There are a number of benefits to packing your own lunch, says Sacha Uelmen, RDN, CDE, director of nutrition for the American Diabetes Association (ADA).
For example, you have a wider variety of healthy foods to choose from. There are many vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean proteins that you can find in your supermarket that you may not find on restaurant menus, explains Uelmen.
Plus, you can keep better tabs on the calorie and carbohydrate content of the food you’re eating.
Planning your lunches also makes it easier to manage serving sizes and maintain your healthy eating goals. And, it can save time in your workday and allow you to take some “me” time, says Uelmen.
With your lunch already made and ready to eat, you can spend part of your lunch break going for a brisk walk, taking a quiet break, or socializing with a friend.
“One of the most obvious reasons to pack your lunch is that it saves you money,” Uelmen adds, “especially if you plan ahead.”
The ADA recommends a few general lunch-packing tips:
Plan your lunches and shop ahead for necessary ingredients.
Stock your kitchen with healthy options.
Consider batch-cooking soups, chili, or grain salads in advance.
Be prepared with containers to transport your food, including tiny containers for a serving of salad dressing.
Keep non-perishable items (like canned tuna, whole wheat crackers, and canned fruit) at your workstation for days when you don’t have time to pack lunch.
Here are Uelmen’s tips for transforming typical brown-bag lunches into healthy diabetes-friendly options.
Choose whole-grain bread, whole-wheat pita, or make wraps out of leaves of hearty lettuce. “Sandwich thins” that are lower in calories and higher in dietary fiber are also good choices, says Uelmen. Another option is buying (or baking your own) fiber-rich, starch-restricted bread. A study published in Nutrients in March 2017 found that this type of bread improved long-term metabolic control in people with type 2 diabetes.
Opt for lunchmeats that are lower in sodium, saturated fat, and calories, such as minimally processed lean oven-roasted turkey, chicken breast, and lean roast beef.
Tuna, salmon, sardines, and other canned fish make good sandwich fillings — and they’re packed with omega-3 fatty acids, which may help lower triglycerides and raise HDL (the “good” cholesterol) in people with diabetes.
“Many of the cheese manufacturers are now making thinner slices of cheese with fewer calories,” Uelmen says. You can also choose lower-fat cheeses and some spreadable cheeses. “If you don’t love cheese, then skip it,” she says. “You will save at least 80 calories if not more.”
Go easy on the condiments, as they can add unnecessary calories.
“Watch out for high-calorie extras like croutons, cheese, bacon bits, and cream-based salad dressings,” says Uelmen.
Pay attention to your portion of salad dressing, since it can pack a lot of extra calories and fat. Try putting your salad in a container with a lid and then separately packing 1 to 2 tablespoons of dressing to add to it at lunchtime.
“Shake it up really well to cover all of the vegetables — a little bit will go a longer way,” says Uelmen.
Add lots of non-starchy vegetables to your salad. Get creative with shredded carrots, broccoli, jicama, kohlrabi, onions, arugula, spinach, kale, radishes, and fresh herbs. The variety will be tasty and provide more nutrients.
Consider adding black beans, chickpeas, lentils, and other legumes for protein and additional fiber.
When making tuna or chicken salad, use only a small amount of light mayonnaise. Or try a healthier alternative like Greek yogurt or mashed avocado in place of mayo.
“Homemade soups are the best choice,” says Uelmen, since store-bought soups tend to be high in sodium. When making soup at home, you can reduce the amount of sodium by substituting half or more of the broth with water, she says. If you’re making broth from scratch, be mindful about adding less salt (or bouillon).
Include lots of vegetables, herbs, and spices to flavor your soup and boost your nutrient intake.
Leftovers from the night before can also be a diabetes-friendly lunch option. “If you cook healthy, your leftovers will be healthy too,” says Uelmen. When bringing restaurant leftovers, she suggests adding some green veggies for extra bulk and nutrients.
Finally, if you’re the kind of person who enjoys a sweet after lunch, pack yourself a small piece of fruit or a little square of dark chocolate. “If you’re making room for dessert, be sure to consider those calories as part of the whole meal,” Uelmen advises.