The healthiest lunch you can eat is the one you make for yourself. It'll also save you a bundle over restaurant food, and the landfills will thank you for leaving all the disposable wrappers, bowls, and packaging behind. The problem is the food industry has convinced us that we can't make our own lunches without a whole bunch of "convenience" foods that are wasteful at best and, at worst, are full of unhealthy food additives and chemicals.
Luckily, whether it's for yourself or your children, you can still pack tasty, wholesome lunches the old-fashioned way—from scratch—in just a few minutes a day. Here are my top 15 things NOT to pack, and what to pack instead.
Brightly colored and patterned plastic lunch bags and boxes may appeal to kids, but they often contain high levels of lead and other toxins and can be nearly impossible to clean (been there and tried that—yuck!).
Better: Choose a reusable, washable lunch sack made from either cotton or nylon, and toss it in the machine every weekend. Pack a small cloth napkin and reusable silverware, and you are ready to dine in style.
If you don't have access to a refrigerator at work or school, frozen ice packs inside a vinyl-free insulated bag might help keep perishables cold, but test it out first. Pack a jar of cold water in the bag along with the ice pack, seal it, and let it sit at room temperature for however many hours it will sit out between packing it and lunchtime. Then open the bag and take the water's temperature. If the water is warmer than about 45 degrees, test again with two frozen ice packs, or just plan on packing only room-temperature-safe foods.
The average lunch contains a staggering amount of single-use plastic packaging. And reusable plastic containers, inexpensive and unbreakable though they may be, may contain hormone-disrupting chemicals like phthalates and BPA that you'd rather not rub against your food.
Better: Stock up on 4- and 8-ounce mason jelly jars! They cost only a few cents more than similar-size plastic containers and are perfect for packing anything from applesauce to cubes of zucchini bread. They are as close to unbreakable as glass can get and use any standard canning lid—no more hunting through your cabinets for the right top. Stainless steel containers are another good and long-lasting alternative. Replace your zip-top bags with reusable versions that you can find on sites like ReUseIt.com, and fill those with dry snacks like nuts, crackers, grapes, and other grab-and-go lunchbox fillers. You'll saves lots of plastic packaging (and money) compared to prepackaged single servings. Add a nice reusable water bottle and perhaps a stainless thermos container for hot items, and you've got what it takes to start packing.
Trust the food industry to turn the humble sandwich into a processed food. Uncrustables and other premade sandwich-like products are loaded with high-fructose corn syrup, trans fats, preservatives, and other additives but short on real food.
Better: It really isn't that difficult to make your own sandwiches, and you can even make your own "Uncrustables," sans nasty additives, that can be frozen ahead of time. Nut butters, chopped cooked meats, canned salmon, and grated cheese are all good freezable sandwich ingredients, according to the University of Nebraska Extension Service. Freeze your assembled sandwiches for about an hour before transferring them to a freezer-safe container, but add condiments and toppings like lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and pickles the day you eat it, since those can get limp and soggy in the freezer. To make a freezable PB&J, spread a little butter on the jelly side of your sandwich first to prevent the jam from soaking in and making your bread soggy.
Don't get me started on Lunchables and other overpriced, over-packaged lunch fodder packed in plastic trays containing a few tidbits of this and that, most of it loaded with salt and preservatives. I even saw one shaped like Mickey Mouse the last time I was in the supermarket. Argh!
Better: Pack similar, healthier ingredients in small containers. Do a bunch at once and keep them on hand for quick packing, and let the eaters pick their own combos every evening or morning. Typical choices like cheese cubes or shreds, salsa or pizza sauce, whole-grain crackers, cut-up veggies and fruits, and real cooked meats are great, but the possibilities are endless. Take a cue from the Japanese and assemble your selections in a bento box.
Processed lunch meats tend to be high in sodium, nitrates, fats, and fat-soluble pesticides.
Better: Spend a little time over the weekend roasting a chicken or a roast that you can slice thin or mince and turn into a spread. Or, for a fast, no-cook alternative, buy canned fish. Salmon is a great low-mercury swap for tuna, and sardines pack a mighty omega-3 punch.
Most crackers are made from refined flour, unhealthy fats, sugar, and artificial flavorings.
Better: Select crackers that list whole grain flours as the first ingredient or try making your own (it's easy)!
These are two healthy-sounding snacks that the food industry has turned into something closer to candy bars than to real food.
Better: Look for bars that contain at least 2 grams or fiber and less than 10 grams of sugar, or save money and make your own no-bake snack bars.
Packaged pudding and gelatin are two more once-healthy foods that have been gussied up with too much sugar plus additives to make them keep indefinitely. They're also packaged in throwaway containers and come with fancy price tags.
Better: Make real pudding from organic milk and flavorings, or try other traditional cooked puddings and pour them into small jars to grab when you need them. Even pudding made from a mix with your own fresh milk is probably better for you than the shelf-stable stuff. Make flavored Jello-style desserts by dissolving 1 packet of unflavored gelatin (or 1 teaspoon of agar powder if you're vegetarian) in one cup of warmed fruit juice and adding one cup of cold juice to make a total of 2 cups. (Use 2 packets of gelatin to make jiggly shapes.) Add bits of fresh fruit if you'd like, pour into small containers, and chill until set.
Often the only fruit in fruit rolls and "snacks" are in the picture on the package, and most such products contain lots of high-fructose corn syrup and artificial colors and flavors.
Better: Pack fresh whole fruit, fruit slices, dried fruit, or homemade fruit leather.
Rich in high-fructose corn syrup, trans fats, white flour, and preservatives to keep them "fresh," these items are guaranteed to send the eater into sugar shock, destined to drop into a semi-stupor a few hours later.
Better: Pack dried fruits or fruit and nut bars as sweet lunch treats. For occasional treats, buy boxes of organic cookies and pack 100 calories' worth (often about three cookies) in small containers, or make your own baked treats and package small servings of them.
Yogurt is a great food, except after the food industry gets hold of it and adds excessive amounts of sweeteners, colors, and artificial flavors.
Better: Buy plain or lightly sweetened organic yogurt by the quart and pack it in small containers with fresh fruit, chopped dry fruit, or a little fruit spread. Making your own yogurt from organic milk is very easy, takes no special equipment, and will save you even more money.
Easy and healthy-sounding, these plastic-swathed six-packs of cracker sandwiches are cheap for a reason: They contain little real food and lots of hidden sugars, fats, and preservatives.
Better: Make your own cracker sandwiches with whole-grain crackers and organic nut or seed butter, soft cheese, or your own cheese spread. Make cheddar spread by blending 8 ounces of grated sharp cheddar with 4 tablespoons of softened organic butter. Make a bunch of cracker sandwiches and store them in the fridge, grabbing a few to pack in your lunch every day.
Potato chips, corn chips, cheese puffs, and the like are high in salt, fats, and calories and often made from genetically modified ingredients. Even pretzels made from refined white flour are a less-than-optimal snack choice.
Better: For a little salty crunch pack a few ounces of lightly salted nuts, homemade lightly seasoned bagel or baked corn chips, real veggie chips (sliced, dehydrated vegetables not processed food dyed green and orange), or whip up a batch of kale chips.
Most bottled waters are nothing more than tap water packaged in throwaway plastic, transported at great cost in fuel, and sold at vastly inflated prices.
Better: Get a stainless or glass water bottle and bring tap water from home.
Sweetened beverages are a huge source of hidden calories, and those sweetened with artificial sweeteners have downsides as well. Plus, many beverages are loaded with artificial colors and flavors and come in throwaway single-serve containers.
Better: If you want the taste and nutrition of fruit, eat fruit! It's full of fiber and won't make your blood sugar spike. To quench your thirst and keep yourself hydrated when you don't have access to good tap water during the day, pack plain water, tea, or coffee in a reusable bottle.
Keep Reading: 21 Best Organic Snack Foods