Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Brown Bag Brigade: Your One-Stop Shop for Work Lunch Ideas

For two years, I’ve been fairly consistently packing my lunch for work. And like tons of other personal finance bloggers, it’s saved me mad dough – somewhere in the neighborhood of $2500, I’m guessing. To put it in more concrete terms, that’s 5% of the down payment on a house, two sweet vacations, rent for four months, ten 160GB iPods, or 80 semi-decent pairs of shoes. Nice.

Alas, life’s been a little hectic lately, so last week I opted for takeout soup, sandwiches, and Z-grade sushi over homemade salads and be-tupperwared leftovers. Admittedly, it was a nice change, but it also served as a reminder. I was stuffed by the end of each day, down $40 by the end of the week, and couldn’t BELIEVE how many disposable plastic and Styrofoam containers I had plowed through. (Thanks, Midtown!)

I know brown bagging has been covered exhaustively by every single media source in existence (ABC, BBC, Highlights Magazine, The Hills, etc.), but its importance can’t be overstated. Simply, because bringing lunch to work is:
  1. Cheap (see first paragraph),
  2. Healthy (as it gives you control over your food), and
  3. Good (for the environment).

So, with great excitement, ado, celebration, frankincense, and myrrh, I present you with … the rest of the post! It has two key sections: the first is chock full of tips to help plan your midday meals efficiently and effectively, while the second is an extensive database of lunch ideas from The Simple Dollar, Chow, WebMD and beyond. (Suggestions welcomed!) I guarantee, with time and a teaspoonful of effort, you’ll never blow $7 on a lame, last-minute Subway hero again.

Plan ahead. When you’re drawing up a grocery list and/or shopping, don’t forget to include enough food for a few lunches. Make sure it’s stuff you like, and wouldn’t mind repeating two or three days a week, to boot. Unfussy, healthy, easily-pulled-together mainstays like bread, sandwich fillings, spreads, salads, fruits, and vegetables are all solid bets. Be sure to ease up on the pre-packaged frozen meals, though (Weight Watchers, Lean Cuisine, etc.). They cost more, both in cash and sodium intake, than a self-created lunch.

Prep the night before. No one wants to wake 20 minutes early so they can half-assedly slap a bologna sandwich together before the 8am train. Assembling an simple lunch in the evening will let you sleep longer AND increase the likelihood of a meal you’ll enjoy. If those nightly 10 minutes are too inconvenient, you can always …

Prep in bulk. Clever Dude and The Simple Dollar have the best posts I’ve seen about constructing meals en masse, but there are tons – TONS – of similar strategies online. (That I’m having problems finding, naturally. Help?) You can knock out a week’s lunches in a single Sunday half-hour, then freeze or refrigerate them until needed.

Don’t settle for sandwiches. Variety is the spice of lunch. Any burgeoning brown bagger will get sick (real fast) of PB&Js repeated ad nauseum, so try to change the menu up whenever you can. Portable chow like soups, bento boxes, burritos, make-your-own pizzas, and especially leftovers are vital to making BYOL more palatable. (See the attached list below for more ideas.) Speaking of…

Use leftovers wisely. Once The Boyfriend boarded the Brown Bag train (it’s right next to Soul Train), planning lunches became a little tougher. I solved a lot of that by making double the dinner servings and packing half away for Next Day Consumption. The leftovers add a ton of nutritionally-sound variety AND it’s infinitely thrifty, since I’m not creating entirely new meals.

Pack snacks. Ahhh … the four o’clock coma. Fellow desk jockeys, you know what I’m talking about: that mid-afternoon lull in brain activity where work takes second priority to napping on your keyboard. To battle the snooze, I try to pack one or two light, portable snacks per day. Fruit is ideal for this, but crackers, hummus, vegetables, popcorn, and nuts should be enough keep you from raiding the vending machines. Avoid the 100-calorie packs, though, as they are the biggest ripoff, ever.

Invest in reusable lunchboxes and utensils. Seriously, the waste created by Chinese takeout lunches could fill an entire office in about two months. Why do that to Earth when carrying environmentally-sound meal packaging can make a gigantic dent in your garbage without costing a fortune? Personally, I use thoroughly-cleaned Parmesan containers. (That is, until they A) break, B) are broken, or C) steal off to form their own secret Container Colony.)

With that, it’s on to the lunch ideas themselves. Each "#" is a different post full of suggestions, from DIY sushi to star-shaped turkey clubs. Readers and fellow bloggers, if you have any favorite articles or comment threads please pass 'em along. I’ll add below, and together we can create THE master lunch database.

Ask Metafilter: #1, #2, and #3

Chow: #1, #2, #3, and #4

Clever Dude: #1 and #2

Dollar Stretcher: #1

Fabulous Foods: #1

Global Gourmet: #1

Just Bento: #1 (see whole blog)

Lunch in a Box: #1 (see whole blog) #1

Serious Eats: #1, #2, #3, #4, and #5

The Simple Dollar: #1, and #2

WebMD: #1

Weight Watchers: #1

Wise Bread: #1

Yahoo Answers: #1

Zen Habits: #1

And that's it! Happy lunching, everybody!

(Photos courtesy of Flickr members stelladoll7 and luckysundae.)

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Annie K. Nodes said...

The only reason I can fit into my spring clothes is because I bring my lunch everyday. A good quick lunch I made the other day was grape tomatoes, corn, and cheddar cubes mixed with italian dressing. Very good.

A good snack is edamame. I boil it in the morning, throw in a tupperware and munch munch munch!

Anonymous said...

Low fat string cheese is easy to carry to work and just the right size for snacks. I also like making larget batches of soup so I have left overs for a while. A cup of soup or chili and a think slice of whole grain bread is healthy, inexpensive and amazingly filling.

Aryn said...

My post on brown-bagging is here:

I do wraps instead of sandwiches and my husband likes to intersperse his sandwiches with salads.

The key to our success is quality deli meat, not the cheapo stuff that comes in a package.

Claire said...

When brown-bagging, remember that the all-time cheapest option is leftovers!

(it's been tested;))

Kathy said...

We are in great company I did a post on habits we share with the wealthy. H.L. Hunt was a brown bagger.

Kristen said...

I stay home/work at home, so I don't need to pack a lunch, but I pack my husband's lunch without fail. 99% of the time he eats leftovers(lunch meat is way too expensive for our budget), and the odd time he'll eat a PBJ, or a french bread pizza that I throw together. I have no idea how much money this has saved us over 11 years, but it's got to be an impressive amount. It's also saved me from throwing away untold amounts of leftovers!

Anonymous said...

I realize you're in New York, but a down payment on a house is over $160,000?

Kris said...

Good CALL Anon. I'm an idiot. The number was changed.

Jennifer said...

One thing I do instead of buying lunch meat is make my own (sort of). I buy 3lb frozen boneless turkey breast portions, roast them myself, then slice them. I usually do 2 at a time and those two will last me probably a month. Whatever I won't use in the next week or so goes into the freezer until I'm ready for it. This saves a good deal of money over processed lunch meat. Depending on where I buy the roasts, they cost $7-10 for the 3 lb which works out to $2-3 per pound, much cheaper than deli meat and even the prepackaged stuff. Plus it tastes so much better!

Marcia said...

I've been brown bagging for years, and a few years ago it started catching on at work. Now there's a line at the microwave!

I carefully plan my dinners to have leftovers. I had to start doing that because my husband, who was perfectly content to eat PB&J for 30-odd years, one day decided he wanted leftovers for lunch too.

THis was a great reminder...I was particularly impressed with the guy who mass produced PB&J (which is our backup when we are out of leftovers, but it costs us 43 cents each).

Kymberley Dahl said...

This is just what I have been looking for! Thanks for it! Btw, the link for Chow #4 has addition non-url-ness at the beginning.

Cam said...

For the afternoon snack, I highly recommend pumpkin chocolate chip bread (I found the recipe at I make it with all whole wheat flour, halve the amount of baking soda (because I could taste it in the first two loaves I made - yech), and use dark chocolate chips. It's very satisfying both in filling you up and sating the evil sweet tooth, and way better for you than a vending machine run! You just have to remember to only bring one slice :)

Kris said...

Thanks for the heads up, Kymberley.
It should be fixed now.

Meags said...

I've been brown bagging ever since high school. I don't think people realize how much money they waste going out everyday - plus if you don't work close to any restaurants, you'll have to spend gas money getting there and back. I hate leaving the office during lunch because it wastes 20 minutes of my hour getting to the place and back.

kazari said...

always, always leftovers. with two of us in the house, it works out best. we have a whole bunch of lunch-size freezer containers, and they get filled as i serve the dinner. as long as it's not salad, everything gets frozen. and during the week you just open the freezer and go. mystery meals!

Julia said...

I cook on Sundays JUST to brown bag during the week. Once every few months I'll make a healthy lasagna, cut it into single servings, wrap each one and freeze them. Then when I'm out of leftovers I still have something healthy that I made to brown bag. Recipe here:

And one of my absolute favorite things to make for the week is chicken salad. I just keep coming up with new flavors! It's perfect for adding variety because you can eat it on lettuce or spinach, as a sandwich, as a wrap, or stuffed in a pita half. Yum! I'm always posting new recipes for chicken salad on my blog, too.
thanks for this post, it's great.

monica said...

Packed lunches are an obsession of mine. Thanks for a wonderful post. Hope you don't mind me sharing it on my blog!

Deborah said...

I think the best thing about taking lunch to work is that I'm not stuck in a restaurant, or standing in line, or rusing to and from my food destination for an hour. When I didn't have the option of skipping a lunch break (I can eat at my desk now, and leave an hour earlier), I would often take my lunch to the local park, or to the local lake. 30 minutes sitting watching nature go buy sure beats sitting at a table or standing in a line when it comes to resting my brain.

Daniel Koontz said...

Hi Kris,
Been meaning to comment on this post, which is a good one.

At Casual Kitchen we've always felt that an underappreciated benefit of brownbagging it is that you can control exactly what you eat! You can avoid consuming excess salt, excess fat, or whatever you're trying to cut back on in your diet if you make your food yourself and you know exactly what's in it.

Casual Kitchen

PS: Your rent is $625 month? Is there any extra space in your building? :)

carriekali said...

Hi, Kris. Thanks for another great post. I've been researching the topic of lunches myself lately.

My blog post on lunch ideas is here:

My personal favorites are the Superfoods Salad, which can be made differently every time, and the Vegetarian Chili (small batch).

Anonymous said...

Lunch meat can be pricey. If it isn't in your budget or you just want to save money, look for those pre-cooked hams on sale. I found a good sized one on sale at Wal-Mart for $5.00 - I made lunches with it for weeks!

Anonymous said...

Seriously, the wonderful world of bentos is one that I really think more people would love if they knew about it. Packing a bento lunch is basically a 'fancy' brownbagged lunch, but there is an emphasis on tasty, balanced, nutritious food. Not that the food is all fancy, just that I (and others) have noticed that packing a bento is more likely to get you eating like you should, instead of packing a PB&J every day.

Check out the blogs "Just Bento" and "Lunch in a Box". :)

Anonymous said...

I love packing my own lunches, both for myself and for my family, but my biggest inspiration comes from, because of the healthiness and the amazing presentation. I get sooo hungry whenever I read that blog. mmmmm.

Alexis said...

Thank you for this post, it was super helpful and made me hungry for healthy, environmentally-kind lunch ideas. Great tips and fabulous links!

Ps I just had to share your ideas, so we linked to your site in our post: Cheap, yummy, eco-friendly lunch ideas

Thanks again!

Stephanie said...

One thing that is important to note is that using plastic containers in the microwave that are not marked 'microwave safe' may mean that you are leaching chemicals into your food. You can find more information here:

dining tables said...

I like a sandwich that is why I always make one and bring it to my office. It is not so big that is why it is easy to carry. Just enough for a little brown bag.

Wall Mirror Gal said...

I pack a lunch almost everyday for lunch. In addition to saving big bucks, I really think it helps me be healthy. A bonus on both fronts. I could, however, be better about packing my lunch the night before!

spencer said...

Where does rent only cost $650 a month? Cause that would save me more than bringing my lunch :) Every apartment I've had post-college has had me shelling out around a grand a month and they have ranged from crap-hole to nothing-special.

Aside from leftovers we like to bring soup (make a big batch in the crock pot) or salad, my husband puts two types of lettuce with some carrots, cheese and a tiny bit of ham. I make my own vinegrette so that the vinegar is not too overpowering. If we are feeling lazy we will do sandwiches.

One thing that works for is is we will buy extra ground beef, or a couple of chicken breasts, cook them up all at once and then we can use them for all sorts of dishes throughout the week. Also we like to get one of the small hams. We can dice up some cubes for the salad, for omelets in the morning or pizza topping, or we can slice it up for sandwiches. Slicing your own meat vs deli packs is usually a good way to go. It is usually cheaper but it tastes so much better.

It is extra healthy for me to bring my lunch because it means I have to hike up an extra 3 flights of stairs to put it in the cafeteria fridge in the morning!

Anonymous said...

Excellent post!

Thanks for the tips!

Btw, rent in SK, Canada is pretty cheap. ($400min)

Jolo said...

My wife and I brown bag every day, so what I do is cook a roast or a chicken on Sunday. This way we will have sandwiches for the entire week (or two) for the two of us.

My wife gets tired of chicken snadwiches (not beef or pork though) so I give her drumsticks every week too. The other bonus is that you can use the drippings to make a killer gravy!

Anonymous said...

I made this fabric and vinyl sandwich wrapper several months ago; it makes making lunch more fun/I feel pretty cool about my homemade sandwiches when everyone else has takeout containers. It took me under an hour to make and has definitely saved me money (no more saran or ziploc bags for me).