Because it’s so much cheaper than takeout, packing one’s lunch for school or work is a favorite tip on every list of ways to cut down the family grocery budget. But there is another important reason to consider packing your lunch–even if you don’t work or school out of the home:

Food decisions made in advance are often healthier choices.

Packing a lunch is a great way to cement that healthy intention into a healthy action. After all, when lunchtime comes and your only option is a colorful, well-balanced meal, the hard choice (eating well) becomes the easy choice!

Don’t leave the house for work or school? “Pack” your lunch anyway!

Deciding on your lunch and snacks in advance means that you:

  • choose what you will eat before you are hungry, while you are more likely to make good choices
  • choose what you will eat intentionally, to make the best use of your groceries and grocery budget
  • spare yourself from needing to dirty and clean the kitchen one more time each day
  • are less tempted by other snacks and treats in the home; just pretend you only have access to what you “brought with you.”
  • waste less time and energy thinking about what’s for lunch

A few ways to get the most out of your packed lunch:

Pack lunch the night before.

Pack yours and your family’s lunches when you are cleaning up from dinner. For one thing, the kitchen is probably already messy. Making lunch now spares lunch-only messes later! More importantly, it is easier to make good food choices on a full stomach than on an empty one, and when you aren’t racing the clock to get out the door on time.

Pack dinner leftovers for the next day’s lunch.

In the USA, dinner is typically the most complete meal of the day. Choose portions that will keep well given the storage and reheating options you and your family will or will not have access to, and then supplement to make a full meal. If dinner was chicken and vegetables, mom and dad might take salads made from sliced chicken, chopped vegetables and a few handfuls of salad greens, while the kids might fill their lunchboxes with chicken cut into strips, freshly cut carrot sticks, baby bell peppers and a container of hummus for dipping. (For this author’s house, it seems that lunchbox-temperature leftovers are great for everything from enchilada casserole to BBQ pulled pork to chicken soup, no reheating necessary. Just be sure to include the proper utensils!)

Consider macros and micros.

As always, make sure every meal or snack contains protein, fat and fiber; these are the macros. To optimize intake of micronutrients, make the packed lunch as colorful as possible. Eat the rainbow!

Pack what you’ll eat; eat what you pack.

Whether packing for small children, guiding teens to pack their own lunches, or packing a lunch for yourself, be clear that when a lunch is packed, it is expected to be eaten. That said, even the most disciplined eater will be tempted by the vending machine if there really isn’t anything to look forward to in the lunch bag. Use tempting treats sparingly in a way that will encourage eating the other foods: a tasty dressing or dipping sauce for meat and vegetables, or a few chocolate chips or raisins sprinkled into a container of nuts. If you wouldn’t touch the food at your dinner table–a plate of overcooked spinach or soggy brussel sprouts, for example–don’t bother putting it into your lunch. The chance is that if you won’t eat it freshly cooked you won’t eat it day-old out of a lunchbag, either, opting instead to go hungry (with all the lost productivity and grumpiness that can entail) or to spend too-much money on a less healthful snack, instead.

Separate the sweets.

This is especially true for younger kids who require dedicated snacks and lack the discipline to eat a “main” course before a dessert. To encourage eating all of one’s meal, separate the sweet treat part of a meal as a snack to be eaten at a different time. Pack the veggies in the lunch; designate a piece of fruit or a black bean brownie for snack time. This way, there is no direct competition between the foods you or your child will be excited to eat, and the ones of greater nutritional value.

Focus on Whole Foods.

Although supermarket shelves may lead you to believe otherwise, there is no rule that says brown bag lunches need to contain artificially colored and flavored, cartoon shaped, pre-packed, individual-serving-sized snacks. If the fruit snacks or teddy bear crackers aren’t in a child’s lunch bag, guess what? She won’t eat them! And if the child is hungry, guess what else? She will eat the options she has. Vegetables, fruits, sliced meats, nuts, seeds, natural yogurt and cheese will always be better (and cheaper!) options than anything pre-packaged out of a box.

Invest in some small reusable containers or snack size ziploc bags and make them work for you. For dry snacks like roasted nuts and seeds, save time by dividing the entire container into snack portions all at once. Vegetable snacks will usually last a full week in the fridge; spend a few minutes during weekend dinner prep to slice and portion carrots, celery, bell peppers and cucumbers for lunches. Plain yogurt can be layered on top of berries in small reusable containers, or sweetened with stevia drops. My one exception to the no-conventional snacks rule? String cheese, which is a handy source of portable fat and protein.

What’s your favorite packed lunch or healthy snack? Do you have any lunchbox hacks for work or school?