25 Quick, Cheap Lunch Ideas

By Janey Osterlind on 5 October 2011 (Updated 8 July 2014) 11 comments

We all know how difficult it is just to get out the door in the morning (though it can be easier if you know how to wake up fast and attack the day), so it's no surprise that preparing lunch often falls by the wayside. Make bringing lunch — or preparing it at work — easier by using one of these 25 trouble-free and tasty ideas.

Sandwiches

Sandwiches are the epitome of an uncomplicated lunch, but they don't have to be boring. Use ingredients from last night's dinner in innovative ways to bring new life to those two slices of bread. (See also: The 5 Best Bread Machines)

1. Chicken Salad Sandwich

Dice or shred leftover chicken with celery or pickles (both are delicious), mix with mayonnaise or ranch dressing, and add a Kaiser roll, and you've got one delicious, easy lunch.

2. Meatball Sub

This is one of my all-time easiest lunches. Anytime I have spaghetti and meatballs for dinner, I reserve three to five meatballs and some sauce for lunch the next day. After dinner, I cut a French baguette in half, layer on meatballs on sauce, and go to bed. That is the easiest lunch ever, right?

3. Italian Sub

The classic Italian sub is both practical and delectable. Start yours with a good foundation of a French or sourdough sub roll, and layer on salami, provolone, lettuce, and add Italian dressing. Done! You can spice up your sub with the addition of pepperoncini, roasted red pepper, or even artichoke hearts. (See also: Sex Up Your Sandwich)

4. Philly Cheese Steak

Being a new resident of Philadelphia, I had to add this one to the list. Make your own, super-easy version of this old favorite by sautéing half a white onion and half a bell pepper in 1 tbsp of butter until the onion is translucent. Mix in leftover steak and heat. Put the filling on a hoagie roll and top with provolone cheese (or, like the real cheese steak, Cheese Whiz). What's that you say? No leftover steak? No problem — just use sliced roast beef deli meat for an easy alternative, like Hillshire Farm recommends.

5. Tasty Turkey Sandwich

We've all probably had a turkey sandwich greet us for lunch at some point in our lives. Dress up your turkey with this turkey sandwich recipe from Good Housekeeping. It gets a lift from fresh lemony mayo and spinach greens.

Pasta

Pasta is a lunchtime staple because it's easy to combine the three main components of any pasta dish — noodles, sauce, and a protein or veggies — in countless ways to create delectable new lunches.

6. Pasta Frittata

Almost everyone eats spaghetti, but not everyone enjoys eating leftover pasta the next day. Transform leftover spaghetti noodles into a tasty pasta frittata by adding six eggs and ¼ cup milk to one cup of leftover spaghetti or fettuccine noodles and cooking on medium heat in a skillet for about five minutes. Add about two cups of cheese (any kind will do), and broil the frittata until the eggs are set and the cheese is golden brown. For a more fancy version, try this frittata recipe from Rachel Ray.

7. Easy Pasta Salad

I love pasta salad, not only because it's delicious, but also because it's easy to make and easy to eat on the go. The most economical way to make past salad is, of course, with leftovers — use pasta, veggies from another dish, and cheese (cubed or grated), then toss with olive oil, red wine vinegar, and spices. You can also add in a protein for an even more filling salad. My personal favorites are cubed chicken, shrimp, or pepperoni.

8. Shrimp and Orzo

Orzo (that small, rice-shaped pasta) is wonderful eaten both hot and cold. I make a lunch version by cooking ¼ pound orzo the night before and throwing in ¼ pound pre-cooked shrimp, ½ cup feta cheese, ½ of a chopped cucumber, and some cherry tomatoes. Toss all the ingredients with olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt and pepper, and chill. Mmmm, mmmm good!

Random Lunches

For those people who refuse to be boxed into a neat category, try a lunch recipe that refuses to do the same. Decide for yourself which most suits your unique personality.

9. Pinwheels

This staple at office food days and parties is easy, cheap, and can be made with a tortilla and just about any filling your heart desires. One of my go-to favorites is cream cheese and turkey, but if you're looking for some inspiration, try a few of these ideas from the Williams-Sonoma Blog.

10. Mediterranean Pita Pocket

In my humble opinion, the pita pocket is second only to sliced bread when it comes to making a variety of lunch items. I personally love a Mediterranean-inspired version, which involves stuffing a pita with lettuce, red onion, tomatoes, and Kalamata olives and topping with Greek yogurt and cucumber (a quasi-tzaziki sauce, if you will). You could substitute the yogurt and cucumber with hummus, too.

11. Quinoa Salad

Quinoa, a grain-like crop grown for its edible seeds, is a good source of protein, amino acids, and calcium. It is also, by the way, gluten free. Quinoa can be a perfect lunch staple because it is so healthy and easy to make. Try making your own quinoa salad by cooking two cups chicken broth with one cup of quinoa according to the package directions. Add cooked broccoli florets, cherry tomatoes, and feta cheese. Toss with extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt and pepper. Enjoy!

Mexican-Inspired Fare

The tortilla is Mexico's answer to the sandwich. Endlessly versatile, inexpensive, and tasty, tortillas can be filled and folded in innumerable ways. Here are some of my favorites.

12. Black Bean and Corn Burrito

What could be easier than opening a can of beans and a can of corn, and folding into a burrito? I make these tasty lunches by using one can of black beans and one can of corn (rinse before using); adding an avocado, red onion, and cilantro; and mixing with olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Pile the filling on a flour tortilla, fold burrito-style, and enjoy!

13. Taco Salad

OK, this one does not call for a tortilla like the other lunches in this category, but it's equally versatile. I'm not a huge fan of leftover ground beef (personal choice, I guess), so I leave that out when making a super-easy taco salad for lunch. Instead, I substitute black beans. I pack beans and salsa separately from shredded iceberg lettuce and cheese. Also separately, I pack a nice lime vinaigrette (2 tbsp lime, 4 tbsp olive oil, salt, and pepper). Come lunchtime, my lunch is still fresh and appetizing.

14. Omelet Burrito

Take a portable, protein-filled lunch by wrapping your omelet in a tortilla. Cook three eggs in a skillet, adding cheese, veggies, and ham as desired. Fill a tortilla, fold burrito-style, and wrap in wax paper until ready to eat. I especially love to eat this one when I'm feeling under the weather — maybe because having breakfast for lunch is also a pick-me-up.

(Wise Bread Pick: Lodge 12-Inch Cast Iron Skillet at Amazon)

15. Chicken, Apple, and Cheese Quesadilla

If you have leftover chicken from last night's dinner, use some of it to make this easy lunch. Place ½ cup of shredded cheese (mozzarella is my personal favorite, although cheddar works fine too) on a tortilla, add chicken and apple, and top with another ¼ cup of cheese. Add another tortilla on top and microwave for 30 seconds, or until cheese is melted and bubbly. Slice and eat.

Old Favorites

Just because you grew up doesn't mean your lunch has to — as far as the basics, that is. Below are some of the best of classic lunches from our childhood, dressed up in work-appropriate form.

16. PB&J

What's not to like about the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches of our youth? They are the epitome of cheap, easy, and tasty. If you feel that you need your PB&J to grow up with you, try preparing a gourmet version, with almond butter, peach raspberry preserves, and sliced sourdough bread. You can get creative in other ways, too, like with PB&J "sushi" rolls.

17. Macaroni and Cheese

It doesn't have to come from a box to be easy and cheap! Try making this easy stovetop macaroni and cheese recipe the night before and taking it along for lunch. I also like to add a protein to my mac, like chicken, shrimp, or sliced Italian sausage.

18. Hot Dogs

Try making these childhood favorites easier to eat at the office by wrapping them in croissant rolls. Buy refrigerated croissant rolls at the grocery store, and unwrap one of the triangular squares. Add a shredded cheese of your choice and a hot dog, roll up, and place on a baking sheet. Bake at 350°F for 15 minutes or until the dough is golden brown.

19. Ramen Noodles

This staple of college dorm pantries is also an easy and cheap lunch option for grown-ups. For an exhaustive list of things to do with ramen noodles, check out the appropriately named book, 101 Things to Do with Ramen Noodles. For a quick lunch without the tutorial, simply add 1 cup of fresh or frozen veggies of your choice and ½ cup alfredo or pasta sauce to ramen noodles. Cook according to noodle directions, but only add ½ of the seasoning included — that's where all the sodium is.

20. Grown-Up Lunchables

A typical Lunchables package is filled with crackers, cheese, and meat. Pack your own version with whole-wheat crackers, cubed or sliced cheeses, and deli meat. Add some hardy fruit that's easy to eat on the go (like sliced apples, grapes, or clementines), and you've got a balanced lunch for cheap.

21. Mini-Pizzas

Spread some tomato sauce on an English muffin, add cheese, top with pepperoni or chicken, and broil until the cheese bubbles. These delicious bites are easy to take with you on the go and just as easy to make. You can also try variations on the theme, like chicken alfredo pizza (alfredo sauce), barbeque chicken pizza (barbeque sauce), or buffalo chicken pizza (with butter and hot sauce).

Soups

Soups are great lunches for a number of reasons: They won't make you feel full enough to put you to sleep mid-afternoon, they're generally healthy, and they are almost always economical to make. Here are a few that are particularly well suited to lunchtime.

22. Cheddar Beer Soup

Who couldn't use a drink at the office? Get your fix with a hearty cheese soup enlivened with a splash 'o beer. This cheddar-beer soup recipe takes only 15 minutes to make and requires only five ingredients. Make it the night before (or even the morning of), take along, and heat for lunch.

23. Sweet Corn Soup

This sweet corn soup recipe is delicious, nutritious, and (bonus!) can be made in the microwave, making it officially one of the easiest soup recipes around. I highly recommend it for a chilly fall day.

24. Gazpacho

Gazpacho, or cold tomato soup, was originally invented to avoid using the stove on a hot summer day. Make it any time of year for an easy lunch using this simple gazpacho recipe. Add some croutons or a crusty baguette, and you're set!

25. Cannellini Bean and Tomato Soup

Here's another one that is über-simple to make ahead or even in the microwave at work, if you have one. Empty one can of cannellini beans (plus liquid) and one can of spaghetti or marinara sauce into a microwave-safe container and microwave on high for three minutes. Let sit for one minute before removing. Dress it up with Parmesan cheese and bacon if desired, and enjoy with some croutons.

So there's the big list of 25 quick and cheap lunch ideas. Was there anything I left out, or do you have a variation on a theme? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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Guest's picture
Olivia

Just for fun, as a new Philadelphian, (from a former Philadelphian), try Pudge's in Blue Bell for THE BEST cheesesteaks. It's a bit of a hole in the wall place in a strip mall, so keep your eyes open. But it's better than Pat's or Gino's. No fooling. Look online for yourself and see the photos. They ARE like that in real life. Roll up your sleeves. Very messy. Eat half of the regular and take home the leftovers. BTW It's not just chez whiz, American or provolone are standards too. And some like their's with pizza sauce.

Enjoy your new city.

Janey Osterlind's picture

Thanks for the recommendation! I'm definitely trying that one out. My goal is to make it there this week!

Meg Favreau's picture

Uh-oh...best cheesesteak debate territory! This could go on and on! (Not that talking about sandwiches forever is a bad thing...)

A former Philadelphian myself, that's one thing that I love about cheesesteaks -- that many of the best come from those little hole-in-the-wall places. I never got to try it, but I remember when some highly rated cheesesteaks used to come out of Grilladelphia, the restaurant that was in the Exxon station at York and Aramingo.

Guest's picture

Quinoa salad it one of my favorites and it is always better the next day allowing the dressing to be further absorbed by the quinoa itself. Now its time to set a bit of time aside each night to make lunch in advance and save both money and pounds in the coming weeks.

Janey Osterlind's picture

Good luck! I love quinoa salad too - it's also a versatile side-dish for any dinner, which means that if you make enough, it can do double-duty as lunch the next day too.

Guest's picture

Mmmm... nice Frugal lunch tips, so much better than buying fast food. Thanks for the ideas.

Guest's picture
Peter

Oh hey! That's me on the right! I'm on the internet now! I must be famous without even knowing it.

Where did you find/get this picture?

Guest's picture
Peter

OH! Nevermind. My amazing friend Eli took it. Glad that mystery is solved. Great article!

Guest's picture
TMoney

I think all of these are good ideas. For me, its all about finding those lunch places that offer like $5-6 lunches and then hold off on the drink. The food is usually pretty good, but the soda/drink is what kills you in the long run. My 2 cents.

Guest's picture

Dice or shred leftover chicken with celery or pickles (both are delicious), mix with mayonnaise or ranch dressing, and add a Kaiser roll, and you’ve got one delicious, easy lunch. Its one of the good ideas and I am really following it.

Guest's picture
Cassie

thank you for the ideas! An appreciative mom who is not very creative in the kitchen because of the budget. These will work great and people will actually eat!