In the frantic pace of our daily lives, adding yet one more task to our personal “to do” lists by packing our own lunches to work may not be an appealing concept at first. Most of us feel rather overwhelmed by the responsibilities and demands of work, family and home. There may also be some uncertainty as to exactly why we should put forth the extra effort anyway. Sure, we’ve heard it may be healthier, but we may not know exactly how or why. And yes, we are aware of the fact that eating out for lunch does put a strain on the budget, but how many of us have actually calculated the total financial cost? For some of us, the very thought of brown-bagging it elicits images of the proverbial soggy peanut butter and jelly sandwich that is enough to send us running to the nearest sandwich shop yelling, “Save me! Save me!” Yet, packing your own lunch to work doesn’t have to be scary, dull or unappetizing. With year-round availability of a variety of fresh, organic foods, the possibilities are virtually endless. With a little creativity and preparation, you could soon be enjoying tasty, wholesome meals at work that you have prepared yourself, along with a side of some pretty awesome benefits!

Saves Money
With so much happening in our economy—both on a local and national level—it is more important than ever to exercise control in areas of our finances where we can. One of the simplest ways to trim your budget and take back financial control is to pack your lunch to work. If you rely on sit-down, take-out or fast food restaurants for your daily work meal, you probably already know it’s taking a bite out of your pocketbook, but have you ever calculated just how big of a bite? Recently, I calculated the cost of my old routine and I was astonished. Before learning how to brown-bag, I would typically order lunch from a local sub shop and have it delivered to my workplace, or go out with a colleague to a budget restaurant four or five times a week. Either way, I always spent at least $10 and sometimes as much as $20 each and every time I lunched out. Added up over days, months, I was easily spending $2,000 to $4,000 dollars a year on lunch! Packing my own lunch at home, I am able to prepare tasty meals for $5 or less. Even if I pack my own lunch only three times a week, I am saving hundreds—if not thousands—of dollars each year. Take that, economy!

It is Healthier
Not only does eating out cost a fortune, it can actually be bad for you. We’ve all heard the grim statistics about the health of our nation’s people: epidemic levels of obesity, Type-2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, etc., but could what we eat for lunch make that big of a difference? The answer is yes! Restaurants often serve enormous portions and many entrées come with unhealthy side dishes, such as French fries or onion rings. Even “healthy” menu options can contain hidden calories, fat, cholesterol, sodium and preservatives that you didn’t bargain for. For example, let’s consider how my old luncheon routine (mentioned above) stacks up nutritionally. My “usual” was an eight-inch turkey sandwich, a diet soft drink and, on occasion, a bag of chips and/or cookie. I am embarrassed to tell you that the sandwich alone contained 54 grams of fat, 111 grams carbohydrate, 1,164 calories and 3,156 grams sodium (that is 136% of the daily allowance)! Of course, I didn’t know this at the time I ordered it. I admit, I knew the cookie and chips were a caloric splurge, but I thought my freshly made deli sandwich on whole wheat bread with lettuce, tomato, sprouts and veggies was a reasonably healthy choice.

By packing our own lunches, we end our reliance on restaurant menus and empower ourselves to make informed choices. We have the power to put into our bodies only that which nourishes and builds. Selecting fresh, organic ingredients and consuming them in healthful quantities, in delicious combinations, ensures we don’t ingest unwanted sodium, cholesterol, fat, dyes, chemical additives and preservatives. You’ve got the power.

Think Clean
If saving money and creating a healthier you doesn’t grab you, consider for a moment the surprising environmental impact of your lunch choices.

The typical lunch break doesn’t allow adequate time to walk or cycle to a restaurant, so most of us resort to driving or having it delivered. Even if we drive (or have our food delivered) five miles or less, it really adds up over time: 10 miles a day, 50 miles a week, 210 a month, 2,600 a year. Additional unnecessary pollution is produced from idling cars. According to the Consumer Energy Center, most people idle in their cars an average of five to ten minutes per day. These idling tailpipes spew out just as much pollution in the form of nitrogen oxide, particulate matter, carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds as moving cars. These pollutants are associated with a variety of health risks, including respiratory disease, impaired lung development, cancer, asthma, heart disease, lower IQ levels and prenatal complications. Plus, just five minutes of idling at the drive-thru on a daily basis could cost you an extra $400 dollars in fuel costs over the course of a year. When bringing a packed lunch to work, instead of idling out in traffic, you’ll have an extra few minutes to go for a walk, read or meditate. And by planning menus ahead of time, you can get your lunch supplies right along with your weekly grocery shopping. No need to burn additional fossil fuel or produce additional pollution here.

Think Green
While several fast food chains have made environmental strides over the years by switching from non-recyclable Styrofoam containers to recyclable paper wraps and cardboard boxes, the fast food industry remains a huge generator of waste. Currently there are no federal laws or regulations in the U.S. specifically aimed at getting fast food chains to reduce, reuse or recycle their waste. We can do our part to reduce waste by using eco-friendly, reusable packaging when preparing homemade lunches.

Think Local
Although a few restaurants feature local ingredients, most restaurants—especially the fast-food and chain restaurants—are bound by contract to get their supplies from their own nationwide distributors. This means that up to 100% of the food served at such places may have been trucked here from hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away over the period of several days. This food, which is not usually organic to start with, is then packaged, frozen, freeze dried, processed, pasteurized, refrigerated or otherwise preserved in order to make the journey here and still at least resemble food. The nutritional value of such food cannot compare with food that is grown organically, picked fresh and served fresh. Wendell Berry, who is one of my favorite writers and philosophers, states, “Eating is an agricultural act.” When we eat food without thought or care beyond its appeal to our insatiable appetites, it is irresponsible, and we are taking part in a disease process. However, taking control by packing our own lunches to work, we can choose foods that are locally and organically grown, harvested and prepared. In doing this, we not only practice mindfulness toward the good health of our body, but towards the good health of our community, nation, culture and earth.

Think Spiritual
With the incredible speed at which our modern lives are hurling forward, it is amazing that we haven’t flung ourselves off the planet. In this age of consumerism and instant gratification, even the fastest technology can’t keep pace with demand for MORE! Yet in this era of unprecedented global communication, we have somehow lost the most foundational connection between ourselves, the earth and each other. Wendell Berry says, “In this state of total consumerism—which is to say a state of helpless dependence on things and services and ideas and motives that we have forgotten how to provide ourselves—all meaningful contact between ourselves and the earth is broken.” How many of us make the time to tend a garden, work the soil, or listen to the earth? How many of us take the time to help a neighbor, bake them a pie, or truly listen to them? In the book If the Buddha Came to Dinner, How to Nourish your Body and Awaken Your Spirit, author Halé Sofia Schatz suggests that “the simple, daily act of eating has the potential to become a profound catalyst for spiritual growth from experiencing a renewed sense of vitality and purpose to discovering our true vocations and making deeper connections in all of our relationships.” Schatz believes that bringing mindfulness to the preparation and consumption of the food with which we nourish our bodies; we cultivate a deeper source of nourishment within ourselves that is constant, pure and always available. What better opportunity than something so unappreciated as lunch to bring the transformational power of presence and mindfulness into our lives?

Basics of a Good Lunch
Personal food preferences and your level of creativity will play a main role in the final character of your lunch creations, but most nutritional experts agree that starting with a serving of quality protein and a serving of complex carbohydrates will provide you with the most satisfying and nutritious combination of nutrients that will help keep you feeling full until dinner. Remember to use an abundance of whole grains, beans, nuts, vegetables and/or fruit—the less processed they are, the better. These foods are the best sources for vitamins and minerals and can be combined in unlimited combinations to provide plenty of variety. I like to prepare storage containers full of my favorite healthy components on the weekend and keep them in the fridge for easy access throughout the week. Having prepared components helps make it easy to throw something together in just minutes. Some of my favorites are chopped cucumber, spinach and cooked garbanzo beans, tomatoes, onions, grilled chicken breast cut up, sprouted lentils, micro-greens, etc. You don’t have to be a master chef to prepare satisfying packed lunches for you and your family. Just keep it simple.

Finally, here is my quick checklist for success:

  • Invest in a few packing accessories to make taking lunch to work eco-friendly and easy. (You can find several packaging options, such as layered stainless steel tins, reusable/washable sandwich bags, BPA-free plastic containers, at the Co-op).
  • Plan ahead by making a list of your favorite healthy food items and stock up on them during your regular grocery trip. Make sure and select items that keep well in the refrigerator and prepare containers of them in advance.
  • Pack your lunch the night before. The morning can get too hectic and it is easy to rush out the door sans lunch.
  • Utilize leftovers. They taste even better the second day and reduce food waste.
  • Utilize super foods. I love the energy boost I get from sprinkling hemp seeds, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, various sprouts and all sorts of nutritious super foods on my salads, sandwiches and wraps.
  • Use your imagination. Keep it simple and delicious.

Good luck and good lunching!