15 Ways to Make Brown Bagging It Better Than Buying Lunch

When I was a kid, the appearance and aroma of the food served in the school cafeterias made me, frankly, nauseous. My parents, both schoolteachers, must have felt the same way and so we all became brown-baggers.

When I joined the workforce, I quickly realized that eating lunch out was not going to fit into the grocery budget, and so I went back to brown-bagging. I'm still cheap, and I still abhor cafeteria food. The good news is that this frugal practice has likely saved me thousands over the years. If I had been eating in my building's cafeteria, I would have been spending, at a minimum, about $5 a day, or $25 a week. You can see how quickly that adds up.

By brown-bagging it, you'll also be eating much more healthily. You can control how much fat, sodium, and additives go into your lunch. Here are 15 ways to achieve brown-bagging success. 

1. Fail to Plan, Plan to Fail

Did I sound like your mother, just then? She was right, though. If you think the lunch fairy is going to wave a wand over your lunch bag, sorry. You'll need to shop on the weekend and do some cooking and/or assembly beforehand. Make your life easy and pre-bag chips, wash fruits and vegetables, and get whatever you can ready. Try not to make the mistake of thinking you can whip up something in the morning. Be honest — you'll be groggy and likely give up.

2. Invest in a Good Lunch Box

Man, I still wish I had my Partridge Family lunchbox (now listed at around $130 on eBay). No crying over spilled milk, though — lunch boxes now are so far superior. Some are insulated, and if you cool them overnight, you don't even need to throw in a gel pack. Nice lunch boxes start at around $13.

3. No Microwave? No Problem

You can still have a hot meal. One of my co-workers just bought one of these wide-mouth thermoses, which keeps food hot for five hours (and cold foods cold for seven hours). I used an older, similar model for years. The trick is to heat the thermos first with boiling water, then dump it out, and then fill with your heated food.

4. Shake and Make Salads

True confessions of a germophobe: I don't like salad bars in cafeterias or restaurants. But I love salads. I like these salad containers (some call them salad shakers). They're BPA-free, and they also have nifty little containers for salad dressing and a fork. They are also great if you are a fan of yogurt and granola. The granola can go in the separate container.

5. Use Bento Boxes

These boxes with compartments are a lot of fun. Look for one that is leak-proof. Although Japanese in origin, the sky's the limit when it comes to filling them. Do some reading before you invest to see which type works for you.

6. Get Moving

Eating one's lunch doesn't take a full hour. I only get a half hour, and that's always adequate. Why not spend the rest of your break having a walk? According to the CDC, heart disease is the number one killer in America. If you walk just 30 minutes a day, that reduces your risk of heart disease by an astounding 40%. Throw some socks and sneakers into your tote bag and get some exercise. You'll feel more alert for the rest of the afternoon, and it will improve your mood.

7. Learn Something New

Weather too gnarly to walk? Rather than spending the whole lunch hour eating, consider learning a new skill. My friend Rosemary taught me to do simple crochet after we'd eat our quick lunches. Some of my co-workers do craft projects together. Get your brain away from spreadsheets and give it a challenge.

8. Beat the Low Blood Sugar Dip

Rather than eating a big lunch, try splitting it into three mini-meals during your work day. For instance, have a yogurt around 10:00, a half a sandwich or a salad at noon, and then hummus and crackers around 2:30.

9. Plan to Batch Cook

The big pot of chili was great on Sunday, and made a yummy lunch on Monday. But by Tuesday, eh, aren't you chili'd-out? Rather than planning to eat the same thing all week, invest in good freezer containers. Batch cooking is economical and a super time-saver, but it's even better when you can mix things up.

10. Let Someone Else Cook

When I was a kid, I couldn't figure out why my parents didn't feed the poodle when they brought home those doggy bags (restaurants actually used to have pictures of dogs on doggy bags). Now, it's all about the biodegradable clamshell, of course. Restaurant portions are usually pretty large. I find that if I start with a salad, I have enough for really great leftovers the next day.

11. Roll It With Rice Paper

These go by a few names, including bánh tráng, spring roll skins, and rice paper rolls. They take a little practice to use — but don't worry, they're inexpensive. Basically, you dip the wrapper in hot water to soften and, working quickly, fill, roll, and wrap. Traditional wraps contain vermicelli noodles and thin strips of vegetables. Add a little peanut sauce and you'll have a really great, low-calorie lunch. (See also: 20 Delicious Ways to Enjoy Cheap Spring Roll Wrappers at Every Meal)

12. Wrap It With Tortillas

Tortilla wraps are really fast to put together and they travel well. Spread a thin layer of cream cheese onto a tortilla, toss on some pre-bagged salad mix, and add sliced chicken or turkey. Roll, and slice. You can also use them instead of bread for tuna or egg salad. Try boiled egg and avocado with a dab of Sriracha mayo and onion sprouts. Yum!

13. Stuff a Pita Bread

Look for the freshest pita you can buy at the store — if it is stale, it tends to split apart. Try filling with chicken Caesar salad or make a BLT. The handy pocket shape lends itself well to messy stuffings.

14. Bring a Burrito Bowl

Always save leftover rice or quinoa for your lunches. Top a layer with diced avocado, black beans, a little cheese, chopped tomatoes, and a little salsa. Delicious hot or cold.

15. Pack Some Healthy Ramen

I know, those noodles-in-a-cup couldn't be easier... but they are so unhealthy, laden as they are with fat, sodium, and MSG. The good news is that you can easily make your own instant noodles (the coconut curry is fantastic).

Need to prove how much you can save? Try brown-bagging for a month, and remember to bank the amount you would have normally spent. You may also have found time to exercise and learn new things.

In your opinion, readers, what makes the best brown-bag lunch?

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By taking your home packed lunches, you can save more money and be healthier. Here are 15 ways to achieve brown-bagging success. | #frugalliving #homemade #lunches

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Guest's picture

My favorite is a baked potato. We have a microwave at work, and I cook it early in the morning when I first arrive so I'm not holding up the line at lunch hour. Hard to beat the cost, with the 10lb bag on sale for a buck, that's lunch for a whole month!