Updated on 07.03.07

How I Made Brown Bag Lunches Work For Me

Trent Hamm

For the last several months, I’ve primarily been brown bagging my lunches at work, taking either leftovers or extremely simple home-prepared foods with me to work to eat at lunch time. I admit that there was some serious resistance on my own part to starting brown bagging – I had a litany of excuses for why I shouldn’t.

Reasons Not To Brown Bag It

Brownbagged food is terrible Leftovers for lunch? A cheese sandwich for lunch? Blech.

Networking opportunities are lost The Never Eat Alone philosophy basically states that, well, you shouldn’t eat alone. If you bring in a brown bag and eat at your desk, aren’t you violating that?

It takes time at home to prepare a brown bag lunch This just means more time devoted to your job, doesn’t it? Plus, food preparation can be boring for some.

Remembering it This was actually a major issue for me – my morning routine didn’t include remembering a brown bag lunch, so I would often forget it at home.

Reasons To Brown Bag It

It saves money Eating leftovers and simple meals from home is far cheaper than eating a take-out lunch or going out to lunch with coworkers. Done every day, this can be a large wad of cash.

It saves time Microwaving a brown bag meal (and some of them don’t even need that) takes only a moment or two, then you’re eating and done.

Turning The Negatives Into Positives

Making brownbagged food good Previously, I wrote a substantial amount of advice on how to make leftovers quite tasty – mostly, it’s the spices and knowing how to use them. But what about other foods? If you prepare your own simple food (like sandwiches) for a brown bag lunch, use good ingredients. Select a tasty bread, get quality meat, cheese, vegetables, and condiments, and make appealing sandwiches. Also, select sides that excite you and use some variety – I love eating broccoli florets, but I try all sorts of things on the side.

Find new ways to network See if there are people that also brownbag it in the community break room at work (if there’s one available to you). Look outside your building. You’ll usually find some people that are brownbaggers that you can get to know. In fact, at one job, I found that the head of the organization was a faithful brownbagger and often viewed the other brownbaggers as the sensible people in the group. What about the others you’ve abandoned? It’s fine to eat out with them on occasion – just don’t make a habit of it.

Prepare your brown bag at the same time you prepare supper I found that preparing my lunch for the next day as I prepare supper (or dish up supper) the night before works well. Just serve a meal into a Tupperware container or, if that won’t work, spend the time while supper is being prepared setting up your lunch for the next day. That way, in the morning, you can grab it and go.

Use a morning routine checklist This seems silly, but I found that making a morning routine checklist after my son was born was actually a huge help in getting me to remember everything I needed to do in the morning, as I usually had pre-work tasks to do, had to get my son ready for daycare and take him there, and so on. Make one, laminate it, and use it without shame in the morning – that’s what I do.

Brown bagging can save a lot of money in the long run – don’t let lame excuses hold you back.

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  1. I’ve also got an article on brown bagging your lunch. This simple strategy can save a substantial amount of money. Also brown bagging doesn’t mean that you must eat alone, it just means that you’ll save money.

  2. Ann says:

    This is a great idea. I’ve been bringing my lunch to work on a regular basis for the past couple of years. Thanks to the money I save by not buying an $8 sandwich everyday (not counting sides!), I am able to buy more/better groceries and eat tasty, satisfying lunches…and still save money!

  3. Beth says:

    I keep a real plate, real silverware, and a dishcloth at work. The food looks and tastes a lot better when it’s not being eaten off of paper with plastic utensils, and it takes no time to wash & dry them.

    I personally find that I’m pretty hungry by noon, and waiting around for food to be made for me just leaves me grouchy and with a shortened lunch time, so bringing lunch from home works well for me. I might buy lunch once every other month or so.

  4. Your other leftover-food posts here on TSD have helped me jazz up my meals for work, Trent. I’ve been a brown-bagger my whole life, with the occasional restaurant visit during the week, but I love knowing that I’m saving money and eating food I carefully prepared.

    One other major benefit of taking lunch to work is nutrition. Meals made at home tend to be better for us that processed, greased-up take-out. Makes for more energy throughout the day =)

  5. good point about bringing your own food to work. I tend to make a combination of bringing my own lunch to work and eating out. On Fridays I usually also eat out though

  6. Kathy says:

    The bad thing about bringing lunches is, unless it’s just a sandwich in a plastic bag, you will have dishes to clean up, and you will have to tote your containers to and from home. Where I fall short is in remembering all the steps. With my luck, I will forget my dirty containers and leave them in the car, or at my work, where they will start to stink in 24 hours. Too much aggravation for me! I think I would rather try to save money in some other way.

  7. kristin says:

    I always brown bag it since my job is not located near any restaurants. On Sundays I prepare lunches for the next week by making a bunch of PB&J sandwiches and mixing carrots, cherry tomatoes, celery sticks, and sliced peppers into enough baggies for the week. I buy enough individual yogurts to last the week. Another choice is buying the boxed soups such as creamy tomato etc. and heating it in a mug. This is affordable and healthy!

  8. Chad says:

    I’ve been starting to get in the habit of brown-bagging. Saving money was one of the reasons it made sense, but I feel the biggest benefit is that I have control more control over what I’m eating, meaning I can eat way healthier than I would if I go out every day.

  9. Cheryl says:

    I read this post as I eat my pre-packed pasta salad from home! I am a huge fan of the brown bagged lunch (except my bag is green!). I pack my lunch (and any morning snacks) in the evening, during dinner prep, and also set the coffee pot for the next morning while I am at it. I never forget, because I have been carrying my lunch for years. Sandwiches, salad, soup, leftovers, tuna & crackers…whatever I have on hand or suits my taste at the time.

  10. Javi0084 says:

    Lets not forget the few ounces of gas that we save by not driving to the restaurant or fast food place, unless of course they are within walking distance.

  11. Kathy, tupperware is your friend :-) Once you do it a couple times, it’ll become routine. You can eat right out of the container at work and there are zero dishes :-)

  12. 60 in 3 says:

    Here’s another related method. Instead of brownbagging it, find a local supermarket with a seating area. Almost all of the large markets will have some kind of deli with tables and seats. Find someone to go with and make a lunch out of it. I can usually buy enough food for two or more lunches for the same money I would pay for a lunch at a restaurant. The leftovers stay in the fridge at work for the next day or for afternoon snacks. I get to do my networking, plus I still save money and find healthy food.


  13. Tim says:

    woohoo for tupperware. brown bagging it is also healthier…at least it can be much more healthier than eating out all the time. restaurants use lots of salt and crap.

  14. Alyssa says:

    “Kathy, tupperware is your friend :-) Once you do it a couple times, it’ll become routine. You can eat right out of the container at work and there are zero dishes :-)”
    huh? Don’t you have to wash the tupperware? If you are throwing the tupperware away that really isn’t saving money.

  15. Monica says:

    I agree with those who point out the health factor of brown bagging. You are in control and don’t have to choose the least-unhealthy option.

    I have a reusable lunchbag and a bunch of tupperware containers. I don’t find it too much hassle — in fact, I feel good about reducing waste. If I remember, I pack my lunch the night before.

    Today I had an egg salad sandwich, carrot sticks, apple juice (I refill a glass bottle), and canned peach slices. Other weeks I make a pasta salad or something. Sometimes I have leftovers. I don’t eat more than I need and I don’t eat junk food. And I save money!

    I work downtown so there are lots of great restaurants. I just save buying lunch for a special treat once in a while.

  16. Amber Yount says:

    ive been wanting to take my lunch for awhile, but i always forget it :)

  17. sir jorge says:

    I really enjoyed this post. I have been struggling with brown bagging it, especially since I’m lazy.

  18. PF says:

    I prepare all my lunches and breakfasts for the week at home on Sunday, pack it all up in Rubbermaid containers, and bring it on Monday. That way, I’m done for the week. If I do not do this routine, I gain weight due to poor choices in the cafeteria. The weight issue is actually more important to me than the money issue, frankly.

    Also, I keep a large stash of plasticware and paper plates in my office. Yes, I know I should switch, but I’m still using a lot fewer resources than if I bought a sandwich or fast food off site. Someday I will switch, but for now, I’m eating healthy.

  19. Monica says:

    I recently started to take my lunch to work and I found that having a cute, reusable bag was the key for me. Target has great insulated totes for around $15 that look like they could be a regular handbag so I don’t mind carrying it every day.

  20. Jason Rehmus says:

    @Amber-You don’t need to forget it!

    My wife is kind enough to pack me a lunch every night. I would forget it if she didn’t do one extra thing for me: she packs my keys in my lunch bag. This one tiny little hack has ensured that I never forget my lunch. And I never have!

  21. Matt says:

    A couple friends and I started a company two years ago and we’re in pre-funding development right now. When two of us started working here full time in November, we immediately realized there was a problem when each day we would decide on a place to get lunch. I’d say on average we were spending $8.50 PER lunch. And most days neither of us had dinner here either, and we’re at the office until 10pm every night. One day a few weeks ago we decided to go every Monday to the grocery store and buy 2lbs of cold cuts, 1.5 lbs of cheese, and two loaves of bread. Every couple of weeks we buy mayo… and we make sandwhiches every day. We split the cost 50/50 each week and on average spend about $15 per week. We brought that $8.50 average down to about $.80 PER meal!! It’s been great. Eventually I suspect we will lose a little bit of weight too, because those $8.50 lunch meals are usually about 800 calories more than you need ;-) We combat the monotony of eating sandwhiches everyday by buying different meats and cheeses each week. Occasionally we splurge on a $.50 bag of chips from a vending machine in our building. It’s been great.

  22. Ben says:

    I brownbag a mixture of leftovers, salads made for lunch at work and the ingredients to make sandwiches at work (I am fortunate to have a small fridge in my office). Doing this gives me a longer lunch hour because I don’t have to waste 20 minutes a day lining up for purchased lunches. It also means that my lunch costs per week usually range from $6.50 to $11.50. Buying lunch at work would cost me from $37.50 to $48.50 per week. I pack my food for the day at work the night before. I also pack my own snacks and drinks. I have been doing this for the past decade and it greatly helps my family’s budget.

    My work colleagues rarely eat in my lunch room so I don’t worry about the lack of networking.

  23. Harish says:

    great idea i work out that spending$4 a day over 6 days and over 50 weeks and over 30 years will SAVE you from this idea (if you use food which is extra)$36,000. That does not take into account of the interest on this money saved over 30 years.

    Even if you do buy food for this , it will be lower cost then having someone else do it for you and charge labour and overheads. Plus you know exactly what is going into the meal.

    Can we please have a list of 100 simple ideas to reduce waste each day, I am new to this blog so there may already be one.


  24. Tordr says:

    Norway is the land of brown bags (matpakke), most people make their own lunch and bring it to work. Probably because lunch is expensive and not so good in Norway. It is my feeling that as you go further south in Europe more and more people eating out for lunch.

    In Denmark I now eat a good lunch for $3,50, 2 minutes walk from work. But when I go back to Norway I will go back to brown bags as I would either have to pay $5,00 half as good lunch or $9,00 and a good walk for some better food.

  25. Harish says:

    The mosyt interesting thing is that if you leave the $36,000 to earn interest at 7% you will earn interest of $36,419. Now your total saving is $72,419. Not bad from just saving $4 a day by making your own lunch.

    I learnt a lot from this exercise. it is that we do not need to big things in life, by simply saving a little each day by reducing wasye and doing it consistently amazing results will result over a long period of time.


  26. Rachel says:

    I’m a brown bagger but I have hit a slump. I’m awfully tired of yogurt, fig newtons, banans, and I have never been much on sandwiches. Time to shake things up a bit!

  27. Jonathan says:

    Here’s a good tip and the way that I have done it for over a year… I actually take a loaf of bread and a pack of ham and a full-size bag of chips to work with me so that I don’t have to take a lunch everyday. The supplies last for a week or more and as each thing gets low I just have to remember and take that one item. It works great.

  28. Violetta says:

    To keep myself on track even when I forget my lunch, I bought a dozen cans of good soup (that open without a can opener), a box of crackers, a package of those disposable plastic containers and plastic spoons. I leave them in my file cabinet. Whenever I forget lunch, I just pop the soup into the office microwave for less than $3.00 for lunch.

  29. Rebekah says:

    I’ve been bringing high-protein bars for lunch, since my boss doesn’t like the way some of my more “exotic” lunches smell.

    I’d begun by clipping coupons and stocking up for a week at a time. Right after the holidays, when people are trying to lose weight, this works out great!

    Now, I’m buying “by the box” with my requirements being that the bars don’t cost much more than $1/each, that they are high in protein, and low in sugar. I keep a few different kinds on the cellar steps so that I can grab them on my way out to the garage.

    I’ve lost weight. I’m on medication that makes me sleepy; I can stay awake, better, through the work day. A bonus: I feel like I’m “eating dessert.” (I found an amazing “vanilla-coated sugar wafer” with 15 grams of protein, which, when on sale, comes to $1/bar.)

    If I have an errand to run after work and I feel drowsy, or hungry (we’re not supposed to shop hungry!), I’ll stop at a nutrition or vitamin shop and grab an energy drink or bar to get me through the errands. It’s cheaper than a designer coffee, and is better for us.

    I eat balanced meals for breakfast and dinner, but this plan has worked since the beginning of the year: it’s cheaper and doesn’t upset my boss. I don’t have dishes to wash and/or bring home, and my cholesterol dropped from 180 (when I was bringing fancy lunches or frozen lasagna) to 117. I’ve lost between 1 and 2 SIZES since I began.

  30. Ursula says:

    @Rachel – You could try making something on Sunday that you could take to work for lunches during the week. I like to make a crockpot stew or a pot of spaghetti sauce (with tons of onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, yum!) then I put it in 4-5 gladware containers and stack ’em in the fridge. Voila, lunches for the week! Of course, you are having the same thing for the entire week, but if it’s a meal you like, then you can stand it for 5 days in a row. I just don’t make the same thing again for another 6-8 weeks, that way I don’t ever get too sick of the same thing.

    As for lunch sacks … I have a cute VeggieTales lunch bag. It’s very easy to pick out of the fridge amidst all the boring brown paper bags and solid black lunch sacks of my coworkers!

  31. Jackie says:

    My adult son lived with us for about a year and took his lunch everyday. Of course Mom made the lunch. He was not good at bringing the containers home. I stumbled on some disposable plates (with the paper plates) that lock together. Invert one. I would make his lunch when I cleaned up from supper. I could even make him salads this way. Taco salad too. Yum. Just put the meat in a baggie and heat it. Sometimes I would skip a day with the left over so it was not the same for lunch as supper the night before. Also omlets worked great too. They had a toaster at work so he could make toast or english muffins to go with the omlet. This all saved him alot of money.

  32. Casey says:

    Even forgetting the amount of money that you would save, what led me to start bringing all of my food to work was that I wanted to relax on my break. I work at a software company in downtown Portland, ME and there are a lot of places to eat. It is also busy during the day since this area is where most of the businesses are. I can take breaks basically whenever I want to, but most everyone takes their lunch at 12pm. By the time I walk outside to a restaurant, stand in line and order and get my food there is at least half an hour! Not very relaxing to me. I would rather bring my food and hang out in the break room or sit in the church garden across the street. To me that is a better way to spend my time.

  33. luvleftovers says:

    Bringing leftovers is so easy. I just put mine in individual plastic containers and freeze them. Then I always have a meal for work or if I don’t want to cook. I find that many meals, such as stews, chili and casseroles, taste better the next day anyway.

    I’ll sometimes buy prepared frozen meals if on sale, but I only eat these about once a week since they have so much sodium and preservatives.

    AND, you can never go wrong with peanut butter and jelly! YUM!

  34. luvleftovers says:

    Oh, yeah, and U’m saving bunches. I’ve only been doing this on a regular basis for about 2 months, and I’ve already been able to put an extra payment on a charge card. Yippee!

    When you see this happening, it just makes you want to save more. I actually feel guilty when I buy lunch now. I hate it!

  35. jason says:

    Share you’re food w/co-workers, I found you can feed a few moochers for what you’d be spending at the lunch counter, and eventually most of them start to contribute to the pot, which helps with monotony since I don’t know how to make a big variety. I don’t usually feel comfortable getting together a potluck or anything but I’ve found if you just make with the food it’s contagious.

  36. Jenyfer says:

    Jason–so totally true! I have a great deal with a contractor at work–I bring the lunch, he pays $5 a day AND washes the dishes!! Not only does it motivate me to pack lunch, it also has made me more into cooking and recipes and such. And it is found money! Of course not everyone will have this option–but ask around–you may be surprised.

  37. Louise says:

    I tend to cook in bulk and freeze individual portions. This way I can simply take a meal out of the freezer in the morning and reheat it in the microwave at work for lunch. I also keep some non perishables at work in my desk such as nuts, apples, oranges, cans of tuna, salad dressing etc. This way I can just take some salad vegetables to work, open a can of tuna and toss it with the vegies and dressing. Voila! Suddenly I have a well balanced meal with fresh crisp veggies rather than a soggy mess I made at breakfast.

    What you can leave at work in the fridge will depend on where you work, but if you can, then it is often worth leaving some basics in the work fridge such as a loaf of bread in the freezer, some butter or margerine, mayonnaise, a tub of yoghurt, cottage cheese etc. A large container of yoghurt will work out cheaper than individual serving containers, and fruit topped with yoghurt can be a good morning snack if you missed breakfast, or a light lunch if you’re short on time. Good quality wholemeal bread with peanut butter will be better for you as a snack than a muffin or cake. It’s a lot easier to avoid temptation if you have a few good quality items stashed away at work.

  38. Sue M says:

    I’ve been using the same lunch box/insulated bag for several years now. I use the reusable plastic disposable containers for my lunch, as they can freeze and then be in the microwave. Sometimes, i wrap my sandwich in waxed paper. Since I always use the same bag and same containers, it is not hard for me to remember to take it to work, then take it home. If I forget and leave it in the car, I remember when I go to pack my lunch again. The reusable plastic containers are dishwasher safe, and very often that’s all I have in the dishwasher. Saving money, saving the environment, saving me…all good money spent!

  39. elva says:

    I have been brown bagging my lunch all the month of June. This really has saved me money and time.

  40. I must say this is more discipline than most people can take and takes effort to keep it up every day, so I’d introduce a brown-bagless day once a week, just to have a breather.

    Also, for me, the main benefits of taking my own lunch are the nutrition/health and being able to choose precisely what I like.

    Lastly, a counter claim for spending the preparation time is the time saved standing in line, ordering and paying for commercial food.

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