Whether for schoolkids or working adults, assembling wholesome yet delectable lunches five days a week can be challenging. Going out to lunch or giving your kids money so they can buy a meal in the cafeteria isn’t just expensive; it may take a toll on everyone’s health, too. No matter how hectic your schedule, you can pack easy, healthy, tasty homemade lunches for you and your kids. Here are tips and ideas to get started.
A Case for packing lunch
While many districts serve healthier lunches than they used to, schools and offices still tend to be surrounded by food options that are fast but not healthy. Just as an unhealthy lunch can negatively impact your afternoon productivity at the office, poor nutrition at lunch has direct and indirect impacts on learning. Low-cost, prepackaged foods that are heavily preserved with sodium and other additives can lead to increased blood pressure and other health concerns. Heading for the drive-through instead? Many fast food restaurants offer meals filled with high cholesterol, tons of calories, and trans fats. Research shows regular consumption of fast food can lead to weight gain, heart disease, diabetes and more.
When you pack lunch yourself, you have more control over what goes in it—and perhaps more importantly, what’s left out. For example, the average American eats about 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day, but the American Heart Association recommends a maximum of 1,500 milligrams, or between 1/2 and 3/4 teaspoon, of table salt per day. By prepping and packing lunch yourself, you keep sugar and salt amounts at healthier levels, and balance produce, whole grains, healthy fats, and proteins. And the healthier your lunch, the more productive you can be.
But you’re busy. How in the world can you possibly make healthier lunches all week? Here are five easy ways.
Reinvent your leftovers
We often think of leftovers as dinner’s dregs, to be grudgingly re-heated when life is too busy to cook. But leftovers can be repurposed not only to minimize time spent cooking but to maximize creativity and energize any meal with variety and flavor.
For example, let’s say you cooked chicken breasts, vegetables, and rice for dinner. Slice up the leftover chicken and toss it with different sauces or seasonings for stir fries, burritos, or salads. Pair leftover vegetables with quinoa, barley, or roasted diced sweet potatoes for a tasty lunch bowl. Or transform leftover rice into fried rice so it becomes a distinct and satisfying dish all its own that’s perfect for lunches (especially if you repurpose some of the chicken and vegetables too).
Have the right containers
Have you ever opened your lunch bag to find a terribly squished sandwich or crushed snacks? What about wilted greens and soggy croutons on an already-dressed salad? Without the right container, your lunch may get smashed and smooshed from the travails and bumps of your commute.
Planning, prep, and creative thinking matter a great deal when putting together healthy lunches. Luckily, container options extend far beyond the standard kid lunchbox (though if that’s your thing, you can do that too). No matter how you pack it, the right containers make all the difference.
Make meals ahead of time
Cooking in large batches or making multiple dishes over a weekend helps you have lunch packed and ready to go, no matter how busy your morning. This is similar to repurposing leftovers, but involves more intent. You deliberately cook dishes you want to have multiple times, that can be frozen for later use, or that you can easily repurpose along with other foods.
- Go big
Want to cook that massive pot of stew or that ridiculously large hunk of brisket? Make a big batch over the weekend and you’ll have plenty of meals not only for lunch, but some for the freezer too.
Make a monthly or weekly meal plan to guide your grocery shopping and your time management for cooking.
- Cook building blocks
Make items you can use for diverse and distinct meals based on different recipes that use similar base ingredients. Cook large batches of one or many items—beans, quinoa, cauliflower rice, browned ground beef, steamed or roasted vegetables, etc. Then assemble those according to recipes that use similar ingredients in different ways. A batch of cooked fish, for example, could be used in fish tacos one day and chowder the next.
- Go big
Adapt kid-friendly lunches for grownup tastes
From a PB&J to mac-n-cheese, grown-ups can still enjoy kid favorites. It’s easy to adapt kid staples to an adult palate. Even better? You can make one dish that suits your kids’ tastes, and then make a few tweaks to jazz it up for the adults. For instance, instead of defaulting to boxed mac-n-cheese, buy three specialty cheeses to make your own and enjoy richer flavor. Or increase the flavor and texture variety of sandwiches by varying sweetness, tang, and crunch with different proteins, veggies, cheeses, and other ingredients.
Mix and match to keep lunch interesting all week
At the heart of all these suggestions lies an underlying theme: Mix and match so you don’t get bored. The key to doing that and enjoying tasty, drool-worthy lunches is simple. Keep a mix of cooked foods, ready-to-eat foods, and pantry staples on hand so you can create different meals throughout the week.
Everyday work and school lunches can be extraordinary
Healthy, delicious lunches can make all the difference between an afternoon that drags and one that feels productive. By combining leftovers, doing some planning, and using a bit of creative thinking, you’re only a few steps away from a lunch you can look forward to.