Do you find yourself spending up to $50 bucks a week during lunch? Are you a victim of sad desk salads and sandwiches? Does the thought of preparing a delicious, healthy lunch make you feel overwhelmed? Then, look no further.
We know how tempting it is to buy lunch every single day. It’s tasty! It’s fresh! It’s easy! But when a healthy, filling meal made by someone else costs upward of $10 a meal, it’s a habit that gets pretty expensive. Even eating out twice a week can cost you up to $1,040 per year––yikes!
But there’s no need to suffer from #saddesklunch syndrome every day. Despite Gwyneth Paltrow’s food stamp challenge failure, it’s still possible to eat a meal that’s cheap and still rivals any Chop’t salad. From grocery shopping advice to lunch prep hacks, here are our favorite tips to help you save some serious cash. And while we’ve got money on our minds, don’t forget to find out the 14 Restaurants Stuck in the Dark Ages that don’t deserve your dollars!
About Grocery Shopping
Irresponsible spending at the supermarket defeats the purpose of a cheap lunch. Here’s what you need to know to shop smart and do meal prep in advance for high-quality lunches.
Do Your Shopping on Wednesday
Most people leave their grocery shopping for Saturday or Sunday mornings, which is when the supermarket looks more like a ravaged battlefield than a center of commerce. Consider making midweek evening runs, instead. According to Progressive Grocer, only 11 percent of Americans shop on Wednesdays, and on any given day, only 4 percent shop after 9:00 p.m. So if you’re shopping at, say, 9 p.m. on a Wednesday, you’re able to get in and out quickly, which means you’ll spend less time fighting impulse items in both the aisles and at the checkout line. As a bonus, you’ll free up your Saturday morning for something more enjoyable, like cooking a healthy breakfast.
Know Your Brands
In many cases, generic brands are made by the same manufacturers, using the same ingredients, as your major-label brands. They almost always taste just as good, provide comparable nutritional content, and come at a fraction of the cost. Take peanut butter, for example. While Whole Foods’ in-house brand 365 sells its 16-ounce container of Creamy Unsweetened Peanut Butter for $4.99, the same size jar of Maranatha Organic Creamy Peanut Butter goes for $8.99! For a “cheap” protein, that’s a pretty steep price. So long as you’re not sacrificing nutritional quality, swap out brands to keep your expenses down.
Pick Up These Cheap Snacks
We’re not talking about the bag of chips found in the middle of the supermarket aisles. Instead, buy these 27 Healthiest Snacks Under $1 to stash at work. That way, you’ll always have nutritious food on hand and won’t have to succumb to the vending machine once the 3 p.m. munchies strike.
Plan Around the Sales
Before scouring Pinterest for recipes you want to make, check your local market to see what’s on sale, suggests registered dietitian Ilyse Schapiro. “After you know what the best deals are, then plan your meals for the week. Also, sign up for a bonus card at your local market. Rewards programs can save you a lot of money in the long run.”
Buy in Bulk
Shopping at stores like Costco can save you some serious dough; all you gotta do is be smart about what your buy. Inside these membership discount stores, can often find large quantities of berries, quinoa, nuts, and even lean meats for the same price as a regular supermarket! Buy in bulk, and you’ll have enough ingredients for a week’s worth of lunch.
Don’t Forget About the Frozen Foods
If you’re nervous about fresh produce wilting fast, then opt for the fruits and vegetables found in the freezer aisle. These foods are frozen at their peak times, so you won’t be missing out on any nutrients. And since they spoil, you can use them in your own time––great for people who get bored of eating the same thing every day. Frozen broccoli, for example, which is $0.59 cheaper than the fresh variety at Fairway, can easily be thrown into a pan with some cubed chicken, minced garlic, dried herbs, salt and pepper and served over a bed of millet or brown rice. Check out these 17 Simple Swaps That Save $255 a Month on Groceries.
Ditch the Pre-Made Meals
Pre-made meals may save you time but they aren’t necessarily the healthiest picks and they’ll seriously cut into your budget. “By cutting back on on pre-made meals, packaged and processed snacks you’ll have a lot of room leftover in your food budget for the nourishing, real foods that fuel your body with the nutrients it needs for weight loss,” says Cassie Bjork, RD, LD of Healthy Simple Life.
Stock Up On Lots of Produce
Because eating the same ol’ greens every day gets old fast. If you stock up on a range of healthy components—including underdogs like chard and watercress, which are superfoods healthier than kale—you won’t get bored. And if you fear the mid-week wilt, measure out portions and pop half of them in the freezer, cycling them into the refrigerator the day before they’re needed. Incorporating last night’s leftovers will stretch your dollar even further. If your confidence about picking out produce is a little low, then follow our guide to 35 Easy Ways to Pick Perfect Produce Every Time.
Lunch Packing Tips
The idea of brown-bagging it every day sounds daunting, but these tips will help you make the most out of your leftovers and recently bought grocery foods to make an insanely delicious meal that’s healthier and cheaper than that overpriced burrito bowl.
Master Meal Planning
A no-brainer, but the easiest to guarantee well-balanced lunch is to cook in advance. But, if the thought of planning ahead seems stressful, here are Meal Prep Ideas for Every Weight Loss Diet to help you conquer your fear.
Use Quinoa As Your Base
Quinoa is one of those grains that is so versatile–– you can cook it with anything. Plus, it’s high protein and fiber content makes this grain an excellent choice for when lunch time rolls around. At $8 a pound, quinoa sounds expensive, but a little goes a long way. You only need one-fourth of a cup of this stuff to keep you satiated. Try these 30 Quinoa Recipes for Weight Loss. And if quinoa isn’t your thing, rice and millet also make great cost-effective bases.
Make These DIY Protein Snacks
Although they may be little, they are fierce––fierce with protein that is! Protein bites (like these 25 Recipes for Energy Bites That Live Up to the Hype) great snacks to keep you full when it’s one of those, “I’m way too busy to grab a proper lunch” days.
Eat Some Oats
Oats are generally a breakfast meal, but they work for lunchtime, too! There are 30 servings in a two-pound container of Old Fashioned Quaker Oats (the silo-shaped package, not the instant packets), which rings in at under $4. Oats are high in soluble fiber and anti-inflammatory compounds, which increase satiety and have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes. Sprinkle a serving with cinnamon (one of the best fat-burning spices), top it with fruit, or make some frozen oatmeal cups ahead of time.
Make Your Freezer Your Friend
Are you seeing a pattern yet? Freezers to the rescue! Honestly, some food is better suited to freezing and reheating than others: “Soups, broths, smoothies, and sauces can be frozen in ice cubes trays, which comes in handy for portion control and weight management. Veggie-based casseroles, whole-grain wrap burritos, and homemade turkey or veggie burgers can be frozen individually, giving family members a healthy grab-and-go option,” explains Stephanie Brookshier, RDN, ACSM-CPT. When your meal is already made and only needs to be reheated, you’re less likely to give into calling for takeout on hectic evenings.
Wrap it Or Bun It
If you’re not a fan of eating the leftovers, take last night’s protein (chicken, beef,) and use it as a base for your sandwich or wrap. We promise, it’ll taste just as good as those deli hot sandwiches.
Get Crafty with Appliances
If you’re over the sad desk salad, consider busting out the slow cooker––or even your nutribullet––to make a hearty meal. Make a batch of your favorite chili and freeze it for days to come. The best part is that with crockpot recipes, you can leave it on all day and have dinner and lunch for days to come!
Make the Most Out of Your Leftovers
You may not have enough leftovers to squeeze out a second meal, but that doesn’t mean you should throw the food out! “Wasted food is wasted money, says Schapiro. “Leftover fruits and vegetables can always be added to a smoothie or protein shake and vegetable and grain scraps can be added to a soup, a stir-fry, or an omelet.”
Make Your Own Protein Shake
Whether you work out in the morning or in between your lunch break, grabbing a protein shake right after is easier said than done. But, at $8 a pop, this habit soon gets expensive. “Commercial bars and workout drinks can be very expensive. What’s worse, they offer little more to your body than what basic fruits, vegetables, and nuts can provide,” says Wells. “Ounce for ounce, homemade smoothies or snacks will not only be cheaper but probably healthier for you, too.”
Buy Meat and Fish at the Deli
Instead of paying $11+ for a fancy, protein-packed salad, make your salad base at home and then buy your favorite fresh source of protein at the deli during lunchtime.
Grocery Shopping + Meal Planning = Ready to Cook
Now that you have all the tips you could need to prepare for a week of packed lunches, it’s time to put your knowledge to the ultimate test— it’s cook time! Sometimes the 9-5er becomes discouraged from packing because they know they cannot prepare the kind of gourmet delicacy they would receive at hip restaurants. But if you are trying to save money, it’s time to challenge yourself and get creative with your quinoa recipes! Unleash your inner chef and stay on a reasonable budget with these 12 lunch ideas. The secret? Make these dishes the night before and store ’em in the fridge till the morning!
Teff-Stuffed Red Bell Peppers
If you have not heard about teff, it may be in your best interest to become familiar with it. Coined as the traditional grain of Ethiopia, this nutty whole grain is not only rich in protein, but calcium as well. It looks nearly identical to red quinoa but it packs a whopping 10 grams of protein per half cup serving and provides nearly four times the amount of calcium as quinoa! Stuff a vitamin C-rich red pepper with this gluten-free grain and you’ve got yourself an inexpensive lunch. A one pound bag of Bob’s Red Mill Teff is between $5-$6 and contains 22 servings! Pair that with $1 red pepper and one of these bad boys clocks in at just $1.24. Chop up fresh cilantro and throw in some nuts of your choice for some extra flavor!
Peanut Butter and Banana Roll-up
The ingredients for this meal can be found just about anywhere, but Trader Joe’s line of products come together to form a killer combination. And a cheap one for that matter; seriously, one wrap weighs in at just $0.70. Too good to be true you say? Let’s take you through the math. A package of Trader Joe’s whole grain tortillas costs $2.49 and contains 10 tortillas. Next, their peanut butter with flax and chia seeds is $2.99 with 15 servings per jar. Finally, one organic banana costs roughly $0.29 so if you divide everything correctly and add up the remaining product, you will see that your meal is under $1. And people say eating healthy is expensive! Nope; it’s all about doing your research.
Red Quinoa and Feta Salad
If you’re looking for a savory quinoa bowl, this is one you’ll want to add to your menu this week. A bag of quinoa from Trader Joe’s costs $3.99 and comes with 11 servings, while a 4-ounce container of Athenos feta cheese costs roughly $3.99 and comes with four servings. Again, once you do the math, you will see that just one serving comes to $1.36. It’s super easy to make, too.
Black Bean and Avocado Salad
Who doesn’t love a good avocado recipe? This one is chockful of nutrition and will not cause you to carry a food baby around for the rest of the day. A can of iron-rich black beans and an organic avocado both cost you roughly $1.99 a piece. For this salad, you will only utilize half of each (at the most) to get a filling meal, which means your meal clocks in at $1.99. Throw in some diced tomatoes and cucumber for some extra flavor and hydration; it will only tack on an extra dollar.
Tuna Panini on Sprouted Grain
The classic tuna salad sandwich just got a gourmet twist with this recipe. Ditch the whole wheat loaf of preservatives that you have previously called bread and swap in a loaf of Ezekiel 4:9 sprouted grain bread! What’s the difference? You avoid several additives and synthetic ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup, malt syrup, sodium bicarbonate, the list goes on! Oh, and you have to store it in the freezer since it doesn’t contain any preservatives. One loaf costs you approximately $4.99 but comes with 12 slices. Next, a four ounce can of tuna (in water, not oil) costs you roughly $1.50, you will probably be using the whole can for filling meal. Now, instead of mayo, you will whip up a Greek yogurt base, which calls for a standard 5.3-ounce cup of the plain Chobani variety. That’s another $1.50, and to finish it off, remember the other half of that avocado that you had left over in the black bean salad? Well, you are putting it to use, here. The total cost of this meal comes to $3.83, which not too shabby. You can also throw some spices in if you have them, such as garlic powder, black pepper, and dill.
The probiotics in this lunch will certainly keep your tummy happy. Not to mention, bringing it in a mason jar full of fruit, oats, nuts and yogurt is nothing short of adorable. The amount and combination of ingredients you can put in here are endless, but whichever you decide, your money will be put to good use.
Spiralized Zucchini and Squash
Zoodles are all the rage these days, inexpensive to whip up, and you don’t have to have a fancy machine. All you need is a julienne peeler, a zucchini, and squash to make this low carb pasta! A small version of each vegetable should only cost you $1, so you have some dollars to spare to put on some extra toppings. Consider tossing two cage-free eggs cooked in coconut oil for a dose of healthy fats and protein. Toss the noodles with half a tablespoon of olive oil and sprinkle on some cheese if you want to produce an irresistible flavor.
Chicken and Beet Salad
Beets may be among the list of superfoods, but that does not mean their cost is super expensive! A bundle of organic beets (with 3-4 bulbs) costs roughly $2.99. Boil them the night before and toss them atop of a bed of greens and with a fillet of chicken and you have yourself a balanced meal. However, this salad tastes really delicious if you top it off with a drizzle of olive oil and a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar.
Salmon Salad Sandwich
Wild caught salmon is loaded with nutrition—but when fresh, it can cost up to $14.99 per pound. Yikes! Luckily, the canned version is nearly identical in nutrition and a 13-ounce can only costs $3.19. Use the same mayo substitute and bread from the tuna salad sandwich above and you have yourself a tasty meal.
Curried Chicken Pitas
While the pita is authentic and, well, just downright fluffy and delicious, if you’re trying to conserve that cash flow you may just want to opt for using the tortillas used for the peanut butter wrap. You still have 9 left, after all! Sautée a chicken breast or two in ½ cup of canned coconut milk (one can costs $1.50) and one tablespoon of powdered curry. Throw in some chickpeas ($1 per can) and viola—you have a high-protein lunch!
Cauliflower Pizza Crust with Veggies
You’ll need your Sunday night for meal prep, so save this meal for a Monday lunch. One head of cauliflower costs $1.99 at Trader Joe’s which is all you will need to make this low-in-carb pizza crust. This is a great option for people who follow a gluten-free diet! If you choose to buy asparagus, you’ll only need to buy a quarter to a half pound to do the job, which cost between $1-$2. As for cheese, you can use the rest of the Athenos feta you used for red quinoa salad.
Edamame Hummus Wrap
If you are a diehard hummus fan, this is the lunch for you! It’s also incredibly simple to make, as well. An 8-ounce container of Cedar’s Hummus is $1.99 at most grocery stores and a bag of edamame at Trader Joe’s is about $1.79. And, of course, you still have your whole grain tortillas to spare. Throw in other veggies like spinach and carrots for some bonus nutrition. Speaking of hummus, don’t miss our exclusive report on the Best and Worst Supermarket Hummus!