Toting ones lunch becoming a cheap, hip, healthy trend
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT) - Frugality is the new black. Throw in the terms "eco-friendly" and "healthier," and the result is a trifecta of hip.
"It's every penny counts," says Kevin Wehr, an assistant professor of sociology at California State University, Sacramento. "It's expensive to go out to eat, and when people have fewer dollars in their pockets, it's a cheap and easy way to reduce expenses."
American adults carried 8.5 billion lunches from home in 2007, the most recent figure available, according to the NPD Group consumer market research firm. More than half were eaten at work, mostly right there on top of desks. And although sandwiches are still the most-packed item _ 40 percent of lunches include them _ there are easy ways to keep lunch from being the old standby PB&J.
"There's no question Americans are carrying more lunches from their homes than they were at the beginning of this decade," says Harry Balzer, NPD Group vice president. "It's the cheapest way to feed ourselves."
Matt Robinson has been taking food to his job as a legislative analyst at the California Department of Fish & Game for the past four years.
"I started realizing that I was going to La Bou and spending $10 a day on a sandwich and chips, and that I can buy an entire week's worth of lunches (for the price of one day) if I just went to the store," the 30-year-old says.
Robinson keeps it interesting by switching up what he buys at the supermarket each week _ he'll choose different sandwich meats and cheeses, and he varies his bread to include pitas and wraps.
"I pack the exact same thing for an entire week," he says, rounding out the meal with fruit, vegetables and chips.
And while he saves money by bringing his own food, he also uses his regular lunch break to work out at the gym nearby.
Carrie Person of Roseville, Calif., packs a thermal-insulated case of food for her husband, a software salesman, every night before going to bed.
"He leaves for work really early," she explains.
Person, 33, varies yogurt flavors, sandwich meats, breads, even mustards, she says. Her husband used to be chastised for being a frugal foodie in the office, but he now looks like something of a trendsetter.
"His co-workers used to tease him about bringing his lunch," Person says. "Now, a lot of them are starting to do it as well."
Packing a lunch doesn't have to be a time-consuming process, says Deborah Hamilton, who writes the blog www.lunchinabox.net.
Hamilton sends a bento-box lunch to school with her son every day.
"I would like to say I have a master plan and my evil genius of bento kung fu tells me what to do, but really it's whatever I have in the house," she says. "I try not to spend more than 10 to 15 minutes on any one bento because I have a kid I'm getting ready in the morning."
A bento box is simply a reusable container that encourages the packing of a variety of foods with a basic five-color rule _ include at least five colors in each box. Hamilton likes using an assortment of containers she purchases for just a few dollars each because they automatically result in portion control.
If a box is packed using a general guideline of three parts carbohydrates to one part protein and two parts fruits and vegetables, the calories contained are usually relative to the size of the box _ so a 600-milliliter box carries about 600 calories, she says.
And there's nothing that cannot go into a bento, even though it has Japanese origins.
"I have culinary (attention deficit disorder), and I can't stick to one particular ethnic group or food," Hamilton says. "So I bop all over the map, based on what I'm making for dinner."
Leftovers often go inside, and Hamilton also keeps three bins _ one in the refrigerator, another in the freezer and a third in the pantry _ with items that can be thrown into a box. She calls these "gap-fillers."
The refrigerator bin includes single-serving cheeses, hard-boiled eggs, grapes, cherry tomatoes and vegetables that can be quickly microwaved in a mini-steamer. The freezer bin holds pre-made rice balls, leftovers frozen in reusable muffin cups, mini-frittatas, and mini-hamburgers she made with leftover dinner meat. And the pantry bin has puddings, nuts and crackers.
As far as food safety is concerned, her son does not have access to a microwave or refrigerator, so she includes frozen fruit or juice that serves as an ice pack but also melts by lunchtime.
"You can make it really Martha (Stewart) if you want to," she says. "But it really doesn't have to be."
LUNCHING FOR HEALTH AND ENVIRONMENT
Cristy Shauck can't remember the last time she ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch. The co-author of "The Healthy Lunchbox" (Small Steps Press, $12.95, 148 pages) repurposes leftovers so that chicken one night becomes chicken satay for lunch the following day, chicken salad on ...
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