Has the economy put a damper on your lunch money? Instead of spending upwards of $30 on a lunch out, does the economy have you now brown bagging with more budget-friendly midday meals? Despite having to pack your own and serve yourself, brown bag lunches do have their advantages - most notably, they are more nutritious and actually even more convenient than a restaurant meal. Here are some budget-friendly lunch tips from Dr Gayl Canfield, director of nutrition at Pritikin Longevity Center & Spa.
Brown bag lunches are healthy
Besides saving money, filling up a brown bag or a reusable lunch tote gives you the freedom to fix exactly what you want and how you want it.
Dr Canfield says there are three exceptional advantages to brown bagging it. "You can pack foods that are healthy and that you enjoy eating. You are in charge of how your lunch is prepared (restaurant foods can be very high in fat, sodium and calories). You can pack extra fruits and other foods for snacks throughout the day."
What types of food are the healthiest choices? "Foods for lunch (or anytime) should be whole, unrefined, unprocessed foods that are low in fat, sodium and added sugar," explains Dr Canfield. "Focus food selections on fresh vegetables, fresh fruits, legumes, whole grains, non-fat dairy (such as yogurt) and lean proteins (fish, chicken)."
Your choice of beverage is just as important in the healthy lunch equation. The nutrition expert recommends sparkling or still waters with minimal or no additives like artificial flavors or sweeteners. In addition to being calorie-free, these drinks will hydrate and refresh you without a resulting energy crash that often occurs with high sugar beverages.
Brown bag lunches are cheap
One of the high points of brown bag lunches is that they save you money – but only if you make wise choices while grocery shopping. Though conveniently prepackaged lunch-size foods seem like a good buy – they're made for on-the-go lunches, right? – you actually spend more because of the packaging.
"Buying specially packaged 'lunch-size' items at the store is often much more expensive than buying regular items and re-packaging them yourself. Buy ziploc plastic snack bags and several of the re-usable plastic containers to use for this purpose," Dr Canfield advises.
For example, it is more expensive to buy specially packaged baby carrots or presliced apples in snack-size bags than to buy a larger bag of baby carrots or whole apples and prepare and package them yourself.
Cheap and healthy brown bag lunch ideas
If your daily lunch routine has been restaurant-oriented, switching to brown bag lunches may seem daunting. However, with a little planning and a tasty repertoire of quick and easy meals, you will find packing a lunch far more convenient than sitting in a busy restaurant waiting to be served – and just think of how much healthier your diet will be! Here are five brown bag lunch ideas, as suggested by Dr Canfield.
1. Lunch on leftovers
When cooking dinner, make a little extra and take the leftovers for your lunch. This is always more economical than going out to lunch. Looking for leftover ideas? Try these:
Fast ways to make over leftovers
Turn your leftovers into mouthwatering meals
Getting creative with leftovers
2. Eat in season
Particularly helpful in saving money, take advantage of seasonal fruits and vegetables. Make them part of a meal or take them as a healthy, budget-friendly snack.
Tips to eat locally and seasonally
How to eat to save the planet
3. Make pita sandwiches
Pitas are easy to pack and quite neat to eat. Dr Canfield suggests Mexican pita sandwiches: Stuff a whole wheat pita with a variety of healthy Mexican-style choices like pinto beans, black beans, cubed chicken breast, salsa, brown rice, shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes, sliced avocado and diced onion. As a side, pack a fruit of your choice (for example, an apple, banana, grapes or sliced papaya) and a sparkling water. Here are two more pita recipes for lunch:
Tuna Salad Pita Pockets
Avocado and Spinach Pita
4. Toss a "tupperware" salad
Fill a tupperware or other container with lettuce greens and top with sliced tomato, cucumber, onion, shredded carrot, garbanzo beans or any raw veggies or bean you like. Use a nice aged balsamic vinegar for your salad dressing – balsamic is a fat-free and healthy alternative to high-fat commercial salad dressings. Salads for every season:
Spring salad recipes
Simple summer salads
Warm chicken salads for fall
Warm winter salads
5. Try a baked potato
If you have a microwave at work, take a potato or sweet potato in your lunch bag. For lunch, simply toss it in the microwave for four to five minutes or until tender when pierced with a fork. Top with fat-free sour cream and salsa. To round it out, add a fruit of your choice and a sparkling water.
Cooking sweet potatoes
Frugal potato meals
6. Combine whole grains with a lean protein and veggies
Use leftover fish, chicken or tofu from last night's dinner to make a hearty pasta or rice salad. Combine protein with small whole wheat pasta shells or brown rice. Add chopped celery or any other vegetable you like, fat-free sour cream or yogurt, and season with a little black pepper. Add a fruit of your choice and water. Try these dishes to start:
Greek Shrimp and Pasta
Brown bag bonus
Sure, you may miss the ease of sitting down in a restaurant and having someone else do the cooking and clean up, but your freshly made brown bag lunch will not only save you money, it gives you the added freedom of eating when you want and where you want. Find a quiet, sunny bench at a nearby park and enjoy your lunch noise- and hassle-free.
More cheap and healthy lunch ideas
Hottest lunch trend: Affordable brown bag lunches
5 Workday lunches you will love
Low-carb lunches under 400 calories