There is nothing more disappointing than taking the time to pack a heart healthy lunch and finding it a soggy mess by lunchtime. Last month, I shared my tips to pack a heart healthy lunch that will stay fresh until it’s time to eat on First Coast Living, a local new show (video since taken down unfortunately).
My segment was inspired by an article that stated that even the 40% of children who are bringing lunches from home still fell short nutritionally. The 626 children (3rd-4th graders) had too many sweet and salty pre-packaged foods and too little fruits, vegetables, and dairy foods. Only 27% of the lunches had even three of the five food groups! More than half (59%) contained sandwiches. Armed with this information, I set out to find tips for improving the nutrition in our lunches without sacrificing on the yummy-factor.
The basics of a heart-healthy lunch are to (1) stock up on fiber and color by including whole fruits, vegetables, plant proteins, and whole grains, (2) keep the sodium and saturated/trans fats low by turning away from packaged or processed foods as well as high-fat meats and dairy foods, and (3) pack enough food to keep you satisfied and energized throughout the day.
My tips are simple – “focus on five” and plan/prepare ahead!
Focus on Five
Aim for all five food groups in your lunch bag!
- A small amount of lean meats, a boiled egg, or plant proteins (beans, nuts, seeds) to get your protein, iron, and B12 (in animal products)
- A small amount of whole grains (bread, crackers, etc.) for carbohydrates, fiber, and energy
- Load up on whole fruits and vegetables (or ones packaged without added sugar or salt) for vitamins, minerals, and fiber
- Include some reduced fat dairy foods (milk, cheese, yogurt) for calcium and vitamin D
Aim for at least five colors!
The trick with this tip is that in order to get five or more colors we have to turn to fruits and vegetables… because, yes, skittles do not count! Different colors have different vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals (those wonderful little plant compounds that we are learning do so much for our health). If you eat the same colors every day, you may be missing out on some key nutrients.
Plan/Prep in Advance
Use the Focus on Five strategy to figure out what you will pack during the upcoming week and get your shopping done.
When you get home, do any chopping and washing as well as portioning out foods before you put them away. If you spend one hour chopping vegetables and portioning crackers into single serving baggies, you are well-positioned to meet your health goals during the week when our prep-time is typically more limited.
Pack lunches (and your pre-chopped foods) in a way that keeps them fresh. Mason jars are one of the best things I’ve found for maintaining freshness because the seal on these jars is air-tight. I showcased three options on the segment: a mason jar salad, a bento box, and a deconstructed sandwich. The trick to keeping your lunch fresh is layering! Always layer your dressing (if a salad) on the bottom and then the foods that will hold up to the dressing. Carrots are a good choice because they can sit in dressing for days without changing. Next, layer your wet ingredients (tomato, cucumber, lettuce). Always make sure your lettuce is nowhere near the dressing or it will wilt. Finally layer your proteins, cheese, and (if a sandwich) bread on top. I have used lettuce on Friday that I rinsed, spun, and chopped on Sunday. This picture is the salad I made for the segment on Sunday, which I ate on Thursday!
Just be mindful of food safety and if it looks wilty, wet, or is mushy – toss it!
I compared my bento box to a very popular pre-packaged lunch any my bento box has 26% fewer calories, 33% less saturated fat, and 3 times more fiber for $0.87 less per meal.
I also compared my salad to a popular sandwich and salad restaurant and my salad had 44% fewer calories, 65% less total fat, 63% less sodium, and 150% more fiber!
Following these tips will save you time, ease the pressure on your wallet, and greatly improve the healthfulness of your delicious and easy lunches.
What other tips do you have to share?