Making the Super Quick and Convenient Lunch Much More Frugal

At our house, we’re pretty strict on limiting free time for our kids. They get maybe half an hour of screen time after school (after their homework is done) and, on some evenings, half an hour after supper. On weekends and during the summer, it might be a bit more than that, but if they’re staring at screens on a nice day we shoo them outside and if it’s a rainy day we figure out something non-electronic to do.

The funny thing is that when our kids go to visit a friend or a relative where they have much more opportunity to watch television without restrictions (we don’t push our rules on other families when our kids visit), they come back having absorbed a ton of commercial messages. They know about all kinds of products and can sometimes even sing jingles from commercials. (After a recent visit to their grandparents, for example, our kids came back and were singing the jingle to a Sketchers commercial, something I’m pretty sure they never even saw at our house.)

This, of course, translates into our kids requesting things that they didn’t even know about before those visits.

One great example of this phenomenon is Lunchables. They’re simply not something that’s normally on our children’s radar, but after a visit to the grandparents a few years ago, they came back and absolutely insisted on trying Lunchables.

Sarah and I shrugged our shoulders and bought them each a Lunchables box as a one-off treat, intending them to be eaten for lunch on a Saturday or Sunday.

Needless to say, we weren’t impressed. We paid several bucks for a container with a pretty small amount of food in it, mostly processed food. For all three of our kids, we wound up spending close to $20 on a small and highly processed “lunch” that wasn’t particularly healthy.

It did have one undeniable thing going for it, though: Lunchables are really convenient. You can just open them up and eat, pretty much regardless of where you’re at.

So, Sarah and I decided that we’d try to make our own Lunchables.

Make Your Own Lunchables

We simply took five divided containers that we found at a yard sale (much like these, actually), and then went to the store and bought a bag of grapes, a block of cheese, some snack crackers, and a package of small juice boxes. We sliced the cheese and then put the cheese, crackers, grapes, and juice box into the divided lunch container and suddenly it was virtually identical to one of the Lunchables that we purchased.

What was different? There was about 75% more food in our “Lunchables” and the cost dropped from about $4 or so to about $1. Our total bill at the store for the block of cheese, the crackers, the bag of grapes, and the juice box was less than we had paid for three actual Lunchables, and we could have made about 10 or so of these meals out of those purchases. It took less than five minutes of prep work to make them and they were just as portable and convenient as a Lunchable.

The thing is, you could make this exact same thing with any finger foods that you prefer. It doesn’t have to be grapes and crackers and cheese. You can use lots of different fruits in there (I like blueberries, raspberries, chopped melon, and chopped pineapple). You can put in almost any kind of cheese. You can put in things like chicken wings or shrimp. You can put in vegetables like cauliflower or broccoli or sections of corn on the cob or artichoke. Sushi is absolutely perfect for this (and it’s not hard to make).

From there, it becomes obvious that making your own quick and convenient lunch with a lot of food variety really isn’t very hard, especially when you step back from the “Lunchables model.” Even when you’re trying to somewhat mimic a Lunchable, you have a lot of range, but when you drop that, there are a ton of convenient lunches that you can quickly make yourself that are cheap and tasty and healthy, too.

The ‘Convenient Lunch’

For me, having a “convenient lunch” around is really, really useful.

Ideally, a convenient lunch is one I can eat with my hands with no extra utensils, one that I can pull out of my backpack almost anywhere and eat with no prep work, and one that I actually enjoy while also being reasonably healthy. Ideally, I can just toss the container right back in my backpack when I’m done and throw it in the dishwasher when I get home. Even more ideally, it doesn’t cost that much to prepare and doesn’t take a ton of work to prepare. If a lunch can actually tick off all of those things, it’s great.

Let’s break those things down a little bit so that we can see the requirements.

I don’t have to use extra utensils to eat it. It’s okay if I can eat it with a simple utensil that’s already in the box, but it shouldn’t be complicated. I do actually keep a fork, spoon, and chopsticks in my backpack. However, the most convenient meals are ones that require nothing more than my hands so that I can eat that meal in the widest range of places. This gives me a lot more flexibility over where – and by extension, when – I eat. So, meals that require no utensils are best, though meals with just basic utensils are okay.

I don’t have to do extra prep work to eat it. This means I don’t have to heat it up anywhere and it also means that it doesn’t have to be kept exceptionally cold (though I will sometimes bundle a convenient lunch with an ice pack to keep it cool). Basically, if I couldn’t eat this meal on a hiking trip somewhere when I stop and sit on a log along the trail to eat lunch, it’s probably not what I’m looking for.

It’s enjoyable for me to eat. This means I’m not actually sacrificing an enjoyable lunch just for convenience or saving money. This is a matter of personal taste, as we all have foods that we like that others do not (and vice versa). I mean, I’ll use sauerkraut as a condiment on almost any savory food, while others will gag at the prospect.

It’s healthy. This is why something like a bag of cookies doesn’t qualify. That’s not healthy and, honestly, I’d probably feel awful most of the afternoon if I ate a bag of cookies for lunch. It doesn’t have to be “perfectly” healthy, but at least reasonably balanced and not packed with extra sugars or salt or preservatives if I can avoid it.

It’s easily portable. Honestly, this comes down to the container more than anything else. The portability of a lunch is almost all about the container. It needs to be a sturdy container that stays closed when I want it to stay closed and won’t leak. The two examples I like the best are food jars like food jars like this one, which is great for carrying soup or something that needs to stay hot, or containers with a tightly lockable lid like this one, which is great for carrying many other types of meals. I can throw these containers in my backpack without any real worry of leakage.

It’s inexpensive. Part of the advantage of choosing this option over just popping into a restaurant or something is that it’s a significant money saver compared to similar items at a quick restaurant. The contents of a quick lunch can’t be very expensive or else you’re probably choosing lunch elsewhere. For me, if it’s not beating a burrito bowl from Chipotle by a significant amount, I’m probably not doing it right.

It’s easy to prepare. Lastly, this shouldn’t require a whole lot of prep work. You should be able to throw it together the night before or even that morning with just a few minutes of effort. If it takes a long time to prepare, that’s going to be nearly as disruptive to the day as other lunch options.

A Lunch ‘Meal Prep’ Plan

So, how do those ideas actually translate into things that you might want to have as a “convenient” lunch that fits into your daily carry bag? Here are some things to consider.

What foods do you like that actually meet those requirements? In other words, what foods do you like that require very little preparation to be ready to eat, can be eaten with your fingers, don’t need to be reheated (this isn’t an issue if you have a food jar, as noted above), and are also reasonably healthy, tasty, and inexpensive?

You might think that list is pretty short, but it really isn’t. One practice that can help you fill out that list is to simply walk around your local grocery store looking for foods that might work for this purpose. Look through the produce section for fruits and vegetables you can easily eat with your fingers. Look at the meat section for items you could eat cold if they were already cooked, like chicken wings or legs or thick-cut deli meats. Consider sandwiches – you can put small packets of condiments in the meal with you so that the sandwich stays dry until you’re ready to eat it. You can slice any kind of cheese that you like. If you want to get inspired, look at Lunchables or other ready-to-eat meals or snacks and just emulate those.

Once you start really considering the wide variety of options available to you, a lot of options pop up.

Do some bulk prep work. One of the most effective ways to keep all of this cheap and fast is to buy things in bulk in a relatively unprepared state and then do the prep work yourself all at once when you have time.

Rather than buying pre-sliced cheese, buy a much less expensive block of cheese, cut it up yourself, and use it in multiple meals throughout the week. Do the same for something like salami, too.

Rather than buying pre-cut fruits or vegetables, buy a head of cauliflower or a bunch of grapes still on the vine and wash and cut things up yourself. Get them to a state where they’re pretty much ready to eat, then store them in a large container in the fridge until you’re ready to pack your meal. It’s a lot easier to just grab a few pre-washed grapes out of a container on a busy evening or morning than it is to have to deal with taking them off the vines and washing them when you’re already strapped for every second.

Save good leftovers that work well for this. I used to be a huge aficionado of chicken wings and I would eat them cold for lunch for days afterwards, as I’d buy them in bulk and cook them all at once for a party, but I’d save some of them in the fridge for myself for later in the week. In the winter, I do the same thing for soup, as I’ll make a big batch, save a lot of it, and then take some to the library with me in a food jar a day or two later so that I can have a super cheap hot lunch that’s really delicious (I love to put chili in there with a little bit of cheese stirred into it and some oyster crackers in a Ziploc bag… so good).

You can even fill your containers in advance, either partially or fully. Just pull out several containers – maybe five, to cover a whole work week – and put some items in each one on Sunday. That way, the actual effort needed to finish them off for each week day is truly minimal.

Use good containers. You can give this a trial run with simple containers, but you’ll quickly find that having a partitioned container with a firmly attached lid is really handy and you may find that a food jar that keeps things hot is also very useful.

My only advice is to not buy these right off the bat. Try to use the containers and options you already have on hand to make convenient lunches for yourself, then see what works and doesn’t work for you.

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

Convenient pre-made lunches like these have become a staple of my routine on days when there aren’t going to be many leftovers in the fridge. I love taking these kinds of simple meals to the library with me or to a quiet place on a trail near my house where I love to go when I’m brainstorming or doing professional reading.

Here are some of my favorite things that I love to prep.

Sliced cheese, crackers, and grapes: It’s so simple, but it works. It always hits the spot and can be eaten with ease. To be specific, I really like colby jack cheese (bought in a block and sliced), store brand Triscuits, and green seedless grapes. I could eat that almost every day for lunch.

Soup: I love to put soup in a food jar on a cold day and take it to the library with me (or if it’s just really chilly and I choose to go on a long outdoor walk). My favorite is reheated chili – we’ll make chili earlier in the week and then I’ll reheat some of it to put in the food jar before I leave. I’ll stir in a little bit of cheese and take along a small container of oyster crackers to add to the soup when I eat it. I sometimes do the exact same thing with chowder, which is also excellent the second time around.

A simple sandwich: Whenever I’m at a restaurant that has condiment packets, I request or grab a few extra to throw in a drawer here at home. Why? I use them when I make a sandwich for this kind of simple to-go meal. I’ll make a sandwich that fits perfectly in a partition in a meal container, not put any condiments on it initially, and put a few condiment packets in another container. In the third, I’ll put some sort of finger vegetable or fruit.

Noodles: Some noodles work really well cold, so I’ll take them along in a segmented container with some appropriate sides. If they don’t work well cold, noodles work wonderfully in a heated food jar – I just heat up the noodles while the food jar is warming up and then add the noodles to the jar and go.

Vegetable medley: You’d be surprised how often my lunch just consists of a medley of vegetables. I’ll usually put in three kinds, often with pickles in the largest partition and other options (like carrots or pickled garlic or something like that) in other segments. Sometimes, I’ll put some nuts in there as well.

Chicken wings: Before I became vegetarian for health reasons, I used to love eating cold chicken wings for lunch the next day after a party. These work perfectly for a meal like this – just toss some chicken wings in there, eat them for lunch, and leave the bones in the container for later disposal.

Final Thoughts

So, let’s bring this all back around to the original Lunchables situation with our kids. After trying actual store-bought Lunchables during one park trip, as I mentioned above, Sarah and I put together an “imitation Lunchable” for each kid for the next trip to the park. Each one had substantially more food in it and cost about half as much and the ingredients were substantially better – freshly sliced cheese, better crackers, a juice box, and a cookie.

The kids absolutely loved them. Without any mention, the kids recognized it as basically being the same as a Lunchable, but they preferred the ones we made.

Our homemade ones took abut five minutes to prepare, had more food, had healthier ingredients, and was way cheaper.

The same principles behind those “imitation Lunchables” guide quite a few of my own lunches (the ones that aren’t just leftovers, anyway). They’re just simple foods that I like that can be eaten anywhere, packaged up in a simple way so that they fit in my backpack without fear of spilling. The cost is usually less than a dollar and it provides me with lunch wherever I want to be.

It’s not a huge filling lunch, but the truth is that most days I don’t want a huge filling lunch. I just want something light to tide me over and a moment to pause and just reflect on the world while eating that light lunch. This is perfect for that – it’s cheap, reasonably healthy, and works almost anywhere I happen to be.

Make your own Lunchables, just the way you like them. You might just find it’s a strictly better way to do lunch.

More by Trent Hamm

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.