive-through windows.
Some people like to wash and cut their vegetables as soon as they get home from the store.
Boredom can sabotage any healthful lunch plan. To beat boredom, keep a variety of different breads in the freezer, and have jarred vegetables on hand, such as roasted red peppers, to use when the mood strikes.
And experiment! Try different food combinations to keep yourself, and your children, away from poor food choices.
Let children help prepare lunches and choose their own healthful snacks. To keep kids from trading lunches they don't like, ask them what they'd like to eat. And to lunches from being swapped, write napkin notes that say, "I love you," or tell a joke. This makes it harder for kids to trade away the lunch you made.
Freeze juice boxes before adding to lunchboxes. This not keeps the drink cold and acts like a cold pack for the rest of the lunch.
Don't worry if your child asks for the same food day after day. Peanut butter and jelly is a common healthy favorite. This is normal, and kids will usually move on to something new in a matter of weeks. Provide different snack foods for variety.
If a refrigerator and microwave are available, you'll have a greater range of lunch choices.
Bring soup or leftovers from home (as long as dinner was healthful) and reheat at lunch.
Make a salad the night before, and add dressing just before you eat. Add more than the just lettuce and tomato. Try chopped apples, raisins, nuts, jalapeño peppers, chickpeas, beans, cauliflower, corn or other vegetables.
When plans fall through
Despite best intentions, there will be times when plans fail and you or your children will have to make smart choices from what's available outside your kitchen.
Review school lunch menus. According the American Dietetic Association, most schools now meet or exceed guidelines that call for no more than 30% of total calories from fat. Menus are posted in advance in the school, printed in newspapers or sent home with students. Allow children to help plan which days they'd like to buy lunch, and guide them toward the best nutritional value.
Pack a healthful snack to supplement lunch. If children get hungry in school, they'll be tempted to buy chips, soda or candy. Give them fruit, vegetable sticks, low-fat granola bars or yogurt to tide them over.
Advance planning with your children will help them eat a balanced diet. This means fast food is an occasional treat, not an every day habit. Some schools have let fast food restaurants into cafeterias. This means children will be even more tempted to eat high-fat foods from Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and McDonalds.
If fast food is your only option, choose the grilled chicken breast sandwich without the high-fat sauce, or visit the salad bar (as long as you go light on the dressing, cheese and fatty meats, such as pepperoni).
Plan what you want to eat at a restaurant or in a cafeteria so you won't be swayed by menu descriptions. Appetizers tend to be fried, creamy or cheesy-all of which add fat to your diet. Instead, choose broth-based soup, fresh fruit cup or juice. For entrees, look for items that are grilled, steamed, poached or broiled-and order them without butter or sauces. "Cajun" or "blackened" items are usually spicy and low in fat.
Mix-and-match for a healthful lunch
Bored with the same old sandwich? Keep a variety of foods in your pantry, refrigerator and freezer to mix-and-match for innovative lunches.
Start with …
- Whole-wheat bread
- Seven-grain bread
- Whole-wheat roll
- Lean roast beef
- Tuna salad (low fat)
- Sliced Chicken
- Roasted eggplant
Top with any…
- Broccoli sprouts
- One slice of cheese
- Spinach leaves
- Cucumber slices
- Tomato slices
- Roasted red pepper
- Hot pepper rings
- Shredded carrot
- Low-fat mayo
- Low-fat dressing