Are you the person who eats out five times per week during your lunch break? If so, you're likely spending somewhere between $35 and $75 per week. When you compound this over a year, it means that you could be spending as much as $4,000 of your annual salary on food. Even worse, it's probably not that good for you!

The Importance of Packing a Healthy Lunch

What you eat has a direct impact on how you feel throughout the day. If you consume a bunch of processed foods and refined sugars, you'll feel sluggish and bloated. On the other hand, if you eat a bunch of fresh fruits and natural ingredients, you'll feel much sharper and more energized. We'd all prefer the latter.

There's nothing wrong with going out to eat--and there are plenty of healthy options at many restaurants--but you shouldn't make it a habit. It requires more of your time, costs more money, and limits your ability to control what you're eating.

By packing a lunch, you get to decide exactly what you eat, which keeps you accountable and helps you avoid sudden cravings for unhealthy alternatives. Let's be honest. You may intend to pick up a salad from the burger joint down the street, but the smell of fries is enough to derail even the most disciplined person's best intentions.

Five Tips for Planning and Packing

Packing a lunch is almost always cheaper and healthier than grabbing a to-go meal from a restaurant down the street. However, you have to be strategic and smart about how, when, and what you're packing. Here are some tips to keep in mind as you ditch the fast food and become a brown bag connoisseur.

1. Be Realistic About What You'll Eat

The biggest mistake that people make when packing a lunch from home is that they aren't realistic with what they include in their little paper bag. No matter how hard you try, you aren't going to force yourself successfully to eat meals that you don't enjoy. If you pack beets, carrots, and tofu but don't actually like beets, carrots, and tofu, you're probably going to toss the lunch in the trash, and head to McDonald's.

The key is to pack lunches to which you'll look forward. You want a lunch that makes you excited for your break. Prepare a healthy lunch, but don't be afraid to include a treat for dessert.

2. Pack Some Snacks

Do you find yourself unbearably sleepy early in the afternoon? For many people, this is the result of consuming too much food for lunch. If this sounds familiar, pack your lunch in a manner that's conducive to snacking. By packing small, healthy snacks, you can spread your food out throughout the day and avoid one big, gluttonous sitting.

An apple makes for a great mid-morning or early-afternoon snack. They contain high levels of nutrients--including phytochemicals--that are great for your heart and immune system. The healthy sugar content can also give you a needed boost. Almonds make for another great snack. Not only are they tasty, but also just an ounce (roughly 24 almonds) can fight off hunger and provide heart-healthy fats.

3. Plan Ahead

Nobody likes packing a lunch the night before, or morning of, work. By planning ahead, you can make this a much more painless and realistic practice. Some people prefer to make a few dishes on Sunday and then create portions for the rest of the week. This removes the work associated with packing a lunch and makes it easier to stay on track.

4. Set Your Priorities

Whether you're eating out or packing a lunch, sometimes it's hard to get your priorities in line. Your head says one thing, your taste buds say another, and your wallet's screaming something totally different. What do you listen to?

Start by making health the number one priority. When you're shopping at the grocery store and making meals, "healthy" is the code word. This means that fresh foods, fruits, and veggies take priority over heavily processed alternatives.

Next, you should focus on budget. Since saving money is the second reason why you're packing a lunch, you need to make sure that you're actually saving money. Look for deals, and buy in bulk if you have to. And, when you're at the checkout line, remember how much money you're saving versus what you would have spent at various restaurants that week.

Taste is the third priority. This doesn't mean that you have to pack nasty meals, but it's important to remember that health and budget come first. The good news is that homemade almost always tastes better than pre-packaged.

5. Take a Day Off

You don't want to be the person who's always eating at his or her desk when everyone else is going out together for group lunches. It's okay to splurge every now and then. Eat out a couple of times per month. Just make sure that your first priority is to pack lunch from home.

Healthy Meals Worth Trying

So, what do healthy meals look like? Do you have to eat cold sandwiches and fruit for every meal? Certainly not! The meals that you pack are only limited by your creativity. Here are some healthy ones that you may want to try:

  • Buffalo chicken wrap. Want to spice things up and add a little flavor to a traditional wrap? This buffalo chicken wrap is full of flavor, but it's also packed with a lot of healthy and fresh ingredients. Add some carrots on the side, and you've got an easy meal that can be prepared in advance.
  • Zesty shrimp and black bean salad.If you're going to pack a salad, it needs to have some substance. Too many leafy greens and not enough ingredients will leave you with a mushy, tasteless mess. This shrimp and black bean salad is perfect. It's loaded with tomatoes, cilantro, peppers, shrimp, and beans. Throw in some fresh corn tortillas for an added treat.
  • Crockpot soups. Once you start making a habit of packing your own lunches, you'll come to love the convenience of crockpot recipes--and soup recipes in particular. Just throw in the ingredients, turn on the crockpot, and let these meals simmer for a few hours. Then, you can ladle the soup into a few Tupperware containers, and you have your lunch for the week.

As you can see, there are plenty of healthy options for packing a lunch. Get the image of cold sandwiches and bland veggies out of your mind. With the right recipes and some creativity, you can pack meals to which you'll actually look forward.

Take Care of Your Body (and Wallet)

A single meal out may not seem like a big deal. But, when you make a habit of eating unhealthy fast food meals 10, 15, or 20 times per month, something has to give. Not only is this unhealthy, but it's also extremely costly.

It's time to take care of your body and your wallet by packing healthy lunches. While it'll take a little more time and planning, you'll feel better at the end of the day. Keep these tips and recipes in mind, and you'll be an expert in no time at all!