Lunch ideas to take to work (to save money)

January 9, 2009 at 6:04 pm (bringing lunch) (, , )

It’s not a surprise that eating out costs more than cooking at home. I’ve been cooking more in order to save money. To take that one step further, I’ve decided that I shouldn’t be paying for lunch out while at work. It’s expensive, with tip and tax included. If I go to the grocery store and get something from the hot or salad bar, it’s still $5-8, and that’s not including a drink or snack. I tried occasionally bringing food to work, but haven’t been all that successful at it.

If I go to the grocery store, I count lunch towards my grocery budget, and if I go to a restaurant, or get takeout (almost always thai or vietnamese), that goes under restaurant category. After being way over both my food and restaurant budgets last month, I’ve set a goal to bring my lunch to work at least 4 out of every 5 days in the work week, 5 if I can manage. This should give me a lot of savings over the course of a year.

Bringing food every day takes careful consideration. You have to actively think what to bring, shop for those items at the store, in advance, and then prepare lunch before leaving for work. If I plan well, I can prepare twice as much for dinner, then all I have to do is package up the leftovers after dinner is over. If I have to make something fresh, then I try to get up earlier in the morning. This can be a big sacrifice – I simply adore sleeping in. Getting up early for *any* reason is a major chore.

My office has a fridge, microwave, toaster oven, toaster, coffee pot, and filtered water. I have everything I need to prepare or reheat any food that I bring. I recently bought a 2-tiered metal lunch pail (I don’t want to be using so much plastic to wrap or store my food). It has plenty of room for leftovers and/or a salad.

I have some staple ideas for large snack plates: an apple, raw nuts (pecans, walnuts, or almonds are my favorite), and slices of cheese (such as Jarlsburg, chedder, gruyere, p’tit basque, you name it). I try and bring stronger-tasting, firm cheese. The combination of all 3 is a classic!

Salad and dressing – I usually buy the 1 lb. clamshell from Costco (at 3.99), which lasts for a week. I make my own dressing with olive oil, balsalmic vinegar/old red wine/mirin (in very small doses)/cider vinegar, lime juice for the citrus, soy sauce for the salt. I make up a big batch and either bring in a jar for the week, or fill up a squeeze bottle (the local co-op sells them in their bulk isle). You can suplement this with some smoked salmon, other types of nuts, or cubed pieces of cheese or other meats if you don’t eat salmon. On the side I eat corn thins with cheese slices. Canned tuna would also work in place of the salmon. The salad and dressing are in larger quantities, so I usually use it throughout the week.

Deli meat, such as turkey or roasted chicken on sandwich bread, with lettuce, mayo, and maybe a slice of deli cheese. Add a piece of fruit, and either a handful of pretzels or nuts. Or maybe have some more salad.

Lately Im also finding that I have been craving drinks. I may break down and buy a case of Coke from Costco (I generally avoid buying soda as a general rule). I may limit myself to 1 or 2 a week. I should try bringing in a 2 liter bottle of sparkling water (my drink of choice), to cover my carbonation urge. Every day around 1:30 or 2 I start craving a carbonated beverage, and this urge usually lasts until the end of the day.

I generally stock instant oatmeals for the times I am too tired to eat breakfast at home (which is about 90% of the time), and would rather sleep in ’til the last minute.

I used to bring baggies of cut up apples (with lemon juice to keep them from turning brown, which oddly enough, enhanced their flavor quite well). This also works with carrots – try cutting up large organic carrots – they are far superior to carrot sticks (which I generally find to be bland and bitter). Some other options are to bring yogurt and fruit – the 32. oz. or 64 oz. tubs of yogurt will last quite a while and can be stored in the fridge as you use them – this is much more economical than buying the individual cups at $1 each. If you can’t store the tubs at work, portion it out before you go to work. An alternative is cottage cheese, cut up fruit, and a little dollop of honey to sweeten. Canned fruits can be a good substitute in the winter months, with the added bonus of the sugar in the syrup already there to sweeten it. My favorite fruits to eat with it are a ripe peach, a really tart and firm plum or pluot. Kiwi and apricots would also work.

I generally try and keep a bag of bulk nuts, peanut butter, crackers or corn thins, and some raman noodles in a copy at my desk in times of hunger, for a snack, or when I need to round-out my lunch. Sometimes I lend them to co-workers that need some extra food.

I’m going to try posting my lunches for the week for a while. This will help me keep accountable, and give all you PF blog readers some ideas. Feel free to give some of your own suggestions!

January 5-9

Monday (leftovers): Chicken breast from a roast chicken, peas with wasabi and butter, 3 small red potatoes with butter and sour cream.

Tuesday: peanut butter + banana on toast, 1 small aple, and 2 carrots (cut up in sticks). 1 pop tart.

Wednesday (leftovers): A bowl of tuna noodle casserole, leftovers from the night before.

Thursday: Repeat of Tuesday. Brought a bagel and cream cheese for breakfast.

Friday (leftovers): Hodge-podge of shredded chicken, peas, onions, spinach in a canned tomato/mustard/sherry/cream sauce, served over quinoa (my favorite grain). Split a bagel and cream cheese with a coworker for breakfast.



  1. thepennypincher said,

    Leftovers are our staple when it comes to lunches at work. Quite often my wife makes a large pot of soup that lasts us close to a week or I use the slow cooker to prepare some barbecue meat that will serve as sandwich filling. If we have nothing, then we simply prepare a batch of mac and cheese from time to time to fill in the gap.

  2. debtmaven said,

    Soups are great. We often make french onion. It usually lasts for 3 meals or more. I have the bread and peanut butter option for those days when there’s nothing else or I didn’t cook, or didn’t cook enough. Part of the challenge is that my bf and I both work at the same place, so we cook and have to have leftovers for 4 servings everytime, and I’m just not used to cooking in such quantities all the time. I like big casseroles or big pots of food since it only makes sense to make those in quantities!

    Great idea, pennypincher, will have to do a soup this week.

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