The Benefits of a Brown-Bag Lunch
Packing your own lunch gives you more control over calories than hitting the local deli. Get tips on how to pack a tasty and satisfying brown bag lunch.
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If you think brown-bag lunches are just a memory from school days, along with your backpack and Mom’s cookies, think again — a new twist on the old brown bag lunch could be your ticket to diet success during the work day.
Brown Bag Lunch: Calorie-Counting Control
“Making a brown bag lunch is helpful because you can control what you put in it,” says Donna L. Weihofen, RD, MS, a nutritionist at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics in Madison.
Not only do you control the calories in your brown bag, but you also are able to control the portion sizes. Portion distortion — a general inability to judge correct portions of food that you don’t prepare yourself — is a significant contributor to diet failure and weight gain.
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Researchers in Minnesota created an interesting study to test this idea. They recruited 19 women who agreed to eat a prepackaged boxed lunch each day at work for two months. The women were given either a small lunch of 767 calories or a large lunch of 1,528 calories (double the size) and were told to eat as much or as little as they wanted. Data analysis at the end of the study showed that the women who had the larger lunch ate 278 calories more each day. The results indicate that ongoing exposure to larger portion sizes causes people to unknowingly eat more, an effect that has been demonstrated in other studies as well. As expected, the women who ate the large lunches also gained weight, about two pounds over the course of those two months.
Brown Bag Lunch: What to Pack
If you are used to eating out, you may face a learning curve as you experiment with brown bag options. As a general rule, you want to follow your calorie-counting guidelines and create a meal that will be filling. This requires the right mix of fiber, protein, fruits, and vegetables. For example, pack a chicken sandwich on multigrain bread with a small salad (with light or no dressing) and a piece of fruit or low-calorie yogurt.
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Here are some ideas for healthy and filling brown bag lunches that will also save you money:
Wrap up your leftovers. Try a slight modification to make last night’s dinner a fresh experience. For example, stuff leftover chili in a pita with some veggies and avocado slices for a new taste.
Microwave a frozen meal. There’s a frozen lunch entrée to meet every diet and every budget. “A lot of these new microwave dinners are really, really nice and they are very controlled in calories. I think the industry has done a lot of good things in producing those products,” says Weihofen, adding that you can find some very tasty bargains in the frozen food section.
Pack a soup. Soup is filling and generally low in calories. In fact, if you eat soup before digging into your main lunch course, studies show you’re likely to eat 20 percent fewer calories.
Focus on cost-saving foods. In general, packing a brown-bag lunch will save you money compared to eating out every day. If you are stretching your pennies, Weihofen recommends using beans, eggs, potatoes, and leftovers from whole chicken meals (rotisserie or baked at home) for truly low-calorie and budget-friendly meals.
Brown-bag snacks as well. Create your own 100-calorie snacks to get you through the day. Making these yourself might require a food scale for careful measuring, but you’ll save a small fortune over prepackaged 100-calorie snacks and be more eco-friendly.
There are times when brown-bagging it won’t be possible because of your schedule or your worksite. In those instances, Weihofen recommends doing a little advance research to find healthy eating options nearby. By making smart choices when eating out, and with some creativity at home, you can enjoy tasty low-calorie lunch creations that suit your waist and your wallet.