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Published February 15, 2012, 11:30 PM

Brown bag basics: Packing lunch is healthy for your body and your piggy bank

FARGO - When the economy started its downward turn, Karen Skalicky, buyer for Creative Kitchen, noticed an upswing in the brown-bag business.

By: Sherri Richards, INFORUM

FARGO - When the economy started its downward turn, Karen Skalicky, buyer for Creative Kitchen, noticed an upswing in the brown-bag business.

Customers became interested in lunch bags again, as they had been when Skalicky started 20 years ago, and the industry responded with new products for people to make and bring their lunch to work.

“They’re really trying to come out with things that are going to keep your items fresher,” Skalicky says.

Creative Kitchen in West Acres Shopping Center now stocks insulated lunch bags that look like designer purses, as well as niche items, including the Banana Guard, a folding plastic case to keep the fruit from getting squashed.

These sorts of products, as well as some preparation hints and workplace etiquette tips, can make eating at the office easier than ever.

And the savings in doing so can add up.

A lunch savings calculator at FeedthePig.org shows swapping a $6.50 lunch out for a $3 bagged lunch saves $70 a month. After four years, at a 6 percent rate of return, you could have $3,793.

Here’s your complete guide to brown-bagging a less expensive, healthful lunch.

The Gear

Instead of an actual brown bag, an insulated lunch box is the preferred way to transport your noontime meal, Julie Garden-Robinson, North Dakota State University Extension food and nutrition specialist explains in a handout titled “Brown Baggin’ It.”

Insulated containers help keep foods at a safe temperature.

“A mishandled lunch can cause foodborne illness. Be especially careful about potentially hazardous foods such as meat, cream-based foods and mixtures of food,” Garden-Robinson writes.

Before choosing a lunch bag, Skalicky says people need to consider how much food they’ll be transporting, what kind, and what appliances are available to them at their workplace.

“Some people want a wide open bag, and some people want a divider,” she says. “When you get to work, can you put the bag right in the refrigerator? If not and you want to keep it your office or cubicle, then you’re going to need something that’s going to keep it colder longer,” such as a freezer pack.

A frozen juice box can also help keep cold foods cold, and still be ready to drink by lunchtime, Garden-Robinson says.

Creative Kitchen carries a wide variety of containers to put inside the lunch bag, including vacuum-sealed Thermoses and small containers to hold salad dressing.

Sealable glass containers are becoming more popular, Skalicky says, because they are freezer- and microwave-safe and free of Bisphenol-A. She’s seen a large demand from customers for portable drink and food containers without BPA, which is said to cause health problems.

Some kitchen gadgets can help make preparing an economical lunch easier, she says, such as vegetable peelers, julienne cutters, salad spinners, cheese knives and condiment spreaders.

Skalicky says she’s seen an increase in people buying in bulk, “rather than buying everything in little containers or in plastic bags,” and doing the prep work themselves.

“Not everybody wants to buy already prepared items from the grocery store,” Skalicky says.

The Grub

Brown-bagging isn’t just frugal, it’s better for your health, too, says Vicki Andvik, clinical nutrition manager for Essentia Health in Fargo.

“It’s going to be lower in fat, sodium and preservatives like MSG,” she says. “The thing when you’re packing your own lunch is you can control how much you put in there.”

For a brown-bag lunch, women should aim for 300 to 400 calories, and men should consume 400 to 500 calories, Andvik says. A typical restaurant meal contains 800 to 1,000 calories, she says, while some fast food meals can reach 1,500 calories.

It’s important to pack foods that contain complex carbohydrates, such as whole wheat breads, fruits and vegetables, Andvik says.

A common excuse for skipping the brown bag is not having enough time to pack it, Andvik says. She suggests packing lunch the night before.

“That way you won’t be tempted in the morning to say, ‘I’ll just grab something.’ It’s very easy to give yourself an out,” she says.

Andvik also suggests planning meals in advance and shopping and cooking on the weekends. A large pot of soup made on a Sunday can provide a week’s worth of lunches.

Other items Andvik brings to work include sandwiches, fresh fruit and vegetables, chicken salad or tuna salad on whole wheat crackers, leftover stir-fry and yogurt parfaits. A meal-replacement shake can be a good option on super busy days, but only occasionally, Andvik says.

Sandwiches can be made ahead of time and frozen, Garden-Robinson says. If placed in a lunch box early in the morning, they should thaw by lunchtime.

“Don’t overdo the butter or mayo because the bread may become soggy during thawing. Sandwiches containing fruit or vegetables generally don’t freeze well; pack ingredients such as lettuce and tomato separately,” Garden-Robinson writes.

Perishable lunch leftovers, such as meat sandwiches or soup, should be discarded, Garden-Robinson advises.

The Guidelines

There are no hard and fast etiquette rules for eating at the office, but a few common sense tips, says Jason McKeever, director of training and development at Eide Bailly in Fargo. He frequently leads dining etiquette presentations at colleges for the Fargo-Moorhead-West Fargo Chamber.

“Be aware of odor,” McKeever says, noting employees should avoid bothering their co-workers from a smell standpoint.

If eating at your desk, be careful that your food doesn’t endanger your computer or other equipment. “Soup is great, but it doesn’t always work well with your keyboard,” McKeever says.

“If you’re going to use the microwave, you have to clean it up,” he says. “You clean up at home, so it’s no different.”

Some workers may be hesitant to bring their own lunch as they’d miss the socializing that happens during restaurant lunches. McKeever says just eating at your desk can be a lost opportunity, but nothing says you have to be confined to your workstation. Most office environments have a break room, where people from many departments can gather around a common table.

“It’s not about separating yourself from the rest of the office,” he says. “You have to be more proactive and make the effort to get out.”