By Alice || Edited by Go Ask Alice Editorial Team || Last edited Apr 12, 2024
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Alice! Health Promotion. "Quick and healthy bag lunches." Go Ask Alice!, Columbia University, 12 Apr. 2024, https://goaskalice.columbia.edu/answered-questions/quick-and-healthy-bag-lunches. Accessed 24, May. 2024.

Alice! Health Promotion. (2024, April 12). Quick and healthy bag lunches. Go Ask Alice!, https://goaskalice.columbia.edu/answered-questions/quick-and-healthy-bag-lunches.

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,
S

Dear S, 

Preparing your own lunch is a great idea, whether your motivations include saving time and money, improving your nutrition, or upgrading your culinary skills! Homemade lunches can energize you through your busy days at school and beyond. Read on to learn more about how to make a balanced lunch (with examples), cut down on preparation time, and store food safely. 

Home-cooked meals and meal prepping are great choices for heading into the school year with a healthy mindset. Cooking your own meals has been linked with consuming higher quality food yet fewer calories and spending less money. Meal prepping, or making dishes ahead of time and in bulk, has also been associated with more well-rounded meal options, greater consumption of key nutrients, and less obesity. 

One way you can ensure your own cooked meals are nutritious and filling is by following general guidelines about portioning. The healthy eating plate model divides a plate into three sections: a quarter of the plate should consist of protein (think meat, fish, and legumes), a quarter of the plate should include grains or starch (such as rice, pasta, or potatoes), and the remaining half of the plate should be composed of fruits and vegetables. This division can easily translate to bag lunches—just model whatever container you’re using on the plate. Some examples of balanced meals can include: 

  • A chicken, broccoli, brown rice, and low-sodium soy sauce bowl 
  • A baked potato, salmon, and asparagus 
  • Multigrain bread, salad, and tofu scramble 

You might also be interested in packing snacks to keep you going throughout the school day. The key to a satisfying snack is to combine protein and carbohydrates. Examples include guacamole and red bell peppers; whole grain crackers and hummus; and cheese and grapes. 

With everything else that’s on your plate, preparing nutritious foods may seem like a challenge. However, with a few tips, you’ll be savoring a tasty lunch in no time. You might try experimenting with different ways to prep meals. You can either prepare ingredients (wash and cut vegetables, etc.) or cook recipes that make several servings. If you go the ingredient route, you can repurpose any leftover ingredients for different meals. If you instead decide to make several recipes, you might consider choosing ones that share some ingredients. This can help cut down on grocery expenses. And, if you prepare these shared ingredients all at once, it can also help to cut down on prepping and cooking time. 

Once you’ve made all this food, you may wonder about how to safely store it. If you have the option, storing food in glass containers instead of plastic is more environmentally friendly. It can also protect you from ingesting microplastics. It’s also recommended to refrigerate or freeze foods within a few hours of preparation. You may opt to refrigerate all the foods that you plan to eat within a few days and freeze the rest, at zero degrees Fahrenheit. When you take your lunch with you, you might consider taking along an ice pack, this can help keep your food from spoiling. For more information about how to safely store food, feel free to check out the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Food safety information

Bon appétit! 

Additional Relevant Topics:

Nutrition and Physical Activity
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