Enjoying healthy low calorie brown bag lunches needn’t take a lot of time or effort. It does take a little bit of planning and organization but once you get a system in place you’ll find it becomes easy. Then you can get creative and have fun. There’s no limit to the number of unique and healthy lunch ideas you can come up with!
Speaking of fun, why limit yourself to a brown bag? You can get creative with this aspect of your lunch also. It might just make you more enthused about the whole venture. There’s an interesting article at Lifehacker titled Make Your Brown Bag Lunch More Appealing for lots of creative tips. (CAUTION: Do go easy on the cheese and nut butters recommended in this article. IF you are keeping tabs on your calorie count, read on HERE for other suggestions.)
Beyond creativity, preparing your own lunch can save you a considerable amount of money. The cost of eating out can add up quickly! And you may gain the benefit of having a little more time for yourself over your lunch hour if you eat at or near your place of work.
Here are three basic yet different strategies to get you started:
Strategy One: Make “Planned-Over Meals”
Plan your brown bag lunch meals around leftovers from meals prepared at home. If you have taken the time to prepare healthy low calorie meals for supper why not prepare a little extra? It won’t require much if any additional work. Anything from soup, to salads, casseroles, stir-fry dishes, burritos, pizza, and more provide great possibilities for lunch.
Just decide how much you will need to prepare to have enough for your first meal, a second meal (if desired), plus extra for a serving or two for lunch during the week. After enjoying your supper meal simply refrigerate pre-portioned leftovers in separate containers so that it is ready to go. In the morning you can easily add the extras needed to balance and round out your meal. It might be a piece of fruit or some bite size pre-cut veggies and a drink and you’ve got your lunch. Easy.
When you do eat out, choose to divide your entree in half before you start to eat. Bring home one portion for lunch the next day. You’ll save on BOTH time and calories! Many restaurant entrees are enough for at least two and maybe three meals if you are paying attention to your calorie intake. (Check out the calorie count of many restaurant menu items before eating out at CalorieLab.com.)
Strategy Two: Plan Quick and Easy Lunches around a Protein Base
Create a basic plan for a weeks worth of brown bag lunches around lean protein foods. Why protein? Protein is important to meet your nutritional needs but it will also go a long way to satisfy and keep you from feeling hungry before your next meal or snack! (Read Protein Matters for Weight Loss)
In addition to protein, select good sources of dietary fiber from whole grains, beans, nuts, fruit, and/or vegetables to round out your meals. This nutritious combination of foods will provide a pleasing balance to keep you feeling satisfied till your next meal or healthy low calorie snack. (To learn more about the importance of dietary fiber read Dietary Fiber: Can it Help You with Weight Loss?)
Be sure to include a variety of tastes and textures. Get creative with your combinations! If it is healthy, low calorie, and you like it, what could be better? Who cares if anyone else agrees with your selection! Think beyond just sandwiches. Tortilla roll-ups, pitas, salads, and frittatas are just a few of the many possibilities.
Here’s a list of basic nutritious, low calorie foods to get you started:
Chicken or turkey slices
Canned tuna fish or salmon
Lean Roast Beef or Ham slices (plus other lean cuts of beef or pork)
Eggs (hard-boiled eggs, deviled eggs, egg salad, etc.)
Seafood (shrimp is a good choice)
Dairy and Nondairy (also good sources of protein)
Low fat yogurt
Low fat cheese
Low fat cottage cheese
Babybel Light cheese
Laughing Cow Cheese wedges
Breads and Cereals
Whole grain loaf bread (Look to see that a whole grain is listed first on ingredient labels.)
Whole grain pita bread
Whole Wheat English Muffins
Whole grain pasta
Whole Grain Dry Cereals (Cereal for lunch? Sure why not? Or make up your own trail mix with a small amount of dried fruit and nuts.)
Low Fat Whole Grain Crackers
(Why the emphasis on whole grains? Read Whole Grains are a Weight Loss Winner!)
(This list includes some of the best high fiber, nutritious, and low calorie fruit loosely grouped by season. Be adventuresome and try something new! There are many more fruit choices than what I have listed here.)
(Some delightful veggie selections to make up a salad with green leafy vegetables, a whole grain, or whole wheat pasta. Or bring along as a side dish.)
Spinach (and other green leafy vegetables)
Beets (cooked, chilled beets make a delightful addition to any lunch)
Cauliflower (raw pieces or lightly steamed)
Cabbage (make homemade coleslaw for great taste and fewer calories than store bought)
Potatoes (microwave a baked potato and top with canned chili)
Kale (I understand kale can be made into delightful and very low calorie chipsquite easily!) The poster of the recipe shares how you can cut the calorie count even more by spraying the kale with a mister or PAM (TM). You can also decrease the salt and add other seasonings instead.
Snap Green Beans
Edible Podded Peas
Avocado (Try adding a LITTLE mashed avocado to sandwiches and wraps instead of high fat mayonnaise for great flavor and nutrition.)
Healthy Low Cal Muffins
Low Fat or Air Popped Popcorn
Unsweetened tea (You might add a little lemon flavor with True Lemon packets – 100% crystallized lemon with 0 calories.)
Plain Unsweetened Coffee or coffee made with nonfat milk or low fat soymilk
Juice (Choose 100% juice. Just 4 ounces a day is plenty of juice if you are on a low calorie diet. So if you’ve had juice for breakfast, you would be better off having a whole piece of fresh fruit for lunch.)
Condiments – Get creative with the condiments you choose for your meals. There are so many possibilities beyond mayonnaise, butter, margarine, jams, jellies, sour cream, and ketchup! (See Nutritious, Low Calorie Spreads, Condiments, and Dips for some creative ideas.) Pack your condiments and salad dressings separately from your sandwich or salad fixings to keep things from getting soggy before lunchtime!
Strategy Three: Essential Food for Busy Times
There are a few food items I recommend always having on hand so you have some back up lunch possibilities when the other strategies fall through. With these foods you will have some quick and easy low cal lunch choices.
Canned Tuna, Chicken, or Salmon
2-3 frozen skinless, boneless chicken or turkey breasts (Simply cook up in the microwave or stovetop for chicken pieces or slices to include in canned soups, sandwiches, or salads to boost the nutritional value.)
Peanut Butter or other Nut butter such as Almond Butter
Frozen whole wheat loaf of bread or rolls (If properly wrapped, bread will keep in the freezer for 2-3 months. With frozen bread you will always have something on hand to make a sandwich even if you didn’t have time to get to the grocery store.)
Canned fruits and vegetables (peaches, applesauce, beans, etc.)
Frozen Veggies (corn, edamame beans, broccoli, etc.)
Feta and/or Parmesan Cheese (Both will keep refrigerated for quite a while. You only need a little of one or the other to add flavor to your soups, sandwiches, frittatas, quiche, and more without adding lots of calories or saturated fat and cholesterol.)
Whole wheat pasta, brown rice, or quinoa (Cook up a bunch and you have the basis for making a variety of salads for a week’s worth of lunches. Toss the pasta or grain with a little olive oil and add cut up veggies of your choice, either fresh or lightly steamed. Choose quinoa if you prefer not to add a small amount of cheese or lean protein. Season to taste.)
NOTE: Quinoa is an especially good source of protein. To learn more about it you may want to read Healthy Low Calorie Quinoa Recipes.
A few healthy low calorie commercial frozen dinners
1. Frozen ice packs will help you keep cold foods cold. Juice or Iced tea in cartons or small plastic bottles might also be frozen to keep foods cold till lunchtime. Get yourself a thermal lined lunch bag to reuse instead of brown bags!
2. With a wide mouth thermos you can keep foods cold or hot. This is especially nice if you don’t have access to a microwave oven. Bring soups, leftover casserole, pasta dishes, stir-fry meals, and more.
3. You can prepare and freeze sandwiches ahead of time for your own fast food meals! To learn what works and what doesn’t you will want to read a great article from the University of Nebraska on Freezing Sandwiches!
Hope this information helps. I will be writing a follow up to this article on healthy lunch ideas to share a list of specific low calorie meals. So be sure to check back!
Till next time, watch those calories and eat healthy food!