Balanced lunch on a balanced budget

Wynne Everett

The start of a new year usually means we’re trying to do two tough things simultaneously: save money and eat better. One of the best ways to achieve both goals is to pack a healthy bag lunch for work each day. The trick is to plan ahead and shop wisely.

Here are some tips from the Clemson University Cooperative Extension office for saving money, calories and time with nutritious and budget-friendly lunches:

- Invest in reusable containers. Buy some plastic tubs, sandwich bags and other containers for your lunch bag. Skip the disposable packaging to save money.

- Plan dinners that will leave you with leftovers. You can plan ahead to pack these for lunch the next day. Some of your best bets are dishes that are even better the second day, such as chili, soup or pasta dishes.

- Work ahead on the weekend. Prepare a week’s worth of packed lunches at once. You can do this by cooking large batches of your favorite soup or stew, prepping large quantities of fresh vegetables for salads or snacks, or slicing large cuts of meat for sandwiches.

- Be careful not to overspend. Only buy enough food and ingredients for a reasonable amount of time. Buying in bulk can often save you money, but those savings disappear if you have to throw away food that spoils before you can eat it.

- Stay away from single-serving packaging. These are great for portion control but usually much more expensive than the same amount of food in larger packaging. Buy fruits, vegetables, crackers, cookies and other snacks in regular quantities, then package them into single-serving containers yourself.

Your lunch should include roughly one-third of the calories you plan to consume each day. Count the calories as you’re preparing your meal to make sure you’re staying on track. Also, your lunch should be a balanced meal with items from the four food groups. Some suggestions:

Proteins: Load your lunch with lean meats such as turkey, ham or roast beef; heart-healthy fish such as tuna; beans; eggs, such as a hard-boiled egg on a salad; and peanut butter.

Grains: Breads, crackers and pasta are great for lunch. Be sure to choose whole-grain items to get the most fiber and nutrition.

Fruits and vegetables: This is another easy food group to get into your lunch. Raw fruits and vegetables are generally inexpensive, easy to prepare in advance and simple to pack. To keep yourself from getting bored, vary what you pack. Vegetable juice is also a good option.

Calcium: You might not want a glass of milk with lunch, but consider packing single-serving sized yogurt or cottage cheese. Cubes of cheese also work well.

Beverages: Don’t forget to count your beverage in your calorie total. You’d be surprised how a poor choice here can sink both your diet and your budget. If you want something other than water, consider something that is no-calorie or low-calorie. Tea or a small serving of fruit juice could be a good choice. Definitely skip soda, sports drinks and energy drinks.