Back to school time is the perfect opportunity to save a little more money and eat a bit healthier. As you say goodbye to summer vacation and hello to a busy fall, take the time to pack a substantial lunch for the whole family. If extra money doesn’t convince you, the time saved and energy boost will.

Eating lunch out every day adds up quickly – on your waistline and in your wallet. Buying your sandwich out regularly can cost anywhere from $6 to $12, or $120 to $240 a month. In addition to the cost, chances are the lunch you’re buying is not the healthiest choice either. One stressful meeting can turn a well-intentioned salad into a quarter-pounder with fries in the blink of an eye.

Packing ahead of time is the best motivator to eating healthy and saving money at lunch. After all, you won’t let a delicious and nutritious meal go to waste over buying a lunch, would you? When preparing your lunch, emphasize at least one serving of vegetables (v) and lean protein (p). To add more substance, pack a serving or two of healthy fat (hf), whole grain (wg), low-fat dairy (d), and/or a piece of fruit (f). Try out some of these ideas below. If you are not sure what counts as a serving, note the abbreviation in parentheses (for example, a healthy fat is abbreviated as hf).

California Club Wrap

  • Throw some sliced, low sodium turkey breast (p), a few slices of avocado (f & v), romaine lettuce (v), and sliced tomato (v) into a whole grain tortilla (wg). To spice it up, sprinkle with red pepper flakes, cilantro, and a splash of lime. Enjoy with carrot sticks and hummus.

Robust Italian Salad

  • Chop up 3 huge handfuls of romaine (v) and red leaf lettuce (v). Add slices of tomato (v), red onion (v), and pepperoncini (v). Combine one tablespoon each of red wine vinegar, extra virgin olive oil (hf), and parmesan cheese (d) and pour over the salad. Add some chicken breast (p) for protein and a fresh peach (f) for dessert!

Caprese Pasta Salad

  • Combine ½ to 1 cup cooked whole grain rotini pasta (wg) with ½ Tbsp olive oil (hf), ½ tbsp. balsamic vinegar, ¼ c shredded mozzarella (d), and 1 handful of chopped cherry tomatoes (v). For bonus veggies, toss in some chopped cucumber, bell peppers, fresh greens, and red onion. Add in some grilled chicken or shrimp for extra protein.

pasta salad healthy lunches

These lunch options are not just for adults, they are kid-friendly too! Involve your child in making some of these dishes and allow them to experiment with the ingredients. Remove some of the added spices if needed. If you have a picky eater, ask them to choose what they want in their lunches. Fruit, cheese sticks, and healthy dips like hummus are always a hit with kids.

Sure, occasionally you may opt for lunch out with a co-worker. On a regular basis though, you need that healthy option right in front of you. After all, there is no need to eat out with these fast and flavorful options!

-Megan Lautz, MS, RDN, NASM-CPT