Workday lunches can really drain your budget. Sandwiches, salads, sodas, coffee and snacks easily can add up to $10 or more every day. Even packing your own lunch can be costly if you're using a lot of convenience foods such as frozen entrees. But it seems like too much work to pack a lunch of healthy, delicious and affordable foods.
It really isn't, though. I used to be in the frozen entree-or-takeout rut until I figured out an easy, money-saving plan to eat better for less – and it takes only about one hour per week. You probably already spend more than a hour a week picking up lunch from delis and drive-thru, so why not put that time to better use and end up with more money in the bank? Here are my ten easy ways to brown bag it and save.
1. WRITE YOUR LIST: For me, the biggest challenge is meal planning and shopping. Go through cookbooks and magazines to find recipe and meal ideas that sound appealing. Pick the simple ones; recipes often list the estimated amount of prep time. Need ideas? Try the U.S.D.A.'s Thrifty Meal Plan . Write up your shopping list and get what you need for the week.
2. BATCH IT: I like to cook a recipe for a week's worth of lunches. It's become fun to pick delicious recipes that I use only for lunches; then I really look forward to eating them at work. But if you prefer, you can plan your at-home dinners to include leftovers, and save the extras for your lunches.
3. SCHEDULE YOUR PREP: Plan an hour or so to cook, prep or assemble your lunches. Sundays, obviously, are a good day, if your work week starts Mondays. Put some good music on the radio or watch TV while you work, to help the time go more quickly.
4. WHAT'S YOUR BAG? Find a lunch bag, tote bag or cooler for transporting your lunch. If you have a fridge at work, then you can use pretty much anything. I just use leftover plastic grocery bags, and then stash the bag (with the food inside) right in the office fridge. If you don't have an office refrigerator, or you're on the road, then make sure to get a freezable cold pack and an insulated cooler or bag. Sometimes you can find them at yard sales or at thrift stores. And go to the dollar store for plastic containers to hold each food item.
5. MAKE IT HOT! Obviously an office microwave is the easiest option for heating your lunch. If that's not possible, you can get a thermos that is labeled to use for hot food and beverages. Follow the directions to preheat the container, then fill with hot food.
6. PACK IT: So now you have your food and your containers. Your next step is to pack it up, preferably ahead of time so you won't be rushing around in the morning. I like to pack everything up Sunday nights; then Monday morning I open my fridge and grab the big bag with my week's lunches. If you need or prefer to transport your lunches one day at a time, it's still a good idea to stash the week's food prepacked all in one corner of your fridge, so you won't have to look around for it.
7. SNACK IT: Along with making and packing lunch entrees, don't forget the sides. I usually bring a bag of baby carrots to work for a week's worth of healthy munching. But you could also cut up celery or cucumbers, and pack them in plastic bags. Fruit is easy; just throw in apples, peaches, oranges, etc. into your lunch bag. If you like dessert, prepackage cookies or small candy pieces in plastic bags as well.
8. BACK IT UP: Chances are, you'll occasionally forget to bring your lunch to work. No problem, if you're prepared. Stash at least some of these in your office desk: peanut butter, jelly, crackers, canned soup, tuna, protein bars and single-serving fruit packages. Instant oatmeal is great, too, if you have one of those water coolers that dispenses hot water.
9. COFFEE, TEA, AND CHEAP: Don't forget that takeout coffee and tea can add up, too. I'm a big fan of brewing my morning java in a coffee maker with an automatic timer. Just set it up the night before, and your coffee is ready in the morning, Put it in a travel mug, and enjoy it in your car. Or you could invest in a small, cheap, brew-in-the-mug coffee maker like this $19 one from Black and Decker that you could use at home or even at your desk. If you like tea, remember to keep your favorite brand stashed away in your desk drawer along with a mug or cup.
10. CHANGE THE CULTURE: You have a challenge if you have an office culture where people tend to go out for lunch a lot. This can be a tough one – but I managed to change things in my office. At first I was too embarrassed to admit I couldn't afford to eat lunch out frequently, but finally I decided just to speak up. I told my coworkers that my funds were tight, and, as much as I would love to enjoy a fun lunch outing, I just couldn't afford it. Eventually, they cut back on the restaurant visits so I wouldn't feel left out. Now, if we have restaurant food, we order takeout or delivery and eat it in a conference room. It's cheaper, and even then if I can't afford to participate, I simply bring my own (pre-packed) lunch into the conference room and I can still enjoy the get-together with my coworkers.