The Home-Packed Advantage
While it’s easy for work lunch to be an afterthought, there are multiple advantages to bringing your lunch from home and eating in a staff room, rather than at your desk.
Meal Planners Thinner Than ‘Grazers’
Planning meals for the week ahead gives you more control of your food choices.
The most recent national nutrition survey of 4,500 adults found those who “grazed”, rather than ate regular meals, had poorer diets and were more likely to carry excess weight.
A 2017 French study of 40,000 adults found those who planned their meals were 13% more likely to have the healthiest eating patterns and 25% more likely to consume a better variety of healthy foods, compared to those who didn’t plan.
The planners also had about a 20% lower risk of having obesity. But we need to keep in mind that this is an association and does not prove causation.
Meal planners are less likely than “grazers” to carry excess weight.
Planning (Usually) Means Healthier
Even doctors report that poor nutrition at work makes them feel irritable, tired, hungry, frustrated and unwell. It makes it harder for them to concentrate, and affects their performance and decision-making.
Workplace interventions to promote healthier eating have included nutrition education, support or counseling to help change behaviors, personalized feedback on nutrition and/or workplace changes such as increased availability of healthier meals, vegetables, fruit and water.
These programs have led to small but positive improvements in dietary patterns, lifestyle choices and feelings of wellness.
One study found eating with others at work helped promote social cohesion and boosted people’s sense of well-being.
In another study that followed 39,000 Thai adults over four years, researchers found those who ate by themselves were more likely to be unhappy.
The takeaway: bring your own lunch and eat in the office staff room!
Healthy Lunches From Home = Happiness?
Having a healthy diet may lower the risk of developing depression, according to a review of the research into diet and depression, which pooled results from 21 studies involving 117,229 people.
The researchers found high intakes of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, fish, olive oil, low-fat dairy products, and low intakes of animal foods, were associated with a lower risk of depression.
A greater risk was linked to high intakes of red and/or processed meat, refined grains, high-fat dairy products, butter, potatoes, gravies and low intakes of vegetables and fruit.
A program aimed at increasing fruit and vegetable intakes in young adults found that those who were given two extra serves to eat each day reported an increase in vitality, well-being and motivation compared to those told to stick to their usual (low) intakes.
Interestingly, participants who were given vouchers to purchase more vegetables and fruit, and sent text message reminders to eat more of them, didn’t increase their fruit and vegetable intake as much as those who were actually given the extra servings.
A healthy diet increases well-being, motivation and may lower the risk of depression.
Food From Home Saves Money
The obvious advantage: preparing food at home saves you money.
A survey of 437 adults in the United States found those who prepared meals at home more often spent less money on food away from home, less money on food overall, and had healthier dietary intakes.
Australian research shows eating healthily can be more affordable than eating unhealthy foods.
But let’s face it: you don’t need a study to tell you that a lunch from home will be cheaper and healthier than one purchased at a restaurant or take-out spot near work.
Work Lunch Action Plan
Actually packing a lunch on a daily basis is a nice idea that typically goes from a mission on Monday to a failure by Friday.
You start your week with the best of intentions: A trip to the grocery store, bags on bags of leafy greens, fresh produce, and lean proteins. Monday, you pack a nice, if somewhat meek salad and think:
“I’m gonna save so much money and eat so healthy this week!”
But then you get to work and notice your office cafeteria is serving loaded baked potatoes. So you put that salad in the fridge and decide you’ll eat it tomorrow.
By Friday your lunch packing intentions are nothing more than a distant memory, and you’ve completely forgotten about that sad salad in the fridge and all your other now wilted and slimy groceries.
You need to be organized and food you enjoy for this home-packed lunch endeavor to be a success!
You need a game plan so other factors that influence your food choices don’t hijack good intentions.
Tips For Packing Your Work Lunch
Even if you know that bringing food into work is the more affordable and healthier option, it can be hard to convince yourself to pack some food the night before, and even harder to remember to take it with you the next day.
You need a few packing hacks to get you on the road to that lunch-from-home life. These tricks are easy-as-pie, kind of fun, and totally ingenious.
Start With The Right Equipment
If you have lousy food storage containers, you’re not going to want to use them to pack your lunch.
Having the right equipment is the first change you need to make if you’re serious about switching up your lunch packing habits.
I’ll offer some great suggestions further down in this article.
Plan Out Your Lunches
Think about the foods you love. What kind of meals will have you looking forward to lunch?
Write a matching shopping list so you have all the ingredient at your fingertips.
It seems like an obvious tip, but sometimes that healthy meal you packed can be a little too…healthy!
If you usually hate kale, but packed a kale salad because you think that’s what you should be eating, you’re still not going to want to eat it when push comes to shove.
There is one incredibly easy way to keep your lunch choices in line with your tastes:
When you’re packing your lunch, think to yourself, would I eat this right now? If the answer is no, it will probably still be no tomorrow.
Prepare Versatile, Mix-and-Match Ingredients
For example, grill a bunch of chicken on the weekend and keep that in your fridge. You can also have canned fish and other already-prepped proteins on hand.
Other ingredients you can make ahead include chopped and cleaned fresh fruits (which are also easy to add to breakfast and eat for snacks), big portions of cooked whole grains like rice or quinoa, and large amounts of roasted vegetables.
These are all ingredients that can be easily stored and added to salads, grain bowls, soups, and so much more.
Tips for Roasting Vegetables
Cut Your Veggies The Same Size
This one might seem obvious, but it’s easy to get distracted when you’re doing a repetitive task like chopping.
Unfortunately, that can leave you with veggies of all shapes and sizes. Keeping your vegetables relatively the same size will help them to cook evenly. When in doubt, chop them into a 1-2 inch square.
Spread Them Out
Once you’re done chopping, make sure to spread your vegetables out evenly on an oiled, foil-lined tray.
Giving your veggies some breathing room helps them to cook properly. If you crowd your raw vegetables they will steam in the oven instead of roast.
Don’t Forget The Oil
Fully coat your veggies in oil once they are arranged on your pan.
Choose an oil with a high smoke point. A smoke point simply refers to the temperature at which the oil starts to burn and smoke.
If an oil is heated beyond its smoke point, it will pass on that burnt taste to whatever you’re cooking.
Corn, soybean, peanut and sesame oils all have a high smoke point.
I like La Tourangelle Toasted Sesame Oil for roasting vegetables. It has a deep, rich flavor that really enhances the vegetables.
Roast, Don’t Bake!
As long as you’re working with a high smoke point oil, cooking at a high temperature will help ensure your veggies are cooked through perfectly — crispy on the outside, and tender on the inside. Most recipes call for 425° F.
Pack Healthy Snacks
Don’t forget snacks – some good ideas:
- hard-boiled egg and whole grain crackers
- plain or vanilla Greek yogurt with berries
- apple slices with almond butter
- veggie sticks with a dip
- protein bars
- hummus and carrots
- fresh fruit and nuts
- tuna and crackers
- a small salad
- trail mix
- a cup of soup
Leave Condiments at Work
If your favorite hot sauce is waiting for you at work, odds are you’re going to want to use it. Keeping ingredients you love at work will help you actually pack and bring a lunch.
Condiments To Keep at Work
- crushed red pepper
- lemons and limes
- soy sauce
- hot sauce
- olive oil
- bacon bits
Pack Fresh, Enticing Fruit
Relative to the cost of snacks from vending machines, it’s less expensive and much better for you.
Make and Freeze Sandwiches (It’s a Thing!)
Make your workday sandwiches all at once when you have the time, and freeze them.
Not all sandwiches will freeze well, but most lend themselves perfectly to it!
Sandwich Fillings That Freeze Well
- Peanut butter and other nut butters
- Canned tuna and salmon
- Cooked roast beef, chicken and turkey
- Deli slices
- Natural or processed hard and semi-hard cheeses, such as Swiss, Cheddar.
Sandwich Fillings That Don’t Freeze Well
- Hard-cooked egg whites (freezing toughens them).
- Tomatoes, lettuce, pickles, onions, etc. become limp when thawed; they can be added to thawed sandwiches just before eating them.
Assembling and Freezing Sandwiches
The same basic steps may be followed for assembling most frozen sandwiches:
For sandwiches where the filling might soak into the bread, spread a thin layer of soft butter or margarine to the edges of the sides of bread that will be the “insides” of the sandwich (don’t use melted margarine or butter).
Make your sandwiches “assembly line” fashion, completing one step for all sandwiches before moving on to the next step.
Steps For Freezing Sandwiches
- Place them in extra-large zip lock sandwich bags and label the bag with the date and type of sandwich. Squish out as much air as possible before sealing them.
- Lay them in a single layer in the freezer on a cookie sheet or other flat surface and freeze them for about an hour until they hold their shape. Then place the small sandwich bags in a large freezer-quality bag, such as a gallon size freezer bag. Again, Squish out extra air before sealing. The thin sandwich bags aren’t satisfactory for maintaining food quality during longer-term freezer storage.
- Use frozen sandwiches within 1 to 3 months for best flavor and quality.
- Thaw individual sandwiches in their sandwich bag or other wrapping in the refrigerator. Transfer them to the refrigerator the day before you plan to eat them.
- To keep perishable sandwich foods like meats and cheeses cold, pack them in an insulated lunch bag; include a frozen gel pack or two. Or, if there’s a refrigerator available, store perishable items there upon arrival.
- Add tomato or onion slices, lettuce, a squirt or dab or horseradish, pickles, etc. just before eating sandwiches. A small container or snack-size plastic bag of these add-ons can be packed with your lunch.
Tip: The first time you try freezing a recipe, make just a small portion. Then check in about a month to see how you like it.
Pack a Chef’s Salad
Pack all the fixings of a colorful, chef’s salad in a container, and add the dressing at lunch time.
Packing your liquids separately will keep your salads from wilting (and other items from going soggy).
These Dressing and Dip Containers from Comfy Package are just the right size for your salad dressing, dip or sauce.
They come in a variety of sizes, from 1 oz. all the way to 5.5 oz. There’s 100 containers in each (economical) package. It’s a good extra for your lunch-packing supplies.
Remember Your Lunch!
Phone, keys, wallet … anything else? Yes, your lunch!
How many times have you packed a delicious rice bowl, only to realize halfway to work that you’ve completely forgotten it?
My trick: attach a note to your keys, so you simply can’t leave the house without your lunch!
The Right Equipment
If you have lousy food storage containers, you’re not going to want to use them to pack your lunch. Having the right equipment is the first change you need to make if you’re serious about switching up your lunch packing habits.
Your lunch utensils are completely up to you. Here are a few staples I recommend:
A Great Lunch Bag
Your lunch bag is part of your personal style, so find one with a great vibe. Look for one with insulation, so your food stays chilled during travel time (or until lunch if you don’t have a fridge at work).
No matter what you choose, make sure it’s a bag that gives you that extra motivation for packing and bringing lunch.
Recommended Lunch Bags
High Capacity Lunch Bag
This large insulated lunch tote has enough room for up to 4 meal boxes and more!
Pack everything for your workday meals, including snacks and drinks in this terrific unisex styled tote (it comes in a variety of colors).
Its main food compartment measures 10.43″L x 7.24″W x 10.39″H, and it easily fits multiple food containers, plus cans or bottles.
The leak-resistant bento-style food containers shown (not included) are microwave, dishwasher and freezer safe.
The bag is lightweight, durable, and features sturdy dual “YKK” zippers. It’ll keep your food cool or warm with its 5mm insulated lining.
It’s comfortable to carry, looks great and has excellent reviews.
High Style Lunch Bag
This gorgeous insulated Arctic Zone Lunch Bag comes in 10 different color/pattern combinations, so you’ll definitely find one to match your fashion sense!
This lunch bag has two compartments separated by a transparent divider, so you can avoid having softer items crushed. It also has a small side pocket, and a removable strap.
It’s lined with an innovative “Therma-Flect” interior, which acts as a radiant barrier, reflecting heat, rather than absorbing it.
There’s a leak-proof lining with Microban to protect from bacteria, odors and stains.
Reviewers love this bag, saying they get compliments on it, and describing it as functional and the perfect size.
One reviewer noted that it keeps food cold all day, and that her cool packs are still frozen at the end of the day.
Check out the other 9 styles in this bag!
Machine Washable Lunch Bag
Yes, this durable Neoprene Lunch Bag from Nordic by Nature is fully machine washable! In fact, the bag comes with a card that suggests you run it through the washer before the first use!
This unisex lunch bag comes in 8 color/stitching combinations, and is composed of thick 5mm heavy duty neoprene for hot or cold insulation. One of the nice things about neoprene is that it has built-in stretch to accommodate bulkier items.
This video shows the bag in more detail and demonstrates how you can pack it with quite a lot of food:
This spacious lunch bag measures 12″ x 12″ x 6.5″, and has a handy outside pocket. A larger size measuring 13.5″ x 13.5” x 7″ is also available.
It features heavy-duty stitching, high quality YKK zippers, and a comfortable handle for easy carrying.
See the other 7 colors!
Quality Meal Containers
Whether it’s plastic containers, ziplock bags, glassware, or your personal preference, be sure you have quality storage containers so your food stays fresh.
These are the meal containers I recommend:
Meal Prep Containers
For efficiency, nothing beats preparing several days (or even your whole work week’s worth) of lunches in advance. For that purpose, I recommend this set of Meal Prep Containers from BN Goodz.
These reusable BPA-free food containers are dishwasher, microwave and freezer safe, and come in a set of 15.
This sturdy, leak-proof set includes 15 single compartments 28 oz containers, so you can use several in a lunch bag to separate your foods. For example, some foods may need to be reheated at work, while other foods will be in their own container.
You may wonder if you need this many containers: with a set of 15, you can pre-assemble several lunches at a time, and just load them into your dishwasher at the end of the day, and run the dishwasher when it’s convenient, instead of worrying about washing containers every evening.
These durable containers will fit beautifully in your lunch bag, and provide hassle-free cleaning and easy nesting storage.
This container set has fantastic reviews (a nearly perfect rating).
Collapsible Silicone Food Containers
I really like this set of 4 Collapsible Silicone Containers from Vremi. These containers are also microwave, freezer and dishwasher safe.
They’re made of food-grade silicone.
So, if you prefer not to heat and store your food in plastic (and if glass containers aren’t practical), these are a great choice.
This set includes 4 sizes of containers which collapse to 1/3 of their original size for easy, nesting storage!
- Red Container (0.4 quart / 11.8 oz)
- Yellow Container (0.5 quart / 16.9 oz)
- Green Container (0.8 quart / 27.1 oz)
- Blue Container (1.3 quart / 40.6 oz
If you enjoy soups and stews, and don’t have access to a microwave, you’ll appreciate having an insulated wide mouth thermos-type food jar.
A great example is this Energify Vacuum Insulated Stainless Steel Food Jar, which comes in 2 sizes and several colors.
This wide-mouth food jar is designed to keep the temperature hot or cold for hours, and to make packing, eating and cleaning effortless.
It features thermal insulation and a smart lid that doubles as a deep serving bowl.
The air pressure release button on the lid helps release the air, enabling you to open the lid without struggling.
Its double-wall design keeps this food jar comfortable to hold. The air sandwiched between two walls keeps the jar from being too hot (or cold) to hold; this is especially important if you need to eat “on the go”.
This food jar is made from premium 304 stainless steel and 100% BPA-free silicone and plastic.
It’s available in 15.2 oz and 22 0z sizes, and several color options.
If you’ve got a quick commute in cool weather and access to a fridge at work, your lunch will keep just fine until you’re ready to eat.
If your lunch bag has separated sections, such sandwich storage at the bottom, use a cool pack in each section.
This will keep your food fresh and pleasant to eat, and avoid the risk of possible food poisoning.
Here are a few ideas to make your food more enjoyable and your packing easier.
As mentioned earlier, if possible, keep some of these items at work. Alternatively, you can keep a stash in your car, or just bring them along in your lunch bag.
Again, if you have access to a staff kitchen, you may not need these, but if you need to be self-contained at lunch, you may want to spice things up a bit.
For example, what’s a hard boiled egg without a little extra salt and pepper?
Keep a variety of packets in a zip lock bag.
If you don’t want to bring home dirty cutlery, Disposable Wooden Cutlery from Bamboodlers is an eco-friendly choice:
This cutlery is 100% disposable, biodegradable, compostable, and renewable.
It’s free of from plastic, toxins and chemicals. Keeping these in your drawer at work will mean one less step in packing your lunch (and cleaning up afterward).
Napkins and Towelettes
And finally, don’t forget the napkins and towelettes for hygiene. Keep them at work if you can (and always have some in the car!).
Bringing your own home-packed lunch to work is a super way to eat a healthier, completely customized lunch.
Studies have shown numerous benefits to this habit, including less chance of weight gain, enhanced well-being and money savings!
Experiment, have fun, and get into the groove of packing your own workday lunches … it’s worth the effort!
Now It’s Your Turn!
Did I miss anything? Do you have any tips for making and taking workday lunches?
I’d love to hear your thoughts!
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