Be a healthy hero—not a nutritional zero—by opting to pack lunch for yourself and your children. Choosing to forego putting your kids in the cafeteria line or hitting the drive-through in favor of brown bagging it can help reduce your overall intake of sodium, saturated fat, refined grains and sugar. You’ll save money in the long run, too.GALLERY: Ten Healthy Brown Bag Lunches (For Kids and Adults)Most school lunches are processed foods prepared in ovens or fryers that lack whole grains and contribute a disproportionate amount of calories and sugar to children’s diets. “Eating out at lunch for the parents can mean a whopping dose of sodium. Most restaurant foods average about 1,000 mg. per dish. That puts mom and dad at risk for hypertension, heart disease and stroke,” says Kristin Kirkpatrick, R.D., YouBeauty Nutrition Advisor.Every packed lunch, whether for mom, dad or junior, Kirkpatrick says, should include these five health-conscious staples:

  1. 100-percent whole grains, such as whole wheat bread, pasta or brown rice
  2. One fruit
  3. One vegetable
  4. Protein, such as yogurt, string cheese or chicken breast
  5. Nuts

MORE: 15 Ways to Save on Healthy FoodsWhen preparing children’s lunches, Kirkpatrick advises parents to pay attention to portion control and to include a vegetable or a fruit, preferably both. “Americans’ consumption of fruits and veggies is dismal; getting one of them in at lunch time is a must,” she says. She also encourages parents to involve their children in the lunch-making process to ensure they like what’s being prepared.Don’t go overboard on portions; use these easy, per-serving measurements:

  • Fruits and veggies should be one handful.
  • Meat should be the size of a deck of cards.
  • Pasta should be about a cup.
  • Peanut butter should be the size of a ping-pong ball.

Kirkpatrick warns parents not to sabotage their family’s diet by toting processed foods like frozen dinners to work or school and to steer clear of 100-calorie snacks, which lack nutritional bang for your buck.Follow these general tips to pack a healthier lunch, and then check out our Healthy Brown Bag Lunches gallery for specific lunch ideas for both kids and adults.COLUMN: Pack a Beautiful Lunch for Your Kids