UAB Medicine News


Healthy Lunchbox Ideas for Busy Adults and Kids

Healthy Lunchbox

Taking a brown paper bag to work or school has never been the most exciting way to dine, but packing your lunch is often the healthiest, safest, most cost-effective, and most personalized way to enjoy a midday meal. On the contrary, school cafeteria lunches are notorious for being low on nutrition, and going out to eat every day takes its toll on your diet and your wallet.

So to learn more about easy, practical, and healthy lunchbox ideas, we chatted with UAB Medicine’s very own Mark Sasse, MD, a cardiologist, father of three, and self-proclaimed health nut.

Dr. Sasse’s Story

Dr. Sasse and his wife met in Chicago while both were working at Cook County Hospital. Since the hospital wasn’t in the best part of town and offered few healthy food options nearby, they got to know each other over lunchbox meals they brought from home. Dr. Sasse and his wife, an internist, have witnessed the poor effects of nutrition in their professions, so they’re in tune with good dietary habits and committed to healthy eating for their entire family.

Dr. Sasse has three children, ages 11, 13, and 15. In their daily lunchboxes, he typically packs three vegetables, one fruit, two yogurts, nuts, a cheese stick, and a bottle of water.

In addition to the health benefits, Dr. Sasse’s busy schedule at the hospital doesn’t allow him time to sit down for lunch. So he spreads these foods out over the course of the day, which helps him stay alert and control his weight. This is the best way to stay on schedule without starving, and it has worked well for him for many years.

What to Pack

Packing a lunchbox is a wonderful way to squeeze in the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables per day. Dr. Sasse is a big believer in raw foods, though he continually gets asked how he can eat raw fruits and veggies without salt or dressing. He says you simply get used to the texture and taste and eventually enjoy that sensory experience without unnecessary fats or additives. Although it can be hard to switch to raw, especially as an adult, it’s worth trying because cooking vegetables drastically reduces their health benefits.

If you’re packing lunches for the whole family, there’s no better time to use this task as a learning experience and teach kids how to take responsibility for their own health and nutrition. Here are some of the common foods that Dr. Sasse and his family pack in their mini cooler lunchboxes with blue ice blocks:

  • Raw vegetables, such as snap peas
  • Fresh fruit, such as apples
  • Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on wheat bread
  • Hummus with Wheat Thins crackers
  • Yogurt
  • Nuts
  • Milk
  • Small candy bar for the kids (portion-controlled treats help curb cravings and overeating “prohibited” foods)

Planning and Packing Ahead

Many busy parents claim they don’t have time to plan ahead and pack lunches, but the health of your family is more important than sleeping in that extra half hour. Dr. Sasse and his family pack their vegetables into bags, set out dry goods, and line up their lunchboxes the night before to save time in the mornings.

He says that his packed lunches probably costs about $5-6 per day, but he could make it even more economical by buying in bulk. The kids’ lunches cost less than this and are custom-tailored to the size and activity level of each child.

Pacify Picky Eaters

Picky eaters are a cause for concern among parents who want their kids to eat healthy. Among Dr. Sasse’s children, his daughter is the pickiest eater of them all, yet she is a simple eater and prefers to eat at home and stick to what she knows.

Dr. Sasse says the key is to keep offering foods and be a good model to follow. What your kids see you eating will impact their habits, and tastes often change after offering new foods enough times. Don’t get frustrated or give up, because the more flavors and textures that kids are exposed to, the more they will eventually enjoy – especially if you turn cooking into a fun family activity.

However, an important part of establishing a healthy lunchbox routine is to incorporate variations with unique meals and occasionally going out to restaurants to experience new foods. Although not every meal has to be a joy, sharing food with family and friends is an important part of how we connect with each other. More than the time or effort involved, packing a healthy lunchbox requires a change in perspective and rethinking old habits that are weighing you down.