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7 Healthy Brown Bag Lunch Ideas for Adults at Work

By Myscha Theriault

woman lunch saladLet’s face it: When it comes to finding ways to save money, brown bag lunches usually get a boring rap. But homemade doesn’t necessarily have to mean ho-hum.

If you’re working at a regular full-time job, one way or another you’re probably eating lunch away from home five days a week. If you hit the regular soup and sandwich place every day – or worse, if you’re eating fast food five times a week – you’re going to pack on pounds and drop a lot of cash.

The Real Costs of Lunch

As an example, imagine that you’ve found enough coupons and local specials to keep your daily lunch cost to $5. That’s a very low estimate, especially if you work in a city or major suburban corporate park. Even at that seemingly low price, you’ll spend $25 per week, $100 per month, and $1,200 per year.

Spending $1,200 annually…for lunch?

That’s not even taking into account the costs involved in getting to where you eat. If you drive just three miles to your favorite lunch spot, you can add about another $225 to that yearly amount. On top of that, consider the wear and tear on your car for that short stop-and-go trip around the block.

Brown Bagging It

I take my lunch with me to work just about every day of the week, and no, I don’t really use a brown bag. I endured a stare or two at the beginning, but if you think you’re suffering a stigma for bringing in your own lunch, you’ll just have to summon a little courage and know how much money you’re saving.

I don’t avoid the social situations of the office. I’ll go out to eat on rare special occasions. If you like spending time with co-workers, designate Fridays to go out to eat, but pick a place where you can regulate how much you spend. Find a place with a lunch special or come up with restaurant discounts and coupons you can use.

Additionally, you can encourage a few co-workers to bring their lunch to work, and eat together outside or in a break room. Make an event out of it, and you can all support each other in an effort to cut lunchtime spending habits.

To avoid getting bored with your own meals, and to attract the attention of a few co-workers, follow these seven steps to up the ante on brown bagging it. You may even get healthier and make your colleagues jealous in the process!

brown bag lunch sandwich

7 Strategies to Spice Up Your Brown Bag Lunch

1. Add Dipping Sauces
A small bag of carrots and celery sticks isn’t too exciting – until you add garlic hummus or sweet Thai chili sauce. Tasty dipping sauces can spice up everything from leftover grilled chicken (cut into nugget-sized pieces), pre-cooked shrimp, and fruits and veggies. Just pick your favorite flavor pairing, use quarter-pint canning jars for the sauces, brown bag it, and you’re good to go. Your taste buds will thank you.

2. Mix Up Your Sandwich Toppers
If you want to keep your sandwiches from getting boring, add-ins go a long way in the affordable flavor department. Some of my favorite budget-friendly picks include:

  • Large jars of banana pepper rings
  • Pickle slices
  • Fresh cheese
  • Sprouts
  • Fresh basil leaves

Don’t be afraid to try new flavor combos and discover a new sensation. Sure, expensive taste might add a few extra dollars to your immediate budget, but these toppers will last longer and cost less than the instant gratification of a restaurant lunch.

3. Garnish Your Soup
If you’re bringing a small thermos of soup to work for lunch, toss in chopped scallions, homemade croutons, or even a dollop of yogurt to take lunch soup to the level of restaurant indulgence. These items are all affordable options to freshen up your soup even on the tightest of budgets.

4. Include Fun Snacks
Small containers of homemade trail mix, sandwich bags of bargain pretzels that you buy in bulk and custom-season in the oven, or even a couple of homemade cookies will give you something to look forward to at lunch or during a coffee break. Anything to break up the monotony of your sandwich and apple combo will make that brown bag a little less boring.

5. Make Your Own Finger Foods
Is there anything more fun than eating with your hands, rather than using a fork? Homemade turkey roll-ups sliced into bite-sized pieces, fresh spring rolls, and veggie kabobs are just a few ideas. Combine them with a yummy dipping sauce and you’ll double your fun factor.

6. Make Meals Ahead of Time
If you’re tired of PB&J sandwiches, but you don’t have time to whip up a gourmet meal every morning, consider cooking large batches of delicious entrees that freeze well, like lasagna or chicken pot pie. Put them into single-serving Tupperware dishes, pop them in the freezer, and then grab one on your way out the door to work. Voila! A hot, home-cooked meal that’s a fraction of the price of take-out!

7. Leftovers
Similarly, last night’s dinner works as a great lunch and takes very little prep time. If you get tired of repeat meals, buy yourself some flour tortillas, wrap last night’s protein leftovers up in one of those with a little bit of cheese, and have a wrap. Or throw together some old school sandwiches, which always do the trick for me. Finally, last night’s salad won’t have a long shelf life in your fridge, so add some dressing and bring it to work the next day for a filling, nutritious meal.

Health Considerations

You may not realize it, but very few sandwich shops and restaurants are truly healthy options. Going out to lunch probably doubles or triples your calorie intake, as well as your fat and cholesterol levels.

When you bring your own lunch, on the other hand, you know exactly what is going into your food. Since a full-time job or working multiple part-time roles can cut into your workout time, monitoring your nutrition is even more important. If you’re trying to cut calories to lose weight or just stay in shape, bringing in your own lunch will make a world of a difference.

Final Word

The cost of a turkey rollup or carrots-and-hummus combination might vary greatly depending on where you shop and what kinds of specialty ingredients you might choose to buy. Leftovers are very inexpensive for sure, and if you look for the right deals at your local grocery store (i.e. extreme couponing), lunch meats are quite cheap too. In the end, the daily cost of making your own lunch should average out to around a dollar a day.

That’s roughly $1,100 in annual savings: about three car payments or a month or more of your mortgage or rental payments. For all the stares I got from co-workers, three of them already caught on to the savings and they’re doing the same thing I’m doing. Brown bag lunches are the ultimate way to save money, but they don’t have to taste as cheap as they are. With a little planning and experimenting, you can tantalize your taste buds while keeping your money where it belongs – in your wallet.

What are your thoughts on bringing a brown bag lunch to work instead of eating out everyday?

(photo credit: Shutterstock)

Myscha Theriault
Myscha Theriault is a syndicated columnist with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, best-selling author and professional blogger whose work has appeared on such web sites as Forbes, MSN, the Los Angeles Times and AOL. Print interviews include Better Homes and Gardens, the New York Times, Women’s World and All You magazine. She is the founder of Trek Hound, a site for independent travelers, We Be Sharin', a home living web site, and The Lesson Machine, a site for teachers both Stateside and abroad.

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  • http://www.pfsdebtrelief.com Stephan

    i bring my lunch 4 days a week and go out on fridays with coworkers. while i love going out for lunch as the food is usually fresher than my leftovers the finances defintiely stood out to me when i started my job. i was basically working a couple of hours each week just go pay for my lunches during the work week. now with my new arrangment i can save a bunch of money, eat healhtier, and also still go out once a week and reward myself for a good!
    Preferred Financial Services Blog

    • David/moneycrashers

      Stephan

      That’s awesome!

      When you see how much more it costs simply to go out to eat, those leftovers start looking a lot better!

  • http://www.fatwallet.com Laura Pagles

    My husband has been taking his lunch for about two years now. The biggest hurdle to sticking to it was just taking the time in the morning to make his sandwiches or leftovers, whatever. But now that he’s used to it being a part of his schedule, it takes a few minutes. It’s really opened his eyes to the contrast in his diet before and after the bag lunches.

    Laura P.
    @fatwallet

    • David/moneycrashers

      Laura

      Tell your husband I said a big “I hear ya” on the leftover/sandwiches thing.

      It gets a little mundane after awhile, but you just can’t beat the savings. And I have lost wieght since making the transition as well.

      By the way, I am a closet FW addict!!!

      Thanks for chiming in

      • http://www.fatwallet.com Laura Pagles

        Always love to hear the confessions of a FatWallet member. Drop me a PM…

        lpickles (FatWallet)

        • David/moneycrashers

          Laura

          Yes, my confessions would be many and varied.

          I tried sending a PM and it said you aren’t accepting them…just FYI

          You can shoot me one if you want.

          davidali

  • Lissa

    Thanks for the perspective. I bring my lunch 95% of the time. I got used to doing that because at my old job, there were very few lunch choices so I’d rather eat food that I actually like. I was also too lazy to drive out to get lunch so I’d rather bring it and walk over to the breakroom. Nice to see how much money potentially I’m saving.

    • David/moneycrashers

      Lissa

      Plus, you actually have more lunch “break” time as you don’t waste some of it driving around.

      The savings are awesome too

      Thanks for chiming in

  • http://change-is-possible.net Heather

    I have only a 30-minute lunch. I can buy lunch for $2.50 per day (I work in an elementary school and that’s the teacher price for school lunch), but is that really what I want to eat? I pack my lunch every day, but in that environment, it’s not terribly odd. There are some people who will run to Jack in the Box or Whataburger (the only places that we could realistically get to and back and eat in 30 minutes), but I don’t like (or eat) fast food.

    As far as health benefits, besides calories, fat, and cholesterol, don’t forget sodium!

    • David/moneycrashers

      Heather

      Right again! Typically, the kinds of foods you get in restaurants are pretty high in sodium which can lead to a variety of health issues.

      I think its great that even though you could “buy” your lunch for only $2.50, that you still decide to bring it with you every day.

      Thanks for commenting

      • http://change-is-possible.net Heather

        Well … the day that I ate lasagna with a spork was the last day that I bought lunch when I “didn’t have time” to pack one LOL

        • David/moneycrashers

          A spork!

          Boy, does that bring back memories!!!

  • http://twitter.com/BlogandSave Savings.com Blog

    I love packing leftovers for lunch. Saves time and money. Going out to eat does add up over time.

  • Jon | Free Money Wisdom

    I bring my lunch 4 days a week. It’s such a money saver! I used to spend 12-15 bucks easily and now I average $4/day by bringing my own lunch. Over the long terms, we’re talking thousands of dollars!

  • http://twitter.com/usha88 Michelle Adams

    I have been bringing my lunch here and there. I save a lot more money and less likely to over-eat. I am much hungrier by dinner, but it is nice to save the money. I snack on Nutrigran bars throughout the day. I always brought my lunch when I was around college. I am a s-mich maker, so it was nice.

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