Brown Bag It for a Healthier Lunch and Heftier Wallet

There simply aren’t enough hours in the day for most of us to shop for and prepare all three meals of day. Thus, eating out, particularly at lunch time, is often unavoidable. But there are so many arguments for packing your own lunch instead of hitting the local cafe for a bite, not the least of which is that it’s so much cheaper.

In this recent Canadian Business online blog, writer Matthew Halliday crunched the numbers and found that taking your lunch instead of eating out saves you enough for a full mortgage payment over the course of the year; or about $1500. That’s not chump change.

But, since I’m not an accountant and you’re probably not reading this blog for financial advice, allow me to put the health and nutrition two cents into the debate. Provided you’re at least somewhat cognizant of what you’re eating and try to stay on the healthier side of the line, a packed lunch is healthier than eating in a restaurant. No question.

The reason being is you have full control over what goes into your packed lunch, even to the extent that you can read ingredient labels on the stuff you aren’t making from scratch. With restaurant meals you simply don’t know what’s in there. Trans fats, MSG, sugar, aspartame, high fructose corn syrup, additives, preservatives; all of this stuff could be, and in most cases probably is, in that “healthy looking” meal at the restaurant.

Yes, they can include calorie counts on menus and display grams of fat and carbs and sodium and a whole host of other irrelevant information. And they also are obliged to tell you what’s in the food if you ask (but have you ever actually attempted this? Talk about mission impossible). But at the end of the day, you either have to be Sherlock Holmes, or you take what you get. And what you’re getting is probably a bunch of chemicals.

The President’s Cancer Panel recently revealed that there are over 80,000 chemicals that are understudied and for the most part under-regulated in our immediate environment. Any of these chemicals could be carcinogenic and many of them are in the foods served to us daily. Their recommendation, among other things, is to eat organic. The more we give up control of what we eat, the more exposure to these chemicals we risk.

Of course, some restaurants are going to be better than others in this respect. Generally, the more processed the food is you’re being served, the more crappy ingredients are going to be in there. Fast food is going to be the worst obviously. But this being said, I’ve worked in the kitchens of some of the better restaurants in Toronto and I never found one that wasn’t using hydrogenated oil in their deep fryer and at least some MSG-laden processed ingredients, usually powdered soup base, hot sauces or soy sauce. Unless the chef is making a concerted effort to avoid this stuff, which some are, it’s probably in your lunch somewhere.

Packing a lunch is a good step towards cleaning up our diets. You can’t control what you don’t prepare yourself. I’m not saying never eat out. As I mentioned, for some people it’s pretty much unavoidable in this day and age, but cutting down your eating out to once a week perhaps, is a step in the right direction.

The Healthy Foodie is Doug DiPasquale, Holistic Nutritionist and trained chef, living in Toronto. Doug specializes in private in-home holistic cooking lessons.