Brown Bag Blues

December 1, 2012 Money Saving Ideas

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One of the biggest money savers for those who don’t have the opportunity to eat lunch at home is to pack a lunch. This applies those who work away from home, students, or even those who have a long day of errands but don’t want to blow their cash on fast food.

Eating out every day can be a HUGE drain on the budget. Most folks spend an average of $5 to $15 a day for lunch out. Based on a 5-day work or school week, that’s anywhere from $25 to $100 each week just to eat lunch. In some cases, school lunches for kids can actually be LESS expensive, but if your kids have an a la carte option, that can add up fast too.

There are a number of things you can do to keep the cost down and the interest level up.

First, think about the containers you use to pack lunch. If you are buying disposable bags and bottled water, stop wasting your money! Make a one-time investment in re-usable containers and wash and re-fill them. A number of things that many people already buy come in containers that lend themselves quite nicely to this as well. Plastic lunch meat tubs, empty frozen whipped topping containers, glass jars, etc., can make fantastic containers to use and re-use. Also, if you aren’t able to keep your lunch refrigerated until it’s time to eat it, purchase re-freezable ice packs to keep your lunch cool.

To avoid brown bag burnout, vary your lunches. Think outside the “lunch box.”

If you have access to a microwave, last night’s leftovers can make a tasty lunch. Some entrees—chili or lasagna for example—can often taste even better the next day when the flavors have had more of a chance to meld. As you are cleaning up dinner, add in one extra step and package up leftovers in a single serve container so it’s ready to grab in the morning.

Buying salads at the local café is pricey! Purchase your favorite ingredients and you’ll have enough to make a few gourmet salads of your own. Add in extras such as hardboiled eggs, black beans, chunks of chicken or beef (another great way to use up leftovers!), chickpeas, chopped veggies, nuts or fruit to give you some interesting options. Put salad dressing in a small individual container (baby food jars are perfect for this!), and you have a salad that’s just as good—if not better—than one you could get in a restaurant.

Try variations on a sandwich. Sample a variety of breads—pumpernickel, rye, honey wheat—to give your sandwich a new kick. Visit your local bakery or try your hand at making your own. This would be a great opportunity to break out the breadmaker that’s been collecting dust in the cabinet.

Mix it up with different fillings. Lunch meat and good old peanut butter and jelly are good old standbys, but try egg salad, tuna salad, ham salad, fried eggs and hummus. And you don’t always have to use bread as a wrap—try pita bread, tortillas or spinach wraps. Another way to add a new flavor is to add different spices (think Italian seasoning, red pepper flakes, basil, oregano), spicy mustards or even a tablespoon of salad dressing in place of mayo.

When you’re adding extra snacks to your lunch, remember to buy family size portions of chips or veggies and then divide them up into individual portions so they are ready to pack. If you have a sweet tooth, how about making your own cakes, brownies, cookies or granola snacks to divvy up into serving sizes? Not only will you spend less, but you’ll be eating fewer preservatives too!

Don’t forget to bring something to drink. If coffee is your beverage of choice, brew your own and pour into a thermos or a to-go coffee mug. Buy a couple of beverage containers that are suitable for traveling with. Fill with water, ice tea or lemonade. If you prefer soda, buy a case when it’s on sale and bring one with you.

If you do find yourself suffering from brown bag burnout, allow yourself the treat of eating out now and then. If you are only eating out one day every week or two, that’s much less likely to send your budget into the red. Once you’ve figured out how to keep your lunches varied, you may just find that you prefer your packed lunches to restaurant fare anyway!