Reader Suggestions: What To Pack For Lunch (And How To Remember It)!
Food, glorious food! This month’s Reader Suggestions is devoted to none other than the very favorite, the preeminent, the most-discussed, most-loved/hated aspect of frugality: FOOD! Specifically, bringing food with you wherever you go. We all know it’s expensive and (often) unhealthy to buy our lunches out while at work, or run through the drive-through while running errands, or stop off for coffee in the afternoon.
And yet… I hear from many of you that this is the #1 challenge you face in bringing yourselves to the next level of savings every month. We just did the Uber Frugal Month Challenge together as a group in January and many of you cited food–specifically food purchased while at work or out-n-about–as the biggest hurdle you overcame.
People were busting their previous savings rates JUST by being more mindful about what they ate! Not only is this the epitomization of frugality, it’s also healthier! Wins all around. Since I know that the whole “planning ahead with food thing” dogs many of you, this post should give you ample inspiration, motivation, and guidance to NEVER unintentionally buy food out again.
I say “unintentionally” because it’s not like buying food out is evil–it’s just that it’s a silly way to overspend when it’s unplanned. Mr. FW and I eat one dinner out a month and we love it! This restaurant meal is planned for in advance, intentional, kind of expensive, and thoroughly enjoyable. That’s a vast departure from accidentally forgetting your lunch (every day) and buying a salad from your office’s mediocre salad bar. It’s all about spending in service of your goals and spending mindfully.
Welcome to my monthly Reader Suggestions feature! Every month I post a question to our Frugalwoods Facebook group and share the best responses here. The questions are topics I’ve received multiple queries on and my hope is that by leveraging the braintrust of Frugalwoods nation, you’ll find helpful advice and insight. Join the Frugalwoods Facebook group to participate in next month’s Reader Suggestions!
Above all else, you must plan ahead. For some, this means preparing all meals for the week on Sundays. For others, it’s a question of packing lunches the night before. Still others prefer to stock their offices with a veritable smorgasbord of delectable delights to feast on while desk-bound.
In many respects (not just food), planning ahead is one of your greatest weapons in the war on consumerism. I feel so strongly about this, I have an entire post dedicated to the noble topic: How Planning Ahead Saves Us Serious Money.
This seems like common sense, but how often have you found yourself running errands and positively overcome with hunger/thirst and no homemade snack in sight? How often have you wound up at work somehow sans your lunch sack? How often has your child become a despairing puddle on the floor of the grocery store/library/playgroup because they desperately need the snack that you do not have with you?
Planning ahead, and enshrining the habit of always, always, always having food with you will alleviate all of these–and more–heartaches.
I never leave home without food. That’s a solid fact. My purse always has a ziplock baggie of almonds and two granola bars inside of it. Always. No matter what. And I always take a water bottle (and usually my coffee thermos) as well. This is not a massively exciting or filling snack, but it’s always enough to see me through whatever errand I’m on. When I have Babywoods with me, her backpack always has a bag of snacks I’ve pre-packed. Every single time.
If we’ll be gone all day, I pack up a lunch for the whole fam: usually peanut butter on homemade bread, carrot sticks, cheese sticks, almonds, bananas, dried apples… whatever else I find to throw in! If we eat lunch at a restaurant, it’s the result of a deliberate decision to do so, not an accidental starvation episode.
You too can prevent accidental eating out, I promise! In the summer, I’ll throw this menagerie into a cooler and in the winter, I stick it in a canvas tote bag. It’s not exactly a glamorous meal, but it can be easily packed up and eaten on the go (usually in our car or, back when we lived in the city, on the bus/subway or on a park bench). This is not rocket science, people, but it is a methodology that’ll save you boatloads of money. It’s simple, it’s straightforward, it’s… the joy of planning ahead!
Back In Our Office Days
Back when Mr. Frugalwoods and I both worked in offices, we both took all of our lunches, snacks, and drinks with us to work every single day. Since Mr. FW commuted by bike to his office, we found that these glass food storage containers–with tight lids–were a must. He would throw those puppies into his backpack, cycle off, and never once did one spill on him.
Our luncheon strategy was this rice-n-beans recipe, which is spicy, zesty, and delicious. Mr. FW would cook up a gigantic vat every Sunday and then portion out ten lunches into those aforementioned glass containers and place them in the fridge. Voila! Lunches for a week. I also took a salad with me every day along with an apple, a banana, almonds, and a hard boiled egg (I’d boil five eggs on Sundays and pre-portion them for the week). Thanks to this rote, some might say boring, regimen, our workday meals were on lockdown.
I also maintained what’s known in the frugal business as a “desk stash” of snacks. If you work in an office, this is a must. I kept almonds, granola bars, and several cans of soup in my desk at all times in case of emergency. If I had to unexpectedly work late, or if I somehow forgot my lunch, or was just really hungry, I had these tidbits to fall back on. I had zero excuses to buy food at work and so, I didn’t. Give yourself the gift of a belt-and-suspenders food plan: be doubly covered and you’ll be doubly glad.
While Traveling! Even On Airplanes!
We don’t buy food in airports either and have a pretty good system for ensuring we don’t: we pack snacks! Even traveling with Babywoods–and on cross country flights with layovers–we’re always able to pack enough food to wholly avoid the temptation of last minute airport snack purchases (they’re expensive and gross anyway). It’s actually pretty boring and straightforward, but hey, if you’re still reading, I shall spill my secrets!
Here’s what we typically pack in our carry-on (I put it all into gallon-sized Ziplocks to prevent spillage):
- Peanut butter sandwiches (cut into quarters so that they can easily be shared among all family members and none go to waste)
- Cheese sticks
- Granola bars
- Veggies and fruits (whatever happens to be in the house)
- Dried apples (from our apple trees)
- Veggie pouches for Babywoods. These are those ludicrously expensive pouches of pureed vegetables that are perfect for traveling because toddlers seem to think they’re pure gold. They are raw, pureed vegetables with nothing added. They taste terrible (I’ve tried them), but my daughter thinks they are a dream come true and BEGS for “edgie pouch!!!!” They are a liquid and security will scan them carefully, but we’ve never had a problem getting them through since baby food and breastmilk are allowed through airport security in any quantity.
- Crackers and pretzel sticks. We don’t eat these normally, so Babywoods thinks they are magic incarnate. She spent circa 25 minutes on our last flight taking pretzels in and out of the bag… so, a snack and a toy! Then she spilled all of them on the floor and we got to clean them up mid-flight, so hey, exercise for parents too.
- In-flight snacks. We always take whatever the in-flight snack is mostly because the packaging is very entertaining to Babywoods, who is unaccustomed to food that comes in a wrapper. These are not the tastiest or healthiest things on earth, but they are massively fascinating to a toddler.
- Water bottles. We take them empty to get through security and then fill ’em up from a drinking fountain once we’re gate-side.
A lot of these items are prepackaged and thus, not what we normally purchase, but they are ideal for travel. It’s a lot cheaper to buy your own snacks at the grocery store in advance of a trip than to buy snacks along the way at either airports or gas stations.
Back in our pre-child days when Mr. FW and I would go on lengthy day-trips to hike mountains, we’d bring sodas and chips purchased from the grocery store to munch on while driving home since it was so much cheaper than grabbing them from a gas station. Nothing tastes better than chips after climbing a mountain! Don’t be afraid to sacrifice some frugality and buy packaged veggie pouches and pretzels in order to stave off far costlier purchases later on.
A number of readers commented to this effect: know your own food needs!!! Do not be thinking you’ll be OK for eight hours a day at work with one cup of yogurt. Unless you really will be (I most certainly would not)! Pack ample food to see you through, lest you fall victim to the grim reaper of the 3pm vending machine/Starbucks/cafeteria run.
Oh yes, I know all about the 3pm snack run… that “I won’t do it today, I swear,” that “it was only one time!” and “but those $5 chocolate chip muffins are divine!” Oh yes, I see you 3pm snack run and you are why I used to take half the pantry with me to work every day. I KNOW I must eat multiple snacks a day, so rather than fight it, I planned ahead and took healthy, filling options with me.
Same goes for running errands or taking day trips. Don’t delude yourself into thinking your trek to the DMV will only take 30 minutes and don’t pretend you won’t be hungry while cruising your third grocery store of the day. Accept and acknowledge the frequency with which you need to eat and then plan for it. This, by the way, is quadruply true if you have kids. Never assume a kid can make it, like, anywhere without a snack… just bring snacks and be done with it. Upside is that I only pack healthy snacks for Babywoods, so carrot sticks and green pepper it is!
How Frugalwoods Readers Pack Their Food!
You all nearly broke the internet with how many ideas, suggestions, and tips you proffered in response to this month’s question and sadly, as I didn’t want this post to be longer than Infinite Jest, I couldn’t include everyone’s response. However, you are in luck because if you are insatiably curious, you can peruse the full conversation on our Frugalwoods Facebook page. And if you’d like to weigh in on next month’s topic, join the Frugalwoods Facebook page.
Due to the breadth of topics covered, I divided your suggestions into several categories, which I hope will illuminate the many different ways to plan ahead as it relates to food. TLDR: pack food, do it ahead of time, don’t be dumb and forget it at home.
When Going To Work:
Kristen wrote, “I pack leftover dinner to take the next day for lunch for myself and my husband. I meal plan similar things each week. When I make a batch of something I usually double it and freeze half (pasta sauce) then I have a quick easy meal for busy nights.”
Anna shared, “Eating at work used to be a huge money suck for me, so I had to get really smart about planning ahead. Breakfast – I am on the move most of the morning and also am not motivated enough to get up early to eat at home, so I pre-make 5 smoothie cups on Sunday to blend in the morning with oatmeal for my cold breakfast-to-go. These include oats, banana, pea protein, maca powder, vitamin c powder, chia seeds, flax seeds, spinach, peanut butter, and frozen fruits. I add almond milk and yogurt in the morning, and am ready to go in less than 5 minutes (same thing at work costs $4.50!) Lunch – My husband and I cook at home during the week, so instead of making 2 portions we make 4 portions for our next-day lunch. I add to this some chips in a ziplock, some hummus, and an apple. Same thing every week helps me not forget to buy these things at the store. Afternoon tea – I’m not a morning coffee drinker, but I am an afternoon tea drinker. While the smoothie is blending in the morning, I heat hot water and add it to my 12hr thermos with my tea of choice and soy milk or lemon. Still hot and ready to enjoy in the afternoon (or cold in the summer!). I found that simple investments in good hot/cold beverage containers and Tupperware make meal prep more enjoyable and easy to clean!”
Sarah relayed, ” I batch cook 5 weeks worth of my favourite beans on rice (I am completely fine eating the same meal continuously, dinner is always different however) I portion them out and store them in the freezer. At the beginning of the week I meal prep fresh raw vegetables as a side dish, and then store them in the fridge at work. Each night (or morning of) I take one portion of beans out of the freezer to defrost. I don’t get tempted to buy other food at work because I make sure I have enough of my own food to fill me up. I have never forgotten to take my lunch, but if I were worried I might I would put my keys on top of my lunch.”
Kristine wrote, “Every Monday morning, I bring in 5 bananas and 5 apples. I eat a banana every morning and an apple with peanut butter every afternoon. Once a month, I fill up my stock of soup and crackers, and I eat soup when I don’t have leftovers to bring in my lunchbox. I also keep chewy bars and other snacks for when I need them. I usually drink water from the cooler, but I do have a box of tea. I occasionally get teased for my grocery store (photo at right!), but it’s far more efficient and takes far less planning.” I’ll add that the people who are teasing her likely have not read The Simple Path To Wealth, which I spy up there on her bookcase. If they had, they’d be like “you are a superhero!”
Erin explained, “I cook larger meals on Sunday and Wednesday–this week I made spaghetti on Sunday, took this with chopped veggies and hummus M-W. I made chicken and vegetable sausage rolls Weds night–will take these with chopped veg and a sweet potato dip for Thurs-Fri. Always take my big water bottle, and usually a muesli bar too in case I feel extra snacky.”
Laura shared, “I take my lunch every day, soup of the week or leftovers. I pack four lunches for hubby, me, and 2 boys every morning. I also keep at work, and carry in my purse, packets of organic vegan instant soup mix (purchased in bulk from Taste Adventure), raw almonds, and my Teecino tea bags for emergency meal of comfort food and hot beverage when the work day or errands run longer than expected. I can find hot water just about anywhere.”
Helene wrote, “I keep peanut butter at my desk. I usually buy a large pack of ham at the beginning of the month ($6.00), and a loaf of bread every week for a buck. I make a ham sandwich every morning. I also buy a container of hummus once a week and take that to work on Monday, and leave it in the fridge. I take a pack of carrots also. So, I have hummus, carrots, ham sandwich, and peanut butter. It is repetitious but filling, and I have enough for lunch and for snacks. I occasionally will boil eggs the night before and take an egg along with my sandwich.”
Mary shared, “I stock my mini-fridge at work with yogurts and other snacks. I have a water bottle with me everywhere and keep a cup at work.”
Leah relayed, “I work nights and there’s a vending machine at work. Despite trying to be really healthy I often fancy a can of coke which in the vending machine are 80p each. I now buy an 8 pack beforehand for £2 (25p each) and keep it in my car just in case. Otherwise I take a bottle of water with some lemon and ginger inside and drink lots of water! For snacks I will take nuts and dates and fruit. As they’re dried you can buy them in bigger bags that are cheaper per unit and take a few in a jar to work. For meals I will either cook something in bulk and freeze it or make too much for tea and take left overs to eat. It’s part of my routine now to pack everything in the half an hour before I go to work so I never forget to do it.”
Mhairi shared, “I cook some rice or quinoa on a Sunday and roast veggies in winter. I chop up whatever veggies I have, add some greens or herbs and make a dressing and take it in a separate jar. I always have some almonds and take whatever fruit I have, current fav is melon. Work has coffee and lots of teas.”
Susan relayed, “I take leftovers, baked potatoes, sandwiches , yogurt or bagels. Pair it with some fruit and baby carrots. I keep a can of soup, applesauce, instant oatmeal and bag of pretzels in my desk. I prep my breakfast and lunch the night before when cleaning up after dinner.”
Jackie said, “We sourced a secondhand mini freezer that we fill with leftovers and bulk cooked meals especially for lunch. So every morning, I grab something from the Lunch Freezer. Healthy and also easier–no searching through other frozen goods looking for something lunch-worthy, and we can see at a glance if lunches are running low.”
Katharine wrote, “I’m another one that has the lunch habit and the drawer of emergency snacks (dried apples I make in season, toasted pumpkin seeds, also homemade, and usually almonds and rice cakes). And like many here, I mostly bring pre-packaged leftovers from dinner the night before… but I also have to rave about the usefulness of all the food originally packed for the offspring, which was scorned and arrived back home, unloved and unwanted, yet already carefully packed up!! Breakfast (at work for me) is often a quarter of a leftover PB&J, or neglected cheese cubes. My veggies are often castoff cucumber slices and the two uneaten baby carrots from my son’s lunch the day before- why waste food?!? I choose to be grateful that it’s already prepackaged and ready to go instead of thinking of it as castoffs!”
Lisa shared, “If you like a hot lunch and want to avoid the microwave, try one of these. You can purchase extra inserts, so it’s great for meal-preppers. It’s about $20, but will quickly pay for itself when you don’t go out for lunch a few times.”
Nancy wrote, “I shop at BJs once a month for chicken breast, ground turkey, and veggie staples like carrots, broccoli, and sweet potatoes. I cook the ground turkey and freeze it, one bag per week of lunches. The chicken I trim and cut into cubes but leave raw and freeze into weekly portions. I cut, blanche and freeze veggies like carrots and broccoli, and store other veggies like sweet potatoes and squash as-is. Every Sunday I do my meal prep, usually sheet pan, crock pot, or otherwise one-pot meals of veggies, lean meat, and seasonings. I keep my pantry/fridge stocked with a variety of staples such as onions, garlic, and spices.
I have a dozen identical 3-cup glass containers with plastic lids, and pack my prepped lunches into that. Thursday and Friday meals go in the freezer to make sure they keep. Every morning I pack a lunch box with my meal and an apple. On the mornings I go to the gym, I also pack a prepped breakfast of scrambled eggs with various add-ins, or overnight oats.
Before I did my meal prep routine, I wasted so much money ordering unhealthy takeout and trying to get an energy boost from the vending machine. Now, I don’t stress about food and I have energy throughout the day from my high-protein, high-fiber lunches.”
Christina shared, “Lately I take a chicken salad (chicken, spinach and lemon wedges to squeeze for flavour/dressing). I cook a chicken overnight in the slow cooker and eat it for a few days. Basically, it takes 3-5 mins to make my lunch each day (so no excuses) and I love the taste! It also makes grocery shopping a breeze!”
Brian wrote, “I usually make my main dish for lunch on Sundays, usually in my crockpot. Sometimes its beef stew, sometimes just chicken and broccoli cooked in chicken broth. It’s pretty easy, since you put in all the ingredients and come back in a few hours to a perfectly cooked meal. Some weeks its just smoked sausage and sauerkraut (the real stuff, with probiotics, which is unfortunately expensive in the states). I pair this with a small container of almonds and peanuts, and an apple. I also bring along a banana and an Atkins bar for late afternoon, which carries me over until late (I often don’t get home until 7-8 pm). I’ve designed it so that it takes me about 2 minutes to assemble everything, and zip out the door. There are times I struggle, however; if I have really late meetings, sometimes I do end up eating somewhere like the mall (though being on a keto diet helps eliminate a lot of expensive options). We have a store called Downtown Grocery which has a deli, including a broccoli/cauliflower salad for about $4. It helps in a pinch!”
Renee wrote, “I make a whole loaf of sandwiches at a time and freeze them. This has totally changed my husbands ability to bring lunch every day. I meal prep breakfasts and I plan easy meals–and we eat out a lot less.”
Danielle said, “My meal planning for work consisted of rice and teriyaki mushrooms that I would make every Sunday. I would bring all of it to work every Monday in a giant Tupperware because I was a chronic forgetter of lunches. Having it all at work helped also for days I’d have to stay late so I could have some dinner. I kept boxes of granola bars I would get on sale and with coupons in my drawers if I didn’t eat breakfast at home for whatever reason or if I needed a pick me up snack.”
Lorra shared, “I like to graze at my desk at work and luckily have a mini fridge next to my desk. On Monday morning I run by the grocery on the way in to work and get lunch meat, hard cheese, Triscuits, applesauce cups, nuts, and 2-3 cans of soup. That usually covers me for the week. Hubby likes microwaved leftovers so he portions out after dinner his lunch for next day. If there are no leftovers he keeps bread and pb & j in his office. I also am lucky that we have a water cooler in our office so I only drink water and hot tea at work.”
Melissa gave a good summary, “I think everyone covered all my secrets- good containers, good water bottle (insulated really helps so I can have ice all day long in my water!), leftovers for lunch, etc. the only other thing I’d add is looking for food where you are. I work at an adult day health program and assisted living. At the assisted living once the residence are fed, staff is free to eat leftovers. I sometimes supplement the leftovers there with a salad from home or perhaps some carrot sticks, but all in all, one or two days a week I can save my home packed lunch for the next day. Huge saver and the variety is fun. (The food that is fresh cooked at this ALF is phenomenal!)”
Jeannine wrote, “I think the thought of ‘meal planning’ for the entire week is too overwhelming, so I do just a lazy-person’s version of it! On Sundays I portion out 5 ziplock baggies of raw veggies, 5 ziplock baggies of raw almonds (with a bit of dark chocolate), and I bring 5 fruits. I pack it all in a bag and put in the fridge at my work on Monday so I am set for the week. That way, I only have to figure out a little extra something to put with it each day to have a full lunch. I find great satisfaction eating through my healthy stash throughout the week, knowing that I put all that good stuff into my body.”
Caroline offered sage advice, “The first thing is to be realistic about how much you need. Thinking ”I’ll just have a tiny salad, an apple and a fat-free yoghurt” when you know very well that you will have eaten that by 10am and be elbows deep into a Family Bag of Chips by 12 is self-defeating.
Once you have established required quantity, then the world is your oyster! I work at home, so am very rarely tempted, but for my (large, hungry and active) husband, 2 sandwiches, 2 pieces of fruit and a couple of snacks / treats (small) is on the menu at least 3 days a week. To shake things up, he might get a decent portion of left overs in a microwave-container, plus the fruit and snacks, or a big part-baked potato and toppings to ”finish” microwave baking at work. Of course the treats and fruit/side snacks do vary quite a lot, so it doesn’t get boring. He or I will quite often get it prepared or half-prepared the night before, and he has an insulated lunch bag. It’s such a habit now that it is extremely rare for it to not happen or to get forgotten. Of course it does very occasionally happen, but every so often I’ll send a stockpile of noodles, instant-soups and snacks of the non-tempting variety, just in case! It must become habit, totally ingrained.”
Kate wrote, “On Sundays I make a giant batch of something for lunch that week, I usually decide based on what comes in my Imperfect Produce box. I store it in a large container in the fridge, and then I pack it into a smaller container each night and leave that + my breakfast together on the top shelf of my fridge so it’s the first thing I see. Then I grab them both when I leave in the AM. The thing that helped the most with avoiding the temptation to eat at work was learning how to cook all my favorite foods (as opposed to like trying to force myself to bring a salad every day). I work on a college campus and all of the food here is expensive and not that great, so I find that I usually prefer eating the yummy stuff I brought from home rather than spending $10 and waiting in line at Panda Express haha.”
How Not To Forget The Food You Packed:
Coleen says, “If your consequence is going without lunch if you forget it… probably won’t happen again!”
Susan’s tactic, “I keep my empty lunch bag next to my purse.”
Mary says, “If I make my lunch the night before, I put my car keys with it in the fridge so I don’t forget it.”
Christina wrote, “I remember because it’s become a habit (but to make that habit I got a container and lunch bag I loved!). I bring a coffee everywhere and I have one portable mug I love, and since I only have one, it means I don’t lose it, and I clean it daily.”
Lauren said, “I’ve also found that a lunch bag on the door handle to leave is the best bet to make sure it goes with me.”
Melissa shared, “To ensure I don’t forget the lunch/snack/coffee after it has been made, I put it on the table located by my front door and next to my purse.”
Audrey wrote, “I leave my lunch box on the counter the night before so I remember to pack it (although it is so ingrained this is not really needed for me). I keep no cash on me, so the vending machine is not tempting.”
Jessica relayed, “My empty lunch box sits beside the door so I don’t forget it. If I do forget it, I have grits and almonds at work. I keep a bottle of water with me all the time and can usually make it through errands until I get back home with just the water and a lifesaver in my purse.”
When Going Out And About:
Marisa uses a, “Giant knockoff Yeti cooler: Way cheaper than the real thing, and it has paid for itself by keeping food-from-home available for 2 kids plus me. It’s big enough that I don’t have to play Tetris with Tupperware, and legitimately keeps things cold even when it’s left in a car on a hot summer day. If we don’t eat everything we pack that’s ok – the food can go back in the fridge because it stayed cold all day. And, it’s great for getting ice cream home from the grocery store.”
Erin wrote, ” I share the love of leftovers. For ’emergency’ snacks I keep a granola bar in my bag BUT I purposefully buy a kind I don’t love (ie no chocolate) so I am not tempted to eat it until an actual snack emergency. Know thyself…”
Christa wrote, “I don’t think I have left the house without a snack/plan in 20 years! I keep a Nalgene bottle in my car at all times which can be filled with water anywhere. I have a box of granola bars and some nuts in my drawer at work to hold me over if I forget breakfast or lunch. As a family we pack snack and drinks on every road trip (cheese and crackers, fruit, nuts, chocolate). This has saved us thousands of dollars. We also invested in a percolator and some good travel mugs so no more drive through coffee at Dunkin Donuts!”
Anna shared, “Whenever we get out for errands I pack water and a banana for my toddler, cause the moments she leaves house she gets thirsty and/or hungry. I add cookies if it will take longer than usual. Every night I pack my tap water bottles and tupperware with lunch snacks for my work. Lunch is something I have cooked for the whole family to eat and I simply portion mine in a tupperware. Snacks are usually fruits (bananas, tangerines apples or whatever we have in our fridge) and perhaps a cheese-turkey toast or some leftover pizza or pie.”
Laronda shared, “When out and about, hard-boiled eggs and almonds plus whatever fruits and/or veggies we have available are generally what we pack. I almost always have my youngest child in tow, so luckily leaving home without food just does not happen. Well, maybe once or twice, years ago with my first or second child, but the agony of listening to a hangry child whine cured me quick! We have a crazy assortment of lunch and snack containers (my husband and two school-age kids pack a lunch every day) and we have all kinds of bags in which to put them.
If we’re headed out for a long playdate, we bring an insulated bag with a cold pack. If headed to the park after school, a large tote bag that will hold enough snacks and water for about 8 kids (I have 3, but between occasionally needing extras for friends and those days when everyone has a hollow leg, I just plan on packing half the pantry). And *every* time I leave the house, I bring my small blue hiking bag with water bottle and, if solo, almonds and a granola bar, if with my near-constant little companion, the addition of the ever-popular Goldfish or Pirates Booty. They may not be healthy or cheap, but the judicious use of a cheesy, crunchy snack has often saved the day.
And as far as resisting the urge to buy lunch or snacks while out, if I’m by myself, I’m a total pushover. Luckily, since I’m almost never alone and there is a dearth of remotely healthy options with a drive-thru, added to the fact that I’m far too lazy to unload and load a child or three to grab food, plus the very great danger of setting a precedent that a preschooler will beg for repeatedly, we’re generally safe on that one.”
Jill wrote, “To combat choosing an expensive (in terms of time and money both) fast food options AND also making poor food choices, I keep a snack bar (currently Larabars I picked up for 31 cents each at a grocery liquidator) in my car at all times. I have to be fairly diligent about replacing them, so I usually take out 2 at a time to be on the safe side. A major consideration in choosing a snack bar is making sure that it is not crumbly and, in the summer, that it doesn’t have ingredients that melt (I’m looking at you chocolate!). This has been a game changer for the health of my wallet and body!”
Erin says, ” I ALWAYS keep an emergency snack in my car, plus one in whatever bag I’m using (backpack, crossbody, etc). It’s an automated, non-negotiable decision.”
Coffee and Tea Tips:
Jayde says, “I make my coffee in my Keepcup and then take it on our office walk to the local cafe. There’s no temptation because I’m already holding my hot coffee and don’t miss out on getting out of the office for a walk!”
Mrs. Frugalwoods shares, “Mr. FW and I exclusively use these thermoses for our coffees every single day (even when we aren’t going anywhere) so that on mornings when we do go out and about, our coffee is ready to be toted! Bonus is that with a toddler bouncing around us, we don’t spill our precious, precious coffee.”
Kelly shared, “I make dinner every night pretty much and put leftovers in pyrex to take to work the next day, out and about I try and ear before I do errands if possible otherwise bring almonds, banana or sandwich. Last week at airport I bought a sandwich, apple and cut up veggies. In my hotel room I had stuff for sandwiches, since I had a fridge I bought a rotisserie chicken and salad kit for a few meals, great when I had a full day of exploring and didn’t feel like going anywhere. The sandwiches were perfect since I hiked most days.”
Danielle wrote, “For trips, me and my boyfriend created a ham sandwich rule. When we arrive at our destination we go grocery shopping for deli meat, cheese and bread and make ham sandwiches to take with us. This works for almost everywhere you can go. Last week I had one in the Cincinnati Museum of Art. Many museums will let you eat your own food in the cafeteria. We also take them hiking, we have a flat pack cooler we bring with us on trips in our luggage. To combat the dry sandwich problem we found many deli counter will have packets of mayo or mustard you can take for free but we have also bought boxes of packets from Amazon. Less mess and less to carry versus a bottle of condiments that may need to be refrigerated after opening.”
Jill shared, “We just returned from a two week trip to Hawaii and I can’t believe how incredibly useful our flat pack lunch size cooler was! We were able to buy various items for breakfasts and lunches and keep them cool on the beach or between our many stops. We make it a point to hit local grocery stores while traveling and try new things. Plus if you are in a different time zone, sometimes you are hungry when it isn’t a meal time, so it’s nice to have food around.”
Kellie relayed, “We’re long haul travellers…and food is a big budget killer…But doesn’t need to be. We make hotel picnics wherever we go. So when we book a hotel we look for one that’s not only handy to transport and sights but close to supermarkets and local markets. We then stock up on things to eat that can be made in hotels like wraps and sandwiches, falafel, pastries, salads, olives etc. We take our everyday frugal eating habits at home on the road and always pack lunch and snacks for travel and sightseeing days instead of having to fork out top dollar at tourist trap cafes!! We take frugal food ways on tour!!”
We All Need To Eat
What I take away from this is that no matter our age, gender, geographic region, financial situation, diet or lifestyle, we all need to eat (surprise!) and if we don’t take food with us, we will fall victim to buying food that we hadn’t planned to buy. This sounds stupid when I frame it like that, but I’m being serious, people!
I used to go around without snacks and wonder why I ended up buying a latte and scone and being $11 poorer… it’s because I was hungry! It’s hard to avoid temptation when we’re hungry and by ensuring you have a rock solid plan for your lunches and snacks, you’ll no longer be at the whims of your tummy. Plan ahead, pack ahead, and don’t forget to bring it with you!
P.S. I WROTE A BOOK! I’m a little bit excited, can you tell?!? My book is now available to be pre-ordered, for which I will mail you a signed bookplate. Check out this post for all the details.
P.P.S. I’m going to be on NPR’s live call-in show, On Point, on March 6, 2018 at 11am EST to discuss my book. Tune into NPR during the program and, if you’re so inclined, call 1-800-423-8255 to chat with me live on air!
How do you pack your lunches and snacks?
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These are all great tips! I’m the worst at thinking I can survive with just one yogurt or one snack at work, then I end up buying food haha.
Me too. But it was incredibly useful when I was trying to lose weight. I would add up my calories ahead of time, take that, and literally take no money and no credit card to work with me.
Sad, but effective.
Like a calorie bank account ! Seeing what you can have for the calories you can “afford ” that portion of the day : what a Fabulous idea! Thank You for sharing 😀
My wife and I never leave home without nuts, apples and water. Between those three things they always keep hunger at bay and keeps us away from the fast food drive thrus until we can get home 🙂
“Despite trying to be really healthy I often fancy a can of coke which in the vending machine are 80p each. I now buy an 8 pack beforehand for £2 (25p each) and keep it in my car just in case.”
Ha! Leah you genius. Yessss know thy self!!!! If they’re going to win, you might as well take away their victoryyyy! Evil tempting metal boxes of snacks!
Oh, I make sure I find a deal on a REALLY cute insulated lunch bag. So adorable that I will never forget it! My friend gave me one with a Paris theme and it’s so cute I never forgot my lunch once. I get so happy when I look at it.
Coke GETS me. I keep telling myself I’m going to quit. And it works well for about a week. And then I fail. I know I could get it cheaper at the store, but my goal is to not have it at all. (Dang willpower).
I totally used to take/drink soda all the time, wherever I went. On Jan 8th, I ended up with the flu. Drank a sip of soda that morning, put it down because it tasted gross, and haven’t touched it since. (It’s been 7 weeks as of yesterday. So, if nothing else, catch the flu and hopefully it will get you to stop drinking it! =)
I had a similar experience Chelley! But with eggplant parmesan. It wasn’t regular flu but the stomach flu. Everythingggg came back up, it was gross, and I haven’t been able to touch eggplant or Italian food since. Works like a charm against temptation ;( hahaha
Baskins Robbins ice cream. I was hit with a stomach bug and the last thing I’d eaten was a cone from Baskin Robbins. that was 25 years ago and I still can’t go into one of their stores! Unfortunately it didn’t generalize to other ice creams….
We just mentally take away the option of making a pit stop for food. You forget food once or twice and don’t let yourself buy a snack and you’ll remember.
Or we’ll stop into a grocery store and buy whatever produce is on sale.
Ah, I’m so excited you’ll be on NPR!
My husband is a professor, and one of the first things we bought for his office was a mini fridge with freezer (not a compartment, an actual mini freezer). We already had a spare microwave for him. He has a thrift store set of Corelle with little flowers on it 🙂 He brings leftovers for lunch almost every day, but when there aren’t dinner leftovers at the ready, he has a stash of canned soup AND a stash of frozen leftover pizza. He’s the one who snatches all the leftover pizza after department events, and he freezes it. So there’s always lunch there in an emergency, and it’s much easier for him to be able to heat up his lunch right there in his office, particularly since there isn’t an easy kitchen for him to access at work.
Wow, does the frozen leftover pizza taste good? I never thought of that…
The durability depends on the filling.
+/- 1 week to 1 month.
Great ideas all around! We usually pack dinner leftovers for luck the next day. We cook a bit more for dinner, and it saves us lots of money and time by not having to cook a separate meal for lunch the next day.
Sometimes I forget lunch at home and always have hard time forgiving myself for that. I have some instant noodles and oatmeal at my office desk in case that happens. And never underestimate the power of free office food!
Love the love for my “grocery store” 🙂 I’m looking forward to adding your book to the shelf soon!
These are awesome ideas!
80% of the time our lunches are just leftovers from dinner. Other times we eat pre-cooked and frozen homemade meals. I also like to do snacky-style lunches with odds and ends from the fridge.
As far as snacks go, I like to buy a bulk bag of snacks from Costco (ie. Snap Peas or almonds) and put them into single-serving Tupperware for travel. I also always, always, always carry a reusable water bottle with me.
For Brian who was lamenting the cost of sauerkraut with probiotics–make your own! It has two ingredients: cabbage and salt. You just slice cabbage, mix it with salt and pack it into a jar and wait a couple of days you’ll have homemade sauerkraut. There are loads of recipes for it online. You can also make kraut with just about any veggie. It is a great way to preserve a summer bounty, lasts six months to a year in the fridge.
Yes! Since then I’ve made a batch – but it tastes horrible (not the good pungent sauerkraut flavor but just gross). I’ve since learned that the jar method produces some pretty awful kraut but those same people had much better results with the crock method. What method/recipe do you use and like?
I have used a crock and a pickle pipe. The crock takes forever to mature and about 10 cabbages to half fill then to much at the end. Pickle pipe is perfect quantities and quicker turn around
You can check out books by Sandor Katz or online at Serious Eats or Cultures for Health. Happy fermenting!
Yes! Brian here. 100 percent agree with you, Mrs. Cheapheart! I did make one batch so far, and I hated it. So now I am researching to find a better method. After talking with some folks in the know, it seems the countertop method makes lackluster kraut (mine was really bad – I couldn’t eat it). The real deal is a dedicated crock. I do have an idea to save some of the brine from the store bought kraut and try that with the countertop method. I also think I way underdid it on the salt. A lady friend who lives in Germany said the corner shop that sells kraut says you need a barrel – hers was in her family for generations.
What method do you use? Or what recipe? I’d be curious to learn what one works for you. Thank you!
I was just thinking about this the other day! I had to take an unexpected day off because of a sick dog, and as I was driving back into town, I had the thought that I should “treat myself” for having such a hectic day. I ran through all my favorite treats – fancy coffee, take-out lunch, fast food…and couldn’t find anything I wanted enough to spend the extra money on. I really wanted Taco Bell, but I had leftover burrito makings at home, so went home and made a burrito just to my liking. This is a huge turning point for me in both saving money, and realizing that sometimes “treats” don’t help the root problem.
I added up everything in my lunch bag including coffee/tea/water and it equals $22. Breakfast, lunch, snack and drinks. That’s my motivation to remember it!
Great tips and an awesome list of healthy foods to pack. I follow the simple rule of eating as raw as possible, meaning as few ingredients. Nuts, carrots, fruit etc etc. I try to avoid packaged food but it sometimes has a tremendous traveling/convenience factor. I have weaknesses like anyone else 🙂
Also, I graze. I don’t eat “meals” anymore. I find that eating 6 or 7 times a day or even more in small amounts keeps my energy levels more stable and wards off the heavy-eye feeling of the afternoon. It works for me, but realize it might not for everyone.
Great suggestions! Though I can’t believe no one has mentioned oats yet!
In my desk pantry, I keep crackerbreads, peanut butter, nuts, quick oats, salt, cinnamon and raisins. Add some hot water to a combination of the latter four, stir and wait. I like this option because it is warm, hearty and cheap. We still bring dinner leftovers when we gave them, but this is a great emergency/lazy option!
We also buy fruit, of course. 🙂
Leftovers for lunch is one of those frugal subjects that’s near and dear to my heart!
I don’t think I’ve ever forgotten my lunch, and if I did I happen to be in the fantastic position of living within a 15 minute walk of work, so I’d go home and eat lunch instead of going out for something. But for those who aren’t in that position, I’d say keep something at work you can eat in an emergency. I keep a can of soup at my desk that I can eat in case of poor planning (I’m so far from perfect on the planning front. Sometimes I just don’t have time to make food!). I also have some convenient frozen foods (like a Costco bag of potstickers or a frozen dinner) in my freezer that I can also bring for lunch in a pinch. Frozen dinners aren’t the optimal frugal route, but they sure beat going out for lunch!
This isn’t about the post, but OMG OMG OMG— ON POINT!!! I’ll have to tune into the Podcast later that night! Congrats! 🙂
Thank you so much! I’m pretty excited myself :)!
I just wanted to say: HUMMUS AND PITA AND BABY CARROTS. It is not the absolute cheapest but it doesn’t even require assembling a sandwich so it is all we eat for lunch when we are travelling and our kids (5&7) will eat this too. And if we don’t even want to worry about keeping track of the freshness of pita or it squishing in our backpack we switch to hummus and pretzels.
Many good suggestions. I was reminded of how important these are recently. My poor MIL came to visit us. She arrived after a 14 hour travel day starving. She’d brought some chocolate in her bag. Her flights were delayed, she did not have time to grab anything in the airport due to tight connections and delays, and they don’t provide anything on her flights.
I, of course, sent her home with a divided tupperware with 2 clementines, local pistachios, raw veggies, and a cheese sandwich.
When traveling half of my backpack is food. I calculate how much food each person will need for the trip. And I usually add 50%. Each person gets a divided container with fruit, veg, and other items. Then my bag ALSO has treats (chocolate, pretzels, nuts). We still occasionally will buy food on a plane or in an airport. It’s not for lack of being prepared, just sometimes my kids want a slice of pizza.
The habit of taking lunch to work is a good one! Easiest thing for me is to eat the same thing every day (salad), and making it is the first thing I do in the morning.
Wonderful ideas for lunches! And (belatedly) Congratulations again to the Frugalwoods on the new arrival!
While this has little to do with being frugal, it bears mentioning the importance of keeping food stored in the office in a Metal canister or in the refrigerator. One time in my office, the next-door colleague did not, and after a holiday we all came back to a ghastly rodent infestation. They were everywhere! Once mice figure out a food source they leave, ahem, a trail behind them that attracts other mice; it took a lot of deep cleaning with disinfectant to rid us of those very unwanted visitors. Those hungry critters seem to be able to gnaw through any kind of packaging except for metal. I dearly hope no one else has had this problem, but it’s worth guarding against.
I’m new to this blog (and really enjoying it!) but you should check out stasher bags if you don’t already have them – like ziplocs but made of silicone. Mine have paid themselves off already by lasting a few years! I’m going to look into the containers you linked here – haven’t found any trusty ones that don’t leak/break within a year yet.
Great suggestion! I cringe at how much plastic is being used in carrying/storing meals. I’d be the first to admit that I’ve re-used ziplock bags over and over before. Although they don’t cost an arm and a leg, from an environmental point of view the less use of plastic the better.
Love all of these! One tip I wanted to mention is if lunch or snack is forgotten – most drugstores and even convenience stores/bodegas have grocery aisles. Obviously more expensive than a grocery store, but still less expensive than eating out or buying single packaged snacks. If I forgot my lunch and am out of desk food, I can run into the Rite Aid across the street and grab a jar of peanut butter and a box of crackers. Some of us work in urban locations that have things like a City Target (I miss working in Downtown San Francisco for this reason!). Guess what? Those have great grocery departments. Others of us work in the burbs and can hop in our cars and go to a regular grocery store on our lunch. Do this in lieu of drive-through!
Lot’s of great food tips here! I usually just would take leftovers to work with me for lunch. That kept the packing/prep time really minimal.
Another good tip — simply go without. Most of us live in the first world and have WAY more food than we need. Fasting for one meal a day won’t kill you, and letting yourself get a little hungry isn’t bad.
It definitely makes me appreciate the food more, so I practice fasting occasionally.
In fact it has now been proved that fasting is really good for us and boosts the immune system and we do a low calorie day twice a week – 600cal – which means that you can only have two very small meals or one bigger one in the day.
while I completely agree in principle, it’s not an option for those of us who get seriously hangry!
Snapping at your boss/clients/coworkers undeservedly because you don’t want to spend a few dollars is generally not a good move!
Oh is not the cost but the benefits of fasting. After doing it a few times it becomes much easier and it is a mindset. I used to think that i got hangry but now I’ve been doing the fasting regularly it doesn’t happen anymore.
It’s not good if you are diabetic.
Fasting is awesome, until you have small children. Then food becomes a requirement. Or it’s your head on a pike. 🙂
Love all this! Like a lot of you, I just double what I make for dinner each night and my husband and I take the leftovers for lunch. In addition to leftovers, and to boost our veggie intake, we pack small containers of raw vegetables for each lunch. The extra veggies help fill me up and keep me full longer. We also bring fruit to work for snacks, since fruit is so quick and easy when it comes in its own little carrying case – aka its skin. I keep almonds at my desk as a back up snack as well.
Another thing I do is bring breakfast to work every day. I get in to work at 6:30 and I can get back 15-20 minutes of sleep each morning by not making and eating breakfast at home. I alternate between making an egg bake for the week or packing some form of oatmeal.
This article is so appropriate for me because I’ve spent the entire month of February on a $1 a Day Food Challenge. You’d better believe that meant NO EATING OUT! Since I don’t like to be hungry I didn’t forget to bring my own food. First of all, I revisited my thermos collection and made sure to take hot soup, because soup is a great uber-frugal use of veggie scraps, bones, beans, vegetables, and a little bit of pasta. I also use glass bottles to bring my own water, real iced tea, and citrus water. Keeping things cold in Missouri in February was not a problem. In the past, I’ve “brown-bagged” a Ziploc bag of ice to work in a lunch size cooler. The food I’ve taken out with me this month included (homemade): macaroni and potato salad, quinoa/cheddar cheese/broccoli “muffins”, salmon salad tortillas (Aldi’s Alaska Sockeye Salmon $2.48/can for 6 servings), cucumber salad, lentil-brown rice chili, black bean burgers, lentil-brown rice “meatloaf”, potato/vegetable curry, homemade pita and vegetables with hummuses (chickpea, black bean, carrot-lentil), and lots of soup. Soups included chicken noodle made from chicken bones, beef stew made from free grass-fed beef bones, split pea soup, vegetable soup, minestrone, homemade tomato soup, potato/sweet potato soup, and coconut-ginger-carrot soup. Anything you can save in a container in the fridge can be taken with you. Packing lunch (or dinner) isn’t just packing a sandwich anymore.
Taking food for the whole week to work on Monday is a great idea. That way, I don’t have to think about it and remember it every day. I’m going to have to start trying this because I almost always forget my cheese sticks and veggie sticks for snacks when I am in a rush.
We have hot pockets in the freezer at home to grab if we didn’t have leftovers from the night before and I forgot to make bread for sandwiches. Though kind of expensive, it is still cheaper than eating out.
We hate when people at work do this. 150 people, two refrigerators. I just bring mine each day in a large insulated lunch bag with ice packs. There is no room in the freezer because of all the people who bring a weeks worth of food at a time.
Hi Liz, You might consider asking the company you work for to invest in an upright freezer for the break room if crowding is a real issue. Often it saves companies a not insignificant amount of money to have their staff stay on site for lunch, so it might be worth the relatively small investment. Best, Robin
Thankfully, my coworker that sits next to me has a refrigerator that he lets me and others use. It only gets about 1/8th full at any time.
Without a doubt, bringing our food with us has allowed us to save so much more money (and when we get out of that habit, to spend so much more). I love people’s specific ideas. What in the world is that heavenly-sounding thing called sweet potato dip? Yum! I’m going to Google it. Another thing I’ve figured out about myself is that I think I’m going to eat way less than I actually do, so I always pack more snacks, lunches, coffee, than I think I’ll want, and it’s almost always a good thing, because I end up eating most of it. But, it’s usually healthier than anything I’d buy, so it’s all good! Thank you for this wonderful list of ideas!
Really solid post with great ideas on a variety of food combos to pack for lunch. One pattern I noticed stuck out to me: plastic bags. I’ve been trying to make a greater effort this year to reduce my use of plastic and other single-use items. This meant the upfront costs of buying beeswax wraps, bamboo eating utensils, stainless steel straws, glass food containers, canvas grocery bags (a bunch), and a thermos and water bottle (that I keep in my car at all times).
I’m wondering if other folks have considered making these changes as well? I’ve definitely noticed these are little additional ways to cut down spending. What do others think of this?
I have a variety of non-plastic baggies, and I love love love my SS straws (which weren’t more than like $4 for a 4-pack, I think) and coffee and water bottles because I try to avoid plastic and all single-use garbage. Sure, at some point there was start-up cost, but I’ve been using my snack taxis (fabric velcro baggies for snacks and sandwiches) etc for so many years now that I am positive I’ve saved $ versus the cost of throw-away plastic baggies (not to mention the environment). I don’t use the bamboo utensils (I just bring a fork from home), but overall, I think the minimal start-up cost of these items is MORE than worth it on all counts.
I try to be really conscious about ziplock and plastic wrap usage. I use glass jars and Delitainer plastic containers that come in three sizes. They are the sturdy containers most takeout places use to pack soup and are the go-to in restaurant kitchens for small-sized storage containers. They don’t leak, they are lightweight and they stack densely, are dishwasher, microwave and freezer safe (though I personally only use glass or metal to store/consume hot food). If I had a long commute on public transport I would probably use the lightest containers I could find, but if I were driving I would use mostly glass. My glass water bottles are reused Argo Tea bottles that I bought a few years ago and have served me well. My husband was quite entertained by me glueing one of the plastic tops after it had cracked, rather than ponying up the $2.49 to get another one. Another commenter mentioned reusable silicone ziplocks. I wash ziplock bags in theory, but most of the time I just leave them on my counter for a couple of days and then get mad at them and throw them away, so I try to avoid using them if I can.
I’ve read all the comments here and on the Facebook group, and am surprised that no one has mentioned using a HotLogic Mini https://hotlogicmini.com. It has changed my life! I’m not exaggerating. I am the ultimate “picky eater”: I don’t like leftovers; I refuse to eat microwaved food; I don’t particularly care for the texture of crock pot meals; and I have a food allergy. The HotLogic Mini is like a portable oven. I believe it’s a cross between convection and slow-cooking. It heats food to 165 degrees and keeps it there. I have time in the morning, so I usually cook a “real meal”, put it in the pyrex dish, and then heat it up for lunch. It tastes freshly made! Since it heats to 165 degrees, you can actually cook in it, not just re-heat. I’ve “cooked” raw fish and raw chicken breasts in it. I am eating so much healthier now with this little gadget. In fact, I prefer my home-made meals over going out to lunch. As far as food / cooking goes, this has been the best investment for me. I highly recommend it. P.S. Typically I leave it at work (so I don’t forget it) but sometimes I bring it home to use on the week-end so that I can have a freshly-made meal waiting for me while I’m outdoors or running errands. I’m currently do a better job of tracking my expenses (thanks to the Frugalwoods Challenge!), so one day I need to compare how much I’ve saved by using this mini oven.
Love the hotlogic use mine at work everyday, can even reheat frozen food
I also got an adaptor for my car for road trips. No need to stand in line to use the community microwaves. Just plug it in an hour before you think you are going to be hungry and your food will be good to go. Got mine from Amazon, great little portable oven.
For the love of all of humanity, please don’t bring in all 5 days worth of food if you have a pretty packed office fridge. I get that people do it to avoid forgetting, but you may be doing so at the expense of others. I can’t put my lunch in the office fridge on Mondays due to five-lunch bringers, despite office policy specifying that the three (3!) fridges are for one day of food per person.
That said, I super impressed the TSA guy with my packed salads and blackberries on my flight last week. Be aware that food packed for flights tends to require extra checks by TSA. Expect it to be unpacked and handled in front if you even if you followed all rules for liquids, etc. They literally swabbed a Cheetos bag for gunpowder on my way home. I feel safe already, right?
Yes! I agree with not bringing a weeks worth of lunch to work if it has to be refrigerated. I have two people who do this and we’re an office of 8. There is no room for anyone else’s lunch. A former coworker would bring 2 weeks of frozen food boxed lunchea and take up all the freezer space along with a bag of frozen waffles that could feed an entire kindergarten class. If you have to, please ask your coworkers if they mind.
Like a calorie bank account ! Seeing what you can have for the calories you can “afford ” that portion of the day : what a Fabulous idea! Thank You for sharing 😀
I’ve literally brought a ziploc baggie full of scrambled eggs on a plane before, because it was what we had around and I knew I would get hungry! My boyfriend still teases me to this day about it, but it saved me $12 to not buy lunch out that day. It’s all about getting in the habit! Such great suggestions here 🙂
That’s awesome. I would totally do that! I once took a container of homemade quinoa on a flight because that’s what was in the fridge!
I love these responses; I’m great at taking lunch to work, and it shocks me how many colleagues go out and spend £7+ for lunch each day……and always complain about having to go out and then having to queue.
Not only the money and time but then they complain they have no money for other important things – like holidays and fun things
I tend to take leftovers for lunch. We do pack for personal plane rides though and both kids pack their lunches. It’s a lot of work, but with the savings
My husband eats the same lunch at work every day that one of us makes the night before – a pb and j sandwich, a cheese stick, an apple or clementine, and 2 greek yogurts. I buy most of these at Costco, and get whatever bread is on sale at Market Basket for less than $2 a loaf. I’ve started to eat this lunch as well, since it’s just easier to make two sandwiches each night than one sandwich and something else. Sometimes I will take leftovers (my husband still wants the sandwich).
He also eats cream of wheat at work. I make a big pot on Sundays that he puts in 5 tupperware containers. He will drink a bottled yogurt smoothie on the bus/T (I’ll buy several at Market Basket. It’s cheaper to MYO, but this works for us).
I have bagged snacks and will eat a banana at some point during the day. Also have cups of oatmeal I can microwave if I am in a rush in the morning.
I agree with what someone above said. Unless you have your own mini fridge, please don’t bring 5 lunches to work on Monday. I hate cramming my lunch into the fridge and then digging through everyone else’s food to find mine at lunchtime.
On Point??? My favorite show on NPR!!! Congratulations, I will tune in.
Some great ideas! Here’s another suggestion for saving money and helping the environment as well–reusable containers instead of single-use/ziploc bags.
My lucky daughter works in one of those offices that attracts Millennials . One of her benefits is free food at work. Here’s what she wrote to me :
The free food is not an urban legend . And it’s pretty good.
In the morning they have croissants, yogurt, oatmeal, waffles, etc.
Sometime before lunch, a crew comes through and switches it out for salads and food like pasta or meatballs or something. There’s usually a vegetarian option .
And then chips, Ramen, fresh fruit , etc. are always stocked for snacks .
I almost always have leftovers for lunch . I often have leftovers for breakfast as well; since I prefer savory foods in the morning .
On the other hand , my husband takes the following every day in his lunch:
A sandwich ( or microwavable leftovers )
A container of fresh fruit
A container of cut up vegetables
Two breakfast bars
Yogurt ( he likes the thick Australian kind. )
A glass of milk .
My other daughter , a welding student , often packs things like salad with many toppings , especially protein options . For example, a lettuce base, with shredded chicken , garbanzo beans , Parmesan cheese, dried cherries, shredded carrots , and cucumbers.
Far less expensive than the cafeteria at college .
When you compare to the cost of eating out , even splurging for Australian yogurt and fresh fruit in winter , packing a lunch has probably saved us tens of thousands of dollars over the three decades that we’ve taken our lunches to work.
As an intermittent faster I can assure you it won’t kill you to miss a meal if you have to! Sure, some people NEED to eat but most of us are pretty resilient and it sure beats dropping $12 on lunch. I am also a big fan of the emergency protein bar in your work bag, purse, laptop bag, gym bag, desk, car, etc.
Funny no one mentioned about someone else eating your lunch…used to happen occasionally where I worked….I always took a pepsi for my lunch, and one day it disappeared….soon found out who drunk it, was one of the employee’s daughter who just stopped by and went to the fridge….when I asked where my pepsi was, she said oh I am sorry was that yours? I can go out and get you one if you want !!!! being nice, I said no that’s ok….but I did not like it….. from that day on, everything I took went in a zippered lunch bag, and I put it in the back of the fridge….and it was always there….if you didn’t put it in the fridge, why would you take it…?? It must belong to someone if it is in there right???
This could be another subject to write about Mrs. FW 🙂
I used to have this happen with my Mountain Dew. I had, actually two co-workers, who would take my Mountain Dew, and admit it, always telling me they would pay me back (which never happened). I started putting it in my thermos…lol.
Re: veggie packs for babies/toddlers. They make refillable pouches that you can put your own food in and then keep in the fridge/freezer. My kids like them!
I don’t like making breakfast & lunch every day, so it has been working really well for me to make a bunch of muffins and sandwiches at a time, freeze them, and pull them out to throw in my lunchbag as needed each day. I package snacks in assembly line style, too, so each day I am just grabbing several of these options, plus whole fruit, to throw in my bag.
I like the emphasis in this post on knowing thyself. For me, for example, leftovers are just a no-go. I hate standing up from my desk to go microwave something and I’m usually scarfing between classes and meetings anyway. And I HATE the idea of relying on leftovers when the original meal might not lend itself to leftover lunch. So the frugal lunch habit started working much better for me when I realized I had to chuck the idea of leftovers and just automate the lunch habit. Yes, it’s the exact same thing every day (a giant salad with beans, tofu, veggies, and nuts) but that’s the only way it works for me. We chop up lots of veggies, cook our beans or bake our tofu early in the week (and then again mid-week: you don’t want to be eating on Friday lettuce that was chopped on Sunday) and every day is the same thing: assemble the salad and go.
I like the idea of salads if you realize that you cannot eat leftovers. Sometimes I know there’s no microwave available and I just cannot get the food cold. It’s too gross.
So thanks for the tip! It’s a great idea. I might even write a post on it 😀
O M G. This post Comes so timely… just yesterday i was so hungry and went to the Cafeteria for mediocre and expensive Food. I usually always bring my lunch but reading your article I immediately recognized my Problem: I am not honest to myself with how much I eat…… Also one tip really hit home: Do not stock your favourite Foods because you will eat them in non-emergency situations. THIS. is true. Thank you thank you thank you.
Heartfelt greetings from Germany, Katja
I’ve bookmarked this particular discussion for further ideas. I always bring my lunch (99%) but on the very rare occasions that I forget I have meal tickets that are given out as prizes in my department. They cover $7.00 in the hospital cafeteria and that is definitely enough for a meal. For long nights past my shift or on call weekends I have oatmeal and soup in my locker or there is always the doctor’s lounge. And there is always the chocolate locker I set up for the women in the department. Because sometimes you just need a bit of a sweet to tide you over.
This week I am going to make the rice and beans lunch that Mr. Frugalwoods used to make weekly. I’m okay with eating the same thing every day. I’ll eat a regular lunch at home, and bring the rice and beans to work, along with a yogurt for variety.
Woot!!! I finally made a reader suggestion post! I feel famous! Love, love, LOVE all the food posts. I am very much like you, Liz, and as you eloquently say, “lose all sense of decorum” when I am hungry (which is pretty much always). So I pack food for myself daily and make sure it’s always at the ready as if I was a toddler, instead of about to turn 50. LOL
My biggest issue with bringing food is actually because of my current job. I’m a paramedic that works for a private company (not 911, we do hospital transfers, etc). I don’t have a station that I can go to…I spend my entire day in the ambulance. So, bringing food that needs to be heated up or otherwise prepared is a pain in the backside. I’ve tried a few different things, but nothing has necessarily “stuck”. I’m hoping to get in the habit again, but it’s such a hassle…depending on call volume, I might not even have time to do more than grab a hot dog at 7-11. (oh, also: I DESPISE peanut butter. YUCK). Any suggestions (outside of peanut butter) would be wonderful!
When I did home visits and basically worked out of my car, I’d bring pasta salad kept in one of those bento boxes with an ice pack. Also, you can keep soup/chili warm in a thermos. Or I’d just do a lunch of crackers, almond butter, olives, cheese, etc. Or I’d make cold chicken salad (basically cook chicken quarters in crock pot, shred, and then I’d coat the chicken with mashed avocado and mix in red onion, herbs, grapes.
My niece is a Dr in emergency in South Africa with no facilities or time to heat food. We make huge batches of sandwiches which we lable and freeze. She takes a selection each day with some fruit and nuts in a cooler with an ice block to keep things cold. Soups in a thermos also work well – we also batch cook them for variety.
For those of you that freeze sandwiches, what kind are you making??
Pretty basic meat + cheese for me. Nothing that would get soggy when it thaws. I like to keep it pretty plain, though.
Mrs. Frugalwoods live on NPR’s On Point… get excited! Looking forward to it. I can’t wait to read the book.
Yes, this is my biggest challenge also. Well, and buying new clothes I do not need. I like to cook and meal prep too, but there are some months than I become a bit lazy and like the convenience of buying quick meals out. Those are also the months my pants get tighter and it gets me back on track very quickly. I refuse to buy new jeans when I have a ton in the closet. I make homemade shakes and always have one in the car with me. My husband and I will make lunch on the weekend and take it with us since it is so easy to just eat out if we need to run errands together.
I have been packing my own lunch for so many years, it’s just automatic. I used to even be known in my previous job as the one with the peanut butter sandwich anytime we had professional training days and everyone would go out to eat. I’d tag along and eat my sandwich with the group. They made fun of me, but I was happily getting out of debt. Now, I bring it everywhere (because have to be gluten-free!) and there usually are no options to just have at random in any location. Plus, as many say, keeping extra snacks in my desk that are healthy is also useful to curb any desire to splurge. Always something to eat (and I keep protein bars in my purse!).
Great post! I find the time to make / pack my lunches every other morning due to my school aged kids school district’s ridiculously late start times (grade school gets on the bus at 8:50 AM) So I use the time between when I wake up (6 AM) to get chores done, exercise, and usually cook my food (egg whites, steamed veggies, oatcakes, greek yogurt) for the next day or two.
I agree with packing snacks to resist buying lunch out later on, but I find that I end up eating said snacks if they are within reach, so I never pack more than my usual.
We love packing food for when we go on hikes or go to the zoo – the prices for food there aren’t bad but why add the expense? We normally make our own granola bars (so good, almost too good) but fall back on prepackaged stuff when it makes sense.
I agree to not assume that kids can go anywhere with no food, but caution finding a healthy medium – It got to the point where our children expected snacks any time we got in our van, and we had to (its a constant struggle actually) ramp it down.
I tried cooking stuff in bulk on Sundays, but we were always just trying to recover from the weekend and get back on track and the kitchen normally is a whirlwind of trying to pack lunch for the rest of the family – 4 kids and my wife (she takes care of everyone else’s lunch thankfully)
I love Kristine’s desk stash of food! I feel like something that trips me up sometimes with being more frugal with food is my love of novelty. I think there’s something in having a bit of a system down so you know you have inexpensive meals that you know how to prepare. I experiment quite a bit, and sometimes this can lead to having too many different types of ingredients around. It’s something that gives me pleasure so I’m not axing it from my life, but these past two weeks I’ve had to simplify my cooking due to health reasons. A side effect has been that I’ve spent less money and have had more time as I haven’t been creating elaborate meals.
For the ambulance my suggestion would be cut up sandwiches & fruit. I don’t have a fridge In my office but I have a small lunch bag that zips & holds an ice block which keeps my salad cold until lunch- see no reason why it wouldn’t work for the ambulance. Or as someone said above, hummus & pita.
I have a different question- what coffee containers do you have that keep coffee hot all day? Someone mentioned a 12 hour flask but my experience has been that I can take two cups of coffee and have one hot in the morning but by midafternoon (my weak point) it’s lukewarm at best. The free coffee at work is truly undrinkable. This leaves me with buying coffee or lukewarm, which is still better than the free stuff!
I have this thermos, which I find keeps my coffee warm all day long!
I have the same one! It’s amazing. Keeps tea very hot for at least 12 hours! I’ve even forgotten to clean it in the evening and found still warm tea in it the next day (over 24 hours after it was brewed).
My co-worker got me two Primula travel mugs for Christmas. They are best mugs I have ever had. Beverages stay hot or cold 12 hours plus they are worth ever dollar.
Love Kristine’s idea of stocking her desk.I am lazy when it comes to bringing my lunch so I end up buying at work.I just went out last night and bought soups,crackers,peanut butter,oatmeal,fruit cups and trail mix to stock my desk on Monday.Thanks for the great idea.
I drive to work, and have a sink/ microwave/mini fridge and a stock of containers, dishes and utensils. So it works for me to each Monday bring stuff for the entire week and do some prep onsite during work hours (for me this is logistically and ethically viable). I don’t have variety during the week, but mix it up week to week with combos like:
-Bag of potatoes to be baked /cube of butter/tub of sour cream or Boursin cheese
-Rotisserie chicken/bag arugula/red onion/grape tomato/olive oil/smoked paprika
-Bag of pita, tub of feta, Persian dukes/grape tomato/jar artichoke hearts
-Nectarines or mini watermelon, tub of fresh mozzarella, basil plant, baguette
-carton oatmeal/bag dried fruit/cube butter/carton milk
-bag bagels/smoked salmon/tub cream cheese/jar capers/grape tomatoes
Please bring your own reusable ‘silverware’ also (bamboo, for ex.) + reusable straw, if needed.!!! Try to never use one-time-use plastic anything!
Koshari – [KO-sha-ree] – a typical Egyptian street food is a great meal to prepare for work.
Prepare in layers: Rice, elbow macaroni, lentils, chickpeas, marinara sauce, and frizzled / french-fried onions
[Yes, Mother Fussbudget is a vegan]
This sounds great. Do you have a recipe to share?
Cold noodles. Asian soba and veggies, rice noodles and veggies…of course Italian and Greek style…all tastes better leftover.
Your air travel meal and snack packing truly inspired me! Thanks for sharing your tips.
We have a super easy solution to my husband’s work lunches. Every night after dinner, we pack up leftovers in single serving containers and throw them in the freezer. In the morning, he just grabs one and heads off to work – no spills in his work bag because it’s frozen, and he can even keep it at his desk until he microwaves it for lunch. We have done this for years and it requires no planning or extra effort. It is extremely rare for his stockpile to run out completely, and if and when he does get low on meals, he’ll remind me and I’ll purposely double batch the next dinner that I make to ensure leftovers.
I found your blog by chance looking for tips on meal prep and for the past three weeks I’ve been trying the extreme “cook one meal and it for lunch 5 days in a row” approach and I LOVE it! I’m single and work long hours and grocery shopping and cooking dinner (and packing leftovers) every other night had been a huge time-suck . In addition, relying on a lot of convenience products to make cooking at home quicker meant I wasn’t saving enough compared to straight-up buying lunch at work to really make it worth my time.
This past month I went shopping once a week on Saturdays and cooked one lunch and one dinner option for the entire week on Sunday. Not only did I save a ton of money by cutting down the regular after-work grocery runs; I saved SO MUCH TIME and my kitchen has never been so clean. Usually it would turn into a little more of a disaster area each weekday as I scrambled to make food and got too exhausted to clean it all up the same night and then Saturdays I’d have to spent an hour cleaning before I could even think about cooking anything else.
*I buy a variety of organic nuts in bulk, I divide them in small ziplock bags. They keep well, and I always have snacks on the go.
* I store oatmeal and instant noodles at work
*I bring a small servings of frozen vegetables to work (I make mixes frozen vegetables myself ) to eat with the instant noodles.
Hi! My way certainly seems lazy compared to all the hands on prep practiced by other frugalsters, but I’ve developed a rhythm that works for me. Somehow, for me, sandwiches always end up smashed or soggy if I try to bring them to work…even with containers! So I only make them during the weekend, when I can enjoy them fresh right away. As for left overs, I prefer to keep them for dinner after a long day of work…aah! For the work week lunches I buy five or six frozen dinners, whichever is on sale, and if it’s a firehouse sale I buy double. Fortunately I can stock them in the fridge at work since most employees work in the field or go out to lunch.
I also buy a case of generic soda, yogurts and fruit on sale, add squares of dark chocolate, and of course I always include dessert! As much as I love making cookies from scratch, time and limited energy have forced me to do so maybe once a month, keeping it a special treat. During the rest of the time, I use brownie mix, bake Pilsbury cookie dough, or snag Oreos on special, but they have to be double stuff or chocolate filling!
To make lunch a bit more special at work, I swap shoes for slippers, and spread a small picnic cloth on the unoccupied desk where I like to hide out. I read and relax very nicely!
Our tip is to always keep back-up lunches in your desk at work, just in case you forget to bring your lunch. There are shelf-stable options if you peruse the grocery store aisles. They aren’t healthy or particularly tasty, but these are things you will eat every day, just on the rare occasion that you forget your lunch.
Someone mentioned a “knockoff Yeti cooler”…. would love to know the brand please?
Great tips. I am very impressed that you can get home-packed food past airport security. Where/how have you succeeded at this? I travel through Ohare Airport in Chicago where all the security people are closet Nazis who confiscate everything from me, including my prescription meds.
I liked these tips.
Love the extra inspiration. Thanks. I have been batch cooking and using takeaway boxes (my sister used to have a takeaway habit and donated her boxes to my mum and me, so I didn’t even buy the boxes) the boxes hold 1 dinner for me, or 2 lunches. Just recently though I started a job with major commuting, and my mum suggested that I have pasties (filled with all sorts of fillings, not just standard Cornish fillings) and my thermos for dinner on the train home. So far I have managed to keep this up for 6 months with forgetting just 2ce, Sainsbury’s to the rescue rather than takeout! Off to make a new batch for the freezer. :). Thanks Fiona
My number one tip to stop wasting food is using a whiteboard – put it where you can see it in the kitchen; mine is on the outside of my pantry door. I write down our food for the week – breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks. I also list anything that may go bad or that needs to be used up – avocados, apples, lettuce, etc. If I plan to use something from the freezer I list it on the board, also so I remember to get it out. I meal prep on Sunday and list out my meals and snacks. This way we do not have to think or remember what I have for the week – I just check the board.
I’ve found that my failure to plan ahead has been my biggest enemy to successful and sustainable meal prep. About 2 years ago, my office started to have regular 7:30 am meetings, which made it impractical to cook fresh bento dishes the day of for lunch, and thus my meal prep backslid from lunch + dinner to lunch only. Worse still, the long day left me craving a pick-me-up at 3 pm, which often took the form of a bubble tea fix (500 ml of tea and sugar costing $5).
Eventually, I actually got tired of take-out (overly big portions, expensive and doesn’t taste good) which got me re-committed to meal prepping with a vengeance to avoid the “accident” of nothing-to-eat. My schedule has shifted towards evening calls smack in middle of dinner time so discipline and structure are even more paramount. The system that is keeping me with meal options at hand on any day — 3 sets of meal prep containers: 6 rounds (for stews, soups and chili), 6 rectangular (for casseroles and rice dishes), and 3 divided (rice plus a stir-fry with gravy) will provide storage space for 15 meals, and 3 different options so that there’s no need to repeat the same 2 meals on consecutive days. This also gives me enough options to avoid backsliding into takeout “for variety”. Using an Excel spreadsheet, I can plan what my “round”, “rectangular” and “divided” meals will be for the week in order to be focused and targeted at the supermarket.
I also started to pack a healthy snack and a fruit to take to work, which has done wonders to stop the late-morning coffee runs and mid-afternoon bubble tea cravings. Lastly I need just 2 hours to wrap 40 gyoza which can then be frozen for meals on the spot whenever I want yet another variant for my meals.
Brilliant! Sounds like you’ve got an amazing system!
When working (both now retired) my husband and I would each order a full sized restaurant meal and get 3 meals from each one (so 6 meals total). We always made portable breakfasts to eat on our long drives to work. We each packed BIG lunches,am and pm snacks, drive home snacks and all drinks for the day. I also would put my keys in the fridge at home and work to remember to take my food with me. I also taped a note to my steering wheel with the next days destination after once driving to the wrong city!(multiple work sites). We used LARGE lunch boxes! We also always keep a large cooler in the cars for leftovers from the restaurant/ food from home/ safe transport of groceries to home..(we live a long way from town). My husband used one of the huge lunch boxes from Duluth Trading Co. I used the small (6 pack sized) igloo cooler as my lunch box. We each also kept spare food and drinks at work. My husband is the cook and he always made a large enough supper to provide the next days lunches. Yes, people teased us about our amounts of food but we knew our needs!
Leftovers. Out of a bag. At the airport. In front of LEGAL SEAFOODS! Master level.