And then there's lunch. To help demonstrate what an impact a ten-minute change can have on your midday meal, I asked six staff members at this magazine to track their cafeteria meals and snacks for a couple of days, and then to try bringing their food from home for two days. Although this group tended to make smart choices—and were helped considerably by the healthy fare available in their cafeteria—they still managed to make a big improvement in their diet when they brown-bagged their lunches. While only a couple of volunteers ate fewer calories, they got 25 percent more fiber on average and boosted consumption of healthy fats and vital nutrients like calcium.
"The variety at the cafeteria confuses me," says senior editor Suzan Colón, who was one of the volunteers to cut calories—200—by packing her meal. "And they only have large plates, so it's easy to overdo it. The first morning I brought lunch, I was in a tremendous rush and just grabbed the first few things I saw—some leftover spaghetti and salad. When lunch rolled around, it was really freeing not to have to make any choices." Assistant editor Dorothea Hunter was reluctant to bring her lunch because it seemed like too much hassle. "But it wasn't at all," she says. She made sandwiches or brought in leftovers. "I love saving the money, and now I'm trying to pack at least twice a week."
My experience with patients over the past 20 years tells me that if you switch from typical cafeteria fare or fast food to a meal from home or a snack pack (that's what I bring to work), you will derive even greater benefit than the O staff. Like Colón and Hunter, you can use leftovers from a delicious dinner you made the evening before. Or make a sandwich of sliced turkey with lettuce, tomato, and mustard on whole wheat bread; it will take at most a few minutes to make, cost less than most fast food, and will likely save you a few hundred calories, many milligrams of sodium, and several grams of saturated and even trans fat. And you'll be getting—as with breakfast—a dose of many valuable nutrients, including lean protein and fiber.
If you're like me and prefer to graze during the day, you can skip the sandwich and go for a snack pack. Mine typically contains some fresh fruit, nuts or seeds, nonfat yogurt, dried fruit, perhaps some whole grain bread, and maybe some fresh veggies like diced peppers or baby carrots—finger food, in other words, that I can munch on whenever I am so inclined. Preparing this kind of snack pack is an investment of roughly two minutes a day.
Experiment to find what works best for you. My feeling is that you should approach your meals the way you approach the weather. If it looks like rain, take an umbrella; you can defend yourself against an inclement food climate—fast food restaurants, processed food, vending machines—by packing your lunch, preparing your dinner, and eating a smart breakfast. A ten-minute time investment here and there is all it takes.