I bring my lunch to work every day. For starters, I don't have the time – or the patience – to wait in a long line to buy a mediocre sandwich or an oil-drenched salad. And I certainly don't want to shell out $8 for that sandwich or $13 for the salad.
But the main reason, of course, is nutrition. Making my own lunch means I can control the ingredients – which ones and how much – to make sure I'm fuelling my body with the right stuff.
Packing your own lunch allows you to get more protein, whole grains, fibre, vitamins and minerals and less of the things you don't need, such as excess calories, refined starch, sodium and added sugars. Doing so also prevents you from giving in to cravings when you hit the food court or drive-through.
The benefit: Eating the right foods in the right portions will make you feel energetic and alert, not lethargic and bloated, in the afternoon.
You'll also save money if you pack your own lunch – not surprising, I know, but the savings may be more than you think. According to a 2012 national poll conducted by Visa Canada, 61 per cent of Canadians buy lunch at least once a week – many do so at least three times a week – and spend between $7 and $13 a meal. That adds up over the course of a year: Spending $10 on lunch five days a week, for example, means $2,500 not sitting in your bank account.
To illustrate my points, consider the following: Freshii's Mediterranean Bowl with quinoa and tofu serves up 590 calories, 24 grams of protein (so far so good) and an entire day's worth of sodium (1,560 milligrams – not so good), all for $13.53.
My homemade spinach and quinoa salad with tofu and dressing delivers fewer calories (365), more protein (30 g) and considerably less sodium (220 mg) for $3.50 per serving. It's a cinch to throw together and dress the night before.
Similarly, for $7.85, Starbucks's Turkey Pesto Panini delivers 450 calories, 29 g of protein, just one gram of fibre and 1,090 mg of sodium (two-thirds of a day's worth).
If you make your own chicken (fresh, not processed) and arugula sandwich with tarragon mayonnaise (half a teaspoon of chopped tarragon for every tablespoon of mayo) on 100-per-cent whole-grain bread, you'll get 300 calories, 32 g of protein, 3 g of fibre and almost half the sodium (597 mg) for less than half the price – about $3.25.
If you prefer a hot lunch, you're better off bringing homemade chili to work rather than buying it. At $4.85, a small (284 millilitre) Tim Hortons chili has more sodium (1,180 mg) and saturated fat (7 g), and less fibre (5 g), than you may realize.
The same-sized serving of my homemade turkey chili ($2.75) has 1.6 g of saturated fat, 10 g of fibre and 350 mg of sodium.
To help you feel satisfied and energized longer in the afternoon, lunch should include protein (e.g., chicken, salmon, tuna, eggs, tofu, edamame), healthy carbohydrates (e.g. 100-per-cent whole-grain bread, quinoa, brown rice, beans, lentils, fruit), vegetables and healthy fats.
Now, it's not reasonable to vow you'll never hit the deli or food court again. Occasionally, I lapse and find myself in search of a healthy lunch – usually at a salad bar, so I can pick and choose.
The key, though, to assembling stress-free, nutritious and great-tasting lunches is having a well-stocked pantry (as I wrote about in recent columns). Then, it's simply a matter of making lunch prep a habit.
Consider cooking ahead on the weekend – grill chicken, roast a turkey breast, cook a batch of chili or soup, wash lettuce, and clean and chop vegetables.
Pack your lunch the night before so you don't forget to make it in the morning or decide to skip doing so.
Stock the right utensils, too. Invest in a collapsible salad bowl (it takes up less storage space) with compartments for greens and toppings and a separate container for dressing (I like Smart Planet and Prepworks products). Split lunch kits are also available for bento-box-style lunches.
If you don't have one, buy an insulated lunch bag to keep your meal chilled until lunchtime; that way, you can avoid storing your lunch in the over-crowded staff fridge.
Still not convinced to do it yourself? To stay motivated, focus on your goal, be it losing weight, simply eating better or saving money.
WHAT TO PACK
The easiest route (and my go-to strategy) is to make lunch with leftovers from last night's dinner.
I plan for leftovers by baking an extra salmon fillet, grilling an extra breast of chicken, doubling up the stir-fry or steaming extra vegetables. Then I store them in my lunch container right after dinner.
Repurpose leftovers to add variety. If you have black bean tacos for dinner, use the beans, chopped vegetables, grated cheese and salsa to make a taco salad for lunch the next day.
Use leftover grilled or baked chicken and fish for sandwiches, wraps and salads.
Spruce up the sandwich
Instead of sliced bread, stuff a whole-grain pita pocket, a scooped multigrain bagel (fewer carbs) or a whole-wheat tortilla with your favourite lean protein.
Swap lettuce for raw broccoli slaw, grated cabbage, shredded carrot, grated raw beets, leftover grilled vegetables or a combination of the above. To prevent a soggy sandwich, put raw vegetables or greens between bread and other fillings.
For a flavourful spread, swap mayonnaise for red pepper hummus, basil pesto, mashed avocado or a savoury mustard (Kozlik's balsamic and fig, rosemary, dill and horseradish mustards are some of my favourites).
Build a layered salad
Add two tablespoons of dressing to the bottom of a wide-mouthed mason jar.
Then add ingredients in layers such as chopped cucumber, celery, red pepper, cherry tomatoes, beans or lentils and quinoa. Add baby greens as the final layer.
One of my favourite combos: lime vinaigrette, cherry tomatoes (halved), quinoa, fresh mint leaves, chickpeas and baby spinach.
When you're ready to eat, just give your salad a shake.
Pack snacks for lunch
Fill the compartments of a lunch storage kit with a few different items for an interesting and varied lunch. Think protein, carbohydrates (whole grains, beans, fruit), vegetables and healthy fat.
Try two hard-boiled eggs, red pepper strips, a cup of grapes, whole-grain crackers and almond butter. Or cubes of cooked chicken, mini whole-grain pita pockets, baby carrots, cucumber slices, tzatziki or hummus and a quartered apple (rub with lemon juice to prevent browning).
Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto.