Lunch hour spent in a restaurant can be a good break, but it comes with drawbacks. Finance and nutrition sciences experts at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) say dining out during the work day too often can be an expensive and unhealthy habit, but simple tips can make lunchtime healthier for the body, mind and bank account.
UAB Personal Finance Instructor Elizabeth Turnbull, M.B.A., explained that eating lunches out adds up.
"If you spend even just $6 per lunch five days per week, that is $120 every four weeks," Turnbull said. "Obviously, this number increases drastically if you are married and your spouse is doing the same thing."
Turnbull recommends setting an achievable goal.
"Instead of saying you will never eat out, which is pretty unrealistic, plan to eat lunch out no more than two days a week instead of five," Turnbull said. "This will help you better adhere to the plan, save money and develop better habits."
UAB Assistant Professor of Nutrition Sciences Beth Kitchin, Ph.D., R.D., added that dining out too often can also be unhealthy.
"Restaurant meals are typically high in calories, fat and sodium," said Kitchin. "It is possible for you to make good choices - but it's harder to make healthy choices when the temptation is staring at you."
Kitchin said packing a lunch can make healthier decisions easier.
"Bento style - where you pack several single portions in a box - offers a lot of opportunity to get creative and really use the resources you have on hand," Kitchin said. "Grab some of the leftover chicken from the night before. Add some carrot sticks, cheese and crackers - basically any finger food that travels well."
Kitchen recommends packing simple, well-rounded meals.
"Your packed lunch doesn't have to be fancy, just healthy and balanced; it should have a protein, a carbohydrate, fruits and vegetables, even a fat," she said.
Kitchin offered suggestions to make this even easier:
•Prepare foods on the weekend, so they are ready to grab in the mornings.
•Store a jar of peanut butter at work to dip lunch items in.
•Purchase already-prepared foods like grilled chicken, if time is a factor.
•Keep healthy frozen meals in the freezer at work, for when packing is not possible.
Kitchin cautioned against eating a packed lunch alone in front of a computer.
"You need to take a break from working, so get together with other people at work that bring lunch and make it social," Kitchin said. "This lets you take a mental break and gives you the opportunity to really enjoy your food."
Kitchin added that something sweet - a peppermint patty, for instance - is a great way to top off your meal.