The benefits of brown bagging (plus 10 perfect snacks to take to work)

by SARA on October 14, 2010

Photo by Lara604

Be it on the job, back to school, or on the go–brown bag lunches aren’t just for kids. From controlling portion size and content to to limiting hunger-fueled impulse buys at the deli counter, bringing your own food can be a great choice for health at any age. With fall in full swing, asked Svelte nutritionist Stephanie Middleberg for some tips on how to make the most of wrapping, stacking, and packing it all up to take with you. Read on, for her delicious (and user-friendly) take.

Big Picture:
Plan ahead, make it fun, interesting, colorful and appealing to the eyes. We aren’t too different from kids here.

Mix it up. Flatbreads, whole wheat pitas, sandwich thins, whole wheat wraps or tortillas, quesadillas, and soft tacos are all great sandwich options that travel well in a lunch box.

Prepared earlier:
I often recommend roasting a ton of veggies one night so you have extra for the week. They’re very easy to toss with quinoa or whole wheat pasta for a quick and nutritious meal (remember to use one fistful of grain to two fistfuls vegetables). Or you can top them on salads or include them in a wrap. Frittatas are also fun to make in advance and bring to work. I like to pair them with spinach Parmesan cakes (great recipe here).

Make your own Deli Salads (and shake it up by putting them in pitas, scooping them in a salad, topping them on high fiber crackers, and stuffing them into lettuce wraps):
1. Waldorf Chicken or Tofu Salad:
Combine chicken breast (leftovers are great here) with sliced walnuts, grapes, apples, and celery mixed with two or 0% plain Greek yogurt, salt, and pepper. If you’re looking to pack an extra kick, add in curry powder. For vegetarians, substitute tofu for the chicken.
2. Egg Salad:
Make it healthy by using a one egg to two-three egg whites ratio. Mix one tablespoon light or reduced fat mayonaise plus Dijon mustard and seasoning to taste.

When you really don’t feel like cooking:
Trader Joe’s has incredible turkey meatballs. Look for brands like Applegate Farms. Both their grilled chicken slices and chicken tenders are wonderful. PB+J is also a great adult lunch option. Try experimenting with different nut butters such as sunflower, almond, and cashew. I also  love Baum’s pumpkin butter. Slice apples, bananas or pears in there for a nice crunch. Try going vegetarian by making a hummus and veggie pita wrap or heating up a veggie burger the night before with crisp lettuce like romaine, spreadable cheese (Laughing Cow works well). Canned chickpeas and cannellini beans are also a nice, quick, and easy salad topper. Likewise canned tuna or wild salmon (in water). Or get a roasted chicken at the beginning of the week. The meat can be used to make chicken salad (see above), tossed into salads, sandwiches or soups.

Where to look for inspiration:
My hands-down favorite is Mark Bittman’s 101 Simple Salads

Tote options (a few of my favorites):
Graze Organic
The Container Store

Back to work snacks (10 non-perishables to keep at your desk drawer):
1. Nuts: If you can’t portion your own, I recommend Trader Joe’s individual 1 ounce nut mixes (i.e. roasted almonds, trek pack, cashews) or Emerald Coco Roasted Almonds. If you’re feeling really adventurous, create your own mix on
2. Nut butter: I recommend individual squeeze packs by Justin’s Nut Butter.
3. Oatmeal packets.
4. High Fiber Cereal: look for fiber equal to or greater than 5 grams and sugar at or below 5 grams.
5. Whole-grain/high fiber crackers: Look for over 3 grams of fiber per cracker.
6. Granola bars: These are good for on-the-go or busy moments. Favorites include: Kind bars, Lara bars, Kashi TLC bars, GNU bars. For a lower calorie bar look for Clif Kidz. Or make your own at YouBar.
7. Mini pop popcorn bags. Remember, popcorn is actually a whole grain. Pop the entire thing for only 100 calories.
8. Dried fruit. If you need individual packets, Peeled Snacks is a great brand. Another favorite: Medjoul dates. These definitely satisfy the sweet craving.
9. Sunflower seeds (Dakota Gourmet makes individual packets).
10. Chocolate: Ok, it could melt, but the news keeps getting better on its health benefits. Moderation is important here. I recommend dark chocolate, greater than 70% bittersweet, and keeping to one to two pieces a day.

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Jen October 14, 2010 at 11:45 am

Good tips on the non-perishable snacks, these are good options to keep at your desk for when hunger strikes. However, I like to bring snacks with me each day to work – usually fresh fruit. The suggestions for things like nuts are good for many people to supplement that though, since the protein will fill you up and keep you from reaching for vending machine snacks later!

Also, they are not the greatest of meal options, but I keep some lean cuisine-type meals in my freezer most of the time so that I have something I can grab on the way to work if I need to. Low in calories and a lot of them actually have lots of veggies. They are high in sodium though, so you have to be careful not to eat them all the time. I stick to once or twice a week for those.

Lauren October 14, 2010 at 11:05 pm

I definitely brown bag it. I don’t have a choice since I’m a teacher, but I’ve been doing it since before then. The benefits to your health are great, and so are the benefits to your wallet! This week I’ve been having peanut butter wraps with sliced apples and bananas on whole-wheat wraps. One of my favorite lunches involves cooking then mashing pinto beans and spreading them on a wrap with half a cooked poblano, a dollop of Greek yogurt, and a sprinkle of cheese. Microwave until the cheese is melted and it’s amazing! I also like pureeing black beans and spreading them on a wrap with sauteed or grilled peppers and onions and a sprinkle of cheese. I get tired of things pretty quickly so I’m always trying to think of new lunch options.

Lauren Slayton October 16, 2010 at 10:59 am

Loved the post. I think batch cooking (as you mentioned with roasted veggies) is the way to go to organize your week. Loved the lunch salad ideas such as Waldorf. I also like the work snacks though too many options on hand is another danger!

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