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Pack a Better Lunch with Healthy Substitutions

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Ditch fruit cups, in favor of whole fruit

You might think the lunches you pack for yourself and your family are healthier than the ones from a fast food restaurant or the school cafeteria, according to research from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), most lunch boxes are filled with too much sugar, salt, and saturated fat.

According to CIHR, shoppers have to be vigilant about checking nutrition labels because food manufacturers make it hard to figure out what to buy. Yogurt seems healthy, but what about glow-in-the-dark yogurt tubes? Fruit snacks sound like a good choice, but some contain high fructose corn syrup and a myriad of ingredients you can't even pronounce. Many of these food items are targeted at kids through food packaging, color, graphics, language, and the shapes and colors of the food.

Solution? Substitutions.

So what is a dedicated brown-bagger to do? Whether you pack a lunch for yourself or the kids, there are ways to pack better lunches. First, read the nutrition labels. Seemingly healthy foods might be junk food in disguise. Second, find healthier substitutions for foods that are high in sugar, salt, or saturated fat. The best brown bag lunches also include foods with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and protein, so check for those, as well. Look at a few brands to compare nutrition stats and make the best choice, and try the following healthy lunch ideas as substitutions for old favorites.

Main meal and protein

  • Instead of lunch meat, pack leftovers. Deli meat is highly processed and is often high in fat and sodium. A healthy lunch suggestion is to swap sliced meat for chicken or turkey you cooked yourself (think leftovers!) or water-packed canned tuna.
  • Check the labels on frozen meals. Sometimes there just isn't time to cook or even pack a sandwich. On those days, it's frozen meals to the rescue. Make sure your meal contains less than 13 grams of fat per serving and is low in sodium. A good place to start is with Amy's Kitchen Light in Sodium meals.
  • Speaking of sodium, check that can of veggie soup! Ditch canned cream soups for broth-based soups that are low in sodium.

Fruits and veggies

  • Instead of fruit cups, pack whole fruit. Fruit cups and applesauce are tricky. They sound healthy, but some are full of corn syrup. Pack whole fruit or make your own fruit salad. No time? Search for "no-sugar added" on the label of fruit cups.
  • Instead of sugary fruit snacks, pack all-fruit leather. This is another treat that can contain far more sugar than a piece of whole fruit. Again, read the labels, looking for all-natural fruit snacks without the added sugar.
  • For kids, instead of produce on the side, incorporate it into the main meal. The best lunches for kids are the ones they'll eat. Veggies do no good if they are thrown in the trash, so get sneaky. Add celery and diced carrots to tuna salad. Blend steamed broccoli and cauliflower into pasta sauce. Make pizza with veggies and pack leftovers for lunch the next day.


  • Instead of white bread, use whole-grain bread. Be sure that "whole wheat" is listed as the the first ingredient.
  • Instead of white pasta, try whole-grain. Pasta salads will have more fiber and protein if you swap wheat for white.


  • Instead of chips, pack cereal or veggie sticks. Chips are okay sometimes, but not daily. Pack a bag of dry cereal or cut-up vegetables for a crunchy, low-fat snack.
  • Instead of high-calorie cookies, pack low-cal treats. Chocolate chip cookies, like chips, are fine as an occasional treat. Otherwise, stick with low-calorie options like graham crackers, ginger snaps, healthy mini muffins or fig bars, and be sure to compare calorie counts of various brands.

For more substitution ideas, visit The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, published jointly every five years since 1980 by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture. The guidelines also provide great advice about how good dietary habits can promote health and lower risk for major chronic diseases.

About our Savvy Advisor: April Dykman

April Dykman writes about food, travel, personal finance, and natural health. Her popular "Build a Better Lunch" series offers inspiration and practical tips for preparing lunches that pack a nutritional punch!