Though technically January is the start of a new year, for many of us it’s back to school that really signifies change. Summer vacation is quickly becoming a fond memory as it’s time to get back to our usual routines. That means for the whole family it’s back to school and work, earlier bedtimes and, most importantly, packing lunches.

Sure, packing a lunch can sometimes be a grind. But on days when a case of the less-than-organized or lazies set in, instead of handing out cash for the cafeteria as the kids head for the bus stop,  just remind yourself of these brown-bag perks.

You figure the average lunch out costs at least $10. Multiply that by 5 days a week. Yikes! By packing your lunch, you can save approximately $2,500 a year. (Hello, all-inclusive vacation!) And when it comes to nutrients, a homemade lunch can keep the calories, heavy carbs and sodium low, the proteins and healthy fats high, and help you avoid the 3 p.m. cravings.

When it comes to packing a lunch, we like to break it down into the following categories: salads, sandwiches, leftovers and snacks. With a little pre-planning, all four have the potential to be super low maintenance with never-ending options for variety.

Sandwiches

Be condiment- and carb-conscious, and a sandwich can still be a healthy and satisfying lunch. Go ahead, load on lean proteins and veggies – just be mindful of the type of bread you’re using as your base. Smart choices are multigrain wraps, pitas, and lettuce wraps. Or if you love a hearty roll or bread, skip the top and go open-faced to cut the carbs in half.

When it comes to adding a little zest, ditch the high-calorie mayo and instead go for hummus or avocado – it’s nicknamed “nature’s butter” for a reason.

Salads

Believe it or not, salads are actually notorious fat-traps. If your salad currently includes toppings like bacon bits, cheese, breaded meats and creamy dressings, you might as well enjoy a cheeseburger deluxe at your favorite fast food joint.

Low-Calorie Salad Dressing - Soy Lime Vinaigrette

Any good old lettuce will do, but why not try all the new and exciting greens the produce section has to offer? Kale, spinach, dandelion and Swiss chard are just a few on the massive list of options. Next, pick your protein. Lean steak, tuna and grilled chicken are always good choices. Don’t hold back on the vegetable toppings, and seeds or raw nuts add a nice crunch. If you like a little sweet with your savory, don’t discount fruit. Watermelon and strawberries are always a lovely complement to a grilled salmon salad. Top with one of these simple, low-cal salad dressings, and you’ve got one healthy meal.

Leftovers

Did you know that every year, Americans throw out roughly 25% of the food they prepare? Tsk tsk! Instead, why not use last night’s rotisserie chicken, baked potato and corn on the cob as tomorrow’s lunch? As soon as kitchen clean-up begins, multi-task by having your plastic containers ready to go. Simple.

And there’s no reason why dinner like this Tuna Pasta Salad can’t make for a clean lunch in the days to follow. Just keep your portions smart and have a house salad on the side.

Sides and Snacks

Here is where things can really get creative, especially for the kids. If you have picky eaters in the house, try out Bento boxes. You can fit roughly six to eight items in there, and this promises lunchtime will never be boring. Fruit slices, raw veggies, cheese and crackers. And for the more adult palates, olives, cottage cheese, edamame, hard-boiled eggs, cold cuts and much more.

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