Brown bag it for health and savings

Mike DeDoncker

In these days of rising costs and expanding waistlines, the old standby brown bag lunch can be a handy answer to both problems.

“The person planning the lunch controls the cost,” Poplar Grove-based registered dietitian Betsy Hornick said. “When you look at what you would be spending going out and picking up a sandwich or a salad at lunch as opposed to the cost of a loaf of bread, a bag of salad greens, or even a convenience item like cooked strips of chicken for the salad, you can put your own lunch together for a much lower cost.

“Then, there is the benefit that you have control over how many servings you are having and things such as what kind of salad dressing is being used.”

Hornick, who also is a spokeswoman for the Illinois Dietetic Association, said the idea is to remember to include a mix of protein, carbohydrates and some fat. Carbohydrates are the body’s first choice for producing energy and, Hornick said, protein and fat take longer to digest than carbohydrates so they give a longer feeling of satisfaction.

“There is certainly value to trying to have a mixed meal and not just a big bowl of pasta,” Hornick said. “If you eat a heavy carbohydrate lunch, you’re going to feel it at some point and have that mid-afternoon slump.”

For that brown bag staple, the sandwich, Hornick suggests sticking to whole-grain breads at least half the time, although whole-grain products provide more fiber and nutrients than breads made from processed white flour.

“I would much rather see people stick to the (Food Pyramid) guideline that at least half your servings should be whole grain,” she said. “But there is nothing wrong with making them all whole grain.

“Look at the ingredients list because sometimes, a bread will say it’s multigrain. If you see 100 percent whole-wheat or whole-wheat flour as the first ingredient, that is your indication that it is truly a whole-grain product. The farther down on the ingredient list it is, the less there is in the product.”

Hornick, who packs school lunches for two preteens daily, said most of the same rules apply for kids as for adults.

I think about trying to get a mix of the primary nutrients that they need,” she said, “and you can use whole-grain breads, pita or tortillas.

“Kids tend to like sandwiches, so I stick to the sandwiches they like and that’s pretty much peanut butter and jelly. There’s nothing wrong with that because they’re getting the protein from the peanut butter and I will use low sugar or 100 percent fruit spread with it. To mix it up, I’ll give them turkey or lean ham.”

Hornick said working fruits and vegetables into a kid’s brown bag lunch can be a bit tricky, so convenience is a key.

“I find that kids nowadays don’t have very much time for lunch,” Hornick said, “but carrot sticks or celery sticks are something easy and quick. Whatever you pack needs to be easy to eat so I will include apples slices just for the ease of eating and grapes are really easy. Sometimes, I’ll include applesauce in a little container.”

Hornick suggests that being overly frugal or calorie-conscious by skipping lunch is the wrong strategy.

“If you tend to skip any meal, it really is hard to meet all of your nutrient needs over the course of the day,” she said. “If you skip lunch or eat a really light lunch, you’re probably going to be really hungry by the time you eat dinner and you’ll wind up eating more than if you had eaten a healthy, balanced lunch. It can backfire on you.”

Mike DeDoncker can be reached at (815) 987-1382