Buying Lunch Too Much? 3 Ways to Pack Lunch Like a Chef

by Tracy · 13 comments

how to pack lunch

We all know in theory that brown bagging is a great way to save money and eat a bit healthier. However, for a lot of us, it’s hard to find the motivation and energy to pack a lunch, especially if it’s going to be the same old ham and cheese on wheat every day. Before long, we lose momentum and it’s back to eating burgers and subs five days a week.

If that sounds like you, here are some tips to help you pack an inexpensive lunch that will make you forget all about the allure of restaurant meals.

buy lunch1. Get your kitchen organized.

The easier it is for you to pack your lunch, the fewer excuses you’ll have for skipping it.

  • Designate a cabinet or shelf for containers, bags and wraps, to-go cutlery (I only send the mismatched forks and spoons I don’t mind losing).
  • Weed out any mismatched or damaged containers and lids.
  • Make a point of keeping this area tidy and organized so that finding what you need is a breeze.
  • Clean out your fridge to make it easy to find sandwich condiments and salad dressings and to have room for leftovers, yogurt, prepared fruit and vegetables and other easy to grab snacks. You’ll also want to keep a space available to store your lunch overnight if you prefer to pack it the night before.
  • Keep a basket on a shelf in your pantry to store lunchbox snacks like granola bars, chips and crackers. You can portion out a week’s worth at a time in plastic bags – this is cheaper than buying individual servings and just about as easy.
  • In general, having clear counters, sink and stove makes packing a lunch (and cooking) far less dreadful. If your kitchen tends to be on the messy side, de-cluttering can make a huge difference in how motivated you are to prepare food.

2. Go beyond lunch meat.

Some people are happy eating the same deli meat and cheese sandwich every day while others need variety. Foods marketed especially for lunch can also be more expensive than starting from whole foods and processing it yourself.

  • Instead of deli meat, try slicing up chicken, turkey, beef and pork that you’ve roasted yourself at home. Where I live, boneless, skinless chicken breast can often be found on sale for under $2 a pound, compared to $8-10 a pound for deli chicken breast. Not only can you save money, but you can also have more control over the salt and fat content.
  • If you like frozen dinners for lunch, try making your own by freezing portions of lasagna, enchiladas, stews and other home-cooked foods that freeze well. The food will be tastier and freezing to eat later is great for those who don’t like eating the same meals two or more days in a row.
  • Hummus with vegetables and pita bread for dipping can be a very healthy lunch. Making your own hummus is incredibly cheap and you can go beyond the normal chickpea version and experiment with black beans, edamame and other variations.

3. Make brown bagging it a fun, social affair.

All workplaces have different cultures and if yours happens to be one where most people eat out, it can be isolating to be the only one who declines to participate. This isn’t only lonely, it can also leave you out of the loop and have a negative impact on your career.

  • You can encourage your colleagues to pack a lunch by talking to them about the benefits and encouraging them to give it a shot. Not only can they save money, but it can also help them lose weight and feel less stressed about making it back to the office in time.
  • Suggest fun ways to encourage each other to pack a lunch. Some coworkers have had great luck with a salad bar club (everyone brings different ingredients to keep in the fridge to make salads that week) or bringing dishes to share. For workplaces where people are interested in getting healthier, a quick brown bag lunch followed by a brisk walk during the lunch hour can be a great motivator.
  • If most of your coworkers do eat lunch out daily, consider making room in your budget to join them some of the time. This will give you an opportunity to socialize with them outside of the office environment and help you avoid being perceived as a total outsider.

Do you pack a lunch every day? How do you avoid falling into a rut?

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • DNN says:

    I have to admit I’ve been eating out quite a bit and picked up a few pounds.

  • Julia from Los Alamos, NM says:

    Where I work it is hard to leave and return due to limited parking, so packing meals are always a good idea.

    I cook dinner for my husband and adult teen daughter three or more nights a week and make enough for one extra meal for each of us. Versatile leftover meats like chicken and fish are used for the next day’s lunch as salad topping, hearty sandwiches or tacos/wraps. We always pack lunches at night for the next day’s lunch so we can grab and go.

    • kris says:

      I work partly in an office and partly out in the field, so I don’t always know where I will be at lunchtime, but…
      1)Food made from scratch at home is a lot more nutritious and better-tasting than either restaurant food or lunchmeat and chips (gross!). If necessary, a convenience store microwave can be “borrowed” to heat up your lunch. (Buy a couple gallons of gasoline or a pack of sunflower seeds if you have to.)
      2)It takes five minutes to pack everyone’s lunch for the next day when putting up the leftovers and cleaning up after dinner. Add a piece of fruit or some raw vegetables or some nuts for the mid-morning snack.
      3)Eating dinner leftovers for lunch the next day saves big bucks over time.
      4)My 52oz insulated mug will keep a cold drink (e.g., iced tea brewed at home) cold all day. If I need a refill, I keep teabags in my desk and in my work truck – If I don’t have time to fill a cooler at home, I can refill the ice at the convenience store for 15-25 cents or I can refill the jug at a state park spigot for free if I have ice left over.
      One office I sometimes work from has breakfast, lunch, and dinner brought in from restaurants, but it’s stuff like fried chicken and donuts, so it’s worth bringing something decent to eat.

  • Devonshire says:

    I try to bring my lunch/dinner to work with me. I tend to eat the same thing all week which (to me anyway) is less stressful and makes prep time a lot easier! I usually get take out when the rest of my coworkers are going to my favorite thai place but since i’ve stopped eating out everyday i’ve saved a ton of money and that alone is motivation to brown bag it!

  • Tom12GA says:

    When I bought my rice cooker, I noticed that they also produced a “Bento Box” which is akin to a stackable, compartmentalized, partially insulated lunchbox.

    I am able to bring two vegetable dishes, rice/porridge & 3oz of fish/protein. I also bring some mineral water and a piece of fruit.

    In addition to brown-bagging my lunch, I also started riding a bike to work this year and have lost 46 pounds as of yesterday. I am very happy with the results so far.

  • Jenna, Adaptu Community Manager says:

    I pack my lunch every day. I usually cook extra dinner so I can have left overs the next day. I also like that I always pack lunch so that when I do go out for lunch for special treats it really is a treat!

  • indio says:

    Almost every meal we have is homemade because it’s so much cheaper than eating out. To eat out usually adds about 70% to the cost of a meal, after drinks, tips and restaurant markup. We eat only organic produce so it’s rare that food we buy out at a restaurant or deli is going to be healthier than what we can get at home. Since we grow a lot of our food, the food budget is relatively low except in Winter and early Spring when nothing is growing.

  • Melissa @ says:

    I really have trouble remembering to bring my lunch everyday. I try to cook on Sunday and buy things that can easily be toted to work, but I lack the motivation in the morning to put it all together. Perhaps I should just pack up the night before because I usually spend 5-10 more dollars per lunch per day that I eat out. That makes me think… Maybe I what I need is a rewards plan, for every day I bring my lunch, I put a couple dollars in a can. It’s still cheaper than eating out, and by the end of the month, I’ll have a small chunk of change to do something fun. Think it could work? I think you’ve inspired an experiment for a post on our blog 🙂 Thanks!

  • marci says:

    Definitely make it the night before – then just grab and go.

    Also helps to take a week’s worth of fruit etc for munchies so you don’t have to pack that every day.

    And keep a can of soup etc and some protein bars in your desk for those days you forget to bring your lunch – that way you are not tempted to eat out.

    Once it becomes a habit, it’s easy to do 🙂

  • KM says:

    I very rarely eat out and it’s only for the socializing part with coworkers. However, my trick is to pack breakfast and lunch the night before. It’s much easier when you have “unlimited” time to get ready (you just go to sleep a few minutes later) rather than when you are rushed to leave. I usually just get some leftovers, put in a box and leave it in the fridge to grab in the morning. Yesterday I made creamy broccoli/squash/potato soup and poured myself a box of it for today’s lunch before storing the rest in a big box for everyone who stays at home. I very rarely make sandwiches (if only for breakfast)…I think I would get bored if I did that.

  • Jennifer says:

    Yeah, this one is difficult since I love variety. God bless you, Kelly, for being able to eat the same thing for a week. I couldn’t handle it.

    Since it’s just me, I’ve found the grocery rotisserie chickens to be a savior. I can have them as cooked, make sandwiches or make chicken salad and feel like I’ve got enough variety, especially if I add veggies. As for frozen foods, chilis and stews are best when allowed to sit for a while, and I include freezing in this. The one thing I always need to remember to do is to clean out my freezer as well as the fridge. An unfortunate case of freezer burn makes for a crappy lunch.

    Making two servings can also be a savior for me since it lets me have something for lunch three days later, which is not too close to the dinner so I don’t feel lack of variety. Someday I’ll get to the point where I can make something large (like a lasagne) and have enough tupperware to actually store meals for the next several months. In the meantime, I probably need to just look in the freezer and meal plan for what’s on hand.

  • Kelly says:

    I usually cook something on Sunday afternoon and bring a 5-day supply for the workweek. I couldn’t get it together to make/pack something every morning. I keep it varied by week: one week I might bring sandwich stuff, the next week homemade soup, the following week a rice-based dish. This week I’m having cottage cheese and adding greens (arugula), with fruit on the side. I’m rarely bored or unhappy with what I have!

    • Juan says:

      Personally I’m a huge fan of doing this. As long as you put enough spices on the main dish you end up saving time + money + the emotional stress of figuring out what to eat. As long as you keep a big enough supply of non-perishables at home then you will have all of the variety necessary for the week.

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