Back to school time often means back to hectic mornings and thrown together lunches. Many parents admit to feeling guilty about the unhealthy choices tossed into lunch boxes due to lack of time for better preparation.
Too often I see clients who are hard on themselves, expecting to be perfect with meal planning and food preparation. When they ultimately fail to be perfect, all attempts to be healthy are thrown out the window. This all or nothing kind of thinking trips up so many people!

I’ve spoken in previous blogs about how aiming for perfection or unrealistic goals can ultimately lead to low motivation and abandoning of trying for a “good enough” lifestyle. When it comes to lunches, either for kids or adults, sometimes aiming for a consistent “good enough” lunch is healthier than inconsistent perfection.

Usually, the more fruits and vegetables you bring to work or school, the more fruits and vegetables you will eat. If you don’t bring enough food for the day, you may end up buying snacks anyways and chances are they will be less healthy.
Using packaged or prepared foods may be useful for most families and this issue cannot be ignored. If you are able to avoid them- that’s great! If you believe that, because you cannot cook your own bread/granola bars/soup/etc that there is no point in trying to find health, prepared items- then think again! Reading food labels is invaluable in helping you find healthy, prepared alternatives to complement a balanced lunch.

Here are a few examples of prepared, ready to eat foods you can feel good about including in your lunches:
-cherry tomatoes, baby carrots, mini cucumbers, pre-cut and washed broccoli (no cutting required!)
-banana, oranges, mandarins, individual non-sweetened apple sauce, raisin boxes and prepared fruit packed in water (many new options are available nowadays that are tastier than the original fruit cocktail).
-yogurt (any kind will do)
-granola bars containing less than 10g of sugar, less than 10% bad fat and at least 2g of fibre (check out my blog post on granola bars for more information).
-juice boxes of unsweetened or no sugar added fruit juice (forget vitamin waters and sports drinks that are ultimately just water and sugar).

As for the actual main meal (lunch): balance is key to help stave off hunger in the early afternoon and keep energy levels high:
1. Include 1-2 servings of a whole grain food such as brown rice leftovers, whole grain bread for a sandwich or even whole grain crackers.
2. Adding 2 serving of vegetables will definitely contribute to the fibre content. This can be leftover veggies, raw veggies or a salad (or a mix of the two), vegetable juice (watch sodium levels and limit juice to replacing 1 serving of vegetable) or even vegetable soup.
3. Of course including a protein rich food is also important. If you have a hard time fitting fish into your diet, this is a good opportunity to do so without having to cook it. Canned salmon and tuna can be easily rinsed to eliminate some of the salt. Even canned seafood such as shrimp and mussels can be great additions to salads. Leftover meats as well as a boiled egg, beans or even nuts are good choices.
4. Including a healthy “sweet” end to the meal can help to curb cravings later on in the day as well as boost your calcium or fruit intake. Yogurt (if you don’t include a glass of milk with the meal) or a juicy, fresh fruit are your best bets.

Sometimes its necessary to rely on cafeteria food to get you through a tough day when you don’t have time to pack a lunch. Try being realistic with how often you will use the cafeteria and set a goal for yourself before the week begins to avoid hitting a slump mid week.

Practice these simple guidelines before tackling more time consuming tasks such as preparing extra food on the weekends for hot lunches during the week and turning leftovers into gourmet sandwiches. This way you can slowly but surely change your lifestyle to include more homemade lunches, save money and eat more healthy.