Courtesy of Abundance Cooperative Market

Everything You Need to Know to Be a BYOL Expert

Lunch Packing Perks

Been brown bagging lately? In an effort to tighten our budgets, more and more of us are packing our own lunches for work and school. And we're finding that the benefits extend beyond the household's bottom line.

Making your own lunch gives you control over the quality of the food you and your family eat. (After all, lunch provides an important portion of the day's nutrition.) By making attentive choices about what goes in each lunchbox, you can address specific areas of concern, such as fat and calories, while maximizing quality and taste. 

If you're an enthusiastic cook, you'll find preparing homemade lunch fare especially enjoyable (and profitable), offering unlimited opportunities to try new foods and reinvent leftovers. But even if you prefer not to cook, you can find plenty of healthful and economical options for brown bagging. Hands-down the best place to shop for healthful and delicious lunch items-from sandwich fixings to sides, snacks, beverages, and ready-to-serve meals-is your local co-op.

Bring Your Own Lunch Tips

* If you can't quite commit to full-fledged BYOL status, start by bringing your own snacks and/or beverages. Good snack options include nuts, fruits, yogurt, edamame beans, cheese cubes, and popcorn with nutritional yeast and/or cheese powders.

  * Use the opportunity to control the nutritional benefits of the food you eat by packing only the most healthful choices, like organic fruits and vegetables and fresh, whole grain breads. If you enjoy chips, look for those without trans-fats and artificial ingredients.

  * Think outside the brown bag. Use reusable lunch bags and lunchboxes. Forgo those little plastic sandwich bags, too, and invest in a variety of containers for sandwiches, salads, leftover main dishes, chips, etc. You'll also want a thermos or two for soups, stews, and casseroles, as well as beverages.

  * Add an element of surprise when packing lunch for little ones or a partner. Tuck a note or little non-food treat inside (like a new barrette or pencil for your preschooler or an interesting article for your partner to read).

  * Consider presentation. Skewer cheese cubes, grapes, and other fruit on kabobs. Cut raw veggies into diagonals and cubes. Forgo plastic utensils and paper napkins; use "the real thing" instead.

  * Prepare once a week. Chop a week's worth of fruits and veggies at a time. Hard boil eggs to serve deviled one day and in egg salad another. Make a big batch of granola for breakfasts, then package small quantities to serve with yogurt in lunches.

  * Make extra dinner. If you have access to a microwave, you can pack just about any leftovers for your lunch. If not, consider that many people enjoy cold quiche or frittata, rice, or even pizza. Also plan a few transformations. Make extra pasta or potatoes and turn them into salads with a little dressing, fresh veggies and cheese cubes, for example.

  * Remember to include lunch items on your grocery-shopping list. Purchase all you need for your favorite lunch fare-fixings for sandwiches, sides, and desserts-but also pick up some healthful ready-to-heat or ready-to-serve options for when you're really pressed for time.

  * Pack your lunch the night before, but store condiments separately to prevent soggy sandwichs/salads.

  * Rely on fruit. Apples, oranges, and other sturdy fruits are the perfect lunch foods. They're nutritious, they require no wrapping or refrigeration, and they satisfy a sweet tooth.

  * Find fun places to eat your lunch-like a nearby park, for example, or even a bench on the sidewalk or the steps to an interesting building.

  * Expand your repertoire. Look for new recipes and transform old ones. If ants on a log is a classic for your family, try substituting almond butter for the peanut butter and other dried fruits in place of the raisins. When making sandwiches, try various breads (baguettes, pitas, tortillas, sourdoughs, ryes, whole grain bagels), cheeses (flavored cream cheese, hot pepper jack, Farmer), condiments and spreads (a new mustard, pesto, hummus, guacamole, aioli), and greens (spinach, kale, Swiss chard), for example.

  * Don't forget to pack a healthful beverage. Water with a slice of lemon is economical, as are herbal teas (hot or iced) when you make them yourself. If you enjoy an occasional soda with lunch, stock up on natural sodas, which are more healthful and cost-effective than trips to the pop machine.

  * If you make lunch for your kids, enlist their help. And tell them to bring home what they don't eat, so you'll know what to stop packing/wasting.

  * Eat cooperatively. A trio at work could share lunch-making duties, each making lunch for all three every third day. Or suggest a weekly workplace potluck.

By the way, if your objection to packing your own lunch is that you just don't have the time, keep in mind that with a little planning you can trade the time you'd spend standing in line or waiting to be served a lunch for the time it takes to pack a lunch. And you'll have more time to enjoy it! Your kids will appreciate being able to dig into their lunch boxes instead of standing in the lunch line at school, too!