University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension in Lancaster County

Safe and Healthy Sack Lunches

Compiled (1995) by Rhonda Schueller, Extension Assistant and Alice Henneman, M.S., R.D., Extension Educator 
Adapted from "Making Bag Lunches, Snacks and Desserts Using the Dietary Guidelines,"
USDA Human Nutrition Information Service, Home and Garden Bulletin No. 232-9

What are your reasons for carrying a lunch to work or school? Is it for convenience, necessity, or just to save money? Whatever the reason, the following tips will help you keep your brown bag lunch in step with the Dietary Guidelines (developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) Even if you're not a "brown bagger," you can use this approach for other activities too, like picnics or hikes. 

• Use a variety of foods from the major food groups. 

• Keep calories in mind. Fats and sugars can quickly add more calories than you need. Lunchtime beverages and desserts are two possible sources of extra sugars and fats. 

• Use only small amounts of high-fat foods, such as butter, margarine, mayonnaise, sour cream, and fatty meats. 

• Include foods with dietary fiber, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain breads. 

• Choose low-sodium foods , such as fresh fruits and vegetables and lean meat and poultry, most often. 

Following the Dietary Guidelines doesn't mean eliminating all your favorite lunchtime foods but it does mean balancing the foods that are higher in fat, sugars, or sodium with other foods that contain less of these components.


Are sandwiches the mainstay of your bag lunches? If so, add some variety by using these ideas for breads, and add-ons:


Enriched and whole-grain breads most of which are low in fat provide you with energy, vitamins and iron. For extra dietary fiber, choose whole-grain breads frequently. 

Try these kinds:

Whole wheat French Raisin Rye
Boston brown Herb Potato Cinnamon
Multi-grain Cheese Oatmeal Pumpernickel
Onion Bran    

Try these shapes:

Pita (pocket) English muffin Bagel Kaiser roll
Hard roll Crackers Frankfurter roll Sub roll
Hamburger roll Tortillas Biscuit Rice cakes

When choosing breads, keep in mind:

    • Many breads are now made with whole-grains. Choose them often for more fiber. To be sure what you buy is a whole-grain bread, read the label carefully. Not all dark breads are whole-grain. 

    • Crackers, biscuits, and other grain products can be high in sodium or fat. Check nutrition labels to find those that are lower in fat and sodium. 

    • Many breads come in a variety of sizes to suit your appetite. Snack-size pumper-nickel and small pita pockets are two possible choices if you're not in the mood for a bigger serving of bread.


Keep calories, fat, and sodium in mind when you choose condiments, spreads, and other foods that you add to sandwiches. Check the nutrition label if you don't know what the levels are in commercial products. Instead of salad dressing, mayonnaise, or butter, try these lowfat, low-sodium add-ons for moistness, flavor, and variety: (To prevent a soggy sandwich, pack these items in a separate container or bag and add them to your sandwich at lunchtime.)
    • Lettuce leaves or other salad greens
    • Sliced tomatoes
    • Sliced apples
    • Bean or alfalfa sprouts
    • Drained crushed pineapple
    • Lowfat cottage cheese mixed in a blender
    • Sliced cucumber
    • Plain lowfat yogurt
    • Sliced onion
    • Sliced zucchini
    • Sliced radishes
    • Shredded carrots
    • Spinach leaves


Tired of sandwiches? Try some of these cold foods:
    • Raw vegetable salad with strips of lean cooked meat or poultry. 

    • Fresh fruits and cheese. 

    • Brown rice salad with cubes of roast or stewed chicken without skin. 

    • Tuna fish salad (try reduced sodium, water-packed tuna). 

    • Vegetables marinated in Italian or herb dressing with a few cubes of Swiss cheese on the side. (Swiss cheese is lower in sodium than many other cheeses.)


If a hot lunch is more to your liking, or for a change from sandwich fare, try some of these bring-it-from-home suggestions.


Use a wide-mouth vacuum bottle to carry a variety of foods. For example, try:
    • Soup, chowder, or stew made with lean meat, poultry, fish, and/or lowfat dairy products. 

    • Chili or baked beans. Cooked dry beans add starch and fiber; season with onions and herbs and spices to enhance flavor without a lot of salt. 

    • A casserole that combines lean meat, poultry, fish, tofu, or dry beans or peas with whole-grain pasta or rice. (Limit fat in the sauce and go easy on salty ingredients, such as soy sauce and vegetables canned with salt.)


Single servings of food that are left over from a meal, or planned leftovers, can be refrigerated and reheated the next day for lunch. For easy reheating at work, store leftovers in a container that can go in a microwave. Leftovers can also be frozen in a lunch-size freezer container and used later (for best quality, use within three to four months). This is a good way to avoid wasting small amounts of food.


Lunch is more than the sandwich or hot dish you carry in your brown bag. It also includes the fruits, vegetables, snack-type foods, beverages, and desserts that go in the bag. The suggestions that follow will help you choose foods that fit into Dietary Guidelines-style eating.


Fresh, crisp, raw vegetables and fruits can add crunch to your lunch! They are low in fat, sodium, and calories and also supply important vitamins (especially vitamins A and C), minerals, energy, and fiber. A good lunch will include at least one serving of a vegetable or fruit. Try any of these raw vegetables and fruits as brown bag fare: 


  • Cauliflower or broccoli florets
  • Cucumber or zucchini slices
  • Cherry tomatoes or tomato slices
  • Green pepper strips
  • Carrot and celery sticks
  • Vegetable salads of all types (pack dressing in a separate container)
Apricots Cherries Grapes Melon wedges
Nectarines Pears Bananas Oranges
Peaches Tangerines Plums  


Snacks and desserts can really perk up your daily lunch, but they can be high in fat, sodium, sugars, and calories and low in fiber. With a bit of planning ahead and the help of these ideas, you can make guidelines-style treats for brown bag lunches. 

Make these basics a part of lunch or a coffee-break snack:

    • fresh fruits, such as melon, grapes, apples. 

    • lower fat cookies and crackers (melba toast, crisp bread, fig bars, graham crackers, gingersnaps, or unsalted pretzels). 

    • Substitute plain popcorn for potato, corn, or tortilla chips. 

    • Instead of buying sweets, make your own cookies, quick breads, muffins or cupcakes with less sugar and fat. Use whole-grain flours and oatmeal; add shredded vegetables or chopped dried fruits for a nutrient and fiber bonus. Freeze some homemade baked products so you have a bag-lunch supply when needed.


Beverages not only quench your thirst, but some add important nutrients to your lunch. Therefore, consider not only taste but also nutrient content when you choose a beverage for your bag lunch.
    • Lowfat or skim milk supplies protein, calcium, riboflavin, and energy (calories). 

    • Fruit juices that are 100 percent juice supply vitamins, minerals, and energy. 

    • Vegetable juices also supply important nutrients, but be aware that the sodium content may be high. Balance these with low-sodium foods. 

    • Fruit drinks, punches, and ades are often fortified with nutrients. Sugars may also be very high in these drinks, but their fruit juice content may be very low. Fruit-flavored drinks may contain no fruit juice at all. Twelve ounces of fruit drink, ade, or punch often contain corn syrup and other sugars equal to about 12 teaspoons of table sugar. 

    • Beverages labeled "orange soda" or "grape soda" are soft drinks and may not contain any fruit juice.

    • Regular soft drinks supply mainly energy since they contain large amounts of sugars. For example, 12 ounces of cola contain corn syrup and other sugars equal to about 9 teaspoons of table sugar. 

    • Diet soda, black coffee and plain tea have few calories or nutrients.


Follow these food safety tips when carrying your lunch.


Foods such as hard-cooked eggs, meat, milk and milk products, and salads containing them should be refrigerated until just before leaving home. It's important to keep cold foods cold; that is, at refrigerator temperature. 

Use any of these suggestions to help keep your brown bag lunch cold until lunchtime.

    • Use a vacuum bottle for foods that need to be kept coldmilk and yogurt, for example. Chill vacuum bottle in refrigerator before adding cold foods. 

    • Carry already chilled foods in an insulated lunch box or bag. An insulated lunch box will keep foods cold much longer than a paper bag. Include an ice pack or gel freezer pack. 

    • Use chilled ingredients for making sandwiches. 

    • If possible, put your lunch in a refrigerator until lunchtime. Some sandwich fillings made with meat, poultry, fish, or egg can spoil if kept at room temperature for more than two hours. Be aware that the cold refrigerator air doesn't reach foods in an insulated lunch box or bag, so foods need to be removed or the box or bag opened.


Remember to practice food safety when using a vacuum bottle. KEEP HOT FOODS ABOVE 140° F (At 140° F, food is hot to the touch.)
    • Use a stainless steel or glass-lined vacuum bottle rather than a plastic-lined one for hotter and safer food at lunchtime. 

    • Follow vacuum bottle instructions for appropriate temperatures of foods going into the vacuum bottle. 

    • Preheat a vacuum bottlefill with clean hot water and let stand a minute or two. Empty and fill promptly with hot food.

Recipe Ideas

Brown Bag Chef's Salad

1/3 cup lettuce, torn into pieces
2 broccoli florets
1/3 cup spinach, torn into pieces
2 tomato wedges
1/4 cup kidney beans, cooked, drained (see NOTE)
1/2 ounce (2 tablespoons) Swiss cheese strips
2 tablespoons carrots, shredded
1 ounce (1/4 cup) chicken, cooked, cut in strips
2 green pepper rings
2 radishes, sliced
1-1/2 tablespoons low-calorie Italian dressing 

Toss spinach and lettuce pieces together in serving container. Mix remaining vegetables and place on greens. Top with cheese and chicken strips; cover tightly. Chill. Put dressing in separate container. Pour dressing over salad just before eating. One serving. 

NOTE: Salad should be carried in an insulated container or refrigerated at work until lunchtime. Canned kidney beans can be used in place of drained home cooked kidney beans. Sodium will be 406 milligrams. Leftover beans can be frozen for use another time. 

Per serving:

    Cholesterol—137 milligrams
    Total fat—8 grams
    Sodium—257 milligrams
    Saturated fatty acids—3 grams

Chicken Salad Sandwich

2 tablespoons salad dressing, mayonnaise-type
1 cup chicken, without skin, cooked, chopped
1/8 teaspoon onion powder
1/2 cup celery, chopped
1/8 teaspoon dried tarragon, crushed
8 slices whole-wheat bread
Dash garlic powder
4 lettuce leaves 

Mix salad dressing and seasonings in a bowl. Stir in chicken and celery. Mix well. Spread about cup of the filling on each of four bread slices. Top with lettuce and remaining bread. Four servings, one sandwich each. 

Per serving:

    Cholesterol—133 milligrams
    Total fat—6 grams
    Sodium—387 milligrams
    Saturated fatty acids—1 gram

Variation—Beef Salad Sandwich

    Use 1 cup chopped, cooked lean beef in place of chicken. 

    Per serving:

      Cholesterol—32 milligrams
      Total fat—7grams
      Sodium—385 milligrams
      Saturated fatty acids—2 grams

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