Makeovers for a Healthy Brown Bag Lunch

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Bringing lunch from home saves you money, helps you avoid the lunch-hour crowds and is an excellent way to ensure you're getting a nutritious meal.

“Healthy brown-bag meals can reduce fat, calories and sodium in our diets, improving overall health,” said Amber Massey, a Dallas-based registered dietitian and food blogger.

But let's face it, the typical brown-bag lunch is a little, or maybe a lot, boring -- especially when you keep pulling the same foods from your brown bag day after day. However, it doesn't have to be that way. Making just a few tweaks to some lunchtime classics brings fresh new flavor and added nutrients to those old standbys.

Lunch needs to carry you through the afternoon, so it’s important to eat foods that will digest slowly, releasing nutrients and energy over a long period of time.

Dawn Viola, chef, recipe developer and food writer


THE MAKEOVER: Salmon and White Bean Salad Over Spicy Greens

You may be quick to order baked or broiled salmon at your favorite restaurant, but perhaps you've never even considered buying the canned variety that lines the shelves of your local grocery store. Well, you're missing out on a nutritious taste treat.

Not only does salmon tend to be moister and retain more flavor when canned, it also provides a generous dose of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

Combine a can of salmon with half a can of drained, rinsed white beans for creaminess. Instead of mayonnaise, make a light dressing with fresh lemon juice, extra-virgin olive oil, fresh dill and finely chopped shallots. Serve over spicy greens such as arugula or watercress and top with sliced almonds and chopped radish for crunch.

THE CLASSIC: Peanut Butter and Jelly

THE MAKEOVER: Almond Butter With Fresh Fruit

Is there any lunch more quintessential than a PB and J? The combination of creamy peanut butter, sweet jelly and soft bread truly satisfies midday hunger pangs. However, peanut butter, jelly and even bread can be chock-full of refined sugar, which can bring on an energy crash.

To avoid added sugar and hydrogenated oils, look for all-natural varieties of nut butter. For a change of pace, try almond butter or look for butters made from cashews, walnuts or even pumpkin seeds. For sweetness, replace sugary jelly with slices of fresh fruit, such as apricots or strawberries. Sandwich it all between two slices of whole-wheat bread, which provides a healthy dose of fiber to help keep you full.

THE CLASSIC: Turkey Sandwich

THE MAKEOVER: Turkey Wrap With Avocado, Chopped Egg, Sunflower Seeds and Tomato

“Lunch needs to carry you through the afternoon, so it’s important to eat foods that will digest slowly, releasing nutrients and energy over a long period of time,” said Dawn Viola, chef, recipe developer and food writer.

Lean sliced turkey is an easy choice for brown-bag lunches. But instead of the traditional, aka boring, toppings, Viola suggests using items that not only taste great, but also add essential nutrients. Try avocado, hard-boiled eggs, sunflower seeds and fresh tomatoes. Wrap it all in a multigrain tortilla for a nutritious on-the-go meal that provides protein, fiber, energy-boosting fruit and a small amount of healthy fat from the avocado. It's just the right mix to keep you feeling fuller longer and prevent late-afternoon binging.

THE CLASSIC: Ants on a Log

THE MAKEOVER: Celery With Hummus, Black Olives and Dried Currants

Perhaps you haven’t had this old-fashioned snack since you were in grade school, but it’s a classic for a reason -- crisp celery, creamy peanut butter and sweet, chewy raisins satisfy cravings.

For a grown-up version, trade the peanut butter for low-fat hummus. To prepare, combine a can of drained, rinsed chickpeas with 1 garlic clove, 1/4 cup water, 2 tbsp. of tahini, or sesame paste, 1 tbsp. of fresh lemon juice, 1 tbsp. of extra-virgin olive oil, and 1/2 tsp. of salt in a food processor. Blend until very smooth and whipped. Spread the hummus on celery sticks and top with one or two pitted Greek olives and a few antioxidant-rich dried currants.

THE CLASSIC: Ham and Cheese

THE MAKEOVER: Prosciutto and Provolone With Granny Smith Apple

“Every week challenge yourself to try something new,” said Viola. Not only does this encourage you to branch out and eat a variety of healthy foods, it also can be fun to explore different ingredients.

Instead of deli ham, Italian prosciutto is a tasty alternative. When you use high-quality ingredients like imported prosciutto and provolone, you need a smaller quantity to gratify your taste buds. Just a few slices of the salty and buttery specialty ham and one or two pieces of the sharp, nutty cheese go a long way -- especially when paired with a tart, crisp green apple on thinly sliced whole-grain bread. If you have access to a skillet, press the sandwich into a panini using just a light drizzle of olive oil. Or to go bread-free, wrap wedges of a Granny Smith apple in prosciutto and provolone.

With just a few simple swaps, you can transform your brown-bag lunch from a yawn into a high point of your day.

Turn Your Refrigerator Into Your Own Salad Bar

“An easy and fun way to keep lunch interesting is to create an at-home salad bar,” said Chef Dawn Viola. “Stock your refrigerator with an array of ingredients and store them in airtight containers with damp paper towels placed over the fresh vegetables to keep them hydrated.”

To create exciting salads every day of the week, Viola explains that color is key. Start with a variety of colorful raw vegetables, along with super-charged greens like spinach or arugula. Next, you'll need healthy, lean proteins such as tuna, poached chicken breast, beans or quinoa, which will keep you feeling full. You'll also want to have fresh or dried fruit on hand to add a bit of sweetness and balance to your salad. Pumpkin seeds, walnuts, sesame seeds or even crumbled crackers will add crunch and nutrition. Shaved Parmesan or shredded cheddar adds a salty bite without a lot of sodium. And a bright lemony dressing or tangy apple cider vinaigrette finishes your salad with a zing.