Packing the Lunch Box: How to Be Healthy & Fun for Adults and Kids
Grabbing lunch at the local deli or dining out with co-workers is quick and convenient, but all those meals out at lunchtime cut into your budget and bump up your daily calorie count. At school, your kids may face less-than-desirable lunch options from the cafeteria. Skip the mystery meat, and pack easy, healthy, fun lunches for the whole family.
Get the Tools for Success
Your healthy packed lunch routine starts with the proper tools to get the job done. A lunch bag or lunchbox is the main tool you need. Choose an insulated lunch container to help keep your food at a safe temperature. Size is also a consideration. Your child may be fine with a small lunch bag while you prefer a larger container.
Here are some other tools and gear to help you enjoy lunch from home:
- Bento boxes: These popular containers feature dividers so that you can put several different foods into one container. This option lets you easily put whole foods into the lunch even if they aren’t prepackaged. Bento boxes are easy to eat from when time is limited because everything is ready to eat as soon as you take off the lid.
- Storage containers: Instead of bento boxes, gather several reusable containers of varying sizes. Check the seals on the containers to make sure liquids won’t leak.
- Ice packs: Keeping food at a safe temperature is important. Grab several reusable ice packs, and keep them in the freezer to ensure they’re always ready.
- Thermos: Insulated containers keep hot foods warm until lunchtime. You can expand the lunch options greatly with this handy addition.
- Reusable cutlery: Buy durable plastic cutlery that you can keep in the lunchbox, so you don’t have to rely on using silverware from the break room or cafeteria.
When you plan dinners for the week, add in plans for packed lunches. By planning your lunches at the same time, you ensure you have plenty of ingredients and meal options on hand. Use your lunch plan to make your grocery shopping list just as you would for family meals.
Simplify the planning process by creating a list of your favorite brown bag lunches. You can easily plug those meal ideas into your lunch plans for the week. Look at your dinner schedule for the week to figure out when you might have leftovers for the next day. For example, if you’re having Giordano’s pizza on Sunday night, you may have a few extra slices left over for your Monday lunch.
Prep Foods in Advance
Spending a little time on the weekends or the night before gets you out the door faster with a delicious lunch in hand. On Sunday, wash and prep any vegetables you plan to pack for lunches during the week. Cook large batches of protein, and portion them out for the week. You might cook boneless skinless chicken breast to add to sandwiches or pasta dishes you take for lunch.
Some foods are better prepared the night before. If you make a week’s worth of sandwiches on the weekend, the bread will likely get soggy quickly. For those meals, handle the prep work the night before. Keep cold items in the refrigerator until the next morning.
Create Lunch Supply Areas
Make it easier to assemble lunches (or to let your kids assemble their own lunches) by creating designated areas for lunch supplies. Start with a storage spot for your lunchboxes, storage containers and other reusable gear, so that everyone knows where to go to get those items.
In the refrigerator, designate a particular drawer or shelf as the brown bag lunch area. Place yogurt, cheese sticks, whole fruit and other cold lunch items in that spot. You can also portion items into serving sizes in bags or containers to store in that spot.
Use the same concept in the pantry to hold non-perishable items. You might put a basket or bin on a shelf to hold those items. When you’re making lunches, you can go straight to the designated areas to grab items quickly.
Keep Foods Safe
Food safety is a concern when packing a lunch. Kids typically don’t have access to refrigerators for storing lunches at school. Use ice packs to keep cold items cold until lunchtime. You can also freeze drinks to act as another ice pack. The drink thaws through the morning and is ready at lunchtime. Using insulated lunch bags helps lock in the cold. A thermos keeps hot foods hot enough until lunch. If foods reach between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, the risk of bacteria growth increases, so it’s important to keep foods cooler or hotter than this temperature range.
At the end of the day, throw out any perishable items that your child did not eat. It is not safe to put those items back in the refrigerator and serve them again as they may contain unsafe bacteria.
The contents of your lunch bag affect not only your taste buds but also your energy levels for the afternoon and your overall health. Adding protein and fiber to your lunch helps give you that energy boost to make it through your day. Incorporate whole grains and lean proteins in your main dish. Balance out the meal with fresh fruits and vegetables.
Kids’ Lunch Ideas
Packing lunches for kids requires a little strategy to include foods that are both healthy and appealing. Just because you pack something doesn’t mean your child will eat it. Kids are notorious for leaving things untouched.
Consider the foods your child enjoys at home. Use those items at part of the packed lunch. You can also plan for future lunches by peeking into their lunch boxes at the end of the day. What do your kids consistently leave untouched? What do they always eat?
Try these fun options for kids’ lunches:
- Sandwich roll-ups: Instead of regular sandwiches, roll lunchmeat around a cheese stick, or spread cream cheese on the meat and layer lettuce inside. Roll up the meat and lettuce to create a tube-like shape. Cut the rolls into bite-sized pieces.
- Skewers: Another fun presentation option is to skewer the food. Make sandwich skewers by alternating chunks of meat, cheese, bread, lettuce and cherry tomatoes. Chicken and beef kabobs also work. Use a bamboo stick with a dull end for safety.
- Quesadillas: Cook up a quesadilla with your child’s favorite fillings. Kids enjoy this staple even cold.
- Cold noodle salads: Serve up a dish of cold noodle salads for your little one. Add a side of cooked chicken for protein.
- Pitas: Stuff a pita with your child’s favorite veggies and meat. You can also use hummus in the pita for protein.
- Homemade Lunchable: Instead of buying Lunchables, make a healthier version. Pack chunks of meat, cheese and crackers. Add in some fresh fruit and veggies to balance out the meal.
- Breakfast staples: It may be lunchtime, but breakfast foods can be just as healthy and fun for kids. Ideas include hard-boiled eggs, mini pancakes, yogurt parfaits, frittatas made in muffin tins and bagels with cream cheese.
- Soup: Fill your child’s thermos with soup for a hearty, warm meal.
- Leftovers: If your child loved last night’s dinner, pack it in his lunch today. You can reheat items and put them in a thermos or serve the foods cold.
No matter what you serve, get kids involved in packing their own lunches. Help young kids create a healthy lunch by making a chart that shows the different components they need to include. They can head to the lunch storage areas and grab the options they want to eat. Peek in your child’s lunchbox to make sure he includes a balanced selection.
Add a little extra fun to your child’s lunchbox with these options:
- Include a dip: Kids enjoy dipping their foods. Use a small tightly closing container to serve ranch dressing, hummus, ketchup, barbecue sauce and other favorite dipping options.
- Let them assemble it: Pack parts of the meal separately, so you child can build the food himself. For example, pack sandwich toppings separately, and let your child add them at lunchtime.
- Include a toothpick: Let your child skewer the parts of his lunch by including a toothpick in his lunchbox. He can poke the items and pop them into his mouth easily.
- Use fun shapes: Small cookie cutters let you easily create fun presentations in the lunchbox. Cut slices of fruit, cheese and other items with the cookie cutters.
Food allergies are a big concern and can be potentially life threatening. If your own family members have food allergies, you are already well aware of the need to pack lunches that avoid the allergens. However, you might not think about other people who have food allergies if your family is allergy-free.
Some schools require lunches from home to be nut-free. Even if your child’s school doesn’t have this rule, it’s a good idea to avoid nuts since they are a common allergen with potentially severe consequences. If your child is a huge peanut butter and jelly sandwich fan, swap out the offending peanut butter with safe sunbutter made from sunflower seeds.
Reading labels is also important when packing a nut-free lunch. Some foods may contain nuts even when you don’t realize it. When organizing your lunch options, skip anything with nuts.
Whether you constantly work on-the-go or occasionally have meetings that take you out of the office, having a brown bag lunch that goes with you is the best way to avoid a trip to the drive-thru. When packing your lunch, ensure you use plenty of ice packs to keep cold food at a safe temperature. You can have a hot meal on-the-go by using a thermos.
Try these options for on-the-go lunches:
- Mason jar salads: You don’t need a plate with this option. Layer the salad ingredients with the dressing in the bottom and lettuce on top with other ingredients in between to keep the lettuce from getting soggy. Shake the jar to distribute the dressing, and you’re ready to eat.
- Leftover pizza: Who doesn’t love cold pizza? Pack a few slices from last night’s dinner, and you can enjoy the cold pizza in your car.
- Wraps: Regular sandwiches can be a challenge to eat on-the-go. The toppings may fall out creating a huge mess. Instead, pack your favorite toppings inside a tortilla and wrap it up tight. The fillings stay inside better, so you can stay clean.
- Mini cheese tray: Pack a bento box with components of a cheese tray for easy snacking. Include chunks of cheese, salami, slices of baguette, grapes, dried fruit and fresh veggies. You can easily grab the pieces to eat while you’re out and about.
Lunches for the Office
When you eat in the office, you have more options for your lunches. Most offices have refrigerators where you can keep your lunch cold until lunchtime. Microwaves in the break room let you heat up your food options. Label your food clearly when you use shared refrigerators or storage facilities.
Try these options for in-office lunches from home:
- Tacos: Pack leftover taco meat, tortillas and your favorite taco toppings. Put together the tacos at lunch time, and be the envy of your coworkers.
- Sushi: Pick up your favorite sushi rolls, and pack them for lunch. You can easily eat the sushi at your desk or in the break room.
- Pasta: Use leftover pasta to create a delicious dish at lunchtime. Add cooked meat and vegetables to the pasta to create one dish with lots of nutrition.
- Soup: A hearty bowl of soup warms you up on a cold day. Make a large batch of soup or chili on the weekend, and divvy it up into bowls for the week. You can heat the soup in the morning and take it in a thermos or heat it up in the break room microwave.
Sandwiches are the go-to for lunches, but the same old sandwiches get boring. Switch up the way you make your sandwiches to make them more interesting. Here are some ideas:
- Use croissants instead of bread.
- Make it a wrap by placing toppings in a tortilla.
- Replace bread with lettuce for a healthier sandwich option.
- Use waffles as the bread.
- Change the fillings that you pair together. Use cream cheese and jelly instead of peanut butter, for example.
- Cut kids’ sandwiches with cookie cutters to make them fun.
Tips for Packing Lunches
We’ve already covered a lot of ground when it comes to packing brown bag lunches, but these additional tips help you nail your lunch plans:
- Control portions: You don’t want your kids or yourself to go hungry, but portion control is just as important at lunch as it is at dinner. Pack realistic and healthy portions of foods.
- Limit processed foods: It’s easy to toss prepackaged food into a bag and call it lunch, but highly processed items lack the nutrition you and your kids need. Skip the foods with lists of ingredients you can’t pronounce in favor of whole foods. Tossing a banana or apple in your lunchbox is just as easy as tossing in a bag of chips.
- Pack what you like: Healthy choices are important, but be realistic about what you and your kids will eat. Packing foods you want your kids to eat doesn’t mean they’ll actually eat them. The same goes for you. A meal you don’t really like leaves you feeling unsatisfied, and you may head to the vending machine mid-afternoon to compensate.
- Clean up: Wash your lunch containers nightly to keep them clean and sanitary. By cleaning up the lunch items every night, you ensure it’s ready for the next day, so you aren’t tempted to go out for lunch.
What’s in your lunch bag? We can help with the main dish. Order a Giordano’s pizza (or two) for dinner tonight, and you’ll have a delicious leftover option for lunch tomorrow.