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With some imagination, a sad brown bag can carry a lunch you’ll look forward to. Possibilities for low-cost, healthy meals that taste good are almost endless.

I was never the kid at school that had the “cool” lunches. No white powdery doughnuts, rarely a Lunchable, and the only soft drinks in my parents’ house were Sprite and ginger ale — for special occasions or the stomach bug.

At the time, I was green with envy. Looking back, I’m not only thankful but realize the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree; just ask my friends about trying to give my child a hot dog wrapped in a pancake.

Brown bag lunches aren’t just for kids. Let’s talk about the benefits; why leftovers are the bomb; and some super easy lunch ideas.

MAKE IT YOURSELF, CHEAPER

Save those dollar bills.

If I had a dollar for every time someone told me it was expensive to eat healthy — well, I’d be rich. Even hitting up the “Golden Arches” can add up. To feed one person at McDonald’s, the average meal is anywhere from $3-7. But most of us are feeding at least two, usually closer to four, when dining out.

For under $10 dollars total you can make a variety of healthy meals for your family.

What about spaghetti? You can use whole wheat noodles, lean ground beef, chicken or turkey — or go meatless for a more economical option. Add spaghetti sauce with low sodium if you’re mindful of elevated blood pressure, and throw in some spinach at the end for added green.

Or what about rice and beans for Mexican night? An entire can of low sodium black beans will set you back less than a dollar at most grocery/convenience stores.

ALL ABOUT LEFTOVERS

I’m about the only one in my house that’s a fan of leftovers, well other than Pam Tillis, our dog, and she’s a fan of anything that’s edible — and often non-edible items as well.

The thing I love about leftovers is that it takes the guesswork out of most of my lunches. As I’m cleaning up after dinner, I go ahead and put whatever I have left in containers for however many days I can extend it. I loathe food waste.

If you or others in your house don’t share mine or Pam’s excitement for leftovers, have no fear: You can also repurpose or jazz up those old leftovers.

Have some grilled chicken, steak or grilled/cooked veggies leftover from dinner? Use them on a salad. You can also make them into a healthy quesadilla in whole wheat tortillas with some black beans, plain non-fat Greek yogurt (for a healthy sour cream substitution) salsa and a few slices of avocado. That’s one of my favorite lunchtime treats.

If you have brown rice or quinoa left over from dinner, why not make it into a stir fry? By throwing in some frozen veggies, an egg, chicken or shrimp (if left over from dinner) and a little low sodium soy sauce — or my personal favorite substitution for soy sauce, coconut aminos — you have a healthy and quick fried rice. The possibilities are endless.

PORTION CONTROL

The whole “Supersize Me” craze ring a bell? If you ever get the opportunity, watch that documentary. It’s been out for a few years and is a super interesting and informative look at what eating a diet largely reliant on fast food can do to our bodies.

Portion sizes at many restaurants are often two to three times what an appropriate serving should be, and the same goes for double or triple the fat, calories and sodium you should be consuming in one sitting or even one day. Yikes!

We’ve covered appropriate serving sizes in this column before but in case you missed that one, you can find my past columns on www.greenevillesun.com under the “Greene County’s Accent” section.

You could also hop on over to www.chosemyplate.gov, by the United States Department of Agriculture. It not only simplifies appropriate serving sizes but also has recipes, how to eat on a budget and tips and tools on appropriate nutrition for little ones.

IDEAS TO SPARK YOUR IMAGINATION

Without further ado, here are some ideas to help spark your lunch imagination and turn that sad brown bag into a lunch you’ll look forward to. Most of these ideas are also family friendly.

Investing in a small cooler or insulated lunch bag and a small ice pack makes transporting your lunches so much easier. I haul mine everywhere with me. This comes in handy on days that I’m on the road and don’t have access to a fridge.

(Don’t let your kid be the only one with a rockin’ lunchbox. Mine’s Lilly Pulitzer. It makes me happy.)

  • Veggie/hummus sandwich
  • Pair 100% whole wheat bread with two tablespoons of hummus (I love Roots brand, made in our neighboring Asheville), throw on as many veggies as you want (I love cucumber, black olive slices and spinach) and you’ve got a healthy, interesting and meatless option.

  • DIY “Lunchables”
  • If you long for the days of Lunchables why not make your own? The sky’s the limit! Pair a serving of Triscuits with some Boar’s Head, Applegate or low sodium deli meat and cheese. Add carrots or your favorite veggies cut up and fruit.

    Did you love the pizza variety? Cut up a whole wheat pita, pair with low sodium spaghetti sauce, some turkey pepperoni, a serving of shredded, low fat cheese and some veggies for a DIY pizza Lunchable.

  • Veggie quesadilla
  • Make your own with a whole wheat tortilla, low fat shredded cheese, and a serving of rinsed low sodium black beans. Cook or lightly sauté in a touch of olive oil some veggies before cooking your quesadilla in skillet. Serve with blue corn tortilla chips. Non-fat Greek yogurt, salsa for dipping and a few slices of avocado make this a yummy and healthy option versus making a run for the border at Taco Bell.

  • Cheese and turkey roll ups
  • Pair a whole wheat tortilla, a few slices of turkey and a slice of low-fat cheese, organic when possible, to make this. Get creative and try a different mustard. Why not be brave and try a spicy or new-to-you flavor? Round out this meal with a serving of cut up fruit and veggies for color and health.

  • ”Easy Corn Relish Salad”
  • This recipe is brought to you by none other than our local University of Tennessee Extension office. If you haven’t visited our local farmer’s markets, do yourself a favor and go! You can find UT Extension at the Depot Street Farmer’s Market on Saturdays throughout the season. They not only have fun activities for the kids but also give away handy kitchen tools, yummy samples and recipes.

    The one I’m sharing below is one of my favorites. I love it as a lovely lunch and throw in some black beans to add fiber and protein. I pair it with a serving of fruit and pita chips for that ever-important crunch factor.

  • A healthy “PB&J”
  • I love a serving of almond butter and some low sugar jelly on whole wheat. Pair it with a serving of carrots to get those veggies in. I like to dip mine in the excess almond butter from my sammie.

    If almond butter isn’t your thing, try a healthy peanut butter.Smuckers Natural tops my list with only two ingredients, peanuts and salt, yet it still has the yummy, creamy pb goodness you crave.

    If you’re a crunchy pb fan (I sure am), Smuckers Natural crunchy version is the bomb. I also love Trader Joe’s crunchy almond butter, but I know that’s not always accessible since the closest locations are Knoxville or Asheville, North Carolina.

  • What about breakfast for lunch?
  • I love overnight oats. Pair them with a make-ahead mini egg omelet. You could also pair your protein (egg) with a whole wheat pancake or waffle, whole wheat muffin, or English muffin for breakfast for lunch goodness.

    UT Extension’s Corn Relish Salad

    Makes 5 cups

    4 large ears of corn, shucked

    1 cup chopped tomato

    1 cup chopped cucumber

    1/4 cup sliced green onions

    1/4 cup sugar

    ½ cup to a cup of rinsed low sodium black beans (something I like to add but not necessary or part of recipe)

    Cook corn for 5 minutes in a large pot of boiling water. Drain and immerse in ice water. Immediately drain and set aside.

    When cool, cut the kernels off the cob; scrape well. Add the tomato, cucumber and onions (I throw in the black beans here as well).

    In a small bowl or jar with a tight-fitting lid, combine the sugar, vinegar, salt and pepper. Add to corn mixture and toss to coat well.

    Serve immediately, or cover and refrigerate.

    Jessica Barnett is a Southwest Virginia girl married to a Greeneville native, a mom, personal trainer, certified fitness nutrition specialist, runner, herbivore and ice cream lover. To learn about working with Jessica, prospective clients may email jbarnett@1teamllc.com.