Thinking Outside the Lunchbox: Brown-Bagging Without Boredom

A few years ago I challenged MSN Money readers to carry their lunches two to three times a week for a month, and then figure out what they'd saved. The most common reaction? Shock. The most common refrain? “I just never added it up before.” When they did, they found they'd been spending $25 to $80 a week on lunches out — even when sticking to the daily special or using BOGO (buy-one, get-one) coupons. Yikes.

20060731_0173Understand: This column isn't a screed against restaurants. It's a reminder that some old frugal tricks still get results. Lunch away from the workplace can be fun and restorative. Sometimes it's even a networking/team-building issue. Five days a week, though, can mean some serious coin. Even if you could get away with $5 lunches every day (and can you?), that's up to $1,300 a year.

Surely you could do it cheaper than that, even if you spring for the wasabi mustard and Boar's Head turkey breast. Why not carry your own lunch three times a week and see what you can save?

When lunch = sandwich
Deli meat and cheese, tuna, egg salad and PBJs are staple sammies, but a little variety can help keep you on the wagon. For example:

    • Use almond butter or multi-nut butter, and the best jam you can afford.

 

    • Add crunch and you'll add interest. Start a batch of sprouts. Dice some celery or onions. My mom liked thinly sliced cucumbers on her sandwiches.

 

    • Play around with condiments: barbecue sauce on leftover chicken or roast beef, creamy horseradish on meat loaf. Try a couple of different mustards.

 

    • Spread a hot-dog roll with peanut butter and add a whole banana. Fun!

 

    • Cook and crumble some bacon. A little goes a long way on egg salad, turkey and cheese, or even peanut-butter sandwiches.

 

 

  • Changing the bread can make a big difference. Pita, pumpernickel, “everything” bagels or onion rolls make everyday fillings new again.

Sandwiches don't always mean sliced bread. Roll up your ingredients in a flavored tortilla. Pack hummus or baba ghanoush with flatbread and a side of olives and tomatoes. Crackers, cheese and fruit make a quick and easy lunch.

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 hoame-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.

Incidentally, sandwiches don't have to be wrapped in foil, plastic wrap or wax paper. For my entire adult life I've carried them in a Rubbermaid container.

Speaking of containers: You'll want a few extras, whether they're designed for food storage or repurposed from elsewhere. Use them for things like carrot sticks, pickles or desserts.

 

Use it up — all of it
When I worked at the newspaper my lunches were more leftovers than sandwiches. In part that was because I prefer a heavier lunch and a lighter supper. It also kept that last lonely serving of lasagna from growing a fuzzy little blue-and-green beret.

Maybe no food ever gets wasted in your household. (Parents of teenagers are nodding vigorously right about now.) In that case, freeze some of your batch cooking in single-serving containers.

Not a batch cooker? Cook a little more than you'd planned, such as using the entire 16-ounce package of spaghetti or throwing an extra chicken breast on the grill. Instant leftovers — just add lunchbag.

Tip: Or “engineer” your leftovers, i.e., set aside one serving before you put dinner on the table.

 

Keeping food cold is an issue if there's no workplace fridge, or if you've found that lunches aren't safe there. I've had my food stolen from time to time and it always irritated the hell out of me.

If this happens where you work, get a small cooler or an insulated lunch bag (I found mine in the free box at a yard sale). Putting in a bottle of frozen water or juice into either one will keep your food chilled. You could buy a freezable cold pack, but where's the frugal fun in that?

Gearing up
You might forget your lunch a few times until you get in the habit. Keep some basic supplies at work: peanut butter, canned soup, crackers, granola or protein bars, dried or canned fruit.

Note: These items are also handy if something keeps you from having breakfast before you get to work.

 

Another option: Keep a shelf-stable entrée or one of those lunch kits (tuna, ham salad) at work. They're pricey, but still cheaper than going out to eat.

If I were a betting woman (which, I guess, I sometimes am) I'd wager that a large majority of workplaces now provide use of a microwave oven. Some people worry about chemicals leaching from plastic containers. If that's you, check garage sales or thrift stores for an extra glass or ceramic bowl/casserole to keep at work.

Look for an extra spoon, fork and knife, too, if you're determined to keep your wedding-gift cutlery as an intact set. An extra paring or serrated-edge knife is handy, although it might make your supervisor nervous to see a blade on your desk.

If you do use plastic, be aware that certain foods (especially tomato-based ones) will stain the dish. I've heard that coating the container with nonstick cooking spray keeps stains from happening. That seemed like an unnecessary expense (plus additional cans going into the trash), so I simply resigned myself to having one butt-ugly Tupperware bowl.

Lunchtime sips and lunchtime tips
What about beverages? Water is the healthy and frugal choice, but you might want something with a little more zip. Soft drinks are frequent loss leaders, and flavored drink mixes are generally inexpensive. I prefer homemade iced tea.

Put your potable wherever you keep your other lunch stuff, e.g., the top fridge shelf. Note: Filling five bottles with tea (or whatever) on Sunday night means you can grab and go all week.

Some people make a week's worth of sandwiches at a time, too. That idea never appealed to me, but organizing my lunch the night before certainly did. Just a few minutes each evening meant a less stressful morning.

So set that container full of leftovers next to the drinks and put an orange on top. Keep these tips in mind, too:

    • “Baby-cut” carrots go on sale fairly frequently, and are one way of getting beta carotene into the prep-averse. Personally, I prefer to lathe my own carrots. In fact, I'll do a few days' worth of carrots, cukes or celery at a time.

 

    • Make pudding or gelatin and pour it into repurposed containers. (Healthier version: homemade yogurt.)

 

    • Wash apples, grapes or whatever fruit you like and put it on the “lunch” shelf in your fridge. Or make fruit salad and apportion it into containers.

 

    • Wash a few days' worth of greens and add grape tomatoes, mushrooms, radishes or anything else you want.

 

    • Keep hard-cooked eggs on hand. Not just for sandwiches: An egg, a little leftover chicken and a few bits of cheese turn a bowl of greens into a chef's salad.

 

    • Fill small bags or containers with chips, snack mix or cookies — much cheaper than those petite prefab pouches.

 

  • Not much of a cook, or too pressured to pack some days? Watch for sales on frozen single-serve dinners, which are less expensive than lunch out. I've seen some particularly tasty-looking iced entrees at Trader Joe's.

Spending less at the noon hour isn't the goal. It's the means to a goal, so start thinking about what you'll do with the money you've saved. Will you snowflake a debt, beef up a retirement account, pay for a summer vacation, keep the utilities current?

Every dollar should have a job. Otherwise the money will wind up being spent in ways you might not even notice.

Recording your progress — seeing your debt disappear or your emergency fund grow — gives you a specific reason to keep away from the Value Menu. You may find that team-building can take place in the workplace cafeteria, too.

Sack lunch photo by lilszeto.

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Katarzyna
Katarzyna
8 years ago

You’ve got some great ideas there, I use some of them myself.
I love home made lunches. They’re not only about saving money but being healthy too. I try to take leftover dinner for lunch most days of the week and grab a piece or two of fruit – no need to spend money at the local cafe or load up on hidden calories.

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
8 years ago
Reply to  Katarzyna

And I bet the smell of your hot lunch makes some coworkers mad with hunger. When I was at the newspaper, the fragrance of my leftover minestrone or meat loaf caused some sad looks from people who were eating egg-salad sandwiches from the vending machine. (Ick.)

David Hunter
David Hunter
8 years ago
Reply to  Donna Freedman

I buy $1.25 TV dinners for lunch, and boy do the smell delicious!

One thing I’ll never understand is why would anyone steal other people’s lunches?! WHY?!?! If you didn’t put it in the refrigerator then don’t take it out!

Nicole
Nicole
8 years ago

We don’t really have any place to go for lunch that doesn’t take forever to get to. Personally I’m a fan of having last night’s dinner for lunch in a little pyrex container.

But some days I bring a frozen dinner, which probably doesn’t save much other than time since currently there’s only one wheat-free whole grain option at our local grocery store and it costs $5.38/meal. (I miss being able to eat Kashi. Those are $3.29. Actually, I miss being able to eat any sort of wheat without throwing up. Sandwiches are good.)

Ely
Ely
8 years ago
Reply to  Nicole

‘sandwiches’ are also good rolled up in a lettuce leaf instead of bread. leftover chicken & mustard, cheese & avocado, roast beef & cucumber, yum.
doesn’t really work with pbj though.

Nicole
Nicole
8 years ago
Reply to  Ely

Peanut butter and jelly Larabars actually taste like PB&J sandwiches (but only the part of the PB&J experience after you’ve been chewing the sandwich for a little while…)

Dog Lover
Dog Lover
8 years ago
Reply to  Nicole

You can also try bread-free sandwich rolls: lay down 2 slices of deli meat, add a slice of cheese, a hot pepper, a squirt of mustard, and a wipe of mayo. Roll, and secure with a toothpick. I make these for my husband’s lunch each day, with a pickle on the side.

Nicole
Nicole
8 years ago
Reply to  Dog Lover

That sounds very good. The main problem is that I’m pregnant! So no deli-meat. 🙁 (Unless it is heated up to steaming…)

Honest, I’m not normally this messed up food-wise.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
8 years ago
Reply to  Nicole

Whoa, no wheat? Let me recommend buckwheat pancakes or crepes instead (make your own mix with no wheat flour). No gluten, batter lasts a while in the fridge, after cooking they reheat nicely.

Millet is great too, doesn’t keep so well in the fridge after cooking (gets mealy after 24-48h), but steamed plain millet goes great with everything: stir fries, nuts and raisins, yogurt, fried eggs, roast chicken– doesn’t matter, it’s neutral like bread.

Nicole
Nicole
8 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Oddly, I can’t do buckwheat pancakes because of a bad experience with the wheat pancakes. I have zero problem with buckwheat waffles though. http://nicoleandmaggie.wordpress.com/2012/04/05/weird-things-i-eat-gluten-free-whole-grain-no-sugar-no-artificial/

I have a similar problem with any kind of groat– I’m used to eating Kashi (and it took a while to figure out it was wheat that was the problem), so any of the other non-wheat grains in Kashi make me feel temporarily sick just by association until I stop thinking about it. That part is totally mental. The throwing up after having Worcester sauce (which, I found out later, contains malt vinegar)… that’s real.

Joanna
Joanna
8 years ago
Reply to  Nicole

Try Amy’s frozen foods if you haven’t already. About 3.50 a dinner and the gluten free / dairy free tamales and enchiladas are like heaven.

Nicole
Nicole
8 years ago
Reply to  Nicole

The problem with Amy’s foods is that most of their stuff is refined grain (or corn or wheat-full), which is a no-no. They do have one kind of weird burrito that I can have. There’s also a brown rice veggie-tofu bowl but it’s pretty blech (in addition to being expensive). It’s that combination of glycemically-balanced and wheat-free that’s the major PITA. Hopefully only for a few months longer (until the baby is born). (And yes, I have a paleo cookbook, but it is pretty useless. Half the book is explaining how to do really basic stuff like fry ground beef,… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
8 years ago
Reply to  Nicole

Oh noes– I mean CONGRATS! I didn’t know you were, as they say, “with child”. Bravo! BY “oh noes” I mean I didn’t know you couldn’t eat buckwheat either. Bummer. Cuz see, many products and recipes that claim to be “buckwheat” are actually part wheat flour, so you have to know what’s in that thing beforehand– there are 100% buckwheat recipes though, but you might not want to experiment anyway at this point. Now I don’t know if it’s too late for this game, but let’s play a challenge: you give me the ingredient you have and can eat, and… Read more »

Nicole
Nicole
8 years ago
Reply to  Nicole

Ha, no, with the buckwheat (Bob’s Red Mill one ingredient Buckwheat flour) I can eat the exact same batter if it is in a waffle, but not if it’s in a pancake. The *idea* of pancakes is (hopefully temporarily) ruined for me because bodies are psychologically stupid. The difference is that I’ve never thrown up a waffle. One thing I really have been enjoying is Indian food– instead of naan or white rice I’ve been eating lentil flour dosas and pappadam. There’s also a place in town with brown rice sushi. Our food expenditures have been going up, because the… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
8 years ago
Reply to  Nicole

Wow… that’s… Pavlovian! Does it happen too if you roll it up like a crepe?

Anyway:

Quinoa pasta: it’s not bad, but it’s not good either. Why not just cook quinoa? Takes about the same time and you can make sweet or savory. It’s also lots cheaper.

I’m not sure you’re playing, so I’ll hold on the recipes until a proper challenge is issued, ha ha. But let me just name– quinoa tabouleh, breakfast quinoa, quinoa/veg stir-fry, pepian de quinoa, quinoa chili, etc…

Nicole
Nicole
8 years ago
Reply to  Nicole

We have quinoa. It is an excellent grain substitute.

But I miss spaghetti. For noodles I can have brown rice noodles (100% buckwheat soba is pretty nasty), but they’re only good in Asian dishes. When the family has spaghetti sauce I have it over beans and it just isn’t the same.

Heather
Heather
8 years ago
Reply to  Nicole

To substitute for spaghetti noodles, I either have strips of mushroom (sliced mushrooms cut again the other way) and it’s almost like a tiny penne pasta. I also like shredded cabbage that’s been warmed so it’s still “al dente” and a little chewy like whole wheat pasta. I never could get the hang of spaghetti squash, that stuff just… ugh. Oh, zucchini that’s been sliced around the seeds with a peeler is great too (I usually use a channel knife or the mandolin, but you can just use a peeler and cut into thinner strips a la fettuccine).

Jacq
Jacq
8 years ago

I’ve been doing this for 25 years.
Also, keep a few cans of soup in your office desk drawer for when you forget your lunch – because you will walk out the door and forget – even if you’ve had the habit for 25 years.

Sherry
Sherry
8 years ago
Reply to  Jacq

Great idea – I used to do this when I worked in an office. I also kept a small jar of peanut butter, and small box of cereal, along with some crackers and a bowl and spoon.

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
8 years ago
Reply to  Jacq

I did mention the soup… And when you’re really hungry around 12:30 p.m. or so, even a cup of soup tastes ambrosial. Bonus frugal points if you bought it on sale and/or with a coupon.

Jacq
Jacq
8 years ago
Reply to  Donna Freedman

Yes you did Donna! Apparently I’ve had a reading habit for 43 or so years but still missed that.
Funny enough, I forgot my lunch today and wandered in to the work kitchen to heat up some soup at about 2 p.m. – but some kind soul had over-bought on a work lunch meeting and left out the leftovers so the soup shall have to wait for another day.
Coupons are an American thing, not much couponing to be had up here in Canada. I just buy an assorted case when it goes on sale.

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
8 years ago
Reply to  Jacq

When I worked at the newspaper people would leave extra food, food from a photo shoot, some freshly smoked salmon, a rhubarb cobbler, etc., next to the newsroom coffee pot.
Which led to my solution to the disposal of toxic waste: Put it by the coffeepot and someone will eat it.

Carla
Carla
8 years ago
Reply to  Jacq

When I used to work in an office, I would keep some frozen meals in the office freezer (usually empty anyway) for a rainy day.

wanxuan
wanxuan
8 years ago

I am a university/college student in Singapore and perhaps I could give an Asian perspective to saving money on meals. I make my own breakfast and lunches (Asian/Western style). I love pancakes for breakfast. Instead of paying more than $5 for 2 pancakes at MacDonalds,, I rather make them myself. I buy 1 kg of plain flour for $2 and a bottle of baking powder(around $1), milk($2) and butter($2) for making pancakes.8 pancakes only require 400g of flour. It is also much cheaper than pancake mixes. Yaki udon (fried udon or japanese noodles) is also one of my lunch staples.… Read more »

Jenzer
Jenzer
8 years ago
Reply to  wanxuan

Leftover pancakes can also be used to make nut butter and jam “sandwiches.” Yum!

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
8 years ago
Reply to  Jenzer

What a good idea. Thanks!
Would make a hearty breakfast, especially for kids who would normally drown pancakes in syrup. The nut butter would keep them going until lunch.

Dogs or Dollars
Dogs or Dollars
8 years ago

I bring a “bag of food” to work each and every day. Not only does it save me oodles, it’s helped keep those 50lbs I lost, stay lost. No restaurant meals, no oversized portions to contend with, no sub par ingredients cooked by uninterested employees. I don’t know how people eat out 5 (or more) days a week. I like it to be a treat. Makes the money you spend (and the calories you consume) that much more worth it.

amber
amber
8 years ago

My work has a salad bar in our cafeteria. It charges by the weight of the items. I typically will buy the salad at work (because most fresh veggies kept my fridge = gross) but I will carry along my own “extras”. This is typically the hard boiled egg, cheese, or tofu and use my own dressing, because these are the heaviest items and also the things I already have in my fridge at home.

Jennifer Gwennifer
Jennifer Gwennifer
8 years ago
Reply to  amber

I also hit up the salad bar in the student union a lot (graduate student) but I tend to do the exact opposite – bring veggies from home and buy the chicken/tofu to go with it. I don’t think I’d be brave enough to try making ginger tofu at home, but it’s so yummy I can’t resist it 🙂

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
8 years ago
Reply to  amber

Smart.

Megan
Megan
8 years ago

We had a toaster oven at my last office job, which I used to make awesome grilled cheese sandwiches. While my coworkers wouldhead to a restaurant that specialized in toasted sandwiches, I would make my own for a fraction of the price.

http://traderjoesreviewer.blogspot.com

Jessica
Jessica
8 years ago

When I worked outside the home, I always brought my own lunch. I pack my DH a lunch daily also. He actually likes the same lunch everyday, but he doesn’t mind if I send him with leftovers. When I packed my own, I liked something different. In the winter I”d make a big crock of soup and take a bowl of soup with me. In the summer I’d dice seasonal fruits and bring a container of vanilla yogurt to dip it in. On the weekends I make a large batch of homemade baked treats so he has a dessert every… Read more »

Andrew
Andrew
8 years ago
Reply to  Jessica

Reminds me of the old “Designing Women” episode where Suzanne accidentally drank Charlene’s breast milk from a container in the refrigerator.

Jan
Jan
8 years ago

I had never heard/thought of making a lunch shelf/area in my frig. What a great idea. So often I stand in front of the frig in the morning searching everywhere for stuff to take. This will solve a big time waster for me. Grab’n go!

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
8 years ago
Reply to  Jan

Having been very pressed for time myself, I know that making things as easy as possible the night before can make the difference. Happy grabbing!

Carol in Mpls
Carol in Mpls
8 years ago
Reply to  Jan

I have a ‘lunch bin’ just for my lunch supplies. Then I don’t have to go rooting around for all the separates. I’m planning to create a master “lunch list” of ideas to help me out creatively.

I also have my fridge sorted and labeled so that I keep putting things back in the proper storage areas (like milk all the way to the back and in the coldest spot, not on the door).

I just finished a contract work assignment, and most days enjoyed either Boar’s Head ham or turkey, as good food makes for a good worker!

Paris
Paris
8 years ago

I bring my own lunch 95% of the time. I don’t do it to save money, but rather to limit the salt and fat I consume. I work at a college and all the near-by dining options are awful.

Jay
Jay
8 years ago

Great post! It really is so simple to inject new life into staples. Condiments are the easiest start, but not the only thing that can be experimented with. I like that you mentioned something that should be so obvious: a sandwich doesn’t always have to be on sliced bread. I was out of a job for quite some time which brought me to the frugal lifestyle out of necessity. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention. Being out of work for so long afforded me the time to hone my culinary skills as I already have a passion… Read more »

Joyce
Joyce
8 years ago

And Double the savings when both spouses do this! That’s $65,000 over 25 years if my math is correct~ My Hubby and I have done this for years and only eat out maybe once a week with a special friend. I also cook healthy breakfast burritos and egg McMuffins for the week and freeze so we can grab and go, but still have a healthy economical meal.

Laura
Laura
8 years ago

Donna, thanks very much for a(nother) great post – very timely for me as I’d fallen off the brown bag wagon. Time to climb back on!

BTW, if one’s work environment allows it, cube fridges that fit under a table are the best. Check Craigslist, freecycle, and especially universities. I got one for free from a uni with a little (o.k., a lot) of elbow grease to clean it thoroughly. That went to DH’s office when I inherited a mini-fridge (with more elbow grease).

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
8 years ago
Reply to  Laura

I’d heard that some departing students will just toss perfectly good appliances and other items. A professor I know saw a big-screen TV left by the Dumpster.
Some schools are actually staging “garage sales” rather than see these items go to the trash.
Smart of you to turn waste into gain. Keeping beverages (even tap water in a bottle) in the fridge under your desk also helps you resist the lure of the vending machine.

Sam Russell
Sam Russell
8 years ago

I like the suggestions for variety. The problem we have here is that we always have taken a lunch from home except special occasions. I dream of the day when I can afford to waste the money to eat lunch out everyday or even afford a higher quality of packed lunch.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
8 years ago

Protip (haa haa @ “protip”, I didn’t know what to call this): A mason jar will transport better than pyrex or plastic containers– pyrex lids drip and plastic is no good with acids (lime, vinegar, etc). — Quick recipe: lentils you cooked in the weekend, spoonful of olive oil, salmon (canned, grilled, whatever), black pepper. Alternatives: white beans + tuna, or simplified variations of a Niçoise (skip the shallots if you work around people, unless they ate them too). Also tasty & so simple it’s dumb: tomatos, hardboiled eggs, good mayo (keep a jar @ work). If you hate cherry… Read more »

Queeb
Queeb
8 years ago

I nearly always bring my lunch to work also. Not just because it is healthier and cheaper though. I only get 1/2hr for lunch. I don’t want to have to run out somewhere for food, rushing around, dealing with traffic, watching the clock to make sure I get back to my desk on time. That is too stressful to me. I want to de-stress a little on my lunch.

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
8 years ago
Reply to  Queeb

Years ago I had a boss who would look at the clock when we returned from lunch. I hated that.
At the newspaper I would go through super-busy spells during which I ate while writing. I called this “lunch al desko.” 😉 Bad pun, worse habit.

Heather
Heather
8 years ago
Reply to  Donna Freedman

That was me, all four years of high school. One year I had a teacher pull me aside to see if I had an eating disorder because all anyone ever saw me eating was SlimFast shakes and salads. But Slim Fast shakes had the most nutrients per calorie and lowest sugar count of all my options, and my salads had a lot more than lettuce: HB eggs, shrimp/chicken/bacon, avocado, almonds, cheese, tomatoes, cucumber, onions, green peppers… I’d snack off the salad, sides of apples and oranges, and shakes (eventually switched to home-made) all day, because with all the activities I… Read more »

Lyn
Lyn
8 years ago

I pack my lunch almost every day. My favorite treat? A little dill pickle! Makes lunch feel special. I also try to throw in a cloth napkin.

Oranges are delish, but I prefer to peel and section them at home so if I’m eating at my desk I don’t have to wipe everything down when I’m peeling it and hit a geyser.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
8 years ago
Reply to  Lyn

the amount of spray depends on the orange: valencias are juice oranges and are hard to peel, but navels have a thick skin that usually breaks down easy if you just make a cut near the navel itself where there is more rind. and cara-caras… oh, cara-caras!

anyway, yes, your system is definitely cleaner, but if you ever need to throw an orange in a backpack in a hurry (i do, sometimes), check out those 2 types.

Nicole
Nicole
8 years ago
Reply to  Lyn

You can also score the entire orange but not section it– cut through just the skin in sections. It’s much easier and less messy to peel.

Babs
Babs
8 years ago
Reply to  Lyn

Or try those California Cuties- also known as clementines or mandarin oranges. I am addicted to them. Sadly they are almost out of season now.

CarolH
CarolH
8 years ago

A few years ago, I joined the administration level at my school district. The superintendent and assistant superintendent went out to lunch everyday. They would invite me and I had a real problem…I didn’t feel comfortable saying yes (too pricey)and I didn’t feel comfortable saying no (refusing too many of the boss’s requests could be a problem.)

Eventually, I figured out that it would work if I joined them one day a week. And they figured out that it would save them $$ and be better for their health to pack lunch.

Sam
Sam
8 years ago
Reply to  CarolH

That is what I did starting out, when I was paying off my student loans and needed every dollar, brought my lunch 4 days a week and went out once a week.

Since lowering my eating out/ordering in is a goal for me in 2012, I’m back to that schedule.

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
8 years ago

My employer caters lunch for everyone everyday. If I wanted to be really frugal, I could bring home leftovers from the free lunch at work and eat them for dinner, but I normally don’t bother (and sometimes there aren’t many leftovers after lunch). It would be more expensive for me to bring my own lunch than to eat for free at work, though, so there’s not much incentive for me, personally.

Laura
Laura
8 years ago

Where do you work???!??? 🙂

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
8 years ago
Reply to  Laura

Here. Ironically, there’s no free lunch for me today because I’m working from home.

Cara
Cara
8 years ago

Well then, let us eat cake.

EMH
EMH
8 years ago

My previous job offered free lunch but the catch was you were stuck at your desk all day. I have a deal with my current boss that if I fly, he buys. On really nice days, I pick restaurants that are further away so I can take a long walk!

Tyler, I LOVE Evernote. Our entire office uses it.

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
8 years ago
Reply to  EMH

Glad you like it. 🙂

Laura in ATL
Laura in ATL
8 years ago

I tend to look at my lunch as “something to tide me over until dinner” So, if I can make and bring something that is filling – fruit, nuts, pb and j – then Im good. I am really good about eating a BIG breakfast, so something snacky at lunchtime is all I need.

Good tips are here, thanks!!!

Krantcents
Krantcents
8 years ago

I started bringing my lunch in the early 1970’s! I started one day a week and added to it over time. Sometimes I would go to the beach (nearby), park or outdoor cafe to eat it with colleagues. Many times, I would just take a break and eat in the office with other colleagues. 95% of the time it was leftovers from the evening meal.

Jana
Jana
8 years ago

At my job, there are several people who stock our work fridges with their lunch foods. Sandwich fixings, frozen meals, drinks, snacks…you name it, they’ve got it in the fridge/freezer. They schlep it in with them every Monday, unpack it and they’re set for the week. No forgetting lunches and whatever they need is on hand. Saves a great deal of money, too (especially with a pizzeria and a Dunkin Donuts across the street from our building).

I think it’s a great idea although I’ve never implemented it myself.

Audrey
Audrey
8 years ago
Reply to  Jana

It’s a good concept, but if everyone does it, the fridge can become quite cramped. Also, they need to stay on top of it! Year old yogurt isn’t so bad to throw away, but the tupperware container that not longer has anything identifiable in it except 12 kinds of mold is rather gross. (Especially when you start having respiratory problems after cleaning out the fridge!)

Nancy
Nancy
8 years ago
Reply to  Audrey

I used to work at a preschool and I had a coworker who kept a bunch of stuff in the cabinet in her classroom (bread, peanut butter, tuna, crackers). She welcomed anyone who forgot their lunch to make themselves something if they wanted. I took her up on her offer a few times when I forgot my lunch.

amber
amber
8 years ago
Reply to  Audrey

It helps to have a strict workplace policy re: fridge space. Our fridge is emptied after the last friday of every month. Reminders are sent. People forget things. Still, the clean and empty fridge on the following monday is a worthwhile trade-off.

Sam
Sam
8 years ago
Reply to  amber

Same thing is done at my office, I’m not sure its on a schedule, but the fridge is cleaned out with regularity often enough and there are multiple emails sent before hand. Normally I have one bag in the freezer and one in the fridge and both are labeled with my name and date, when it comes time for clean out day I update the label. System seems to work fine.

Rebecca
Rebecca
8 years ago

I send nice salads with my husband: Chef salad—ham, cheese, peas, tomatoes, onions, and celery Mediterranean—Israeli couscous, grilled chicken, currants, red pepper, cranberries, and green onions Greek—tomatoes, red onion, green pepper, feta cheese, black olives, Italian dresssing, croutons Mexican—-grilled chicken, blackened corn, red peppers, red onions, tomatoes, cheddar cheese, tortilla chips on top I prep them while I make dinner the night before and it really doesn’t take that much more of my time since I’m already in the kitchen. I know brown bagging seems like an obvious thing, but I’m ALWAYS surprised by how many people I know (who… Read more »

Jenzer
Jenzer
8 years ago

Lisa Leake at 100 Days of Real Food did a post recently about the lunches she packs for her daughters to take to school:

http://www.100daysofrealfood.com/2012/04/19/school-lunch-roundup/

I found several good ideas here for both my kids and myself. I’m especially intrigued by the idea of packing a frozen fruit smoothie into a lunchbox and having it just-thawed-enough by noontime.

betsy22
betsy22
8 years ago
Reply to  Jenzer

I do the frozen smoothie thing – currently have 4-5 bruised bananas in the freezer waiting to get used in my next batch of smoothies. I’m pretty picky about bananas – won’t touch them after they start to turn even a little brown, but they’re still perfectly good for smoothies 🙂 I take the smoothies for lunch or as a breakfast on-the-go, for those mornings where I’m running late (or forgot to pick up milk).

Jo@simplybeingmum
8 years ago

I recently did a cost comparison on ‘packed lunches’ versus UK school dinners when i decided to stop my Daughter paying for a hot meal. Going into it blind I didn’t know what an average packed lunch would cost for a young child, but mine work out at around the 60 pence mark, as opposed to £2.10 for a purchased lunch. But… I don’t really buy pre-packed/convenient stuff for the lunch box either. I split larger quantities of items and pack in resusable containers. Like…popcorn, grapes, crackers and we make cakes and biscuits. It’s great because I don’t have much… Read more »

Susan
Susan
8 years ago

I bring my lunch 90% of the time. I also bring a cloth napkin, and I have a matching fork & spoon that I got at the Salvation Army that are just for my lunch kit. When the cost for buying a chef’s salad is about $9 near the office, I can bring it from home for WAY less than that. AND it gives me more time to enjoy my lunch break – I’m not spending 15 minutes in the deli waiting on line to order and waiting for them to make my salad. 🙂

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
8 years ago
Reply to  Susan

In most cases, I hate waiting in line to pay more extra $ for something I could make at home. I had silverware, dishes and dish soap stashed in my desk until my company moved somewhere with a kitchenette.

A friend of mine recommended I buy an inexpensive paring knife with a protective sheath for lunches. It’s perfect for slicing fruit for lunch or a snack. (It’s a little neater than biting into a juicy apple or peach, but I prefer fresh-sliced fruit.)

Sheryl
Sheryl
8 years ago

We’re a big fan of planned leftovers for lunch. We like to plan our meals to create leftover for myself and my fiance for lunches (if we don’t eat them we just chuck ’em in the freezer for later). Sometimes we switch it up with sandwiches, but it makes life easier to plan for them in advance.

Albie D TalkingCents
Albie D TalkingCents
8 years ago

Nice article. Some great tips in there. I once went 6 months straight without buying any takeout for lunch. Savings turned out to be over $500.00. And it wasn’t tortuous.

For anyone looking to calculate their savings when packing a lunch, we have a great tool called the Brown Bag Calculator. Check it out… http://www.consumercredit.com/brown-bag-calc.htm

Jamie
Jamie
8 years ago

I adore this post. Thrifty food blogs are my favorite, and this one was great. I (attempt to) bring my breakfast and lunch to work every day, and on the two or three occasions each month that I run out of time in the morning, I don’t feel badly about dropping $5 on lunch since it’s infrequent. Here are some things that I do: ~I carry my lunch in plastic grocery bags. I hate those bags, but sometimes I end up with them from the grocery store so I reuse them for several lunches, and then I don’t feel quite… Read more »

bethh
bethh
8 years ago

for about 3 or 4 years, I had a coordinated lunch group with coworkers: we were each responsible for one day per week and brought in enough to feed the members. It was AWESOME. We disbanded due to babies and burnout, but it was great while it lasted.

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
8 years ago
Reply to  bethh

I like that idea: You had only to make lunch once per week, just more of it. Nice.

Bethany
Bethany
8 years ago

My fiancee likes to take soup for lunch. So I’ll make a pot on Sunday, put it in individual containers, and that’s usually good for 3-4 lunches for the week. He takes leftovers the other days. When I’m working I get a free lunch at work, since I’m not able to actually take my lunch hour, so I haven’t taken my lunch in years.

Theresa
Theresa
8 years ago

To keep my bread from getting soggy in my sandwiches, I always toast it. Then I can safely put mayo, jelly, or whatever on it and the bread will be perfect at lunch time.

For a lunch salad, I put together lettuce or spinach, dried cranberries, and nuts (usually walnuts). If I have some, I can also add shredded carrots. Then I have two other small containers with some sort of meat and dressing. Put everything together and that’s a healthy, easy lunch! Ok, now I’m hungry. 🙂

Sam
Sam
8 years ago

Limiting my eating out and ordering in is one of my goals for 2012. I’m doing okay, although not sticking to my strict eating out/ordering rules. I normally eat breakfast and lunch at my desk. Breakfast, whole grain english muffing and low fat PB, Morningstar fake sausage (not meat), egg and cheese biscuits are my current favorite, and I always have low sugar heat and serve oatmeal on hand. Snacks, I like the greek yogurt, string cheese, baby bell cheese. Lunch, I often eat a Lean Cusine type meal for lunch. I hate to cook and making my lunch at… Read more »

Megan E.
Megan E.
8 years ago

Surprised no one mentioned this (here’s what I do): Empty container (glass, plastic, whatever) 1 can beans – open up and dump in ~ 1/3 after draining 1/2 cup rice (cook and freeze, then just break off a piece and dump in) 1 serving spinach (cut up and frozen bags, just dump what you want) 1 serving carrots/peas/beans (frozen, just dump in what you want) Then microwave and ta-da! I usually use either pasta (freezes fine) or rice (freezes fine) and add ingredients like that above until I hit a good amount for lunch, add in a piece or two… Read more »

Kathleen @ Frugal Portland
Kathleen @ Frugal Portland
8 years ago

I always always bring my lunch. I lament when I forget or have been traveling. It also helps that I always make too much food for dinner.

Rae
Rae
8 years ago

I usually bring a packet of oatmeal/crunchy granola bar/non-fat greek yogurt for breakfast, soup for lunch (Dr. McDougall’s, Campbell’s Select Harvest, or Amy’s organic if not homemade), and baby carrots for an afternoon snack. Cheap, easy, and healthy!

cathleen
cathleen
8 years ago

My office caters lunch (and breakfast) almost every day and we have a wonderful employee cafe that is subsidized and yet I’ve found I prefer to skip lunch altogether!

I have lost 15 lbs and kept it off and I have more energy. For some reason, eating leads me to an afternoon brain fog.

I just drink green tea and that seems to prevent an appetite. Then I have a healthy dinner when I get home.

I find my digestion is better as well, for some reason.

Lance@MoneyLife&More
8 years ago

I take a boring lunch every day but it doesn’t bother me. I generally like what I normally bring and if I’m not hungry I won’t eat it all which should help me lose weight! These tips definitely help those that hate boring lunches though because bringing my lunch saves me a ton of money.

Amanda
Amanda
8 years ago

Thanks. Loved the post & comments.

Donna
Donna
8 years ago

Great post, Donna, and another good example of why your posts are a favorite.

I’ve been really bad lately about taking lunches to work and have been spending lots of money unnecessarily. So I’ve re-committed to taking lunch and snack foods most days. I’ve also found if I do prep work on the weekend (grocery shopping; washing fruits and veggies, etc.), I’m much more inclined to pack lunches.

Thanks for the great tips.

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
8 years ago
Reply to  Donna

Make it as easy as possible, i.e., make it harder to fail — that’s my motto. If I open the fridge to get the milk for my oatmeal and see a container of chili, a tortilla and an apple, I’ll grab them and stuff them in the bag while my oatmeal cooks. There. Lunch packed.* I automate my savings, too, so there’s never a month when I forget. *I work at home now, but I keep lunch-y stuff in the front of the fridge. No excuses for not eating at home. That’s not to say that I don’t occasionally go… Read more »

imelda
imelda
8 years ago

Great post, very helpful! I’m always looking for lists like this, because I don’t cook, so simple lunches that save money are very important. Especially if I can find the ingredients in Japan!

I do have one question: Who in the world steals lunches??? I know it happens often. But I can’t even begin to imagine the mentality behind taking someone else’s lunch from the office fridge. What’s up with that??

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
8 years ago
Reply to  imelda

Beats me. The same kind of person who would steal your wallet out of your handbag if you left it at your desk?
Thefts do happen in workplaces. It leaves you feeling pretty irritated, wondering which of your colleagues is a thief.

Financial Advice for Young Professionals
Financial Advice for Young Professionals
8 years ago

It’s crazy how much you spend going out to lunch and bringing your own can definitely save you some money. I’m glad this wasn’t another boring post on that, and you gave some ideas to spice up your lunch! I like bringing leftovers, and sometimes I’ll make some pretty good sandwich feasts. Here’s what I usually do. If you have a toaster oven, you can wrap your bread, meat, cheese in foil and heat up for 10 minutes or toast the bread in a toaster and melt the cheese in a microwave. Then I put on mayo/mustard and avocado(keep the… Read more »

Siebrie
Siebrie
8 years ago

My mum has a funny story about bringing or buying lunch:

When she did her Social Work degree in the seventies she had a professor who told the class that ‘now that you will be Managers, you can no longer bring your own lunch. You have to buy it (for instance at the train station); you owe it to the class you now belong to’.

Needless to say, she always brought her sandwiches, as did my dad.

Julie M.
Julie M.
8 years ago

I got into a great habit last year that made it much easier to follow through. Every Sunday I would make a dish in my crock pot (also called a slow cooker.) Whatever the recipe was, I’d double it. I’d come home Sunday night to a great-smelling home and lots of good food. I put the food into lunch-sized portions for the week and then put the rest in the freezer. Usually this would work for Monday-Thursday. By Friday I’d assume the meat was no longer good, so I’d make a salad or pull one of the previously-frozen dishes from… Read more »

Bella
Bella
8 years ago

Every time I looked up one of those food calculators I would pat myself on the back and say – it’s not worth the hassle of packing your own lunch just save .50 a day. And then I started tracking my spending – and I really wanted to change the restaurant column I also had an epiphany My packed meals didn’t need to be the ‘gold standard of healthy or cheap’ it just needed to beat the lunch out. So I made homemade breakfast burritos with real homemade sausage gravy inside And I packed leftovers, and snacks that I like… Read more »

Rose
Rose
8 years ago

I’m surprised that I seem to be the first to mention bento! I’ve gotten heavily into the bento habit, and make them at least two or three days a week for my husband and myself. The other days’ lunches are usually taken up by leftovers. Prepping two bentos takes only around 15–20 minutes in the morning, and I do it in parallel while cooking breakfast. As a bonus, it’s a great way to use up random bits of veggies and leftovers that would otherwise serve no purpose. An ridiculously small leftover portion of something still works when stirred into fried… Read more »

Drew C
Drew C
8 years ago

How about peanut butter and banana sandwiches?? This article is great on so many levels. Packing lunch can save hundreds of dollars throughout the year, obviously. But I agree with you Donna. It doesn’t always have to be boring. There are many healthy options.

So you don’t always have to feel left out as all your coworkers go out to the local grill. Enjoy your hand-crafted meal!

Kim
Kim
8 years ago

I’m a contractor, so my workplace lunch options vary every 6 mos-1 year, and I adjust accordingly. Currently, I have access to a corporate salad bar with a decent spread and charges by the pound. I’ll purchase a lot of leafy greens, sprouts, and other delicate veggies (which would get bruised and possibly spoil faster if I tried to pack them in my lunchbox for the 2-hour commute) and top that with more decadent, highly flavored items I bring from/prepare at home (fancy cheeses, roasted meats or veggies with lots of herbs, dried fruits, nuts). I also take advantage of… Read more »

Thad P @ thadthoughts.com
Thad P @ thadthoughts.com
8 years ago

I love to take leftovers, and in the absence of them, I happily take 28 cent cups of ramen soup. I see people eat out every day and wonder how they can afford it — turns out they can’t!

Maryb
Maryb
8 years ago

Lunches bought at the store just angered us when you compare the cost of a small bag of chips to a family sized bag, the cost of pre are salads to the price of making your own. We vowed never again 5 years ago, and it’s been ever again. Between an insulated bag and a cold pack, reusable drink bottle, a dedicated fork, and glass and plastic containers and small snack containers. He’s ready from before lunch to the snack before supper. Money saved, better ingredients, no having to wait inline.

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