The Busy Woman’s Guide to Saving Money on Lunch

Reader L has a question about lunchtime…

Could you perhaps do a post on bringing lunches to the office versus going out? I’m new to the 9-5 world, and eating out every day seems so expensive, but I don’t really know how to pack a lunch that will last me the entire workday. I don’t want to keep snack food in my desk because I don’t want to attract rodents, or eat mindlessly all day. It’s also difficult to say no when new co-workers invite you along for a frozen yogurt or coffee run – it’s adding up. How do you generally handle lunch during the work week?

We’ve talked about this a few times on this blog — how to eat to fuel your energy throughout the day, how to avoid gaining weight when you’re eating out a lot for recruiting season, how to diet at the corporate gig, what to eat when you have no time to eat, and what foodstuffs I consider “office staples.” I don’t think we’ve talked about it from a finances angle, though, so let’s do that.

Let’s start with the proposition that it is always going to be cheaper to bring your own meal from home. Healthier! Better! Et cetera, et cetera. I will also say that for those committed to couponing, cooking, and hunting out the best deals, inSANE insane deals can be had — this post on “Eating Well on One Dollar a Day” impressed me beyond end, for example. But let’s also assume that if you had the time and energy to make that healthy, low-cost lunch every morning, that you wouldn’t be writing to us for advice.

That said — the easiest way to cut expenses is to focus on what you’re drinking. (Warning: These prices are based on my experiences in Manhattan — in less crazed cities the prices will, hopefully, be far less.) In Manhattan, a can of Diet Coke can cost anywhere from $1-$2.50. If you get one every day for lunch, for 50 weeks out of the year, you’re spending at least $250 a year on soda at lunch. You could switch to tap water instead, or — if you’re like me and need a caffeine boost in the middle of the day — you can buy your own soda to keep at the office. Sometimes you can find the 12-can boxes on sale — two for $6 is the best I think I’ve seen — but even at the normal price of $5.99 per box, that’s a far cheaper can of soda (about $.50), and you automatically save 50%.  (Pictured:  It Was on Sale, originally uploaded to Flickr by Kimli.)

Similarly, a love of specialty coffees like Frappuccinos can be an expensive habit — if it costs $4, and you drink it maybe 3x a week for 45 weeks of the year (just random numbers here) — that’s $540. Switching to plain black coffee, or bringing your own coffee, makes it far less.

As for food -

  • Understand where your money is going. For example, NYC is filled with choose-your-own-salad lunch spots, and adding a protein to salads often increases the price by $2 or more. So if you cook a batch of chicken over the weekend, or even just slice up deli meat to put on top of the salad, you’re automatically decreasing the price.
  • Work your favorite spots. A lot of lunch places offer “rewards” cards — buy 10, get 1 free — that can add up to a significant discount over the long haul.
  • Look out for deals in the pre-dinner time from 3-6. For example, a lot of bakeries will offer a 50% discount on breads and pastries in that time period — I’ve even heard of frozen yogurt places doing the same.  Just heading out with your friends at 3:30, rather than 2:30, could save you money.
  • Don’t adopt an “all or nothing” attitude. Even bringing lunch once a week can help immensely with the expenses — if your average lunch out is $8, bringing it from home just one Monday a week for 50 weeks is a savings of $400.
  • Even the lazy cook can save. I see cans of soup marked to around $1.50 at the supermarket pretty often — stock up, those are great if you have access to a microwave at the office (and easy to grab as you’re flying out the door in the morning). Similarly, a guilty pleasure of mine is a Lean Pocket (they do have whole grain ones, though!) — and when I see those on sale for around 2 for $5, I stock up. With two Lean Pockets in each box, that’s 4 different lunches (or at least hearty snacks) for about $1.25 each — not bad. And let’s face it, I’ve known a zillion busy women who kept their offices stocked with a jar of peanut butter and a box of crackers — both for cost savings reasons, as well as the I’m-too-busy-to-eat syndrome.

Readers, what are your tips for saving money on the office lunch?

Comments

  1. My favorite eat cheap/healthy trick is to stock up on Lean Cuisine and frozen bags of veggies that I keep in the office freezer (with my name written on them). When I am heating up a meal, I add another full service of veggies by just nuking a styrofoam cup full of veggies to put on top. I find that spinach/broccoli is the most versatile since most entree’s have one of those in it already.

    As for coffee, I keep a quart of flavored creamer in the fridge so that it feels like a treat without spending $5 on coffee.

    • You nuke styrofoam?

      • y not?

        • styrofoam is a petroleum based product, and when you heat it in a microwave, you release toxins from the styrofoam right straight into your food, not healthy at all. Take anything in styrofoam and put it in a glass container to microwave it.

          From the Internet:
          “Plastics melt, and most contain VERY TOXIC chemicals. These toxins are sealed into the plastic, but microwaving may release them. Guess where they go? Into your food! Never let plastic wrap touch your food. Use only microwave plastic wrap to cover dishes, or use a microwave plate cover or another inverted dish. Never reheat in Styrofoam, margarine tubs, whipped topping bowls or other plastic containers. ”

          http://sneakykitchen.com/Ten_commandments/microwave_safety.htm

          • I had to google this because my daily breakfast is Kashi go lean hot cereal microwaved in a styrofoam cup:
            http://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/HEALTHbeat_081606.htm
            Contrary to popular belief, some Styrofoam and other polystyrene containers can safely be used in the microwave. Just follow the same rule you follow for other plastic containers: Check the label.

          • Chicago K :

            I only heated a styrpfoam container once – when I was in HS – and the entire thing melted. I had heard that it melts more easily if the food you are cooking contains oils. I was heating cheese sticks from a resturaunt – perhaps veggies can squeek by?

          • Anonymous :

            I used to work in a plastics manufacturing plant. Be sure to look for the microwave and dishwasher symbols on the packaging, b/c some plastic types have a low degradation temperature. I only buy polypropylene containers.

          • Anyone with thyroid problems or hormonal issues should definitely avoid microwaving food in plastic, or eating hot food that has been wrapped in plastic film. The hormonal disruptors in plastics that have been treated to remain flexible are particularly troublesome for anyone with those health conditions. When I got diagnosed with PCOS, the first thing my endocrinologist told me to do was to throw out my plastic wrap and plastic food containers, and put frozen dinners into a glass or ceramic bowl to microwave them.

          • Agree 100%. I cannot even FATHOM microwaving plastic, forget styrofoam. **SHUDDER**

            There is enough scientific literature out there detailing the horrid side effects.

          • I got concerned about microwaving plastic earlier this year and started keeping a few Corel brand dishes in my office. I had some of these at home that I don’t use much but they are perfect for the office because they clean easily and won’t break. It’s amazing how easily most frozen foods pop out of the plastic packaging….if the dishes won’t clean easily (and I don’t like doing dishes at the office), I take them home to clean as part of my lunch box.

          • Frozen Dinner Fanatic :

            Styrofoam and most plastics don’t surprise me in the least, but are you guys saying you shouldn’t even microwave your food in the plastic container your frozen dinner comes in (i.e. Lean Cuisine)?

        • Corporette Fan :

          Just to offer another perspective, I asked this question to my physical chemistry Professor in college a few years ago and he said that microwaving styrofoam is no different than microwaving plastic. Obviously, if it melts into your food you shouldn’t eat the styrofoam itself, but the amount of toxins that “leak” out is really negligible. My parents had always told me that microwaving styrofoam was a bad idea, but my mom also flipped out if I even stood in FRONT of the microwave. Microwaves, and styrofoam, have improved immensely since they were introduced and I’m not sure if these rules still apply. I trusted my professor over reading things on the internet; I’m sure he would have been well versed on the literature on the subject. If possible I heat things on plates because I’m prone to stab through styrofoam with a fork or knife, but if I’m in a rush at work I’m not going to lose sleep over microwaving styrofoam.

  2. Corporate Tool :

    You can definitely do reasonably well with the frozen meal route, especially if you can make Costco/Sam’s Club/BJs trips every once in a while.

    Additionally, even a lazy cook can make soup once a week. I make a big pot, freeze in individual containers, and then mix it up from previous weeks (so Monday was minestrone, Tuesday Broccoli Cheddar, etc based on what was in the freezer) then you are eating cheaply and not having the same thing each day. Add a piece of fruit, and some cut up veg (I prefer peppers and cukes because they hold up well) and it’s a real meal.

    • I like to do that in the colder weather. I make a big pot of turkey soup (1 lb browned ground turkey, 2 bags assorted frozen vegatables, 1 can stewed tomatos, 1 can tomato sauce, 3 – 4 tbls of some healthy oil – I like coconut – super easy recipe and very healthy, makes 4 servings), take a serving in a microwavable bowl and heat up at lunch. Piece of fruit for dessert.

      I have food allergies, so I take my lunch almost every day out of necessity, but it’s nice to save money as a bonus.

  3. I’m also a fan of the microwave-friendly soup. But be careful when buying it on sale — I recently got a nasty case of food poisoning due to clearence rack soup.

    I also try and make extras of whatever I’m making for dinner. After dinner, I just put a lunch size portion in plasticware and grab it on my way out the door the next morning.

    • I second the call for leftovers – I often throw an extra chicken breast/brat/pork chop on the grill when I’m making dinner, then box it up with a dab of some condiment and some fruit (I like berries – you can eat just a handful or the whole box, depending on how hungry you are, and not have to throw the rest away). The next morning, my lunch is already packed!

      I also sometimes get a whole sandwich or a whole entree at a Chinese restaurant and keep the second half for lunch the next day. It’s often cheaper that way.

    • divaliscious11 :

      Do you have a crock pot? I make batches in winter and then freeze in portion sizes – good healthy soup, no food poisoning!

  4. If you have a microwave (or a coffee pot that dispenses hot water), lipton noodle soups are good for a light lunch. I like to keep a tupperware container in the office and a box of soup packets for days when I don’t think I can head out for lunch.

    If you’re at a firm that reimburses you up to $x for meals at night, you can order two meals. I like to eat one that night and store the other in the office fridge for lunch the next day. Since it is just a dollar amount, you’re not breaking any rules, but saving yourself $10 the next day.

    Also, if you’re in NYC, buy fruit from the stands on the sidewalks instead of from the deli. You can get a much fresher banana for $0.30 off the sidewalk stand than you can for $1.30 from the deli.

    • Corporate Tool :

      I’d be careful about ordering two meals, even if you have a hard dollar amount. See if anyone else does it at your firm. I know that at my old firm we had to submit itemized receipts with expense reports, and that type of ordering, while within the rules would be seen as “playing the system” and would be discouraged with a firm warning.

      • This. If you’d feel even slightly uncomfortable justifying your actions to your managing partner, if questioned, then you probably shouldn’t be doing it.

      • BigLaw Refugee :

        I used to order two dishes when I’d order in from an ethnic place. I didn’t consider it ordering “two meals,” because a good ethnic meal has multiple tastes in it. If I were ordering on my own dime I would do the same thing, so I didn’t feel bad billing it to the client. I shouldn’t have to have a less enjoyable dinner just because I’m at the office, even if it means I buy more than is strictly necessary to get me full. I could order two or three containers of rice and get full, and it would be cheaper, but no one expects that.

        I had to submit the actual receipts to my dept head, and I never got a complaint. He’d spend more ordering a fancy salad from some trendy place for lunch when he was working on the weekends.

    • The ordering-tw0-meals approach may be within the letter of the rule, but it’s certainly not within the spirit. I wouldn’t touch that one with a ten-foot pole.

      • Since you’re ordering from a restaurant the portions tend to be huge anyways. I often put at least half of the one thing I order in a separate tupperware for lunch the next day and feel totally fine about that.

        • legalchef :

          That’s different though – saving leftovers is one thing, but ordering 2 full meals is another. Doesn’t that money for food often get billed to the client? It just doesn’t sound good to me.

          • I agree. The limit is there as a cap, not as a gift card. Ordering two meals as suggested is unethical. You may get away with it indefinitely or it may come back to bite you. And if the employer is looking for some reason to get rid of you at some point, this could be it. The attitude that “I shouldn’t have a less enjoyable meal just because I’m at the office” is really off base. Yes, you’re at work and you’re giving up part of your personal life, but you (hopefully) get compensated accordingly. Yes, you should have a decent meal, but staying within the letter and the spirit of the rules. I really wouldn’t want to have to defend that attitude to a partner one day.

    • “not breaking any rules” doesn’t mean “would be OK with everyone in the firm knowing”.

      it’s all fine and good until accounting calls you and asks who ate dinner with you… because there’s two meals on the bill.

      note: I have had my accounting dept call me and ask why I only expensed 1 breakfast bill during a 4-day trip (I buy a pint of milk, box of cereal, and pint of berries when I’m on site. the routine of breakfast is wonnnnnderful and one of those things you take for granted until you live out of a different city every week.).

      the number of people eating, who the people are, and the purpose of the meal all matter for tax purposes.

  5. I have a “rule” that I bring my lunch 3x a week and can go out the other 2. It helps me keep my spending under control without feeling deprived. On the days I eat at my desk, I try to get out for a 15-20 minute walk so I feel like I got a “break”.

    Normally, when I bring my lunch, I will bring a Lean Cusine since they’re fast and inexpensive. If I have time on a Sunday, I will cook something (like lasagna, a cassarole, or calzones) that I can easily reheat for lunch during the week.

    I also just try to be conscious of good deals. The cafe on the ground floor of my building sells very filling and relatively healthy breakfast wraps for about $4.50. I eat half for breakfast and half for lunch, making it $2.25 a serving. Not too bad.

    • This. Fridays are a bit slower in my office and there isn’t typically court, so this is usually my day to “treat” myself and go out for lunch. I try to only eat out once a week, but if I really feel like eating out, I didn’t prepare a lunch, or a friend asks me to lunch, I might go twice a week. Also whenever possible, I try to actually leave my office to eat my lunch. There’s a little “park” near where I work so if the weather is nice, I’ll take my food out there and eat it.

  6. This is hard. I still eat out way too much. It’s not good for the pocketbook or the waistline. That being said:

    I can usually get the Lean Cuisine meals and the like for around $2 each on sale at our supermarket. I pair that with a piece of fruit and a greek yogurt and eat it all sporatically through the day. The key with frozen stuff is to buy enough of a variety that you don’t burn out. Even then, you will burn out.

    I don’t drink coffee after I get to the office, mostly because I have to limit my caffiene. I buy my own decaf tea that I drink during the mornings. It saves a lot of $$. When I still want coffee, I bring a cup from home.

    I almost never drink soda at the office. Sometimes if I find a good sale at the grocery store, I’ll bring in a 12-pack. I find I drink too much of it then. When I have my s*** together, I’ll bring in some lemon slices to keep in the fridge and drink with water. It gets me to drink more water.

    If I just have to get out, I try to pack something that I can take on the run. A sandwich or veggies and hummus are my portable lunches to go. I’ll take my lunch, head to the library, and enjoy my lunch on an outdoor bench with a crappy (good) book.

    Since I have kids, I rarely bring our leftovers for lunch. I try to only cook a couple of times during the work week so leftovers are a commodity in our house.

    Oh, and laughing cow light cheese with a few crackers is a great grab and go snack.

  7. Kat has a great point – beverages really do add up. As for bringing lunch – it is the best way to save money, and it can be done, but it requires a bit of advance planning and commitment. Two things though: (1) it does not necessarily mean bringing a traditional lunch every day and (2) the key is to decide what you like to eat for lunch and then from there decide how to make it happen in a way you can live with – i.e. , if you like soup, time to buy a crockpot and go the route of Corporate Tool who has a brilliant approach. If you prefer salad, take an hour on Sundays to prep salad fixings so you can just grab and go during the week. If you are happy with crackers and hummus, bring varieties to work with you (re: snack and rodents – I would just invest in gallon sized ziplocks and bag anything you bring in – i.e. bag the whole box) and supplement with a takeout salad.

    And finally, don’t think of it as a “must bring lunch every day” thing – for years, I prepped something on Sundays, ate it for lunch early in the week, and then bought lunch the second half of the week, which is when people tend to want to socialize over lunch. I only started bringing my lunch every day when I ended up on a super restricted medically prescribed diet which had zero wiggle room. The good news – bringing lunch 5 days a week is second nature now, even now that I am past this phase. The bad news, it was a really tough adjustment and I think my husband is still traumatized by how much I complained for several months about this.

  8. Please pardon the threadjack . . . .

    Can anyone recommend a good foundation for pale skin? Prescriptives, which was my go to, has apparently disappeared from Manhattan. I’ve tried on a few other brands (Bobbi Brown, Clinique, Tarte) and they all look dark and masky on my skin. Any ideas? Thanks!

    • Laura Mercier might fit the bill. Their porcelain shade range is very pale.

    • I can relate. I’m very fair and struggled to find the right color/coverage for my skin for a long time.

      I was hesitant to jump on the mineral makeup bandwagon but ultimately ended up purchasing a Bare Escentuals starter kit (in the “Fair” shade) from Sephora. I have been very pleased with it. I like it because I can control the amount of coverage and the powder seems to blend in seamlessly with my skin, helping to avoid that “masky” look. (Note: I use the bronzer that comes with it very sparingly, since it’s much too dark and unnatural looking for me. I normally apply a small amount to the brush, wipe most of it off, and then apply VERY lightly to get the right amount of color.)

      • Also blindingly pale, and love Bare Escentuals.

      • Another BE “fair” fan. I like that you can put it on sheer enough to still show freckles (if I cover mine up, I think it looks obvious). Agree about teh bronzer, though. I probably only put my brush in the pot twice a week, the other times, I’m just using the residual.

    • Ooh! I know this one!

      Stila Illuminating Liquid in the 10 watts shade. I am too pale for Prescriptives, but Stila is 100% perfect. Should be available at Sephora.

      Another alternative — I use the Make Up For Ever Camouflage Cream Palette (No. 1, with the green concealer) and Korres powder in whatever their palest shade is. I have redness issues, and the concealer + foundation + powder covers them up without making me look sickly. But on a “good skin day” I’ll sometimes even things out with the concealer and just wear the powder without foundation.

    • I’m very pale (though not super super super pale) and I love Laura Mercier too. I love her tinted moisturizer with sunscreen, and I’m like the fourth or fifth darkest shade in her stuff, when usually I’m the first.

      • thanks everybody! i’ll check all of these out. the laura mercier shades look perfect; weird that the woman at sephora steered me to the tarte stuff instead of hers or stila!

        • L from Oz :

          As another member of the ghostly club, I also wear Laura Mercier and can highly recommend it – and the tinted moisturizer too, though I wear the palest shade (even in the middle of summer after getting some sun!)

          Clinique never has anything pale enough for me. Another option might be Mac – I’ve bought some very pale powder and foundation from there in the past.

          • I’ll add my vote for Laura Mercier’s tinted moisturizer in Porcelain (in winter/spring) and nude (summer/early fall). I also mix the two together when I’m sort of in between shades. It is wonderful stuff for my dry, sensitive skin and has sunscreen built in too! The only complaint I’ve ever had was that it didn’t mix well with a Clarins moisturizer that I tried (and yes, I have to put a moisturizer under a tinted moisturizer!)…but the tube was also getting old at that point so that could have been it.

    • Chicago K :

      I’m in the pale club and excited to see so many suggestions. I personally love the Jane Iredale Liquid Minerals in Bisque.

      I find that the oil from my face seems to darken the other powder mineral foundations throughout the day. The liquid is much better for me.

      http://www.janeiredale.com/bases_lm.html

    • Face Stockholm has one called “Snö”. They also have a totally white one (and a brown, pink etc) which you can mix into your preferred foundation if it isn’t pale enough. I searched for ages before I found them.

    • I am a super pale redhead. Can’t even wear the Laura Mercier tinted moisturizer mentioned above. I followed a rec in Allure magazine (they have never steered me wrong) and tried Giorgio Armani. It is amazing make-up, really lightweight and very very natural looking. They have a counter in Saks in Chicago, probably in the big dept stores in nyc as well.

    • San Francisco :

      Laura Mercier or Stila — they both have several options at the very fair end of the spectrum.

    • i use Make Up forever HD foundation.

  9. As for the afternoon fro-yo/coffee runs with friends, I often want the break but not the extra calories/caffiene. A lot of times I say something like “I’m not up for x right now” or “Oh, I just had a snack” followed by “but I would love to come with you!” At first you get a little flack for not joining in on the snack (my theory is b/c it makes it easier for the other person to justify the calories to themselves if you do too) but if they are really your friends (luckily mine are!) they don’t really mind.

    I typically bring my water bottle or fill it up on the way so that I have something in my hands when they get their treat so that I’m less tempted. I also don’t bring money on these breaks so I can’t change my mind. I get the 10 minutes of socialization and sunshine without spending any $ or adding to my waist!

    • Or you could go for just a better option at those places when you go —
      So if everyone’s getting a frap at Starbucks, get a reg coffee or tea or ice tea instead.

    • Anonymous :

      Yes, I also go with for the walk/socializing and don’t bring any money so I can’t be tempted.

  10. Pre-prepared foods are a godsend and can be necessary, but be sure to watch your salt intake! A can of soup, packet of noodles, or frozen meal can have way, way more salt than you think or want. Of course, they are fine for every now and then, but maybe take care to look up some lower sodium alternatives if you eat them regularly. It adds up!

    • This. My nutritionist recommended Healthy Choice meals because of the lower sodium count, but any pre-prepared meal is probably more than you want. I’m still having trouble coming up with things that are as easy/convenient so this post is great.

  11. Pick something that you like to bring or you won’t want to eat in. Pizza (or pizza pockets), pasta, sandwich, whatever. You can make everything (relatively) healthy with lo cal bread (the pepperidge farm oatmeal is really good), lean cuisines/pockets, making your own pasta and portioning it properly. Personally I bring a lot of leftovers or cheese and apple sandwiches.

    If you are having trouble staying full try eating more fiber – add some beans to the pasta or salad or vegetables to the pizza or pasta.

    I feel way less guilty about any money I spend eating out on the weekends because I know I’m saving at least $50 a week eating in for every meal during the week.

  12. I like Trader Joe’s frozen foods – feel like they have fewer preservatives/chemicals than Lean Cuisine (though I do have to experiment; some of them are good and some are terrible).

    • SF Bay Associate :

      This is what I do too, as I am a complete fail at bringing in leftovers. In a previous incarnation of this thread, I learned about TJ’s frozen Mildly Spiced Vegetable Burritos – there are 2 in a pack and about 350 calories each, and pretty tasty. I also like the Green Curry Shrimp bowl (actually tasty!), and the Chicken Masala. I also keep bags of TJ’s chicken fried rice and chicken chow mein in the freezer, each in a gallon size ziploc so I can heat up some in a (glass) tupperware and seal the rest. And a bag of frozen organic non-petite peas, of which I will throw a handful in with pretty much whatever I am heating up. I understand that there are other good frozen meals at TJ’s but I can’t eat cheese, so that limits my options. The Kashi frozen meals (lemongrass chicken and the pesto chicken one) are pretty good and don’t have scary Lean Cuisine-type chemicals, as are the Amy’s frozen meals. I wait for these go on sale at Target, and then buy a half dozen to throw in the freezer at work. Having a variety of choices when I peer into the work freezer is important to me.

      Also, baby carrots and hummus or eggplant dip or whatever. And a tub of 0% Fage, which I just leave in the fridge, and a jar of apple/cranberry/pumpkin “butter” or another jam to stir into the Fage.

      I signed up for Mint.com a year ago and upon facing with just how much money I was spending at the very mediocre sandwich place closest to work ($7 a day), I really locked down on eating lunch out. I’m very into food but I will suffer through a much cheaper mediocre frozen meal as I watch the budget surplus I set up for “lunch at work” grow and grown on Mint, which I then use for a truly great meal at a restaurant I actually enjoy.

      • OMG do you live my life? All the things you mentioned from TJs are my favorite, and Kashi meals are the best option through our grocery delivery service. I like a hot meal (my husband is happy with a sandwich, but even if it’s the nicest sandwich in the world, it just doesn’t do it for me). Trader Joes frozen entree (most of them run 300-400 calories, which I think is good for lunch) and honest tea peach iced tea, a mojo bar and fruit is what I pack most days. I like being about to snack throughout the day, and it’s enough food to feed my cravings and satisfy me.

      • I keep a bottle of really good olive oil at my desk…it’s amazing what a difference a little sprinkle right before eating makes with leftovers or frozen dinners.

    • Love them!!! — they taste good and I know what all the ingredients are when I check the back of the box (though they do still have about a third of your daily allowance of sodium) – my favorite is the Indian chicken tikka masala (and if I’m at home, the frozen naan bread)

      My comfort frozen dinner though is still Stouffer’s mac and cheese…

    • Chicago K :

      I love the Amy’s frozen dinners but then I would as I’m a vegetarian. But they are seriously some yummy food. And they are mostly organic and offer lower sodium versions.

      The down side is they can be almost as expensive as eating out. some of them are 5 bucks a peice in my area. The cheapest I can buy a lunch out would be around 5-6 bucks (for a fast food place like Chipotle or Subway with no drink). The nicer and local places I generally spend around 10. So 5 bucks for a healthier lower calories options is still a savings for me. And they do go on sale sometimes.

      • My Target carries Amy’s and they are under $4 – something like $3.89. It’s a more limited selection than Whole Foods, but luckily they have my favoarites (Palak Paneer, yum!)

        • Chicago K :

          Ooo, I’ll have to check that out – good suggestion. The Target by my house just got a grocery store and I do remember the last time I was in there I picked up the Amy’s cheese enchilda’s for cheaper than normal (can’t remember the price). I’ll have to stock up there!

  13. I would go with your co-workers when they invite you, at least in the beginning. You want to make friends and be a part of the group. After a while, you can start saying no sometimes. Go with drip coffee or tea for a cheaper alternative to espresso. Order soup or a half-sandwich at lunch, and have some easy snacks at the office for later. Keep an eye out on Groupon for half-off specials at nearby places. If you can split lunch with someone, do it. My coworker and I will do that sometimes, as we were both on weight watchers and trying to save money.

    For the office with a kitchenette, I use canned veggies, canned tuna or chicken, and microwave rice to make a good lunch. The rice is more expensive than cooking it yourself and bringing it, but my schedule dictates that everything be either frozen or canned so I can store it at the office longer. Any snack food I have in my desk (mostly dried veggies and nuts) I have in tupperware so it won’t attract bugs. I also have individual packets of peanut butter, hazelnut butter, and cashew butter in my car. (Commute between offices is 2 hours).

    At the other office with no microwave or fridge, when going out to lunch, I usually order soup and bread if I feel like saving money. Also, we have a pizza place nearby where $3 gets a big slice of pizza and a soda. Not healthy, but cheap. I also have an electric kettle that I use for instant oatmeal. Healthy, but boring sometimes. A lot of things can be made in a coffee cup with hot water or a microwave.

  14. I hate packing my lunch the night before or preparing food on Sundays for the week so I solved my eating out problem by getting an old school insulated lunch bag in which I put a ziplock bag of bread, a pack of cheese slices and a thing of deli meat. I assemble my sandwich at work at lunchtime and add a piece of fruit and yogurt (which I also store in the insulated bag). A coworker actually even brings ziploc bags of lettuce and tomato for her sandwiches. I keep snack sized bags of chips and 100 calorie packs of goldfish or cheezits in a drawer in my desk because I love salty foods but this keeps me from eating an entire full-sized bag or having more than one snack bag a day.

    It’ll get easier with time to turn people down. Just be polite and say things like “not today, but definitely another time!” You’ll also eventually get on a kind of schedule where you eat out some days and bring lunch some days. I eat out almost every Friday because I’m not really that productive at work so taking the time to go out to lunch isn’t usually a big deal and its a good chance to socialize with my coworkers. Monday through Thursday just kind of depend on my work load.

  15. I usually bring leftovers for lunch – I will make extra food and then bring it in. Much cheaper than getting lunch. We also buy sodas at costco and I bring them to work instead of getting a drink here. I eat out when there is nothing in the house to bring, or I am too tired to pack anything (I have 2 kids, so that is more often than I would like!).

  16. With my food processor I chop up a week’s veggies Monday morning and put them in containers. Cuts down the time to assemble my daily lunch salads.

  17. For salads at the office I like to use pre-washed bags of spring mix/baby spinach – I add in a tablespoon of nuts, protein, and whatever other vegetables I have around. Consider using supermarket salad bar for small quantities of cut-up vegetables. A rotissiere chicken can provide a quick/easy source of protein. (Note not the cheapest but handy if you are working ridiculous hours)

    You can use a Starbucks card as your coffee budgeting tool – load on a set amount and set the time limit before you can reload it.

    • That’s an awesome idea about the Starbucks card – load your coffee “budget” for the week on the card, and when it’s out you have to be done. I could do that with the local sushi place I frequent too often…

      • Another good thing about using a preloaded Starbucks card is that if you register the card on starbucks.com, you get freebies like soy milk and syrups.

  18. I am not a fan of frozen pre-prepared foods. I’d rather skip lunch if it comes to it. If I am trying to save money or watch what I am eating, I usually do something like make a batch of a basic like brown rice, quinoa, or buckwheat kasha and then alternate what goes on top: e.g., veggies, tofu, shrimp or chicken, etc. If you cook dinner at home it ends up being very cost effective (e.g., ratatouille from last night + quinoa = delicious). If not, you can just cook up a few random toppings on a Sunday afternoon or slow evening and mix and match. Even buying something at the to-go counter at the supermarket like a small container of turkey salad or garlic and brocolli and putting it over your grain of choice can be very good and you only spend like $3 on the lunch total.

    I’ll do the same with salad. I keep a bottle of salad dressing in the fridge at the office so nothing gets soggy.

    I also keep loads of tea bags in my desk — add hot water from the water cooler and I don’t spend anything on going out for coffee, etc. You can do this with coffee too — I heard the new instant coffee packets from Starbucks do not suck!

    What Kat said about the timing of getting food is also great advice.
    There is a fantastic sandwich/salad place by my office where all prepared food is 50% off after 5. If I am working late, I sometimes just go for a walk and pick up a salad or soup to stash for the next day in the fridge.

    In other advice, I would echo what someone above said about still making a point to go out every so often — you want to build relationships your colleagues. And, if you are going to do frozen foods, I agree that Trader Joe’s is the best in terms of health & taste & money.

  19. I second the comment about sodium in prepared meals. I like drinkable yogurts, so I usually bring a bottle of a yogurt smoothie, string cheese, fruit, and maybe a granola bar. It’s high enough in protein and fiber to keep me full through the day.

  20. I’m a big fan of packing last night’s leftovers or if you don’t want the same thing, leftovers from 2 nights ago. I also agree with buying whatever you drink in bulking and keeping it stocked in your office, same goes for sides. If you’re going to get a sandwich and need a bag of chips, it’s better to take the bag of chips you bought on sale from the grocery store than to buy the marked up one at the deli.

    Biggest tip – avoid buffets unless you know how to keep track. After my first experience at a buffet where I spent over $13 on a pile of food, I have never spent more than $7.50. I only select the items I’m actually going to eat and I get a variety of things instead of piling up on one thing I won’t eat. I remove any vegetables from the lo mein or rice that I’m not going to eat that way I am not adding weight to my food.

    • Yes, very important to figure out how to get a salad or other item at the pay-by-the-weight cafeteria without spending a fortune. I love loading up on high-value items (raspberries, sun dried tomatos, etc.) and going lighter on things like watermelon that I could ordinarily buy for a dollar or two per pound.

    • Chicago K :

      Totally agree – I’ve learned this the hard at those make your own salad bars after several times of building a $15 salad that I can only eat half of. Now I always try to go for the smallest container and only put in what I really know I can eat. It’s so tempting to keep adding and adding when everything looks good but it gets sooo expensive.

      Especially at Whole Foods, I think it’s very easy there to pile a container with $20-30 dollars of food between the salad bar and hot/cold prepped food. The check out guy there told me people do it all the time with the mashed potatoes. At 8 dollars a pound mashed potatoes get really expensive very quickly!

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