Did you know that May 25th is National Brown-Bag-It day? If not, I’m betting you’re not alone. National Brown-Bag-It Day is a simple observance reminding us that there is a more affordable and nutritious option than fast food to enjoy at lunchtime. It is also an occasion to celebrate and challenge our creativity and thriftiness! In my opinion, packing lunches has become a lost art. On a regular basis, I watch as friends and colleagues spend ten dollars or more on mid-day restaurant meals that are less nutritious than what could be brought from home. But for the nearly two million Georgians who live with food insecurity, paying such a premium at gourmet delis is simply not an option. Ten dollars is the equivalent of nearly three days’ SNAP (food stamps) benefits for an individual; the average benefit for one Georgian in 2014 was $129 per month, and SNAP dollars cannot be used at restaurants.
Brown bagging it can save you more than just money! Preparing meals at home can provide you with much more healthy, nourishing food to enjoy on the go and at work. Restaurant food can be packed with saturated fat, calories, added sugars, and - most especially - salt. Two-thirds of Atlanta Community Food Bank clients are dealing with high blood pressure in addition to food insecurity, and it is important to enjoy meals that are lower in both cost and sodium. Preparing food at home is one easy way to achieve both.
For starters, think outside the lunchbox! Leftovers from last night’s dinner can make a great packed lunch (just be sure to keep them cooled to avoid foodborne illness!). When you are shopping for groceries, aim for items that have a variety of possible uses. For example, last night’s baked bread loaf can be repurposed into thick slices for a sandwich. The sauteed vegetables you serve a side dish at tonight’s dinner could be incorporated into a stir-fry or pasta salad for tomorrow’s lunch. Remember - the sky's the limit when it comes to brown-bagging possibilities. Nearly any dinner dishes that you love can be stored, reheated, and enjoyed the next day. To save yourself even more time on hectic weekdays, consider “batch cooking” (making several different recipes - or large quantities of one recipe - at once) on weekends or other days when you have a less demanding schedule.
If you enjoy the more traditional cold sandwich for your lunches, you can save time by preparing large batches at once and freezing them for later (to avoid a soggy cold cut, see these tips on freezing sandwiches without sacrificing quality). And instead of purchasing the pricey, pre-portioned bags of your favorite snacks, try buying them in bulk sizes and portioning them into containers or plastic bags yourself - you’ll save money and time during your morning rush. Always look at the unit price when comparing different sizes of your favorite items to ensure you’re getting the best deal possible. For more information on budget-friendly menu planning and nutrition, visit the USDA Resource Library for some great ideas to kick-start your own brown-bagging adventure!
--Amanda Fleming, Coordinated Program, Georgia State University