I admit it, I rarely pack my lunch. My number-one excuse is “I don’t have time.” But turns out I’m missing out on big savings and also bucking a growing trend. Americans are brown-bagging weekday lunches more and more to cut costs and get healthy. According to a study by market research firm NPD Group, some 8.5 billion people brown-bagged lunches last year. The majority of brown-baggers said they bring lunch from home to save money, followed by health and nutrition.
So I played with the numbers: I typically spend $8 a workday on lunch, that’s $40 a week. Multiply that by 52 weeks and that’s around $2,000 a year. Okay, I’m nearly convinced, but then there’s my other excuse, “brown-bag lunches are boring.” If this is your gripe, our friends at ShopSmart have some tips on creative brown-bag lunches that can help you cut costs while staying healthy:
Breakfast for lunch. Frittatas are great served cold or warm. Make one from your favorite cookbook or recipe Web site the night before and pack a slice or two. A piece of quiche also packs well and can be eaten cold.
Leafless salads. A mix of chopped raw vegetables (peppers, seeded cucumber, carrots, etc.) in vinaigrette holds up much better than lettuce. Black beans and corn make a complete protein; add diced red pepper and chopped scallions for color and crunch. Lentil salad is another filling, healthful, and pretty inexpensive option.
Portable pasta. Cook extra whole-grain pasta when you make dinner and dress it up differently for the next day’s lunch. It holds up well, can be eaten cold, and goes with anything. Add your favorite vinaigrette and canned salmon or store-bought meatballs for a second meal. If you’re watching your carbs, use spaghetti squash to make a pseudo pasta salad.
Antipasto and dips. A selection of small bites can be as satisfying as a big sandwich. Pack mozzarella cubes wrapped in roasted red peppers (fresh or from a jar), olives, a couple of deviled eggs, a couple of slices of salami, and some roasted almonds. Or bring a small container of hummus and pita or vegetables to scoop it up.
Chip alternatives. Bring your own popcorn rather than buy a bag of overpriced chips. Edamame beans are another healthful, cheap snack. Many supermarkets sell frozen green soybeans for about $2.50 a bag; boil and chill them and pack them for a late-afternoon pick-me-up.
Sandwich substitutes. Rather than slap two pieces of bread around a slice of cheese, pack wedges of good, flavorful cheese, a crusty whole-grain roll or other sturdy bread, and some grapes or veggies. Or skip the bread and tote chicken or egg salad in a hollowed-out tomato.
Hot and hearty fare. Invest in a wide-mouth thermos if you don’t already own one and take homemade or canned soup (even store-bought is still a bargain). Leftover stews, stir-fries, and casseroles stay hot and pack well in a thermos, so always make a little extra when you cook dinner.
Read more tips on eating healthful on a budget. And we’d like to hear from you: What are some healthful ways you’ve cut costs on meals for you and your family?