This time of year a lot of attention is paid to kids’ lunches, but just because you’re grown up doesn’t mean you need a good lunch any less. Whether you head to work five days a week or are out running errands, bringing your lunch has big advantages over eating out or picking up something to go. When you DIY, chances are you’ll eat better-quality food in saner portions with more of what you need, such as vegetables and whole grains, and less of what you don’t, including excess calories, saturated fat and sodium. And that is without even trying. If you make a point of bringing healthful options, the nutritional bonuses multiply. Plus, packing lunch saves money. If, for example, each weekday you make a meal using $3 worth of groceries instead of buying one for $8, that’s easily $1,000 a year.
Banish any notion of sad, soggy sandwiches. Your lunch can be as enticing as it is good for you.
The easiest trick is to make lunch with food from dinner the night before. When you’re cooking, it is no more work to toss an extra piece of chicken breast or salmon fillet in the skillet, add a few more broccoli florets to the steamer, boil an extra egg or toss some extra vegetables on the grill, and all of these are just as good served chilled. If you have access to a microwave, you can pack just about any meal in a microwave-safe container and reheat it for lunch the next day. As the weather cools off, soups, stews and chili are especially comforting and often taste even better the second time around.
Most homemade sandwiches are automatically a better bet than the foot-long, meat-stuffed kind you might get at a deli. But consider this to make yours even better: Skip the humongous rolls, bagels and oversized wraps that can weigh in at the equivalent of four standard bread slices. Instead, aim for two ounces of bread total (the nutrition label gives you the weight of a serving) and make it whole grain for the fiber, antioxidants and nutty taste. That generally translates to two slices of sandwich bread, a six-inch pita or a nine-inch wrap. Scooping the center out of a crusty baguette or roll is also a great way to keep starch portions in check and still have the satisfying sandwich you crave.
When it comes to spreads, get yourself out of a mayo rut by exploring condiments that are bursting with flavor and nutrients. Try slathering a basil or sun-dried tomato pesto on bread for a punch of flavor, indulging in a spread of buttery ripe avocado, or smearing on some rich, creamy hummus. And instead of overstuffing your sandwich with cold cuts and cheese, leave lots of room for vegetables. (More on that below.)
That go-to slice of tomato and lettuce leaf on your sandwich is okay, but you can do so much better. Rather than treating the veggies as an afterthought, make them the star. Grilled zucchini, eggplant, fennel, peppers, onions and tomatoes, interesting greens such as watercress or frisee, steamed asparagus spears or green beans, sliced beets, snow peas, shredded carrot, cabbage or sliced radish can all be piled on a sandwich to give it a big wow factor. They can also be added to, or substituted for, your basic salad to make it more interesting and tasty.
There is no need to suffer through soggy sandwiches and salads. For salads other than slaws, which can stand up to being dressed ahead, pack the dressing separately and toss with the greens right before eating. There are many cute containers available with separate salad and dressing compartments, or you can use any sealable food containers. Also be sure to dry your greens well before packing them so they don’t get waterlogged.
To keep sandwiches from getting mushy, protect the bread from any wet ingredients by putting large pieces of lettuce in between the bread and the other fillings on both the top and bottom pieces of bread.
Most important, keep your lunch fresh and safe to eat by packing it in an insulated lunchbox with an ice pack and, if you have access to a refrigerator, pop it in there as soon as you can — with your name on it, of course, to prevent the dreaded lunch theft.
Two of the most compelling reasons to go out to lunch if you are at work are simply to get away from your desk and maybe socialize a bit. There is no reason to forgo that important mental break when you bring food from home. Make a point of finding a spot in a nearby park or outdoor seating area or, at least, find somewhere in the office where you can escape your computer for a few minutes. Invite a friend or co-worker to join you if you are craving company. It might be just the inspiration that person needs to pack lunch, too.
Krieger is a registered dietitian, nutritionist and author. She blogs and offers a biweekly newsletter at www.elliekrieger.com. She also writes weekly in The Post’s Food section.