Quick and healthy bag lunches

Originally Published: September 18, 1998 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: September 24, 2010
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Dear Alice,

Going into school this year, I am going to bring a sack lunch. I was wondering what I should bring that would be healthy and not take a lot of preparation time?

Please help — thanks,

Dear S,

If you are what you eat, being healthy and time efficient sound like great qualities to have! Whether your motivations include saving time, saving money, improving your nutrition, maintaining or losing weight, or fostering your creative, culinary skills, preparing your own lunch is a grand idea! Packing your own lunch helps tailor to your individual needs, nutritionally and conveniently to energize you through your busy days at school and beyond. With pending readings and meetings, preparing the proper, nutritious foods may seem like a challenge, but give these nutritious, yet easy and balanced tips below a try.

First, a little review of the food groups may serve up some hot and cool lunch options. Main food groups include:

  • Fruits, naturally sweet and juicy, are great as salad ingredients, sides, or snacks. Try carrying a container of prepared oranges, grapefruit, bananas, apples, grapes, or any seasonal fruit as well as dried, canned, or pureed fruit for snacks and smoothies.
  • Grains come as whole grains and refined grains. Whole grains use the entire kernel of the grain (e.g., whole wheat flour items, brown rice, oatmeal, popcorn), and refined grains have been milled to remove their bran and germ (e.g., white flour, white rice, white bread, pasta, noodles). They're great for wraps (e.g., bread sandwiches, pita pockets, tortilla wraps), noodles like pasta, rice dishes, and snacks (e.g., popcorn, cereal, crackers, granola).
  • Vegetables, raw, cooked, fresh, frozen, canned, or dried, are easy to transport and are nutritious! Convenient lunch versions include bite-sized vegetables (think baby carrots or cut celery sticks), salads, wrap fillers, soups, and potato dishes.
  • Meat and beans make great wraps of turkey, lean ham, lean roast beef, peanut or any other nut butter, fish (e.g., tuna, salmon), or hummus (chick pea spread/dip). They're hearty and complement most grains and vegetables.
  • Milk and milk products like yogurt, cheese (e.g., string cheese, cottage cheese), and milk-based desserts (e.g., frozen yogurt, pudding, ice cream) make for portable lunch items high in calcium. Try incorporating low-fat versions with less or no added sugar.
  • Oils and fats are part of a healthy diet, but use oils, fats, and their products (e.g., mayonnaise, butter, margarine, lard, animal fat, shortening) sparingly. Try to avoid trans fat and limit the amount of food items high in oils and fats, such as some baked items (e.g., cookies, cakes), deep fried foods, and some packaged foods.

Suggestions for compiling easy and healthy lunches include:

  • Make it a combo meal! Try incorporating three or more food groups into a meal. Try to focus on fruit, vary your vegetables, consume calcium rich foods like dairy, and having half of your grains come from whole grains. A sample menu may be a whole wheat wrap of chicken breast, hummus, and spinach with sides of a low-fat yogurt cup and an apple.
  • Simply good. Simple, whole, unprocessed ingredients make for easy preparation and high nutrition. Try having a sizeable stock of fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, grains, and lean meats as basics for your lunch combinations. For packaged foods, carefully read the ingredients lists and nutrition facts label, especially their uses of oils, fats, and sugars, and their sodium and cholesterol levels.
  • Limit sweets and fats. Try to limit food items high in added sugar and fats, such as soda, cookies, candy, some snack bars, and deep fried items.
  • Minimal cooking. If you like to cook, consider cooking a larger amount that you may eat over several days or consider freezing some for later use. If you don't like to cook, give wraps and salads a try. Or, you may make semi-homemade lunches combining pre-cooked items (especially grains) with raw vegetables and bought meat and beans.
  • Rotate your menu. You won't get bored of eating the same thing each day, and this may help you incorporate a full range of food groups.
  • Safety first! Wash your hands while preparing and eating. Properly prepare your foods to appropriate temperatures before eating them. If you're carrying your lunch all day, remember food safety, particularly for meats and dairy. If you have access, store your lunch in appropriate temperatures to avoid having your food spoil. An insulated, reusable lunch bag with a reusable cold pack may help keep your lunch safe and stay green!

For more information about balancing a healthy lunch, check out My Pyramid for more tips and a personalized eating plan. If you're a student at Columbia, you may also consult with a nutritionist through Primary Care Medical Services for further nutritional guidance. Eating better may help fuel your mind and body, and you may complement your diet with physical fitness. If you're pressed for time, try reading No time for working out.

When you're having lunch, consider asking your peers of their strategies for quick and healthy lunches and discussing why it's important for you and your peers to eat healthy. These make for nutritious conversations and fruitful times with others! Bagged lunches may help fuel your physical and social health!