16 Smart Tips for Packing a Healthier Lunch

updated May 1, 2019
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When I’m busy, the first thing to fall by the wayside is home cooking and homemade lunches in particular. It’s tough to stay motivated to pack and eat your lunch, so we asked you, our readers, to share your best tips for making a healthy lunch an effortless part of your daily routine.

You guys responded with a lot of encouragement and so many smart tips! Here are some of our favorites.

Packing a Lunch Every Day: It’s Tough!

Before we dive into tips, though, let’s be real: Packing a lunch every day, whether it’s just for you or for a gaggle of kids, can be tough. Mrs J. was encouraging and real on this topic:

Let’s be honest, it’s NOT easy to stay motivated to pack healthy lunch (or workout or plan healthy family dinners). Personally, I try to frequently remind myself of why my family and I made the commitment to eat better in the first place. Our health is priceless. — Mrs J.

Motivation is the first ingredient in packing a lunch, and staying stocked up and energized in your daily lunch-packing is the most important thing. So some of these points deal with motivation as much as they do practical recipes or tips.

1. Prioritize health.

The first key to staying motivated: Keep your health goals in focus. You simply have more control over any health goal — eating more fruits and veggies, lowering calories, eating less fat — by packing your own lunch.

My motivation comes from how great I feel by eating a healthy, balanced diet. I bring my lunch and it’s usually a big salad that I prepped the night before. — rosebud

I’m on a diet and tracking calories on a fitness app. I quickly came to the realization that I don’t want to “spend” 8,000 calories on a Panera sandwich. — Dallas C

2. Prioritize budget.

Another benefit to remember, especially if you have specific saving or financial goals: Packing a lunch is nearly always cheaper than eating out!

Not paying money eating out keeps me motivated! — heather_anne

3. Prioritize taste.

Homemade lunch almost always tastes better.

I’m surprised there aren’t more comments about homemade lunch tasting beter than store-bought. That’s enough motivation for us. — breezyslp

Why I pack a lunch: it’s cheaper, healthier, and tastes better. — smths

4. Make enough dinner for leftovers.

Once you’ve found the motivation that works best for you, how to put it into practice? One of the most obvious tips, but one we heard over and over, is to make dinnertime work for lunch too.

I always cook enough dinner so there’s leftovers for lunch — I think this has stemmed from my dislike of making sandwiches! – josashimi

5. Put leftovers in the lunch box right after dinner.

Getting super practical here, put your dinner leftovers in the lunch box or lunch container right after dinner, before you wash up.

I prepare items for my lunch after we’ve eaten dinner, but before we clean up. This way we can portion out leftovers (if there are any) into lunch containers rather than putting things away and taking them out again. Also, we just add the mess we made prepping lunch to the dinner mess and only clean up once. — mollyclaire

I do my best when I do what some others have suggested here: every lunch is packed the night before, and every lunch is leftovers. It’s easy — after dinner, when you go to put everything away, just put some of it away in your lunch container. — Katy did.

5. Cook a big batch for lunch on Sunday.

But maybe leftovers aren’t your thing, or you like to cook over the weekends instead. Lots of people say they do their lunch prep on Sunday.

For me, it’s all about Sunday cooking that goes into single-serving containers that go into the freezer. In the morning, I grab and go. — Keepmehealthy!

I try to prep or cook one lunch dish on Sunday that will be enough for three days — like salad with separately packed toppings and dressing, grains with roasted veggies and protein, or soups in the winter — and package those three meals up on Sunday. — jdmeidinger

6. Have backup staples ready to go.

Leftovers or freshly made — either way, it’s good to have some fill-in staples ready to go for days when your lunch isn’t quite enough or there aren’t any leftovers.

Always, always, always have cooked chicken and lettuce on hand. We take salad for lunch at least two to three times a week, especially in the summer. Chicken or eggs add protein, and we always have tons of veggies on hand. In the winter we make a big batch of soup instead. — breezyslp

I try to make a batch of hard-boiled eggs once a week, so I can grab and go for work (tucked into a salad container) or before a workout. — smths

Whatever we pack, I always make sure there is a small Mason jar with almonds or walnuts to give the extra protein we may need to get us through the day. — nyc_via_pdx

7. Take cues from what your kids are loving.

If you’re packing for kids, too, make sure they have a say!

I also take cues from my son, so if he is really loving grapefruit then half a grapefruit is added to his lunch. — nyc_via_pdx

8. Don’t force yourself to eat things you don’t like.

If lunch isn’t something you like, then it will be a chore. Make sure you’re giving yourself something to look forward to.

If you wouldn’t be satisfied with it at home, don’t pack it for lunch. It seems obvious, but I think sometimes we force ourselves into eating something we don’t really like because it is “healthy.” For example, I rarely eat salads at home, and when I’ve tried to pack salads for lunch, they’ve flopped. I learned that I really like a few things: chicken + starch + a veggie, soups/stews, and casseroles. — BethCPA

9. Use leftovers creatively.

Leftovers aren’t just leftovers; it can get boring eating the same things day after day, so find ways to mix it up.

My main trick is reinventing leftovers for fun lunches. So if we have burritos for dinner, I will pack a bean salad (veggie-filled refried beans with salsa, cheddar cheese, plain yogurt, and avocado) for lunch. — nyc_via_pdx

10. Write out a packing list for the morning.

If you pack in the morning, have a packing list on the fridge so you remember everything that should go in your lunch box.

I write down a packing list for myself before I start putting everything in my lunch bag so I make sure not to forget anything! It’s like preparing to go grocery shopping in your fridge! — Lisa @ Three Meals and a Cookie

11. Do whatever you need to do to remember your lunch!

Whatever it is — putting your keys in the fridge, hanging a note on your front door, whatever works for you.

When I get out of bed, I put my lunch in the car. Its part of my ‘put-on-the-coffee, brush-my-teeth’ routine. As the morning progresses, I can easily get distracted, get to running late, or get a phone call in the morning that throws off my routine. So building this step in early helps prevent me from leaving my lunch in the fridge (which I used to do three to four times per week). — fi_burke

12. Find a lunch box or bag that keeps food truly fresh.

But once you’ve made your lunch, if it doesn’t stay tasty you won’t want to eat it.

For leftovers or sandwiches, a really good lunchbox/bag system that keeps fresh foods tasting FRESH and CRISP is worth the investment. The better it tastes, the more motivated I am to pack healthy. — Mrs J.

13. Buddy up with a coworker or friend.

Trying to resist going out to lunch? Find a buddy to eat homemade lunch with a few days a week, maybe out at the park or a museum.

Find a coworker who’s into eating healthy and share ideas or even go in on a CSA together. Join them at a nearby park to eat lunches. Enjoying the meal helps maintain motivation. — Mrs J.

14. Fridge filchers? Try a portable lockbox.

We heard a lot about people with klepto coworkers. If people steal your lunch, then lock it up!

I work at a radio station where there are people in the building 24/7 — a lot of the staff see the fridge as a free-for-all. I finally tried a portable lock box which was ingenious for stopping that problem! — Mrs J.

15. Skip the office fridge entirely and use a cooler.

Or keep your food cold somewhere else and skip the fridge.

So long ago I decided to “bypass” the fridge and purchase a small, insulated cooler. The freedom! Now I just keep my lunch at my desk! No squeezing it in under Jenny’s slowly rotting leftovers! Totally changed my attitude. — Katy did.

16. Keep your desk stocked with essentials.

Last but not least, make your desk (or office) a comfortable place to eat lunch. Stock it up with real silverware and seasonings.

I also have a few kitchen essentials stashed in my desk for minor prep tasks to be done at lunch time — a steak knife, nice chopsticks (instantly ups the fanciness of any meal eaten at my desk), real silverware, a very small bamboo cutting board, and a cloth napkin that gets traded out every few days and thrown in with other laundry at home. Helps me feel less pressure to prep everything before rushing out the door and makes the normal office lunch a little less mundane. — SamFromAustinTX

I also keep a tiny shelf of breakfast and lunch supplies — small bottle of olive oil, flaky salt, pepper grinder, cinnamon, sunbutter, granola, and real silverware. This way I can “dress up” my breakfast or lunch when I get to the office, which helps me stay motivated to actually eat it when my other coworkers are off to Sweetgreen. — Katy did.

See all the tips from our readers!

Lots of great recipe and meal suggestions in this thread!

Have any other practical lunch tips to throw into the mix?