The Brown Bagger: 7 Strategies for Maximizing the Value of Taking Your Own Lunch to Work

One of the most effective ways to cut back on your food spending is to find ways to keep the costs of your work lunches as low as possible. Many, many people rely on a simple routine of just going out to eat or ordering food while they’re working because of the pure convenience of it, but that cost really starts to add up over time, and since it’s such a simple cost to cut, it’s a great place to see some big financial gains by changing just one area of your life.

How Much Does It Cost?

According to survey data shared by Visa, the average American eats out twice a week for lunch and spends an average of $11.14 for each of those meals. This does not include the costs of the other three lunches per week, which are often prepackaged meals which come at a (relatively) premium price.

Let’s say that you follow the national average and eat out for lunch twice a week. The other three days in a workweek, you use some other solution that costs an average of $5 per day. That adds up to $37.28 per week for lunches. Over the course of a year, that adds up to $1,864.

With just a few tweaks, you can bring the average cost of your lunches down to $2 while still enjoying a great lunch each day. That’s an annual cost of $500, meaning that these moves would save an average person around $1,400 a year.

My Own Experience with Lunches

Early on in my professional career, I ate out two or three times a week with coworkers or with people in my field in other departments. The rest of the time, I mostly relied on prepackaged meals that I kept stored in the work fridge/freezer or else in my desk.

My average lunch, while eating out, was about $10 a day, while most of the meals I ate at my desk were at least a couple of dollars and often more than that.

Since switching to working from home, I eat leftovers for lunch most days and make-ahead meals most remaining days, and the financial benefits have been tremendous. My cost for lunches is almost nonexistent over the course of a year and that actually has a real impact on our family’s budget, especially over time.

My wife works outside the home most of the year. Most days, she takes a lunch with her thanks to several strategies we’ve worked out over the years, which I’m about to outline. This keeps her lunch costs low as well.

These strategies easily save us a few thousand dollars a year, in other words. So, what are these lunch strategies?

Strategy #1: The Path of Least Resistance

This one’s simple: Just make taking your lunch in the morning as utterly effortless as possible. Do everything you possibly can in advance, when you have more time, to make the actual decision to take a lunch with you as easy as humanly possible.

Almost every workday morning, the only thing Sarah has to do to take lunch with her to work is to open the refrigerator door and grab her lunch bag. That’s it. The lunch is already packed inside and completely ready to go.

This is done by moving the effort of actually packing the lunch to the night before. In fact, we typically do it during supper cleanup. If there’s a leftover meal that can be assembled for her lunch tomorrow, we assemble it right then and there and put it in her lunch bag in the fridge. If there isn’t a leftover meal that can be assembled, we find something else that works and put it in her lunch bag in the fridge.

For me, working from home, a similar strategy exists. I usually prepare a full lunch plate of leftovers if possible and store it in the fridge. That plate is again assembled during supper cleanup so that I can easily grab it the next day at lunchtime.

The point is this: there needs to be minimal resistance to taking a meal to work in the morning. It needs to be completely ready to go with minimal effort or else you’ll regularly convince yourself not to bother with it.

Our mornings are hectic, especially when the kids are in school. There isn’t time to prepare lunches right then as people are running around looking for papers or books or shoes or trying to finish breakfast. There’s always at least one or two unexpected events. Assembling lunch is something that’s incredibly easy to push aside because you can always just “throw money at the problem” and order lunch later, but that’s a fallback that you want to avoid. The solution is to make it incredibly simple to just grab that lunch and take it with you.

For us, a few tools make this easier.

My wife has an insulated lunch bag and several small Gladware containers that fit easily in the bag. We pack her lunch in those Gladware containers and put them in the bag so that everything is cool in the morning when she leaves. She can then put it straight into the fridge at work and then reheat it as needed. So, make sure that you have an appropriate and convenient way to take your work to lunch.

Most days, I either put my meal on a plate and cover it in some fashion or also assemble my lunch in a Gladware container or two.

Strategy #2: The ‘Extra Leftovers’

Of course, one key part in making that first strategy work most of the time is actually having the leftovers available to pack away. Thus, one potential first step in having an inexpensive lunch at work is to prepare a larger dinner the night before.

Whenever we’re making a family dinner on a weeknight, we almost always make enough to serve four adults and three children. Sarah and I and the children eat dinner together, then there’s enough left over to prepare two lunches for the next day – one for me and one for Sarah.

This requires us to aim for recipes that serve six to eight people. Often, we’ll take recipes that serve four and double them in size for our family dinner.

How do we pull that off? Well, that rolls back even further into our meal planning and grocery shopping strategy. Here’s a detailed walkthrough of how we do our meal planning, using a real week in our life as an example.

We have a lot of shortcuts we’ve developed over the years that enable us to get a home-cooked meal on the table for our family pretty much every evening, even when Sarah and I are both working. We use our slow cooker all the time for soups and stews and casseroles that we usually assemble the night before and start cooking that morning. We often make full meals in advance and freeze them, which works well for things like lasagna and other dishes that will bake in the oven. We also have a large repertoire of meals that Sarah and I can assemble easily.

These tools enable us to put a family dinner on the table virtually every night, and almost all of those meals come with enough content to provide easily-assembled leftover meals for Sarah and I to use the next day. (They often provide even more than that, resulting in “leftover night” once or twice a week for our family dinner.)

Strategy #3: The ‘Make Ahead Meal’

In this case, I’m not talking about full family meals that we’ve prepared in advance for our family dinners. Instead, I’m talking about individual meals that we’ve prepared in large quantities so that they can easily be pulled from the freezer and microwaved when a quick meal is needed.

Every once in a while, I’ll make an enormous batch of these individual “make ahead meals” – it takes an hour or two, depending on what I’m assembling. We have a bunch of individual meal containers that can go from the freezer to the fridge to the microwave to the table to the dishwasher and back with no problems and I’ll just make twenty or thirty identical meals in them for our family’s convenience. Here’s an example of that, where I made simple rice and beans; my most recent batch was a few weeks ago, where I prepared scrambled eggs, potatoes, and black beans with a bit of cheese and salsa in the exact same way by filling up a bunch of little containers and freezing them.

The nice thing about these meals is that, on a day in which leftovers are unavailable, it’s easy to just pull one of these out of the freezer for lunch. For Sarah, who leaves the house with her lunch bag each morning, we’ll often put one of those meals in that lunch bag the night before and leave it in the fridge, just as we do with any other meal. This is in line with the “path of least resistance” strategy at the start of this article – by having lunch in the same place each day, it becomes routine to remember it in the morning, so regardless of whether it’s leftovers or a made-ahead meal from the freezer, it’s waiting in the fridge in the morning in her lunch bag.

Strategy #4: The ‘Simple to Assemble Meal’

In a given week, at least one or two of the following scenarios happens.

A child needs to take a lunch to school and failed to tell us until the last minute. One of our children has a practice of some kind after school that lands smack in the middle of dinnertime for the other four family members, which means that child needs an emergency supper of some kind. We miscalculated supper and there’s not enough for leftovers for the next day. We burnt supper, so something needs to be thrown together ASAP. The kids from across the street are unexpectedly here for supper so we need to stretch out a few more meals for everyone.

For whatever reason, we often need to throw together some sort of reasonable meal in a pinch, and sometimes that last-minute reasonable meal is something that winds up being lunch for Sarah or myself the next day.

Our solution to this problem is to always have stuff on hand for a quickly assembled meal. A loaf of bread. A package of deli cuts. Some sliced cheese. Some condiments. Some cut vegetables. Some fresh fruit. We almost always have these items around, and they can very quickly be put together into a passable meal if other options don’t work.

This is also true if we find ourselves in the evening without a good option for lunch the next day. Perhaps we don’t have enough leftovers. Maybe there aren’t enough meals ready to go in the freezer. Whatever the reason, having such an easily-assembled meal on hand makes it always possible to put together a solid lunch for the next day.

As with the other strategies, we often just pack this up the night before and put it in Sarah’s bag for lunch the next day so that it can be easily grabbed in the morning, just like any other lunch. This hews to the “path of least resistance” strategy noted earlier.

Strategy #5: The ‘Brown Bag Club’

One reason that many people often eschew taking a lunch to work is that going out to lunch with coworkers is often done for social and professional reasons. Establishing a rapport and friendship with coworkers often has big professional benefits, after all. This strategy and the next focuses on how to resolve the conflict between saving money by bringing your lunch and improving your career by going out.

The first strategy to note is that it can be a good idea to intentionally dine with the other brown baggers. If you look around your workplace, it’s likely that many people bring their own lunches, and much professional and social benefit can come from eating with those people. Brown bagging provides a great opportunity to do so.

Just simply ask someone to eat lunch with you in the break room at noon, or else simply join in with a regular group of people who eat their lunches together. It’s a prime opportunity to build social and professional relationships without the expense of going out to eat, and it will probably help you build connections with people that you don’t know particularly well in the workplace.

When I worked in an office, I definitely had regular people that I ate with when I went out to eat, but there were also coworkers who brown-bagged it every day. Eating strictly with one group or another was actually restrictive in terms of my relationships, so what I eventually did was eat with people who normally ate out on days when they were eating at the office, and then ate with other people when the “dining out club” was out of the office for lunch.

Strategy #6: The ‘Networking’ Lunch

Still, there are definitely times where you really need to have lunch with a particular person for social or professional reasons that could really benefit your career, and on those days, eating out is perfectly fine.

Don’t treat such days as a food-related expense, however; view it as a professional development expense. Only go out to lunch if there is a direct professional development benefit and treat the lunch as such. If you’re establishing a relationship with someone or need to have a meeting with someone and a lunch is the best way to do that, then go for it.

When you go, order a very light lunch. Order a salad and a glass of water or something akin to that. Focus on the real reason you’re there – career and professional development.

If you get back to the office and find that you’re still hungry, then eat something. It’s not a mistake to bring a light lunch with you even on the days when you expect to be eating out, particularly if that meal can last an extra day in the work fridge (or in your desk).

Strategy #7: If All Else Fails…

No matter how well you plan, there’s going to come a day or two where your plans fall through. Maybe you just forget your lunch. Maybe you were planning on eating out but plans fell apart. Maybe someone steals your lunch. All kinds of things can happen!

What do you do in those cases? What do you do if lunch time rolls around and you either didn’t bring a lunch or something went wrong?

My solution is a simple one, and it worked perfectly back in my office days. I simply kept a few prepackaged meals in a desk drawer and tapped them when needed.

My favorite prepackaged meal to keep on hand was a sealed bowl of soup, one that I could heat up in the microwave to have a filling lunch. I kept a single spoon in my desk as well and would wash that spoon as needed in the break room sink. I also kept a sealed bag of crackers in my desk to add to the soup. If I ever noticed I had only one or two soup containers left, I’d add soup to my grocery list and then put one or two of them in my lunch bag with the intent of sticking them in my desk.

One of my coworkers used to keep a can of tuna and some saltine crackers in her desk for this very purpose. Another coworker loved to keep several strips of beef jerky in his desk and would sometimes consume two of them for a light lunch along with a big glass of water.

These types of bare-bones meals are really inexpensive. They only cost a dollar or two and some options, like ramen noodle cups, might cost as little as a quarter. These might not be great “every day” lunch options, but they can certainly make up for situations where other lunch plans failed.

Final Thoughts

The key to all of this is to have a routine in place. Our routine that works well for us is to prepare lunch for both Sarah and myself the night before, by assembling the full meal and putting it in the fridge in a container that Sarah can just grab in the morning or I can grab at lunchtime. Sometimes, that meal is leftovers; at other times, it’s a “make ahead” meal or something simple made up of what’s on hand. If that system fails, then there are a few simple prepackaged meals around to cover for those gaps.

The key is to never leave yourself in a spot where an inexpensive lunch is unavailable to you in the middle of a workday, because that’s the very situation that ends up with you spending money needlessly. It doesn’t take much effort to start building a system that avoids that outcome.

What’s at stake here? As I noted earlier, a typical working American can save well over $1,000 a year by simply adopting a strategy of eating inexpensive lunches, and that money can easily make a real financial difference. It can help you start to pull out of debt. It can be a real start to a retirement fund. It can be the key to an emergency fund. It’s up to you.

It starts with lunch and being smarter about it.

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