Pack Cheap Healthy Lunches for Work

Bento lunch boxes have always been my go-to method for packing lunches for my girls. And lately I've been using the bento method to pack healthy lunches for work too. Not only are they quick, but bento lunches have also helped to streamline my meal-prep process-something I'll take more of any morning! The dietitian side of me also loves that the packing process helps me ensure that the lunches include options from several food groups. Another plus: packing bento boxes for my husband and myself is cheaper than eating lunch out every day.

So what took me so long to start packing my own "grown-up" bento box lunches? Perhaps it was their simplicity, or the fact that they're very similar to what I pack for my girls. Regardless, now that I've embraced the bento box concept, I can't get enough. Thinking through foods to pack-rather than recipes to make-makes eating a healthy lunch every day seem totally doable.

If you like the idea, but aren't sure where to get started, here's my simple formula for a healthy, satisfying lunch to pack for work: Protein + Veggie + Fruit + Extra.

1. Protein

Bento lunch

Think lean meats and fish, like skinless rotisserie chicken breast, cubed ham or turkey, tuna, thinly sliced grilled flank steak and cooked shrimp, as well as vegetarian proteins like black beans tossed with a vinaigrette, a cooked grain pilaf with a sprinkle of nuts and cheese, fresh mozzarella balls, cheese sticks, peanut butter and almond butter.

Now that you've got a protein, this is where the fun and creativity can really start.

2. Veggies

Bento lunch

The options really are endless. Keep it simple with veggies like baby carrots, cherry tomatoes or ripe summer tomato slices, roasted broccoli florets, steamed green beans, salad greens, cucumber slices or bell pepper slices, and pack a little dressing or hummus on the side if desired.

3. Fruit

Bento lunch

You get a little freedom here. I love to have a little fresh fruit included-berries, grapes, peach slices, clementines-because it satisfies my sweet tooth. But if you're not a fruit fan or don't have any on hand, packing an additional veggie is just as good. The bottom line is we all need more fruits and veggies, so get them however you can.

4. Extra

Bento lunch

Add one more food to round out the meal and ensure satiety. This is where I look at what I've got, and then fill in the gap. I might add a carbohydrate-rich food like crackers, pita chips, edamame or roasted chickpeas, a dairy item like Greek yogurt, or a little dark chocolate.

Meal-Prep Tips for Packing Lunch

Salmon Bento

Learn to Love Leftovers: Identifying a protein can be the biggest roadblock for some, so don't overthink it. My go-to lunch protein is often the leftover protein from dinner the night before. Plan to cook a little extra at dinner to save for your bento box. Or, make a quick chicken or tuna salad Sunday evening to have for lunch boxes.

Take Veggie Shortcuts: Go ahead and prep some fresh veggies or roast extra veggies the night before to pack for lunch. Also, buying precut veggies is one splurge I recommend if you know you've got a busy week.

Mix It Up: Don't feel like you have to keep food groups separate. The formula is simply a guide to ensure you get variety. Mix tuna into a cooked grain, add almond butter to apple slices, or top yogurt with nuts and berries.

Keep It Simple: Don't feel like it's got to be fancy either, though. A bento box with whole-grain crackers, turkey slices, grapes and yogurt can be just as healthy as a gourmet one.

Holley Grainger, M.S., R.D. is a culinary nutrition and lifestyle expert and the "Mommy Dietitian in the Kitchen" who instructs families on how to make practical, doable and delicious meals.

Video: How to Pack a Healthy Lunch for Work