Whether brown bagging or eating in the cafeteria, you have to make a conscious effort to watch keep portions reasonable. Start out by making sure that you have things from more than one food group. You need to have certain amounts of each food group a day, so you want to try to eat the right amount of each group at each meal.

Tips for a Healthy Lunch

Portion sizes

To get an idea of what a portion of each food group should look like, here are a few comparisons:

  • A serving of meat should be about the size of a deck of cards
  • A serving of pasta or rice should be about the size of a tennis ball or ice cream scoop
  • A serving of bread should be about the size of a computer disk
  • A serving of vegetables should be about the size of a light bulb
  • A serving of cheese should be about the size of four dice

“Keep in mind that you don’t have to limit yourself to a single serving at each meal, but it is important to understand that a serving size isn’t necessarily what you are being served when dining out (or what you serve yourself at home)” says Melissa Ohlson, a nutritionist at the Cleveland Clinic.

Although many believe that cutting out a certain food group can promote weight loss, actually eating the right portions of the food groups at meals can be more beneficial. When you continuously eat more than a portion size, it can cause you to weight gain. “An easy way to control portions and keep calories in check is to pack your lunch instead of buying,” suggests Ohlson.

That said many Americans eat too many carbohydrates and sugars. According to the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, “Americans consumed on average, 200 pounds of food and cereal products in 2000” (USDA).

Helpful tips

At lunch, if you want to eat a sandwich, or a serving of bread, try to eat whole grains. Whole grains can help lower the risk for cardiovascular disease (narrowing of the blood vessels that feed your heart with oxygen-rich blood) and some types of cancer. If you want to eat a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich, be careful with the amount of peanut-butter and jelly you put on your sandwich. The proper serving of peanut-butter is only about the size of a ping-pong ball. And jelly is sugar, not a fruit, so make sure to be careful with the amount of jelly you use.

A helpful way to remember to vary the items you have for lunch, try to eat food that are many different colors. Most of the colors can come from fruits like bananas, grapes, apples, berries, etc. But, your greens can be from leafy veggies like: broccoli, spinach, romaine lettuce, etc. And, your oranges can be from carrots, or sweet potatoes. Try to eat a lot of vegetables and fruits.

A very popular lunch-time drink is milk. When picking the milk you are going to drink, try to choose the fat-free or low-fat milk (skim or 1%.) Of course you can drink chocolate milk, just try to pick up the reduced fat option.

Protein is something that is very important to have in your body. You can either get your proteins from lean meats, poultry (chicken,) or fish. Or, you can also find protein in beans, eggs and nuts.

When you’re eating lunch, you don’t have to stay away from the sweets, as long as you eat it in moderation. It shouldn’t be the main part of your meal.

Packing lunches can be fun. Experiment with healthy food choices. Take a look at the 10 Quick and Tasty Brown Bag Lunches below!

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. Nutrition and Your Health: Dietary Guidelines for Americans, (Fifth edition), Home andGarden Bulletin NO. 232, May 2000.

Written by Melissa Ohlson, MS, RD, LD, Preventive Cardiology and Rehabilitation.

10 Quick and Tasty Brown Bag Lunches

In the quest to fuel your child with heart-healthy foods that won’t weigh them down (or your pocketbook), here are 10 tasty, healthy, and economical options for your child to take to school or summer camp. Just make sure you keep these items cold (cold items should stay below 40 degrees Fahrenheit at all times) by packing their lunches in an insulated bag and tossing in an ice pack along with it.

A healthy lunch should always include these key ingredients:

  1. Whole grain. Your child needs fiber for good health and cholesterol control. So always pack a whole grain with lunch. Whole wheat bread, English muffins, pita, tortillas, whole grain pasta, and crackers are all examples.
  2. Lean protein. Protein will help satisfy their appetite and give them much-needed energy for the afternoon. Alternate plant and animal-based protein options throughout the week. Nuts, peanut butter, beans, lean beef, chicken, tofu, milk, yogurt or fish are good sources of protein.
  3. Veggies. Your child needs at least 1 ½ cups of veggies each day so supply at least ½ to 1 cup at lunch. Baby carrots, cucumber or pepper slices, veggie soup, grape tomatoes or spinach – your options are endless.
  4. Fruit. Fresh fruit is a great way to end a meal with a little “sweet” touch. Pack fresh, dried or canned (in light syrup) fruit in your child’s lunch every day. If they are too full to eat it for lunch, it makes a great portable mid-afternoon snack.

Hummus Wrap

Spread a ¼ cup portion of hummus over a whole-wheat tortilla and top with diced tomatoes, romaine lettuce, grated carrot, and sliced artichoke. Roll tightly. Add a serving of nonfat yogurt, a handful of nuts, and an apple.

Cracker Delight

Some kids just don’t like to eat a sandwich, but you can still give them the “insides” of a sandwich and serve with whole grain crackers. Pack a serving of whole grain crackers and let them top with any of the following protein-rich foods: rolled turkey breast lunchmeat, tuna salad made with light mayo, 2% fat cheddar cheese slices, or hummus. Toss in a baggie of cooked and cooled edamame (green soy beans), 1 cup diced melon, and a carton of milk.

Veggie Pasta

Make a few extra servings of whole wheat penne pasta next time you prepare pasta for dinner. The following day, let your child delight in this amazingly tasty pasta salad: Toss in cooked and sliced chicken breast (from leftovers), halved grape tomatoes, and spinach leaves. Zest some lemon over the pasta and stir in some olive oil, lemon juice and chopped fresh basil for a delightfully easy meal. Don’t forget to pack a serving of milk and fruit.

Mexicali Rice Surprise

Take a serving of leftover cooked brown rice and toss in the following: black beans, chopped scallions, diced red pepper, and thawed yellow corn. Stir in a little lime juice, olive oil and ground cumin. Serve with brown rice tortilla chips, salsa, and mango slices.

Leftover Pizza

Kids love pizza, and there’s nothing wrong with leftovers – especially if it’s homemade pizza! Take two slices of leftover whole wheat veggie pizza and serve with a small tossed salad with light dressing and a cup of sliced strawberries.

Cottage Cheese and Veggies

Some kids love cottage cheese – others absolutely hate it. Give it another try with this creative assortment. Portion a ½-cup serving of 2% milkfat cottage cheese and top with grape tomatoes, cucumber slices and a sprinkling of fresh dill. Serve with whole grain crackers and a medium orange.

Peanutty Treat

Spread 2 Tablespoons natural peanut butter into a whole-wheat tortilla. Sprinkle with diced apple and raisins or banana and raisins and a drizzle of agave nectar. Roll tightly. Serve with nonfat Greek yogurt and baby carrots.

Lunch Kebobs

On a few wooden skewers, alternate turkey, ham, 2% cheese, and grape tomatoes. Serve with whole grain crackers, a carton of chocolate milk and a small peach.

Pita Pocket

Stuff a small whole-wheat pita with canned chicken, tuna or salmon salad. Mix 2 ounces of the drained protein choice with diced onion and celery, 1 Tbsp light mayonnaise and a dash of Dijon mustard. Stuff in sliced tomato and lettuce leaves. Serve with a thermos filled with your child’s favorite vegetable soup, a piece of fruit, and carton of low-fat milk.

Not Your Usual Salad

Buy bagged, pre-washed salad mix and toss in canned drained chickpeas, diced low-fat cheese, sliced olives, cucumber, and pepper. Toss with your child’s favorite light vinaigrette dressing and top with slivered almonds and craisins. Serve with a whole wheat roll and a carton of low-fat milk.

Reviewed: 12/2013

Reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional.

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