Eating out for lunch. For many of us, it's one of the biggest temptations we face at work every day because it's a tasty, convenient excuse to get out of the office and socialize (or not!) with our coworkers. But there are good reasons not to eat out for lunch too — like how long it takes, how bad it can be for the waistline, how much it costs (not to mention that it just makes it harder to reach your financial goals).
A couple years ago, Visa's 2013 Lunch Survey pegged the expense at about $10 per outing and “an average of $18 per week or $936 per year.” (The national average is 1.8 times per week according to the survey.) It might be even more today.
So if you're looking for ways to whittle down debt or boost your online high-yield savings account, packing a brown-bag lunch could be the frugal hack that does the trick.
Of course, your mileage may vary. Your brown-bag lunch might cost something like $3 to make, so you're likely to pocket something closer to $655 if you mirror the national average. If you eat out more often, say every day of the work week, your savings starts to look more like $1,820 a year.
But still, if you can save time and money as well as eat a healthier meal than you would eating out (since you control both ingredients and portion size), I say, “Bring it on! Brown-bagging lunch is not just for kids!”
The grown-up brown-bagging plan
If you're going to be successful at brown-bagging it, you'll want to find ways to make it interesting. You'll need to plan ahead and have the proper equipment to make your life easier. Otherwise, the process will take too much time and become frustrating in other ways. If you're serious about making this a habit instead of relying on willpower, you'll want to put thought into your menu and how you prepare lunch. So what do you need?
Step 1: The equipment
“Equipment” is probably an unnecessarily technical term for the items I'm about to list, but here goes….
- Food storage containers — If you're going to be preparing food at home, then having food storage containers in various sizes will ensure you have leak-proof transport that is also more environmentally friendly than plastic baggies or aluminum foil. I have some sandwich-sized plastic containers that can also be used for casseroles, some soup-sized containers that can also be used for pasta salad or other mixes, and some side-dish-sized containers for side dishes or desserts. There are bento-style containers that have divisions for different foods but are all one piece, and some containers are microwave-safe, which can be a plus. Choose what works for you.
- Lunch bag or box — Having a durable lunch bag or box will prevent your food from getting squashed, help you recognize your lunch among all the others in the office fridge, and potentially help regulate your food's temperature during a long commute. It also ensures you have a way to transport your empty food containers back home at the end of the day. Getting one with some personality is fun, and can help ensure you use it!
- Silverware, etc. — I keep a knife, spoon, and fork in my desk at work. I picked them up at a thrift store for practically nothing, and I wash them after lunch and stick them back in my desk. There never seems to be enough common silverware for everyone to eat lunch at once, and this way I never have to wait. You may also want your own microwave-safe bowl or plate, as well, if you'll be reheating items.
Step 2: What to cook?
Now that you've got what you need to pack, transport, and eat your lunch, you have to decide what to bring. Here are some foods I find easy to make and transport.
Soups, stews, and chili
I make soup in my slow-cooker on Sunday and this makes enough for lunches for the entire week. I use the Pinterest strategy to identify things that look tasty. My rotation of soups includes pumpkin and chickpea chili, cream of “chicken” (since I'm veggie, I use a meat substitute), a “loaded baked potato” soup, mulligatawny, and a traditional beef-style stew. Since I often end up eating the same soup for a week at a time, I try to make the soups themselves as different from one another as possible.
I tried those salad-in-a-jar things, and they did not work for me. I found them a pain to assemble, I do not care if other people find my lunches attractive, and no one tells you this but they are HARD to get back out of the jar. It is not simply a matter of upending the jar and having a perfectly constructed salad fall out onto your plate. The food gets wedged in pretty good and a fork doesn't really work well to get it out. I had to stick my hand in there, which got messy fast. No, thanks.
I am a fan of side salads, such as these two from my so easy, it's barely cooking post. I can scoop them right into my side-dish containers for transport and they are easy to eat.
Sometimes I make a heartier salad of couscous (a type of pasta) mixed with diced veggies (red onion, bell pepper, cucumber, dried cranberries, whatever catches your fancy) and sausage tossed in some olive oil and white balsamic vinegar. That goes in the large food container. Other times I do spaghetti, or pasta in pesto sauce topped with sun-dried tomatoes. Yum!
Casseroles are nice because, like soups, they're easy to cook on Sunday and then divide up for the entire week. They're also nice because they're extremely hearty and can include meat, vegetables, dairy, and starch in a single serving. Way to check several things off your dietary to-do list at once!
Other quick goodies
Other possibilities for lunches includes packing hummus or baba ghanoush with flatbread and a side of olives and tomatoes. Crackers, cheese and fruit also makes a quick and easy lunch.
Step 3: Assembling a complete lunch
Here are my usual components for a complete lunch:
- A piece of fruit
- A main dish (soup, pasta, or a casserole dish)
- A side salad
The main dish and side salad travel in food containers while the fruit and yogurt don't require anything additional. I have everything I need to eat the food (dishes, silverware) at the office, and my empty food containers travel back home with me at the end of the day in my lunch bag/box. I'm not a huge dessert person, so I'll often tuck a miniature chocolate candy into my lunch and have that with some tea (I keep my own tea at work, too, because I am picky, along with a novelty mug that makes me happy).
When lunch = sandwich
Deli meat and cheese, tuna, egg salad and PBJs are staples for lunch “sammies,” but you can spice it up a little with these ingredients to add variety:
- Use almond butter or multi-nut butter, and try the best jam you can afford.
- Adding crunch adds interest. It's easy to start a batch of sprouts, dice some celery or onions, or even add thinly sliced cucumbers to your sandwiches.
- Play around with the condiments: Use barbecue sauce on leftover chicken or roast beef, creamy horseradish on meat loaf. There's a host of different mustards to try too.
- Spread a hot-dog roll with peanut butter and add a whole banana for something fun!
- Cook and crumble some bacon. A little goes a long way on egg salad, turkey and cheese.
- Roasted and/or marinated vegetables are delicious on good bread.
- Changing the bread can make a big difference. Pita, pumpernickel, “everything” bagels or onion rolls make everyday fillings new again.
When making wraps, I find that putting the filling(s) in one or more side containers and folding a tortilla wrap in a sandwich container means I can assemble everything right before I eat it so it doesn't get soggy. Sandwiches travel better if you make them into paninis in the morning. However, while tasty, both of these options require a little more time in the morning. I'm more of a grab-and-go type.
3 ways to combat soggy sandwiches:
- For PBJs: Spread peanut butter on both slices, then put the jelly in between.
- For meat and cheese: Spread the mustard or mayo between the ingredients rather than on the bread.
- For home-made hoagies: Pack lettuce, tomato, onions and oil in a small container. If possible, bring a whole tomato and a small paring knife — freshly sliced tomatoes have more personality.
Apply your savings
But don't forget to make a plan for what to do with what you save. Will you apply your savings to a debt, beef up your retirement account, or help pay for holiday travel? Make sure that every dollar you save has a job; otherwise, you might not even notice your extra money being spent instead.
Hopefully these tips help you make bag lunches that are tasty and leave you with more money to put in your savings account. And if you like your colleagues, you can eat in the break room and answer everyone's questions about what recipe you used for your homemade goodness. For those of you looking to avoid your colleagues … maybe take a walk in the afternoon?
What are your brown-bag strategies — and how much do you figure you're saving? Share in the comments below!
Honey Smith has been reading GRS since at least 2008, right when she got her first â€œrealâ€ job and started getting serious about finances. She and her husband Jake are in their mid-30s and recently bought a home together. Currently, she manages graduate programs at a large state institution, and he is an attorney at a mid-sized firm.
Between them, they have paid off approximately $30,000 in consumer debt since she started writing for GRS in 2012. However, they still have nearly $200,000 of student loan debt, so she will continue to chronicle their debt-paydown journey. In addition to personal finance, Honey is interested in vegetarianism and cooking, gardening (despite living in the desert and having a black thumb), issues in higher education (including the student loan bubble and the slow death of tenure), and animal rights; however, her heart lies with fantasy novels, trashy TV and Skyrim.