Smart ways to slash your weekday lunch tab

(MoneyWatch) Eating healthy -- let alone losing weight -- while putting in long days at the office isn't a piece of cake. Buying sandwiches, wraps and super-sized salads drenched in dressing at the corner cafe can add unwanted padding to your waistline as well as your credit card statement.

But you don't necessarily have to pack your lunch every day to eat better, especially since eating out with co-workers can be a stress reliever and networking opportunity. Toting a healthy midday meal just twice a week can help you save money and shed pounds. Recently I spoke with chef Debra Ponzek, founder and co-owner of Aux Delices, a group of Fairfield County, Conn.-based specialty food shops and high-end catering business, about her best tips for lunches you'll actually want to eat. Here is her expert advice on how to never suffer through another sad, soggy turkey sandwich again.

Take leftovers

There is no easier packed lunch than last night's dinner. But if you don't have a microwave at work or don't love the idea of eating the same thing twice in two days, make something new out of the old meal. For instance, a roast chicken can be served in its original form with a vegetable and starch for dinner, and then sliced and stuffed into a wrap the next day. Here is an adapted version of Ponzek's "perfect" roast chicken. (The more detailed recipe appears in her new book, "The Dinnertime Survival Cookbook: Delicious, Inspiring Meals for Busy Families.")

      Remove gizzards from one 3 1/2 pound chicken, lightly rinse the bird inside and out and pat dry. Position an oven rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees F. Rub the chicken with butter and season generously with salt and pepper. Put the chicken, breast side up, in a small roasting pan or dish, and roast for 1 hour.

      Upgrade your basics

      Regularly toting a standard PB&J to work can begin to feel like punishment pretty fast. "I spice up PB&Js by making peanut butter, banana and agave (or honey) on whole wheat. Or sometimes I'll combine almond butter and sliced pears, or peanut butter, Nutella and banana," said Ponzek. For her version of a tuna sandwich, she swaps heart-healthy avocado in for mayo, and her take on ham and cheese uses Prosciutto and Manchego cheese instead of the usual deli slices. If you put a little more thought into your sack lunch, you'll be a lot more likely to eat it happily.

      Use the right ingredients

      Ponzek chooses a heartier bread, like a baguette, for her catered meals. The result? No more soggy sandwiches. Another inside tip from her extensive experience is thinking beyond an ice pack to cool your meal when space is at a premium.

      "Sometimes I use a partially frozen small water bottle or a small yogurt to keep the other food cold. Brownies and blondies can even be packed frozen because they will thaw out by lunch while keeping the rest of the food cold," Ponzek said. 

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        Amy Levin-Epstein is a freelance writer who has been published in dozens of magazines (including Glamour, Self and Redbook), websites (including AOLHealth.com, Babble.com and Details.com) and newspapers (including The New York Post and the Boston Globe). To read more of her writing, visit AmyLevinEpstein.com.