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Packing a Healthy Lunch to Save Dollars

November 2009

Karen Ensle Ed.D., RD, FADA, CFCS
Family and Community Health Sciences Educator
Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Union County

Unless your lunch will be kept in a refrigerator at work or for your children at school, make sure you have a cool pack in the lunch bag to keep foods cool and safe. Protein, dressings, and dairy products, especially, must be kept cold to keep them from spoiling. Make smart food choices each day and give your body the balanced nutrition it needs by eating a variety of nutrient-packed foods:

  • Protein: Use a variety of lean meats, such as sliced turkey or chicken breast. Other good sources of protein are soy and nut butter, low-fat cheese, hummus, or hard-cooked eggs.
  • Grains: Use whole-wheat or whole grain bread for sandwiches. If you or your family is tired of sandwiches, try whole-wheat pocket or pita bread, tortilla wraps, rice cakes, or grain salads, such as couscous.
  • Dressing: Try mustard, light mayonnaise, or low-fat salad dressing as a spread. If you like butter, try tub or soft margarine. Salsa also makes a great dressing.
  • Fruit: Use any fresh fruit in season, applesauce, fruit cocktail cups (packed in fruit juice, not sugar syrup). Keep lunch interesting by choosing different types of fruits such as star fruit, kiwi, or papaya.
  • Vegetables: Pack an assortment of carrot sticks, cherry tomatoes, green and red pepper strips, celery, broccoli, or cauliflower florets with a light dressing. You can toss a variety of steamed vegetables and stuff them in pocket bread. If you add lettuce to a sandwich, remember to dry it well after washing it or you'll have a soggy sandwich.
  • Dairy products: Jazz up low-fat yogurt with fresh fruit or low-fat granola. Add low-fat string cheese for a snack later in the day with some low-fat bread sticks or crackers.

Snack Ideas for In-Between Meals:
  • Fresh fruit or dried fruit
  • Whole-wheat pretzels, crackers, or rice cakes
  • Low-fat yogurt
  • Cottage cheese
  • Instead of potato chips, try baked chips, air-popped popcorn, or whole-grain crackers.
  • Instead of candy or cookies, use trail mix or granola.
  • Nut butter and celery sticks
  • Baby carrots or carrot sticks

Healthy Beverage Suggestions:
  • Drink water or seltzer water
  • 1% low-fat or non-fat milk is not just for children over two years, but necessary for adults as well to insure adequate calcium intake
  • 100 % fruit juice can be diluted with seltzer, water, or ice cubes
  • Stay away from sweetened soft drinks, fruit punch, and juice drinks that do not say "100% fruit juice"

Get the most nutrition out of the foods you consume. Remember to stay within your daily caloric needs. Make sure your lunch and snacks:
  • Emphasize fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products.
  • Include lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts.
  • Are low in saturated fats, trans-fats, cholesterol, salt (sodium), and added sugars.

For more information:
  • MyPyramid food guidance system, including a quick estimate of what and how much you need to eat:
  • Additional nutrition resources: