Pack in better health from home

No one has the perfect lunch in the bag. But we can try to get as close to healthy as possible — especially when we pack our own lunch for work.

Sure, it takes time — but it doesn't have to take much. When you weigh the time it takes to make a salad or a healthy sandwich, or portion out some of dinner's leftovers into a container against the time it takes to hit the drive-thru or walk to your favorite local takeout joint, you may be surprised at how much time you're not saving by choosing the latter.

It's also typically cheaper to pack your own lunch. Being conscious of your bottom line ranks right behind being conscious of your bottom. And packing your lunch means you get to decide what mix of calories, fat, salt and sugar you're taking in at lunchtime.

If your idea of lunch is comfort food, fried food, fast food or convenience food, it may take some adjusting (and weaning), but you can do it. Little by little, change something. Pack fruit instead of cookies. Pack vegetables and low-fat dip instead of chips. Switch from white to whole wheat. Try brown rice instead of white. Pair your peanut butter with low-sugar jam instead of the full-sugar variety. Trade bacon and beef for lean turkey on a sandwich. Make a healthier tuna salad at home.

Don't let convention limit your creativity. Make a list of foods you like and think of how you can pair them up for a variety of healthy lunches. Plan ahead. Make bigger batches of food so you have guaranteed leftovers for lunch. Buy yourself a nice lunch bag. Go retro and find a metal lunch box that features your favorite childhood character. Have fun. And be true to yourself — don't pack sprouts and cucumbers on whole wheat if you're a meat and potatoes person. Find some middle healthy ground so you can unpack the joy — not disgust — at lunchtime.

What's your pleasure? Pick and pack it up

Here are several suggestions to start you on your way to mastering the art of packing a tasty (and healthy) lunch:

Embrace leftovers. If you're someone who can't stand to waste food, consider taking those last bits of dinner and packing them up for lunch. This assumes you're cooking relatively healthy for dinner and not eating fried cheese or prime rib every night. From chicken breasts to meatloaf, pasta to stir fry, take a little bit of what's left and make it lunch. Add an apple and some dark chocolate chips for dessert, if you're so inclined.

Go green. Provided you're not eating a head of iceberg lettuce for lunch (this is not a healthy green, people), salad can be a satisfying alternative to a sandwich. Dark, leafy greens provide the most nutrients and few calories. Romaine, spinach, arugula and red leaf all are great options, as is your grocery store's premixed, prewashed selection of greens (think dark green). Up your salad's antioxidant ante with some tomatoes, peppers, peas, carrots and beans. Throw in some legumes for an extra boost of fiber - garbanzos or black beans are lovely - and top off with some healthy fats, such as avocado slices, olive oil or almonds. Use cheese only as a garnish, and if topped with meat, go for grilled fish or poultry. As for dressing, use sparingly, and choose lower-fat or fat-free options when possible.

Heat things up. If packing a lunch with fresh, whole food is just too much work for you, try a microwave meal. We're not suggesting you go the hungry man route, though. Instead, find one of the many healthy versions available. Pay attention to salt, protein and fat - and, of course, the number of serving sizes per package (aim for one). The nice thing about these? It's one and done. No guesswork about how much you should eat - it's been measured out for you.

Skip the main dish. Who says lunch needs to be a salad or sandwich? Try some Greek yogurt with fresh fruit, some vegetable slices and hummus, or any combination of small plates that will satisfy your lunch-time hunger.

Wrap it up. Skip the bread and go for a low-fat, low-calorie, high-fiber wrap. Call it a tortilla, call it wrap - just call it lunch when it's filled with whatever good stuff you enjoy: chopped veggies and beans; grilled meat and veggies; hummus and veggies; tuna and veggies. The perfect solution for those who are bored with bread.

Have a liquid lunch. No, not that kind of liquid lunch. Soup lunch. And not creamy, cheesy, made-with-a-carton-of-half-and-half soup. Healthy soup. We're talking about broth-based soup with lots of vegetables and low in sodium. You can make your own, or find soups like these at the grocery store. Soup takes up precious space in your stomach, and cup for cup (or bowl for bowl), isn't as calorie-rich as a sandwich or microwave meal.

Pack a snack while you're at it. If you're packing lunch, and you're of the snacking stripe, then drop in some extra fruit or vegetable slices; some fresh fruit; or some whole grain crackers and low-fat cheese. We've got lots of healthy snack ideas that satisfy.