Brown bag lunch strategies for grown-ups

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.

Young women out to lunch

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.

Salads

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.

Pasta

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

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
  • Yogurt
  • 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!

More about...Frugality, Food, Planning

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Emily
Emily
4 years ago

The jar salads are easy if you use wide-mouthed quart-size jars. A canning funnel helps too if you happen to have one.

Michael
Michael
4 years ago

Great tips! The other thing that (I believe) isn’t factored into the Lunch Survey is snacking – if, as you suggest, you take a substantial main and a couple of servings of fruit/yogurt/nuts, then you won’t be frequenting the expensive office vending machine or canteen. So many of my colleagues buy snacks every day that have a mark-up of 50%+ over the same item at a supermarket.

Michael
Michael
4 years ago

We all have different values (some value going out more than the money saved) but I have been taking my lunch to work for years and its amazing how much money you can save. Bringing my lunch is the easiest way to save a grand or two per year, and is USUALLY healthier. I do still eat out about once or twice a month as a treat but those are the exception not the rule (there are things my wife doesnt like and/or things that are not convenient to my house but are to work). I am pretty boring with… Read more »

CDubs
CDubs
4 years ago

Just want to share the best lunch bag I’ve found – http://www.packit.com/lunch-bags/freezable-lunch-bag.html.

What I love about it is that it keeps all my food cold enough that I don’t even need to use the fridge at work. This is great because it’s always so packed in there so I’m never comfortable that my stuff won’t get damaged or even lost! I’ve also heard horror stories about work fridges that stink; this’ll help steer clear of those too.

Dee
Dee
4 years ago

Use the freezer for more variety! I like using different kinds of breads, but after three days of rye I’m ready for a change. So now I keep the bread in the freezer and just pop out a couple of slices for my sandwich the next day. While I suppose I could keep five different kinds of bread in there and rotate between them, realistically it’s more like two. But it keeps me from feeling stuck with one kind! Ditto for leftovers. Like Honey, I cook extra when making soup, casseroles, etc. The only problem is, I don’t like to… Read more »

Lauren
Lauren
4 years ago

I’m a leftovers bringer, too, but because I live by myself, I tend to be able to add a lot of variety into that. When I cook dinner (3-4 times/week) it usually makes enough for 4 meals. So, I portion them out right away (I love the ziploc twisty top containers) and freeze some. Then, every few weeks, I eat out of my freezer for both meals and lunch and have a huge variety. It saves quite a lot of money, and also as a veggie, I always have something I know I can eat (rather than going somewhere with… Read more »

amanda
amanda
4 years ago
Reply to  Lauren

Like Dee and Lauren I freeze extra to use for lunch. I go thru cycles, sometimes making batches of lunch meals and filling that section of my freezer. Right now I’m on a salad kick and normally I assemble in the night before and put my salad dressing a Tupperware midget. I also have two snack bags of apples, one snack of carrots and single serving of hummus. I must say I feel smiley smug when coworkers (who purchased lunch out) smell mine and say “That smells great what is it?” I also enjoy cooking and think maybe the folks… Read more »

Saskia
Saskia
4 years ago

I do the salad-in-a-jar thing but I use 1 liter plastic containers – no problem getting the contents out, starch and protein items marinate in dressing during the morning, vegetables and lettuce stay fresh on top. The result in the bowl may not be pretty enough for magazine photography, but I’m going to mix it up anyway. Supposedly, the advantage of glass is that you can prepare several days’ worth of lunches in advance – but I wouldn’t do that anyway. So plastic is fine with me. I also freeze soups and stews in portion sized baggies (that I re-use… Read more »

Jess
Jess
4 years ago

I brought deli meat sandwiches for a long time (ham, turkey, salami – whatever happened to be on sale). I switched up to salads “my way” a couple of years ago: no lettuce, just bell pepper, cucumber, carrot, apple, raisins or dried cranberries, parmesan or romano cheese, and sunflower seeds. I keep a giant bottle of balsamic vinegar (or “nice” balsamic when I have it) at work so I always have dressing available. I used to be diligent about making my breakfast and lunch the night before but got lazy (and then pregnant, ha) so more recently I’ve been bringing… Read more »

Jeff
Jeff
4 years ago
Reply to  Jess

I can’t stand people who have a bunch of stuff rolling around loose in a plastic bag in the fridge, we have to push their stuff out of the way often to fit in our lunch bags. Those irregular shapes waste a lot of room and if you’re only bringing in one tiny little thing please stick to the upper shelves rather than wasting a lot of vertical space on the lower ones. Also that lunch bag in the fridge likely doesn’t contain only a lunch, especially if it goes back into the fridge after lunchtime. It’s a lot easier… Read more »

Sherry
Sherry
4 years ago
Reply to  Jeff

There’s a middle ground here, folks – freeze packs on top of the food in an insulated cooler bag eliminate the need for using the fridge at all. I have a cooler bag large enough to feed a small third-world country (I eat 5-6 small meals a day) and if I were to try to stick this bag in the fridge, it would take up way too much space. The fridge is for things we all leave here – salad dressings, condiments that need refrigeration, left-over things from picnics that are meant to be shared, etc.

Michelle
Michelle
4 years ago

I brought my lunch to work probably around 4/5 days each week. I work from home now but I still eat in as much as I can. It saves so much money!

emmers
emmers
4 years ago

I pack lunches, and I’ve found that Snapware containers work really well for not spilling any juicy leftovers in my lunch bags. If they’re not juicy, regular tupperware or pyrex is fine.

But the Snapware is great for soups, stews, and saucy dishes. You can buy glass or plastic snapware, and they often have either at Costco, where I got mine.

Beth
Beth
4 years ago

Great tips! I second having your own silverware at work. I hate plastic cutlery and I’m not a big fan of communal silverware when I see how poorly people clean!

One of my go-to meals is stir fry — I make enough for a few meals and package them up in pyrex right away. So easy to grab!

I also love those tiny tupperware containers that hold an ounce or two of something. Perfect if I need a little something sweet. Portion control!

emmers
emmers
4 years ago
Reply to  Beth

I sort of do a hybrid of this. I have some old, non matching silverware that I use for my work lunches. That way when I inevitably lose it sometimes, it’s not taking away from my matched set.

In the drawer, I have one caddy for my matching silverware, and basically a small plastic tray for a a heap of unmatched silverware (knives, forks, spoons intermixed). It doesn’t take much storage space, but it’s perfect for lunchtime grabbing!

Margot
Margot
4 years ago

Anyone out there who is in sales? I have yet to find a method to keep my food safely cool in the car as I go in and out of sales calls. I’m in Texas, so the interior of my car can get REALLY hot the majority of the year. Thoughts on best lunch carriers? Also, there’s no place to microwave any leftovers. Any good “thermos” type recommendations for when we do get some cool weather? Looking for all kinds of suggestions, because I don’t like fast food, and I would love some alternatives to buying something for lunch five… Read more »

Sherry
Sherry
4 years ago
Reply to  Margot

Hi Margot – I’m not in sales but I’m a trainer and there’s no fridge or microwave where I teach. That said (see my comment above) I have a good-sized insulated cooler bag and I use freeze packs (filled w/gel) that I put on top of my food and they do a good job of keeping the food fresh, including salads. For cooler months, any thermos with either glass or stainless steel liner is a good way to go – I avoid plastics even though they’re lighter because they do give off chemicals into the food and being the health… Read more »

emmers
emmers
4 years ago
Reply to  Margot

Hi Margot! Some of the insulated starbucks mugs are great (the double walled kind).

I find if I keep the top on and sealed, the contents stay hot (sometimes unbearably so!) for hours.

Laura
Laura
4 years ago

I’m always “on-the-go,” and don’t have time to prepare meals, even on weekends. I love the small frozen “lunch-size” meals at the grocery store that only cost about $2-3/each (“Eating Right,” Lean Cuisine,” “Weight Watchers,” etc.). These are “quick to heat up” at work in the microwave, low-calorie, tasty, well-proportioned, healthy meals, that fill me up and satisfy my hunger for the day. Easy to eat, and still have time to take a short walk afterwards.

Nicole
Nicole
4 years ago
Reply to  Laura

I like the microwaveable meals too and they are typically lower in calories than bringing a sandwich. Plus if I cook a meal that has leftovers those are usually relegated to dinner as I don’t mind having the same thing for dinner a few days in a row. I also like keeping a few of those Velveeta cups in my desk on those days where I’m too lazy to grab a lunch.

Sarah
Sarah
4 years ago

Great ideas — I love my warm thermos for taking soup, stew, leftovers. You can even take pot noodles, they cook in the hot water by lunch time 🙂

William Cowie
William Cowie
4 years ago

This is so good! When my wife and I started on our “big savings” campaign, work lunches were the very first thing we tackled. You see the difference right away… in the budget AND on the waistline. 🙂 Packing a lunch is also a great idea for flying these days. We recently took an anniversary trip to Puerto Rico, an all-day flying experience. We packed ourselves a PBJ lunch (PB on both sides, just like you said). As we approached the landing for our connecting flight and we finished our yummy sandwiches, the guy sitting next to my wife said… Read more »

Lorra
Lorra
4 years ago

I also have been taking my lunch for years. In addition, I keep some shelf stable products in my desk (canned soups, packs of crackers, tuna). I take my lunch everyday except Friday. If a friend calls and wants to go out, no fear, I’ll save that lunch until the next day. We have a “no food over the weekend policy” for the fridge so everything left gets thrown away. So I keep the shelf stable product to eat on Fridays. I keep a plate, a bowl and silverware at the office at all times.

Mike
Mike
4 years ago

Does your office have a microwave and a refrigerator with a freezer? Then why pack in every lunch? I am fortunate to work near a Whole Foods so ever Monday lunchtime I walk over there, buy 4 lbs of whichever frozen vegetables I want and a whole rotisserie chicken. I bring these back to my office kitchen, quarter the chicken, cook the vegetables in the microwave (in a pyrex that I keep in the kitchen) then consume with my quarter chicken. Easy, cheap, healthy, less time than buying and prepping food at home, and less time than going to get… Read more »

Nicole
Nicole
4 years ago

I don’t go out to lunch for one big reason – I’m too lazy. I don’t feel like getting in my car to drive somewhere and worry about getting back to work on time. I only take a half hour lunch these days, so it would be impossible anyway, but even when I took an hour I didn’t feel like wasting half my lunch driving around. It wastes gas too. Sometimes being lazy can save you money!

Jessica
Jessica
4 years ago

Some great tips here. I started bringing my own lunch to work when I started dieting about 6 months ago as I find it too difficult to count my calories effectively otherwise. There is also the added benefit of saving close to $1,000/year!

Katie
Katie
4 years ago

I brown bag it as often as possible. I am a social worker and while I make enough to make ends meet, lunches out are a luxury I cannot afford at the moment. I actually enjoy brown bagging though… I don’t have to get in my car and go somewhere, wait for it to be prepared, drive back to the office, etc. I take a 30 minute lunch and with brown bagging I can go down to the very nice employee break room my agency provides us (or even sit outside at a picnic table), look out the window, read,… Read more »

Stephen
Stephen
4 years ago

The toughest part for a lot of people, especially people who are traveling a lot or may otherwise not have access to a fridge or microwave, is what to eat within those limitations. I’m a HUGE fan of eating healthy, and these are my go-to items when I know I will not have refrigeration or a way to cook food- – Packets of tuna fish– so easy to tear open and eat with a plastic fork – Packet of cooked lentils from Trader Joes or Costco– same thing, tear open and eat with a plastic spoon – Trail mix –… Read more »

Andrew
Andrew
4 years ago

I’ve weighed the options and decided to make the unpopular (in the PF community) decision to eat out for lunch. Why? Time value of money. I calculated how long It would take me to create equivalent lunches and found that I’d be better off just doing an hour or so of overtime, instead of meal prep, in order to cover this cost and end up with less time used for more gain.

Peter Brülls
Peter Brülls
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew

This is, of course, a valid opinion, especially when you value hot dishes. Personally, after the years I’ve become somewhat disillusioned. The cheaper options to eat out are just cheap variations of the same, otherwise it becomes rather costly. But it’s still more or the less “same old, same old”. And while I don’t cook hundreds of different recipes for myself, I have far more control over my home cooking than daily options in the restaurants or cantina. So I just spend 20, 25 minuets each Sunday to prepare a mixed salads, mostly chopped vegetables, tofu, boiled egg. Plus some… Read more »

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