We can all agree that the meals you make yourself are probably the healthiest dishes you'll eat...or at least they have the potential to be the healthiest foods you eat. Why? Because you know exactly what's going into your food, down to every last ingredient. Jean Nick from Prevention.com argues that "the healthiest lunch you can eat is the one you make for yourself. It'll also save you a bundle over restaurant food, and the landfills will thank you for leaving all the disposable wrappers, bowls, and packaging behind. The problem is the food industry has convinced us that we can't make our own lunches without a whole bunch of "convenience" foods that are expensive and wasteful at best and, at worst, are full of unhealthy food additives and chemicals." Well, we'd have to agree, and luckily Jean shares her idea of the top 15 things not to pack and what to swap those ingredients or items for instead with ABC News.
Vinyl: Brightly colored and patterned plastic lunch bags and boxes may appeal to kids, but they often contain high levels of lead and other toxins and can be nearly impossible to clean (been there and tried that—yuck!).
Better: Choose a reusable, washable lunch sack made from either cotton or nylon, and toss it in the machine every weekend. Pack a small cloth napkin and reusable silverware, and you are ready to dine in style.
If you don't have access to a refrigerator at work or school, frozen ice packs inside a vinyl-free insulated bag might help keep perishables cold, but test it out first. Pack a jar of cold water in the bag along with the ice pack, seal it, and let it sit at room temperature for however many hours it will sit out between packing it and lunchtime. Then open the bag and take the water's temperature. If the water is warmer than about 45 degrees, test again with two frozen ice packs, or just plan on packing only room-temperature-safe foods.
Plastic: The average lunch contains a staggering amount of single-use plastic packaging. And reusable plastic containers, inexpensive and unbreakable though they may be, may contain hormone-disrupting chemicals like phthalates and BPA that you'd rather not rub against your food.
Better: Stock up on 4- and 8-ounce mason jelly jars! They cost only a few cents more than similar-size plastic containers (yet they last much longer) and are perfect for packing anything from applesauce to cubes of zucchini bread. They are as close to unbreakable as glass can get and use any standard canning lid—no more hunting through your cabinets for the right top. Stainless steel containers are another good and long-lasting alternative. Replace your zip-top bags with reusable versions that you can find on sites like ReUseIt.com, and fill those with dry snacks like nuts, crackers, grapes, and other grab-and-go lunchbox fillers. You'll saves lots of plastic packaging (and money) compared to prepackaged single servings. Add a nice reusable water bottle and perhaps a stainless thermos container for hot items, and you've got what it takes to start packing.
Pre-made Sandwiches: Trust the food industry to turn the humble sandwich into a processed food. Uncrustables and other premade sandwich-like products are loaded with high-fructose corn syrup, trans fats, preservatives, and other additives but short on real food. And most of the time, they cost more than their easy-to-make counterparts.
Better: It really isn't that difficult to make your own sandwiches, and you can even make your own "Uncrustables," sans nasty additives, that can be frozen ahead of time. Nut butters, chopped cooked meats, canned salmon, and grated cheese are all good freezable sandwich ingredients, according to the University of Nebraska Extension Service. Freeze your assembled sandwiches for about an hour before transferring them to a freezer-safe container, but add condiments and toppings like lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and pickles the day you eat it, since those can get limp and soggy in the freezer. To make a freezable PB&J, spread a little butter on the jelly side of your sandwich first to prevent the jam from soaking in and making your bread soggy.
"Lunchables": Don't get me started on Lunchables and other overpriced, over-packaged lunch fodder packed in plastic trays containing a few tidbits of this and that, most of it loaded with salt and preservatives. I even saw one shaped like Mickey Mouse the last time I was in the supermarket. Argh!
Better: Pack similar, healthier ingredients in small containers. Do a bunch at once and keep them on hand for quick packing, and let the eaters pick their own combos every evening or morning. Typical choices like cheese cubes or shreds, salsa or pizza sauce, whole-grain crackers, cut-up veggies and fruits, and real cooked meats are great, but the possibilities are endless. Take a cue from the Japanese and assemble your selections in a bento box.
Lunch Meat: Processed lunch meats tend to be high in sodium, nitrates, fats, and fat-soluble pesticides.
Better: You can save a bundle on lunch meant by spending a little time over the weekend roasting a chicken or a larger cut of beef. Shred it or slice it thin for easy sandwich-fixings. Or, for a fast, no-cook alternative, buy canned fish. Salmon is a great low-mercury swap for tuna, and sardines pack a mighty omega-3 punch. You can check out my recipes for easy canned-fish spreads here.
Crackers: Most crackers are made from refined flour, unhealthy fats, sugar, and artificial flavorings.
Better: Select crackers that list whole grain flours as the first ingredient or try making your own. It's easy, and for the price of a single box of crackers, you can buy a bag of flour that would make four to five boxes worth.
Cereal and Granola Bars: These are two healthy-sounding snacks that the food industry has turned into something closer to candy bars than to real food.
Better: Look for bars that contain at least 2 grams of fiber and less than 10 grams of sugar, or save money and make your own no-bake snack bars.
Want to get the rest of this no-buy list? Click here to be taken to the original story on ABC News.