It’s Monday morning, and your day is already booked up with meetings, deadlines, and last-minute to-dos from your boss. You forgot to pack a lunch from home, and you won’t have time to leave the office to grab something. Looks like you’ll be getting lunch from the vending machine in the break room.
We’ve all had days – or weeks – like this at work, when we’re just too busy to stop for a healthy lunch. Enter the idea of a desk pantry: stocking your desk with a stash of healthy, budget-friendly food for those days when a traditional lunch break is out of the question.
Desk-friendly foods are easy to snack on while you’re working, and they include things you can quickly prepare in your company’s break room using only hot water or a microwave. They provide a healthy burst of energy and keep you feeling full longer than highly processed, sugary snacks. And they save you money you’d otherwise spend on eating out or buying overpriced vending machine snacks. Here’s a look at how much your lunches out might be costing you, as well as some healthy, budget-friendly alternatives.
The High Cost of Going Out to Eat
Eating out at restaurants is fun and relaxing. However, you pay a lot of money for this convenience. If you go out to lunch three times per week, spending $10 each time, it adds up to $120 per month or $1,440 per year. If you go out to lunch daily, you’ll spend $3,000 per year.
Your health will also suffer from regularly eating out at restaurants, especially if you’re grabbing fast food. The Centers for Disease Control reports that 36% of American adults eat fast food on any given day, with adults ages 20 to 39 eating the most (44%). According to CNN, fast food contains a high amount of calories, fat, salt, and sugar that, when consumed in excess, is linked with Type 2 diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
Another concern is the portion sizes at restaurants and fast food chains. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, most portions are significantly larger than they were just two decades ago. For example, today’s cheeseburger is 590 calories compared with 330 calories 20 years ago. French fry portions have also ballooned; 20 years ago, the average serving size was 2.4 ounces and contained 210 calories. Today, the average serving size is 6.0 ounces and contains 610 calories.
Things aren’t much better at sit-down restaurants, where you’ll be treated to even larger portions – and a bigger bill. According to the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, restaurant food contains even more cholesterol and sodium than fast food. And chain restaurants such as The Cheesecake Factory, Buffalo Wild Wings, Dave & Buster’s, and Chili’s regularly serve some of the nation’s unhealthiest meals, according to Business Insider.
To be fair, there are plenty of restaurants that serve healthy salads and protein-packed veggie burgers, but they’re still pricey. And if you’re facing one of those weeks where there isn’t a blank space in your schedule, that option doesn’t do you much good. Building a desk pantry can help you eat healthy at work for less, no matter how busy your days get.
How to Create a Desk Pantry
Creating a desk pantry doesn’t have to cost a lot of money, especially compared with how much you’d spend eating out. There are plenty of affordable, healthy options to stock your pantry with, and you’ll save even more by making a list, looking for coupons online (or using an app like Ibotta), and shopping sales at your local grocery store. You can also find many great desk pantry foods at bulk warehouses such as Costco and Sam’s Club.
Step 1: Stock Up on Whole Grains
Whole grains provide many important health benefits, and they’re well worth the space they take up in your desk pantry. However, it’s important to understand the differences between whole grains and refined grains.
All grains – such as rice, corn, wheat, oats, and millet – contain three key parts:
- Bran. This is the shell of the seed. Bran is very high in both soluble and insoluble fiber, which helps you feel full, controls blood sugar, lowers blood pressure, and lowers LDL (“bad”) cholesterol.
- Endosperm. This is the starchy seed directly underneath the bran.
- Germ. This is the part of the seed that can produce another plant. The germ is high in healthy fats.
Any product made with whole grains, including whole grain flour, contains all three of these parts. Whole grain products are higher in nutrition, including B vitamins; higher in fiber; and higher in healthy fats than refined flour.
Refined flour, or white flour, has been processed to remove the bran and germ, leaving only the endosperm. That means the fiber and healthy fats have been removed and only the starch remains. Refined flour contains “empty calories” that offer minimal nutritional benefit while leading to a rapid rise and then fall in blood sugar levels that can leave you feeling sluggish and irritable. White flour is found in most breads, cereals, and baked goods.
What to Look For
To stock up on desk-friendly, whole-grain foods, look for the following:
- Whole grain seed or nut crackers, such as Triscuit, Annie’s Whole Wheat Bunnies, or Blue Diamond Artisan Nut Thins
- Whole grain crackers, such as WASA Whole Grain Crispbread; you can top these robust crackers with hummus, peanut butter, or cheese for a healthy snack
- Whole grain rice cakes
- Whole grain sandwich bread
- Oatmeal cups or quick oats, which you can make in a mug in the microwave. Just make sure you choose unflavored oatmeal; many oatmeal cups and packets are loaded with extra sugar. Flavor it yourself with cinnamon or a bit of honey.
- Popcorn. Popcorn is a great snack food because it’s high in fiber and antioxidants. Popping the loose kernels in a bag or bowl in the microwave is far better for you than buying traditional microwave popcorn, which is loaded with empty calories. You can also buy a bag of popcorn, such as SkinnyPop.
- Whole grain cereal
Step 2: Stock Up on Nuts & Seeds
Nuts and seeds are great foods to snack on for a number of reasons. According to Mayo Clinic, nuts are high in protein, unsaturated fat, fiber, Omega-3 fatty acids, and other nutrients. They also help your heart by lowering your LDL cholesterol and slowing plaque buildup in your arteries.
The only downside to nuts is that they’re high in calories, so it’s important to limit your portions and eat handfuls at a time. However, buying “snack portions” of nuts gets expensive. Instead, buy a large bag of nuts and make your own snack bags at home using small Ziploc bags.
What to Look For
Keep an eye out for these nuts and seeds:
- Brazil nuts
You can also add a handful of nuts to your oatmeal to boost the fiber and protein. Another great option is trail mix, which can be quite affordable if you buy the components in bulk and make your own. Add some dark chocolate, which is full of fiber and antioxidants, to your mix for an added health boost.
Also, consider adding chia seeds to your desk pantry. Chia seeds are considered a superfood because they deliver a nutrient punch with minimal calories. They’re loaded with fiber, protein, and antioxidants.
One easy way to eat chia is to make a chia pudding, which simply means mixing the seeds with fruit juice, milk, or almond milk, and letting them swell up for 15 minutes. You can then add fresh or dried fruit, spices (like cinnamon), nut butter, honey, or nuts. If you’d like to give chia pudding a try, follow this easy recipe from Bon Appétit. You can also add chia seeds to smoothies, yogurt, or even a glass of water for a filling snack.
Step 3: Stock Up on Fruit & Vegetables
Fresh and dried fruit is an excellent addition to your desk pantry because it will help satisfy that mid-afternoon sugar craving without sending you into a sugar crash. The fiber found in all fruit helps your body process the natural sugars slowly, so it won’t leave you with glazed eyes and the urgent need for a nap the way a candy bar will.
Stock your desk with some of these fruit options:
- Fresh apples. Refrigerated apples will keep six weeks or longer; in a desk drawer, they’ll keep for one to two weeks.
- Citrus fruits and pears. These will stay fresh for several weeks if kept cool.
- Dried fruits, such as apricots, pineapples, bananas, raisins, mangoes, dates, and peaches. You can save money by drying fruit at home with a food dehydrator.
- Freeze-dried fruits, such as blueberries, strawberries, or pineapple. Freeze-dried fruits are more expensive than dried fruits, but the freeze-drying process helps the fruit retain more flavor and nutrients. Trader Joe’s typically has affordable freeze-dried fruits; you can also sometimes find good deals on Amazon if you price watch.
It’s smart to keep some vegetables on hand as well. But how do you keep veggies at your desk long-term without a refrigerator?
One option is to buy roasted seaweed. Roasted seaweed is nutritious – high in vitamin B12 and potassium – and low in calories. You can also snack on freeze-dried vegetables such as corn and peas, baked veggies such as Harvest Snaps Pea Snack Crisps, or buy veggie chips, which are made using beets, kale, or carrots.
Pro tip: If you’d prefer to have healthy snacks delivered straight to your home or office, you can sign up for a service like Urthbox.com. With Urthbox you can get a month’s worth of healthy snacks, beverages and more. Choose gluten-free, vegan, diet or the classics.
Step 4: Stock Up on Proteins
Just about every muscle, organ, and tissue in your body depends on protein to function. Protein helps maintain healthy blood sugar levels; it also helps you stay focused.
Some easy ways to keep proteins stashed away at your desk include:
- Pre-packaged tuna or salmon salad mixes with crackers. These are healthy and tasty ways to get protein quickly, but keep in mind that your office mates might not like the fishy smell.
- Nut butter, such as peanut or almond butter. You can spread these on whole grain crackers, whole grain bread, or fruit such as apples or bananas. You can keep a jar in a desk drawer or purchase single-serve packets. The packets are more expensive, but they’ll help you control your portion sizes.
- Beef jerky
- Roasted chickpeas. This is another healthy snack item that can be expensive. It’s much cheaper to make and package it yourself at home than to buy it pre-packaged; Allrecipes has a good recipe.
- Canned bean-based soups, such as chili or lentil. Canned soups often go on sale during the fall, so stock up on these when prices drop.
Consider Bone Broth
You might also want to consider keeping bone broth in your office refrigerator. Bone broth is technically a stock like chicken or beef stock; it’s made by simmering chicken or beef bones with vegetables for up to 24 hours, allowing all the vitamins, proteins, collagen, and minerals to seep into the liquid. One cup of bone broth can contain up to 6 grams of protein with relatively few calories. It can also contain calcium, iron, and other minerals to help improve your skin, hair, and nails.
Making bone broth at home is by far the most affordable way to consume it. You can easily make it in a slow cooker – The Healthy Maven has a great recipe- and it will keep in the freezer for several months. However, fresh bone broth needs to stay refrigerated, which makes it a bit tricky for “desk food” if you don’t have your own fridge or a communal fridge in the break room.
Another option is to buy bone broth in shelf-stable, single-serving containers, which can be stored in a desk drawer and then heated in the microwave. Look for these to go on sale around Thanksgiving. You can also purchase bone broth powder on Amazon; again, price watch using a website such as CamelCamelCamel to get the best deal.
Step 5: Stock Up on Flavoring
Sometimes, your desk lunch will need an extra punch of flavor, and this is where the holy trinity of salt, spices, and sauces comes in. Consider stocking some of these to make your food more interesting:
- Salt and pepper
- Spices, such as cinnamon, oregano, or smoked paprika
- Hot sauce
- Single-serve soy sauce
- Single-serve salad dressing and mayonnaise
- Honey or agave syrup
Stocking your desk with a wide variety of healthy food can save you hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars each year. If you look for coupons and wait for sales, you’ll save even more.
In addition to saving a significant amount of money, keeping healthy foods at your desk ensures that you won’t indulge in fatty, sugary treats when hunger strikes. Highly processed foods, whether from a restaurant or vending machine, often lead to low energy and low productivity. You simply can’t do your best work or focus intently when your body is struggling to digest unhealthy food.
What healthy foods do you stash at your desk?