Frugality is the new black. Throw in the terms “eco-friendly” and “healthier,” and the result is a trifecta of hip.
Who knew packing a lunch could symbolize so much?
“It’s every penny counts,” says Kevin Wehr, an assistant professor of sociology at California State University, Sacramento. “It’s expensive to go out to eat, and when people have fewer dollars in their pockets, it’s a cheap and easy way to reduce expenses.”
American adults carried 8.5 billion lunches from home in 2007, the most recent figure available, according to the NPD Group consumer market research firm. More than half were eaten at work, mostly right there on top of desks. And although sandwiches are still the most-packed item – 40 percent of lunches include them – there are easy ways to keep lunch from being the old standby PB&J.
“There’s no question Americans are carrying more lunches from their homes than they were at the beginning of this decade,” says Harry Balzer, NPD Group vice president. “It’s the cheapest way to feed ourselves.”
Matt Robinson has been taking food to his job as a legislative analyst at the California Department of Fish & Game for the past four years.
“I started realizing that I was going to La Bou and spending $10 a day on a sandwich and chips, and that I can buy an entire week’s worth of lunches (for the price of one day) if I just went to the store,” the 30-year-old says.
Robinson keeps it interesting by switching up what he buys at the supermarket each week. He’ll choose different sandwich meats and cheeses and vary his bread to include pitas and wraps.
“I pack the exact same thing for an entire week,” he says, rounding out the meal with fruit, vegetables and chips.
And while he saves money by bringing his own food, he also uses his regular lunch break to work out at the gym nearby.
Carrie Person of Roseville, Calif., packs a thermal-insulated case of food for her husband, a software salesman, every night before going to bed.
“He leaves for work really early,” she explains.
Person, 33, varies yogurt flavors, sandwich meats, breads, even mustards, she says. Her husband used to be chastised for being a frugal foodie in the office, but he now looks like something of a trendsetter.
“His co-workers used to tease him about bringing his lunch,” Person says. “Now, a lot of them are starting to do it as well.”

Speedy lunch
Packing a lunch doesn’t have to be a time-consuming process, says Deborah Hamilton, who writes the blog
Hamilton sends a bento-box lunch to school with her son every day.
“I would like to say I have a master plan and my evil genius of bento kung fu tells me what to do, but really it’s whatever I have in the house,” she says. “I try not to spend more than 10 to 15 minutes on any one bento because I have a kid I’m getting ready in the morning.”
A bento box is simply a reusable container that encourages the packing of a variety of foods with a basic five-color rule – include at least five colors in each box. Hamilton likes using an assortment of containers she purchases for just a few dollars each because they automatically result in portion control.
If a box is packed using a general guideline of three parts carbohydrates to one part protein and two parts fruits and vegetables, the calories contained are usually relative to the size of the box – so a 600-milliliter box carries about 600 calories, she says.
And there’s nothing that cannot go into a bento, even though it has Japanese origins.
“I have culinary (attention deficit disorder), and I can’t stick to one particular ethnic group or food,” Hamilton says. “So I bop all over the map, based on what I’m making for dinner.”
Leftovers often go inside, and Hamilton also keeps three bins – one in the refrigerator, another in the freezer and a third in the pantry – with items that can be thrown into a box. She calls these “gap-fillers.”
The refrigerator bin includes single-serving cheeses, hard-boiled eggs, grapes, cherry tomatoes and vegetables that can be quickly microwaved in a mini-steamer. The freezer bin holds premade rice balls, leftovers frozen in reusable muffin cups, mini-frittatas, and mini-hamburgers she made with leftover dinner meat. And the pantry bin has puddings, nuts and crackers.
As far as food safety is concerned, her son does not have access to a microwave or refrigerator, so she includes frozen fruit or juice that serves as an ice pack but also melts by lunchtime.
“You can make it really Martha (Stewart) if you want to,” she says. “But it really doesn’t have to be.”

Lunching for health and environment
Cristy Shauck can’t remember the last time she ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch. The co-author of “The Healthy Lunchbox” (Small Steps Press, $12.95, 148 pages) repurposes leftovers so that chicken one night becomes chicken satay for lunch the following day, chicken salad on greens the next, and then chicken enchiladas after that.
“You just have to think outside the box. Plan out what you’re going to have and make it easy,” she says. “You can also control the amount of calories and fat if you care to. It’s much harder to go out to eat and figure out how much fat is in there.”
A Santa Cruz, Calif.-based company Americanized the Japanese bento back in 2001. Laptop Lunches was dreamed up that year by two moms who saw schoolkids opening prepackaged items like yogurts and Lunchables, taking a few bites and tossing the rest.
“We were shocked by what we saw,” says Tammy Pelstring, co-founder of the parent company, Obentec. “There was a lot of food and packaging waste.”
So with the bento in mind, they designed a line of plasticware that could carry foods like sandwiches, applesauce and salads. There’s a basic lunchbox-type case and containers of various sizes that fit inside, some with individual lids.
“It really encourages you to pack a vegetable, a fruit, a main course and a little bit of dessert,” Pelstring says.
While the gear was originally made for children, soon teachers were adopting it for their lunches, and office workers, too.
“On average, it costs about $3.25 to pack a lunch,” Pelstring says. “And if you go out, you spend between $8 and $10. So it’s quite a bit of savings.
“Plus, if you’re packing a traditional lunch, you’re going through three to four plastic baggies a day. That really has a big impact, so people are moving into reusable packaging.”
Pelstring remains undaunted by packing three lunches a day. She cooks an extra serving or two of dinner the night before, puts the leftovers straight into the bento containers during cleanup, then adds crackers or nuts to the box the next morning.
“It’s a coming together of having maxed out our environmental resources and our financial resources so that we have to take a step back and simplify things,” she says. “It sounds pretty daunting, but when you get into a routine, it’s not that hard. It’s just a change in routine.”

Bento-box lunch guidelines
• Try to abide by the color rule: Have at least five colors of food in each box.
• Food should be tightly packed inside a bento box. Use reusable muffin cups as dividers and fill gaps with foods like cherry tomatoes and grapes. This not only gets the portion right but also keeps food from moving around.
• Generally a 600-milliliter bento will hold 600 calories if it is packed with about three parts carbohydrates, one part protein and two parts fruits and vegetables.
• An easy way to keep bento packing simple is to keep three bins – one in the refrigerator with grapes, blueberries, single-serving cheeses and hard-boiled eggs; another in the freezer with leftovers frozen into reusable muffin cups such as frittatas, dumplings, rice balls and mini-hamburgers; and a third in the pantry with portioned-out nuts, crackers and puddings.

Lunch tips
• Anything perishable that will be kept at room temperature for more than two hours should be packed with ice. Frozen fruit or juice can serve as edible or drinkable ice packs.
• Room temperature, moisture and protein are the three feeders of bacteria. Dry hot food on racks and pat dry with a paper towel to reduce moisture before packing in containers.
• If time is an issue, make a week’s worth of sandwiches over the weekend, put them in the freezer and take one to work each day. They will thaw by lunchtime. Pack moist vegetables or condiments separately to keep bread from turning soggy.
• Create a lunch pool with four people at work. Each person packs five lunches to share one day a week.
• Repurpose plastic condiment cups for salad dressings and dips.
• Invest in reusable lunch containers. There is a variety in different shapes, sizes, designs and materials: plastic, glass and stainless steel.

Reusable gear
Regular Tupperware can be used to carry lunches, and two online companies sell lunch gear: (items cost from $1-8.50) (the basic lunch box with containers that fit inside costs $22.99)


Veggie pinwheels
Prep time: 20 minutes
Chilling time: 2 hours
Recipe from “The Healthy Lunchbox,” by Marie McClendon and Cristy Shauck (Small Steps Press, $12.95, 148 pages).
1 tablespoon fat-free cream cheese
1½ teaspoons fat-free ranch dressing
1 10-inch wheat tortilla
2 tablespoons broccoli, cooked or raw, finely chopped
2 tablespoons carrots, finely shredded
Stir ranch dressing into cream cheese. Spread mixture within ¼ inch of entire edge of tortilla. In a bowl, mix broccoli, carrots and optional ingredients such as 1½ teaspoons sunflower seeds; 1 tablespoon sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil, patted dry and finely chopped; 1½ teaspoons golden raisins; 1 tablespoon water chestnuts, chopped; or 1 tablespoon mango chutney. Sprinkle a thin layer of mixture on tortilla within ¼ inch of edge. Roll up; pin with toothpicks. Chill at least 2 hours. Slice into pinwheels 1 inch thick. Serves 1
Per serving: 274 cal.; 8 g pro.; 49 g carb.; 5 g fat (1 sat., 3 monounsat., 1 polyunsat.); 1 mg chol.; 521 mg sod.; 3 g fiber; 4 g sugar; 16 percent calories from fat.

Asian pasta salad
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes
Recipe from “The Laptop Lunch,” by Amy Hemmert and Tammy Pelstring (Morning Run Press, $8.99, 96 pages).
8 ounces pasta
1 cup broccoli, cut into bite-size pieces
1½ cups green beans, sugar snap peas, cabbage or zucchini, cut into bite-size pieces
3/4 cup carrots, cut into thin 1-inch strips
1 clove minced garlic (optional)
2 tablespoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped
½ cup bean sprouts

Boil pasta in large pot of boiling water until it is half cooked. Add all vegetables, except bean sprouts, and boil until pasta is al dente and vegetables are tender. Drain and place in large bowl. Mix together garlic (if using), sesame oil and soy sauce for dressing. Add the sesame seeds, cilantro, bean sprouts and dressing to the pasta. Toss well. Serves 6
Per serving using cabbage: 215 cal.; 10 g pro.; 32 g carb.; 5 g fat (1 sat., 2 monounsat., 2 polyunsat.); 0 mg chol.; 457 mg sod.; 4 g fiber; 4 g sugar; 23 percent calories from fat.

Veggie tortilla bites
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
Recipe adapted from “The Lunchbox Book: Nutritional and Creative Ideas To Liven Up Your Packed Lunch” (New Holland Publishers, $12.95, 72 pages).
1 medium potato, cut into small chunks
2 teaspoons olive oil
¼ cup red bell pepper, finely chopped
¼ cup frozen green peas
3 eggs, beaten

Boil potato chunks until tender, drain. Fry in olive oil in a nonstick frying pan until lightly browned. Add red bell pepper and cook until softened. Stir in frozen peas, then pour in eggs. Season and cook until eggs are set on bottom. Slide pan under a hot grill or broiler and cook until the top is set. Cool and cut into wedges. Serves 1
Per serving: 438 cal.; 24 g pro.; 31 g carb.; 24 g fat (6 sat., 13 monounsat., 3 polyunsat., 2 other); 637 mg chol.; 819 mg sod.; 4 g fiber; 6 g sugar; 50 percent calories from fat.

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