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Brown bagging it: save money and eat healthy in hard times

by Laura Schocker
Nov 12, 2008


Laura Schocker/MEDILL

Bringing lunch to work is one way to cut back on costs while boosting nutrition.

Chicagoans trying to cut financial corners through tough economic times should take a second look at their lunches—packing up instead of eating out.

But trimming costs doesn’t mean hungry workers need to lose taste or quality at their mid-day meals, local nutrition experts said Wednesday.

“You’re in control of what’s going into your lunch and how it’s being prepared,” said Toby Smithson, a registered dietitian for the Lake County Health Department and a spokesperson for the Chicago-based American Dietetic Association.

Saving your lunch money starts in the grocery store, Smithson said. Buy items that don’t spoil quickly in bulk, she suggested, adding that foods such as beans and rice, apples, potatoes and carrots are good choices. Also, try planning all meals around the store’s weekly sales or the seasonal fruits and vegetables.

“You don’t have to shop in an expensive health foods store in order to eat a healthy diet,” Smithson said.

Make sure the packed meals contain foods from each food group and follow the 2005 dietary guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Smithson said. She offered this meal as a suggestion: a scrambled egg and red pepper sandwich on two pieces of whole grain bread with an ounce and a half of provolone cheese and a tablespoon of parmesan cheese, a baked sweet potato and half a can of canned pineapple.  The grand total: $2.62.

More traditional favorites, such as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, can work, too, as long as you use whole-wheat bread and side dishes, such as fruit, yogurt and baby carrots, to round out the meal, Smithson said. People who prefer cold cuts should look for the low-sodium and low-fat options. And the extra effort can hit more than just the bank account.

“This is a cost savings both for your health and for your wallet,” Smithson said of the calories that can be shed from a packed lunch.

And research backs this up, said Colleen Lammel-Harmon, a registered dietitian and fitness specialist at the Chicago Park District, adding that some studies found a packed lunch has 25 to 50 percent fewer calories than a bought one.

“You never know what they put into the food,” Lammel-Harmon said of some restaurants, explaining that by turning a 1,000-calorie meal into a 500-calorie one, you can leave room for mid-afternoon snacks and avoid dinnertime binging.

Make the lunch colorful and full of vitamins, she suggested, and think of unconventional items to keep meals interesting. “People traditionally think you need to have a big sandwich on a roll with side dishes,” she said, but try another portion-controlled option instead.

Items like the 100-calorie snack pack can feel satisfying and taste good, Lammel-Harmon said. She recommended items that combine fiber, carbohydrates and protein for a satisfying mix. “People feel like they’re finishing the package,” she said. “It really does a psychological trick on the mind.”

If your office doesn’t have a refrigerator for safe pre-lunch storage, try freezing a water bottle or cheese sticks to keep food cool. Or try packing foods that don’t require refrigeration, such as apples, bananas or oranges, all of which are in season now, Lammel-Harmon said.

Mix things up by cooking extra food for dinner and packing it up for the next day’s lunch or organizing a healthy Friday afternoon potluck with coworkers, like Lammel-Harmon does in her office.

“You not only save money, but you save calories,” she said.