Brown Bag It: Tips For Making Cheap Lunch

by Elizabeth on August 13, 2012 · 8 comments

This post is inspired by you – well, technically, it’s inspired by Broke Professional reader Mr. Moneybanks from Multi-Millionaire Road, who left this comment on my recent post about hidden costs of my husband’s new job:

Similarly, buying lunches is a new cost. Iā€™m also going to have to make my own. You should write a post on money saving tips for making packed lunches!

The first line of Mr. Moneybanks’s comment made me realize that my husband isn’t the only adult male out there who didn’t leave brown bag lunches behind when he graduated from high school; it was the second line of that comment (emphasis my own) that forced me to sit back down in front of my computer and give all of you some insight on how we’re making grown-up, economical, healthy lunches for my husband to take to work.

The Need for Brown Bagging

If you’re like most American workers, you probably buy your lunch at work, never considering brown bagging as an option. Don’t worry if you do, you’re not alone; according to a January 2012 survey, nearly two-thirds of American workers buy lunch daily. That same survey found these workers are spending an average of $1924 a year on lunch. If you figure that most workers have two weeks for vacation and another week’s worth of sick days – resulting in 49 5-day work weeks a day – you’re looking at an average daily lunch tab of $7.85.

Now, I realize that by deciding to brown bag it, we’re not going to be able to eliminate these costs entirely. After all, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, even if your meal does come clad in a brown paper sack. When it comes to lunch ideas for my husband, my goal is to cut the tab for each meal in half, giving me a daily budget of $3.92 a day – a tricky task, especially since my husband eats lunch and breakfast on the go.

Start with the Basics

When I was a kid, brown bagging basically involved a sandwich (PB&J, my favorite), a piece of fruit, a juice box and a snack – something like a bag of Doritos. That’s the template for my husband’s lunches now, essentially, but with some adult touches.

Assess Your Amenities

Not all lunchrooms are created equal. Back at my last job, I had access to a refrigerator, freezer, microwave, stove top, over, and toaster oven. In other words, I could have concocted some seriously fabulous recipes in my office’s kitchen (had I ever had the time toeatlunch; lunch hours spent hunched over my computer were par for the course back then).

My husband’s lunch situation is a little more complicated. In theory, he has access to a refrigerator, freezer, and microwave – but in order to use those appliances, he has to be at the sheriff’s office or one of its county-wide satellite offices, which is easier said than done when he’s responding to emergency calls on patrol. With this in mind, we’ll be focusing on meals that he can eat without having to keep food at a temperature below freezing or reheat before eating.

Remember the Three R’s

No, I’m not talking about reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic – I’m talking about reduce, reuse, and recycle, the three R’s of conservatism (in the ecological sense, not the political sense).

Even though we call it brown bagging in my household, there’s no need to send my husband to work every day with a paper sack. Despite his best intentions, I know where that bag will ultimately end up: in the trash. Not only is this wasteful environmentally, it’s also wasteful financially – that’s literally throwing money in the garbage! Instead, I found an insulated lunch box with a thermos in a manly color (navy blue) for $12 at a back to school sale, which my husband uses every day in place of a brown bag.

My Go-To Favorites

All right, here’s what you really want to know – my favorite recipes! Since my husband’s rotating work schedule only has him working 7 out of every 14 days, I have accumulated a stockpile of seven breakfast ideas and seven lunch ideas. This also streamlines my shopping list, and makes it easier for me to plan and shop for his cheap lunch ahead of time. Here are a few of my favorites.

Cheap Breakfast

  • Cereal and fruit. Since my husband eats breakfast within the first two hours after he’s left the house, I can send a cup’s worth of milk in his thermos without worrying it will spoil. I also send a scoop of his favorite cereal – Kashi Go Lean – in a tupperware container to add to the milk. This meal usually comes with a piece of fruit, usually a banana, pear, or peach. Total cost: $0.92
  • Oatmeal with cereal. This cheap breakfast once again relies on my husband’s thermos. I typically make him two servings of oatmeal, adding in chunks of fruit like bananas, strawberries, or apples.Total cost: $1.10
  • Biscuits and gravy. This is one of my husband’s favorite breakfasts on the road, because it reminds him of breakfast at home. I use the heart-healthy Bisquick to make whole wheat biscuits (usually made the night before), then send him a small serving of gravy (made using turkey or chicken stock from the previous night’s dinner) in a tupperware. The gravy is essentially free, as it is a byproduct of cooking an earlier meal. Total cost: $0.10 per biscuit (he usually gets 4-5)
  • Egg sandwich. What do you get when you combine a fried egg, a piece of cheese, and two slices of whole wheat bread? An on-the-go breakfast sandwich! Sometimes, we’ll substitute a fancier cheese – my husband likes Havarti – in place of a standard American cheese slice for a more adult taste. Total cost: $0.46 ($0.82 if I use Havarti)

Cheap Lunch

When it comes to making a cheap lunch, inspiration usually starts at the previous evening’s dinner table. If we’re having pasta or a rice casserole, you can pretty much guarantee that the leftovers are going to end up in my husband’s thermos the next afternoon. Using leftovers – both at home and while my husband’s at work – is one of our keys to financially-responsible meal planning. Here are my other go-to lunches that aren’t based on leftovers:

  • Grown-up turkey sandwich.No longer is a turkey sandwich merely a piece of deli meat slapped between two pieces of bread with a little mayo. Instead, this grown-up sandwich uses carved smoke turkey – a little pricier, but far more substantial in a sandwich – artisan bread, a high-end cheese (again, we like Havarti), and mayo or mustard with a kick, like a chipotle mayo. I serve this with a piece of fruit and some pita chips.Total cost: $1.77
  • Greek salad. My husband’s lunch box does a great job of keeping salads just cool enough to be refreshing, especially on a hot summer day riding around in a patrol car. We use bagged spinach sprinkled with feta cheese, olives, pecans, and grilled chicken (leftover from the previous night’s grilled chicken breasts); dressing comes separate in a small tupperware to avoid making the salad soggy.Total cost: $1.40
  • Loaded baked potato.If we’re having baked potatoes as part of our dinner one night, we’ll throw an extra potato in the oven for my husband’s lunch the next day. In the morning, we’ll reheat the potato, scoop it into the thermos, and add whatever we can find – sometimes that’s grilled chicken, chunks of bacon (no Baco-Bits here!), cheese, even veggies like broccoli. The thermos keeps it warm until it’s time to eat this hearty meal.Total cost: $1.58

The Results

As you can see, the price-per-serving for my husband’s breakfast and lunch ideas keeps the costs very low. By sticking to our meal plan, I can guarantee that we will use an entire loaf of break or the entire pound of carved turkey before it goes bad, because I’ve scheduled the meals around the foods we buy. So far, I’ve only had one day when we went over budget – and that’s because the power went out and my husband had to rush out to work without his meals; he bought his food on the road, hence the budget-buster. Since then, we’ve started packing the majority of his meals the night before.

Reader, what are some of your adult recipes for brown bag lunches?

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Roshawn @ Watson Inc August 13, 2012 at 8:25 am

I almost always bring my lunch. The savings is significant, but there is something else that is on my mind: I can control what I eat better. I think it is so much healthier for me, so it what I do >95% of the time.

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2 Kim@Eyesonethedollar August 13, 2012 at 4:56 pm

My husband is a teacher and refuses to eat cafeteria food, so he takes lunch each day as well. He is extremely picky so we usually alternate between peanut butter, turkey sandwiches, or some sort of salad. I would get tired of the same things, but he seems to do OK. Kudos for figuring out the cost per meal. I should try to do that.

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3 Kevin @ SpringCoin August 14, 2012 at 6:46 pm

Let’s not forget the health benefits of bringing your own lunch! Being healthy = more productive !

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4 Amy @ JobCred CV Builder August 19, 2012 at 4:50 am

I like your favorites enumeration. For me, preparing one’s own meal is not just thrifty but also a safety health measure. We can make sure that the food is clean and the ingredients are really fresh.

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5 MakintheBacon$ August 19, 2012 at 8:41 pm

I go by the rule: tonight’s dinner is tomorrow’s lunch. The cafeteria at my workplace has some pretty awful, unhealthy food so I almost always bring my lunch. Its become part of my preparing for work routine.

I often pack lots of snacks to munch on throughout the day: pita and hummus, cheese and crackers, greek yogurt with granola mixed in.

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6 James Moore September 4, 2012 at 2:38 pm

You’ve left out one huge benefit from eating lunch out – but it depends on your co-workers and the kind of work you do.

If you’re buying a lunch to eat by yourself, then yes, bringing your lunch is probably a great idea.

If you’re regularly eating with other people, don’t do it. Lots of networking happens over meals. If people in your office go out together for lunch often, you need to be there. In lots of white-collar fields, this will more than pay for itself. Don’t try to save a couple thousand dollars a year if it’s going to help you get a promotion or your next great job.

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7 Rachel September 21, 2012 at 12:59 pm

This is a great article.. But, what do you do when your husband regularly (3 times a week), won’t eat lunch at all because he says he is “too busy”? I am tired of feeding the dog expensive sandwiches and shepherd’s pie. I try to control myself and not assume that he hates my cooking, because I do know that isn’t true. But, what on earth can I make if he is truly too busy to even shove a sandwich in his mouth? Let’s not even talk about what gets brought home on Friday.. every piece of fruit he has taken gets brought home again.

Today I was angry so I told him just to buy lunch if he wants it because I’m sick of seeing wasted food.

We are both teachers with office hours. I bring a lunch from home and I find time to eat it. He works in an engineering lab. Surely he can find time for a sandwich!!!

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