The Art of Packing Lunch


Packing your own lunch for work or school is a great way to save money on food. Considering that a lunch can cost $7-$12 these days, you could easily spend $60 a week if you ate out Monday-Friday (and that’s not counting coffee or afternoon treats).

If you’ve decided it’s time to pack your own lunch, there’s a few things you need to know. This article is about how to properly pack a lunch bag, healthy food ideas for packed lunches, and making your lunch fun. Don’t miss “Buying the Perfect Lunch Bag” if you are in the market for a new lunch bag.

How do you pack lunch?

What does pack a lunch mean? Pack a lunch means putting food into a lunch bag to eat for a meal when you are away from home. The food may be prepared first by cutting into portion sizes that are easier to handle and packaging foods in separate containers to prevent spills. 

A sandwich, for example, would be fully assembled with toppings and wrapped or placed in a container to prevent the food from spilling out. Condiments and side dishes or vegetables would be put into smaller containers with sealed lids for safe transport. 

Packing a lunch starts with the right lunch bag

There are all kinds of lunch bags on the market. My favorite is a neoprene lunch bag, that comes in multiple choices of patterns and designs. Be sure to check out my article “Buying the Perfect Lunch Bag.” I review many important factors in buying a lunch bag, one of them being insulative qualities to keep your food hot or cold

Girl with healthy packed lunch.

Girl with healthy packed lunch.

Food safety for packed lunches

Food safety specialists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service recommend that “perishable food (refrigerated), including meat, poultry and eggs, must be kept cold at all times… food should not be left out at room temperature more than 2 hours — 1 hour if the temperature is above 90 °F (32.2 °C).”

The USDA’s guidance is for food sitting out, but it indicates that food should be kept cold for safety to avoid illness. An insulated lunch bag is recommended to preserve lunch bag food temps. Food should be packed cold and heated later, rather than attempting to keep food warm. A microwave is a popular appliance for heating foods fast. For those opposed to microwaves, there are other food heating options.

Don’t forget to clean your lunch bag out at the end of the day. The USDA guides users to “discard all leftover food, used food packaging, and paper bags. Do not reuse packaging because it could contaminate other food and cause foodborne illness.”

When my daughter spent time in Germany, the German parents packed meals that were not refrigerated. I would say it was also my experience when I was in Germany, that our guests served meats that were preserved in a manner that did not need refrigeration. I do not have experience with that and I have to admit, that I would feel a bit nervous.

Keeping packed lunches at the right temperatures

Keeping food cold or hot begins with buying the best lunch bag, containers, and thermoses. The best ones will be well-insulated and proven to maintain the temperature of the food. Food eaten at the right temperature is an important factor for enjoying lunch, and for food safety.

Keeping the food at the right temperature doesn’t all rest on the container. Here are tips to help maintain your lunch food temps

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Tips to keep lunch cold and hot

Ice packs keep food cold. Including frozen ice packs is a successful method of keeping food cold. I keep multiples in the freezer, especially when I forget to unpack my lunch bag at night and didn’t refreeze the packs. The USDA recommends two ice packs not smaller than 5×3-inches each. Correct placement is one ice pack on top and one ice pack on the bottom of the bag (this leaves the food in the middle, nicely packed in between the cold blocks).

Start with packing frozen foods or chilled food. Don’t rely solely on the ice packs to keep the food cold. Starting with frozen or chilled food extends the effectiveness of keeping your lunch cold. Even food that doesn’t require refrigeration can be chilled and become a helper. Things like sandwiches can be frozen (without the lettuce, of course) to prolong temps. This is a great strategy especially when you may find yourself out on a hot day.

Pour hot water in a thermos or insulated food mug and let it sit a few minutes before replacing it with hot soup, stew, drinks, or other food. This “preheats” the thermos and gives it a warmer starting point to begin with. I’ll add that the USDA also endorses this trick for keeping hot foods hot.

Separate cold foods from hot foods. Some lunch bags don’t have compartments to separate the cold foods from the hot foods. You can create your separation by wrapping food in newspaper, or just carry cold apart from the hot food, and not in the same bag.

Heat liquids over stove or use a teapot. I’ve found that heating water in the microwave doesn’t keep the liquid hot very long, compared to boiling in a tea pot. The same goes for warming your food over a stove versus warming in a microwave. The microwave will get it hot, it just doesn’t seem to hold the food warm as long, in my opinion.

Devices that keep packed lunches hot

I’ve always been intrigued by the cigarette lighter food heater/warmer for cars and trucks. These products are 12v containers that plug into the cigarette lighter of vehicles and keep your food warm. After using one of these devices, one happy trucker exclaimed, “it doesn’t really take long to heat up stuff that isn’t frozen but even if it is frozen after 2.5 to 3 hours of being plugged in your stuff will be so hot you have to let it cool a few minutes before you eat it”

Using a food thermos has always been the go-to of lunch packers everywhere. A thermos can keep food hot up to 5 hours. Be sure to use the tip given earlier to pour hot water in the thermos and let it sit a few minutes before replacing with hot food. This “heats” up the interior and gives you additional boost to keeping your food warm. The emphasis is putting hot food in the container and putting it in the thermos right before you take off for work or school. You can get food thermoses with wide mouths so you can eat your soup, stew, or chili right from the container. 

hot soup in thermos

Hot soup in thermos.

If you just want something to plug in at your office desk, you can get a mini portable oven warmer/heater. It’s does a great job to keep your food warm, or heat food up,It’s hard to keep hot food hot. I’ve tried many ways to keep meals hot when delivering to farm workers for on-the-go lunch. These really are brief instances of needing food insulated, not hours of maintaining food temperature. The jumbo insulated bag the pizza delivery guy carries is an example of one way to keep food hot.

For short-term transportation, I wrap hot food up in newspapers and then a towel, but it’s still not as hot as it could be. Trying to hold food warm for hours, like a burger or fish sticks, is dangerous and should be avoided. I’ve heard of tales of hot baked potatoes or a hot brick from a fire used as means to keep food warm (I also think those tales came from keeping hands and feet warm in horse buggy/sleigh days). For short term transportation, this might work. Ultimately, the safety and health of your family is priority.

Meals that warm themselves

You may find yourself in a situation of travel or camping. MREs, meals-ready-to-eat contain a packet that activates to a temperature hot enough to warm a meal. The package is designed to heat the meal inside; no extra equipment is needed. The complete meal in a package requires no refrigeration, either. The convenient packaged meals are popular among hikers and the military, and as an emergency food resource.

Our kids always thought MREs were fun to unwrap, like a surprise package. In fact, we’ve even got them for the kids as an alternative Easter gift. It never failed to amaze us how the foods were cleverly packaged, and the surprising finds inside.

Other tips for packing lunches

When packing lunch, choose containers that will seal. You want to be able to fully trust that there will be no seals in your food bag. I am in love with the Rubbermaid “Brilliance” leak proof food container. Rubbermaid really got this right. There is a generous rubber food gasket, along with clamps that fold over (open latch before microwaving).

When packing your lunch, don’t forget to put in utensils. When eating a meal away from home every day, it’s really nice to eat with real silverware rather than plastic, plus it’s good for the environment! I also suggest including a napkin (this can be fabric if you’re eco-conscious) for cleanup and spills. A small hand sanitizer is another smart addition to your lunch bag.

Using eco-friendly wrapping materials for you lunchbox

Sandwiches are usually wrapped in plastic, aluminum foil, or paper (both food grade and waxed). For the eco-conscious, buy a sandwich-sized container with lid to reuse or try a silicone bag with zipper. I’ve come across some reusable wraps made from beeswax – such an innovative way to help the environment!  

Another way to be less wasteful is to wash disposable zip lock bags, then air dry for reuse later. This is usually worth my time if I use the thicker freezer bag versions.

By the way, I wash and reuse aluminum foil, too. As already mentioned, I like to wrap food items in newspaper for insulation and in a pinch, using as a makeshift “plate.” These frugal habits were established in my early years of college and marriage. It’s never too late to adapt a more eco-friendly lifestyle!

Healthy lunch ideas

Not only does packing your own lunch save money, it helps you eat healthier. Here are easy packed lunch ideas for adults and where to get novel ideas for packed lunches (for kids too).

  • get visual ideas of healthy lunch, infuse color, add different textures
  • fill with finger foods, cut up fruits and veggies, and dips
  • check out the healthy food choices at convenience stores
  • get greens and more vegetables into your lunch box
  • change up protein options
  • use different breads
  • use different cheese, yogurts, and spreads
  • try out different hot foods, such as soup, chili, casseroles

examples of healthy lunch ideas

Examples of healthy lunch ideas.

Get ideas from magazines and online pictures

Visual healthy lunch ideas are great because there’s no recipe to follow. I’ve include pictures in this article for examples. I imagine food photographers (or should I say food designers) are the healthiest people around – they really aim for visual appeal, which includes lots of color. When you start adding foods for the color factor, you naturally create a packed lunch with a high nutrition factor.

Notice the bright orange of the carrots, the red of the apple, the blues and purples of the berries. Every sandwich includes a green lettuce type. Don’t discount the importance of different crunch textures in your packed lunch. Pretzels, pretzel sticks, healthy chips, popcorn, nuts, croutons, etc.

Prepare your food like it was coming from a restaurant. The pictures really tell a story here. All of the food is cut into bite-size portions. Psychologically, your brain loves it. You feel like you are eating the most charming and enjoyable lunch ever. Everybody loves Lunchables because it makes them feel special (even though they are not the healthiest meal to eat!).

Finger foods make packed lunches fun

A spin-off of the previous paragraph is packing finger foods. Make yourself a mini meat, cheese, and cracker tray. You can buy small cheese cubes, make your own rolled up deli meat, and pack in grapes, snack carrots, and chips. Just remember to always keep your lunch bag healthy with a balance of protein, vegetables, and dairy.

Tied sandwiches with fresh fruit and vegetables.

Tied sandwiches with fresh fruit and vegetables.

Get packed lunch ideas from convenience and food stores

I’m sure you’ve noticed the healthier food options from the grab-and-go food islands in convenience stores. Grocery stores are also providing quick, ready-made options. I get great ideas just by strolling through the food aisles. I can make my own version and save money.

For example, in the midwest we have KwikStar/KwikTrip convenience stores as well as Casey’s. There you can find single serve meat and cheese trays, individually wrapped pickles, and hard-boiled eggs, two to a pack. If you’re the yogurt and granola type, they have that, too.

I love how the food islands are out in the open, and you have to go further into side aisles to find the candy and the prepackaged cakes (although their baked goods are out in the open, because they make a higher profit margin on them and have a shorter “use before” date).

A local grocery store in my area that has a deli, puts out the leftovers for sale after the noon hour. One item that falls into “why don’t I ever make that?” is vegetable pizza. This is an open face bread, (I think the crust comes from the refrigerated croissant roll cans) spread with cream cheese and topped with chopped vegetables like broccoli and carrots. What a great packed lunch idea!

Bananas are a good seller in the convenience stores, you can pick one up for your packed lunch. I noticed a variety of soups in bulk bags, you can grab one for dinner or break it out into smaller servings for your next packed lunch.

Healthy green lunch ideas to pack for work

Get your greens. If you look at the picture-perfect food graphics, all of the sandwiches have a tucked-in piece of lettuce. Remember to stray away from Iceberg lettuce in favor of lettuces that pack a bigger nutritional punch. Adding bean sprouts and even chopped cabbage are ways to get greens in your sandwiches.

If I order a Subway sandwich, I request as much green as I can get on the sandwich: spinach, cucumber, and green peppers. You can do the same and make your sandwich a more healthier one.

Don’t forget salads. I prefer meat salads that help me get a satisfying dose of protein. I know this article is about packing your healthy lunch, but in a pinch, I have picked up fabulous meat salads from McDonald’s and Culver’s. I will point out that one day I looked at the serving size of the Southwest Salad at McDonald’s. It was supposed to feed two people! Here is a chart of McDonald’s nutrition food menu facts.

man packing lunch

Man packing lunch.

Protein options for packed lunches

Another protein option is hard-boiled eggs. I love my Instapot for that, I can quickly pressure cook up to 18 eggs at a time. I borrowed a tip from the convenience stores and peel them and pop them into a sandwich bag for a fast snack. Even when the kids are around the house, they can be healthy. Deviled eggs are a great lunchbox addition (as well as food to bring to a friend’s house!).

Deli meat is a quick way to get protein into your lunch. When you’re ready to challenge yourself with more money-saving lunches, start cooking your own meat roasts and poultry meat that can be broken down and frozen into serving-size portions.

Don’t forget seafood and fish. For packed lunches, canned or sealed bag food fish offers lots of options. Just like turkey and chicken, mayo or salad dressing can be added in for a delicious sandwich filling. I enjoy tasty salmon our friend brings back from Alaska. My husband makes a delicious salmon spread that goes well with crackers.

I’ve been learning more about lentils, and how cheap and protein packed they are. Other non-meat proteins include red and black beans, edamame (soybeans), tofu (another soybean product), grains (check out the nutrition label for oatmeal, barley and quinoa), seeds such as sunflower, nuts, and even green peas contain protein.

Colorful and healthy packed lunch ideas.

Colorful and healthy packed lunch ideas.

What can I pack for lunch instead of a sandwich?

In addition to traditional sandwiches, go for a wrap, flatbread, or pita pocket instead, or slice open a French bread loaf for open-face sandwiches, or load with a spread, meat and cheese to bake in the oven. Or simply substitute a salad, soup, or casserole, to break away from they typical lunch sandwich.

If you are taking a break from bread, cuts of lunch meat rolled with a piece of cheese are surprisingly satisfying.

Bread variety is so important in a packed lunch. There is a period of several weeks during fall harvest that I deliver meals out to the workers in the farm fields. Believe me, they really look forward to the lunch. Just by varying the bread that I use, I can change up the meal. And never fear, by choosing whole-grain breads, sandwiches remain healthy lunch options, especially when loading up with dark leafy greens and veggies.

Think of how many bread types you can try out: croissant rolls, Kaiser buns, “ballpark” buns, sour dough bread. If you worry about having to eat through a whole bag of bread, just toss the partial bag in the freezer. You can pull out a single portion and different type everyday from the freezer.

Cheese, yogurts, and spreads offer variety

Make your food different from one day to the next can be easy. Cut sliced cheese into triangles, try cheese cubes, mozzarella sticks, cheese curds or cheese spreads (full disclosure, I grew up on a dairy farm and always promote dairy!). I never used to be a hummus eater until my college-aged son enlightened me. Trying new things is important for packed lunches.

Trying different chip dips could be the highlight of your work or school day. Picante or cheese dips like spinach can be a healthy addition to your packed lunch bag.

Be brave and try something besides the same old peanut butter. There’s a whole new world of peanut spreads out there, like  almond butter or sunflower butter. I just learned about “pea butter” which is made from brown peas – a good alternative for someone with peanut allergies.

Warm and satisfying soups and stews

Soups, chili, stews are warm and satisfying cold-weather lunch options. They can be super convenient if you grab a can from the pantry and put in your lunch bag. Consumers must be aware that canned soups and stews can be high in sodium. I had a family member get a stern warning from his doctor after it was discovered that his prime food source was canned soup.

I always keep boxed chicken broth in my pantry. I make an easy soup version by heating the broth up with freshly cut carrots and celery until the vegetables are tender, and then toss in leftover meat from the fridge until heated through. I also like to gently stir up a raw egg and drizzle it into the boiling broth. It’s a short cut version of egg soup, but packs a punch for protein, especially if you are sick.

Presentation – make it pretty!

There is no reason your lunch can’t be pretty! If your lunch is the highlight of your day, it might as well be inspiring. A healthy lunch not only is good for you, it feeds your emotional well-being. The best tip here is to do something to make your lunch look different and appealing. Here are ways to improve the looks of your lunch:

  • use little compartments like bento
  • wrap food in bows and ties
  • use an attractive lunch box
  • add an element of fun, like a little “drink” umbrella or toys
  • cut food into attractive bite-size portions
  • use pretty serving dishes
  • arrange food to look like something it isn’t – a bear, a cat, etc. 
  • create food art with edible food markers and write a message, especially to your kids
  • write inspiring notes to yourself

What is a Japanese bento box?

As a non-bento person, all I really know about bento boxes are the cute bento lunches I see on Pinterest or the bento boxes in the lunch bag aisle at Walmart. If you asked me, I would say they are pretty little cubed up boxes that you divide food into. I’m not far off.

According to Japanese Objects, A Japanese bento box is comprised of single-portion meals usually composed of a carb (usually rice or noodles), a protein (usually meat or fish), and an assortment of pickled or cooked vegetables. The nickname “bento” means convenient.

I’m also suspect that a Japanese lunch box can help you lose weight. The compartments of the bento box are all about portion control. By taking the time to meal prep, you can fill with healthy foods. Your bento lunch is only as healthy as what you put into it (no fried foods, please!)

If you are bored of the same brown bag lunch everyday, take some artistic endeavors, just for the fun of it, and see how colorful and beautiful you can make your box. I suggest even scribbling a little uplifting note to yourself and tucking it in!

Instead of a box of chocolates for Valentine’s Day, consider creating the most attractive bento lunch for your loved ones. Some pretty clever parents out there are showing their kids how special they are by creating bento lunches for them.

Japanese bento box.

Japanese bento box.

Japanese bento boxes come in all types of shapes and sizes. I could devote an entire article on how beautiful these boxes are, especially the finely crafted historical examples. Japanese bento boxes are the epitome of “the art of packing lunch.”

Of course, you can find plastic bento boxes that can be tossed in the dishwasher. Bento boxes are a modern convenience to add to your packed lunch equipment lineup.

My daughter had a novel Christmas request this year – she asked for nice, reusable chopsticks. It turned out to be a big hit as my son wanted a set, too. Now they have enough to share with friends when they come over.

RANDOM QUESTIONS

Are Lunchables healthy? Lunchables are not healthy in that they are not a complete meal. They are missing fruit, vegetables and dairy and are low in fiber and Vitamins A and C.

Is it pack or packed lunch? Both pack lunch and packed lunch are acceptable to use.

I challenge you to improve the healthy of your packed lunch today. And by the way, enjoy your lunch! – Renée

About the author 

Renee Matt

Renee is a former kitchen designer, home remodeling enthusiast (having lived through several DIY projects), and an Iowa farmwife. Renee is passionate about preparedness, garden skills, and knowing where her food comes from. Years of being a stay-at-home mom and supporting the family farm with hearty meals has been key to Renee's pantry readiness. She uses her professional IT background and expertise to bring the Everything Pantry website to life.

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