Simplifying packed lunches

Reader Jon wrote to us asking if we had any tips for preparing lunches at home that he can take to eat at work. He has been spending $100 a week on eating out at restaurants, and is hoping to become someone who brings his lunches to work. Since students are already back in the classroom in many states, and other students are getting ready to go, I thought now would be a great time to discuss the humble brown bag lunch.

Storage Materials:
You don’t need anything fancy, but I recommend items that are at least reusable (especially if you want to save money). You can use Lunch Skins for dry items, Rubbermaid’s plastic Easy-Find Lid containers (they’re BPA free) for foods that could spill or leak, New Wave’s Stainless Steel food containers, or Kinetic’s Glass Lock containers. You might want a thermos to hold a drink, and you’ll want a tote or box to contain it all. I’m a huge fan of bento jars and boxes, and if I carried my lunch to work, I would strongly consider getting the Zojirushi Bento Lunch Jar (the inserts are also BPA free):

Food and Preparation:
Taking your lunch to work or school doesn’t mean you have to eat peanut butter and jelly every day. The best tip I have about making lunches is to prepare them while you’re making dinner the previous night. For example, if you’re grilling hamburgers for dinner, pull aside half a cup of hamburger to cook and season for taco meat. A couple tortillas, cheese, and the meat make a great entree the next day at lunch that keeps your attention and isn’t exactly what you had for dinner.

Making both dinner and lunch increases your time in the kitchen a little, but the money you save is definitely worth it. Plus, you only have to clean the kitchen once, and you’re more likely to pack healthier lunches than you would buy if you ate out at a restaurant. If you’re making lunches for kids, enlist them to help you pack up their meals.

I wish I knew of a great cookbook to recommend for lunch ideas, but I’m completely clueless in this area. Hopefully there will be some recommendations in the comments for ways to find even more exciting meal ideas. Also, if you’re someone who brings his lunch to work every day or makes lunches for your children, add helpful tips you’ve picked up along the way to the comments. Good luck to Jon and to all parents embarking on a school-year full of lunch making.

58 Comments for “Simplifying packed lunches”

  1. posted by Mrs. G on

    My high school lunch box looked like this. Good ol’ times.

  2. posted by Kerry on

    I’ve been going to this site to find good ideas for lunches.

    http://justbento.com/

    It’s not just traditional Bento food. Lots of things you’d never have thought of.

  3. posted by Lisa Corrado on

    Love this information, especially for showing how simple it is to make tomorrow’s lunch as you make tonight’s dinner.
    A book I recommend is Lunch Lessons by Ann Cooper and Lisa M. Holmes. It goes way beyond simply preparing lunches for school-age kids and also includes great recipes.

  4. posted by leonie on

    Thanks Erin, a timely reminder.
    I have been tempted by the bento box and like this website (it’s not mine, so it’s not self promotion :-) )
    http://lunchinabox.net/
    which might give those interested in bento some ideas. Also there are reviews on amazon.

    It’s too small for what I need. And I’m concerned with the “not-machine washable” part.

    I eat 5-6 meals during the day (I am a triathlete) and I carry a cooler with me during the day. (prevents me from grabbing junk food spur of the moment if I’m out and about) I’ve got a small fridge in my personal office and can keep food there. There is a microwave in the lounge.

    I stock the cooler (it’s small enough for me to carry with the strap on my shoulder) with fruit, veggies, protein drinks, and depending on the day, either breakfast and lunch or just lunch.

    It does take some time and effort to organise. It’s saved me money and kept me on track with my nutrition.

    Because I can work from home and am usually only in the office a few hours, there were days when I thought I’d just come home for lunch, not go through the bother of packing the cooler and sure enough, those were inevitably the days when I ended up working through lunch sans available food.

    Has anyone here used this particular Bento box to pack lunch?

  5. posted by Amy on

    I pack bento (japanese box lunches) for my kids and myself everyday. I love making sure we have a tasty healthy lunch and minimizing throw away trash. It’s become such an important aspect for us that I started a store for bento lunches on Etsy.

    Like Kerry, I follow Justbento.com for ideas. I’m looking forward to the release of the Just Bento Cookbook

    Some of my favorite cookbooks for lunch ideas are:
    * Bento Love
    * Lunch Boxes and Snacks

  6. posted by Debra on

    I pack my lunch while cleaning up from dinner the night before. If there are leftovers to package up, I just package an additional container for my lunch. I also cut up any fruit I want to breakfast and make my iced tea for the next day. I put it all in a cloth grocery sack and put it in the refrigerator so in the morning I just grab the sack and take it with me. I don’t have any fancy containers – I just use whatever storage options we have and wash them at the office kitchen after eating.

  7. posted by Katie on

    I pack my lunch every day (with two kids, one of whom is an infant!) as a way of sticking to my eating plan. My biggest tip is to choose one or two lunch entrees for the week and then make two or three servings of each of those lunches. It sounds like it would be boring, but I don’t make the same two entrees every week. I’ll line up all five lunch entrees in the top of the fridge on Sunday night, add some fresh fruit/veggies, and I’m good to go. To add to that, I keep nuts, seeds, oatmeal, small bottles of olive oil and vinegar, and some other basic staples in a desk drawer. With all of that, I NEVER have reason to buy lunch!

  8. posted by Caroline on

    I’m starting part-time grad school next week! So I’ll be heading right from my full-time job to my evening classes. That means I’ll need to pack both my lunch and dinner. Any tips for keeping me fed and making this easy would be appreciated.

  9. posted by Laura on

    I bring my lunch most days, and the days I don’t it’s usually because I didn’t prepare the night before.

    Typically, I cook extra dinner with the intent of bringing it for lunch.

    And the thing that works the best for me is to fill up my “lunch basket” in the fridge at the beginning of the week. I put granola bars, fruit cups, yogurt, cut up veggies, cheese strings, etc into there, and then in the morning just grab a couple to add to my lunch. Having it all together in a basket means I’ll remember what I’ve got and take it, and pre-cutting up veggies etc means I just grab the baggie or container and go. There’s no way I’ll chop up carrots and celery in the morning.

    I also keep a jar of peanut butter and some healthy snacks (fruit bars, meal replacement bars) in my desk at work…so if I need something extra it’s there.

  10. posted by Brian on

    We have that Zojirishi Bento set, and it’s not as convenient as it looks. The containers are small… which may be fine for a traditional japanese bento lunch… but for Americans who might be bringing some leftover pasta or something, you end up putting it in multiple containers. Also ours came with chop sticks, which didn’t get used.

  11. posted by JC on

    I keep a glass plate, bowl, and utensils at work. And I try to start the week by bringing food to work too (crackers, fruit). That way, I can easily bring leftovers from home but have a few other things to nosh on with my lunch. And, I look for sales on frozen meals (usually Amy’s brand but you gotta watch the fat content in all of these pre packaged things)!

  12. posted by Liz on

    I keep a box of cereal in my desk at work, and bring a bowl, spoon and fresh fruit every day, and have a bowl of cereal for lunch (milk is in the fridge at work). I found that I was just eating too much food at lunch, more than I needed to sustain myself sitting at my desk, and I found that a bowl of cereal is perfect! It took a few weeks for my co-workers to stop making fun of me (I still get the occasional Seinfeld-reference comment), but it works for me!

  13. posted by Jen on

    I would like to say that there’s nothing wrong with the occasional peanut butter and jelly sandwich – they are tasty. (But I admit they can get boring after a while.) I frequently make extra for dinner with the intent of bringing some for lunch later in the week, pasta dishes work well for this since they usually reheat pretty well. I also stock up on things like yogurt cups, applesauce, etc. And a couple times a week I typically eat a lean cuisine type meal (the pizza and pasta entrees are not bad, though the meat-based ones sketch me out a bit). I wouldn’t eat them every day though, since they are pretty high in sodium – but it’s nice to have a few in your freezer because they’re easy to grab when you don’t have anything else in the fridge for lunch.

  14. posted by Heather on

    I don’t find making my lunches the night before to be any extra work. I just cook enough at dinner that there are always leftovers. I’m single, and it’s actually less work to cook enough for 2-4 servings than it is to adjust recipes and divide pre-measured packaged foods and seasoning packets.

    I know some people find leftovers boring, but it’s easy to get over the boredom when you think about how much time and money you’re saving. In my experience, the people who dislike leftovers the most are the people who spend the least time cooking for the family, as they may not be aware of the energy it takes to plan interesting meals for everybody. If your spouse does most of the cooking, ask if they can make a little extra for dinner, and put the leftovers straight into your lunch container and in the fridge. I like the 2-cup size Pyrex glass bowls with plastic lids, because I feel safe microwaving glass without worrying about BPA or phthalates or the next big undiscovered plastic contaminant. They are heavier than plastic, but I think it’s a fair tradeoff.

  15. posted by Rae on

    I have the Mr. Bento lunch jar pictured above. I bought it probably 5? years ago, and it’s held up wonderfully. It keeps the cool items chilled, the warm items warm, and it looks incredibly sharp, to boot. I’ve washed all parts in the dishwasher hundreds of times, and it’s not warped, stained or retained any odors. The outer jar is easy to wipe down, inside and out, and the carrier it comes with has a shoulder strap and several pockets to hold silverware, napkins, etc. Simply put, I adore it, and I’ve absolutely gotten my money’s worth.

  16. posted by Rae on

    To clarify, I meant I’ve washed all INNER parts in the dishwasher (bowls, lids), not the outer container, which must be handwashed.

  17. posted by gypsy packer on

    The Hillbilly Housewife website has plenty of ideas for packing lunches. Stanley’s stainless steel thermoses work well for almost anything. The story about the thermos which was dropped 12 or so stories, dented on a steel beam part way down, but is still in use, is not urban legend but a Steelworkers Union staple. The little critters are nearly indestructible.

  18. posted by Kris on

    I use a Laptop Lunchbox (http://www.laptoplunches.com/) on days when I’m carrying a lot of little nibbles to work with me. The compartments are reconfigurable, and though it’s marketed as a kid’s lunchbox it carries enough food for a lunch for me. I’ll also use a Lunch Cube (http://www.containerstore.com/.....d=10025083) on days when I’m taking a sandwich. Today, I have a turkey sandwich in one half of my cube, and in the other half there are carrots, crackers, and a plum and an apricot.

  19. posted by joan on

    i am glad you posted this and i loved reading the comments. preparing lunches is turning into a nightmare for me lately. the shopping and planning all go to hell with our busy schedules and sports. so when you don’t cook dinner that makes leftovers (and we often eat easy bean burritos) then i’m in a sandwich mess in the morning. planning lunches is so much work – i love all the ideas to help simplify the process!

  20. posted by WilliamB on

    I think the focus of the answer is a little off-center. Yes it’s good to have physical items that make it easier but the heart of the matter is what to have and how to have it, with a sidedish of how to make it easy to do.

    1. What to have.
    There seem to be two fundamental choices: make your own or bring pre-purchased.

    1A. Make your own. You can have leftovers from recent meals, dishes made just for this, assemble something that can be cooked at work. I like to keep several different meals in containers in the freezer (labeled, of course), so I can grab a container on my way out. Having several different ones means that I’m not eating White Bean Chili for three days in a row. BTW, using leftovers also reduces food waste and thus is a double money saver.

    1B. Pre-purchased: If your goal is to save some money then a $2-3 frozen meal is a lot less than $20 at a restaurant. If you like this idea, stock up on pre-made meals. Keep several at work or take one in every day. Tip: a salad from the salad bar (even a restaurant one) will almost always be cheaper than a premade one.

    1C. Snacks: Bring your own or stash at work. Junk from the supermarket is cheaper than junk from vending machines, of course. And I bet you can’t get canteloupe or cherries from your vending machine, either.

    2. What to bring it in.
    This is a wide open field. I like StayFresh containers because they use space efficiently, stack very well, and go from freezer to fridge to counter to microwave to dishwasher. I don’t care that tomato stains them a little; if I need insulation I use a rectangular softsided cooler.

    3. How to make brownbagging easier.
    Another wide open field. Probably the most effective change is to get in the habit of packing it the night before (myself I have mixed success at this). I usually have something I can put in a container at the last minute, such as leftovers or chopped fruit. I also usually have at least a couple of containers in the freezer, to grab as I head out if necessary. As a last resort I keep a couple of cans of soup in my desk.

  21. posted by WilliamB on

    @joan – I think I’m missing something. Why not have easy bean burritos as lunch?

  22. posted by Dawn F on

    Someone may have already suggested this, but might I freeze my son’s juice pouch or water bottle overnight, which serves 2 purposes – the frozen drink acts like an ice pack to keep cold items cold inside of his lunch box and the drink is nice and cold by the time lunch comes around.

  23. posted by Melissa B. on

    I have this Mr. Bento box (pictured) and I love it. It appears as though it does not hold enough food to satisfy one’s hunger, but it does! It was WELL WORTH the cost.

  24. posted by Wendy on

    I bought a number of plastic containers (the same size and brand so they’d stack) and then every so often I do a marathon cooking session to fill them with lunches for the freezer. Currently, we have lasagna roll-ups, chili mac, chili, spaghetti, spanish rice, ham and cheesy potatoes and pizza pasta in the freezer. Each is labeled with contents, date, and nutrition information (my daughter is a diabetic). I don’t make all of them in one day, but when I see we are getting low on something, I’ll restock that. We simply grab something out of the freezer every morning for lunch. They also work for nights I don’t want to cook.

  25. posted by Shalin on

    This reminds me of the “Dabbawalas” in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) in India – they’ve been transporting stackable tin containers of fresh/hot food for decades…

    Take a look and be amazed:

    http://www.mydabbawala.com/gen.....bawala.htm
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dabbawala
    http://avdevantimes.blogspot.c.....awala.html

    –S

  26. posted by Michele on

    Two things I keep in mind about packing lunches:

    (1) You don’t need to refrigerate them, really, between arriving at work/school and lunch. Realistically, how many hours are there between prep (or removal from freezer or fridge) and eating the food? Any ordinary cooler or insulated lunchbox/bag will keep safely prepared food safe until you eat it.

    (2) The old editions of Joy of Cooking (and, I imagine, plenty of other older comprehensive household cookbooks) include instructions for freezing sandwiches. You can save a lot of time and money by making a week’s worth of sandwiches on the weekend, wrapping them individually, and tossing them into the freezer. Then you need to find just a beverage and a side dish or two for the lunch container.

  27. posted by Teresa on

    I prep on weekends:
    Rice:
    when I make rice I freeze the extra in 1/2 cup portions
    place plastic wrap in cup, pack in the rice, wrap tightly and freeze. I think Sushi or short grained brown rice works the best for freezing.

    Meat like spicy Thai chicken gets made on the weekend along with some black beans:
    In the morning I unwrap a rice disk and add veggies (frozen) cooked meat and pre-made sauce to a square container. I throw in piece of fruit, some veggie sticks and a yogurt cup in my bag and I am done making lunch. I microwave the main dish at lunch time and eat the yogurt as a mid-morning snack.

    I change the sauces, vegetable choices and use cooked beans or tofu for a quick vegetarian meal and variety.

  28. posted by Marjory Thrash on

    We are a family of sandwich eaters, and I make sure that I have everyone’s favorite sandwich meats and cheese are available plus the generics such as the veggies. We’ve found that spinach works well in a sandwich and stays crisper. This means that my son can have the ham or the turkey, my daughter can have her turkey, and I can have ham – because I’m allergic to turkey. Because we get the sandwichs we want, we actually eat them and are satisfied with them. My kids like a sweet, and I usually make the cookies, so that I can control their portion sizes and eliminate the additives. During the baking a specific number are laid out out for snacks and the remainder stored in the freezer for lunches, so I can open and go.

  29. posted by Sue on

    Even though I have a cafeteria at work, I would much prefer to make my own lunches. Since I work full time and go to grad school part time, this is something I struggle with and hope to make a habit one day (very soon!).

    I am a fan of these websites (some mentioned above):
    http://justbento.com/
    http://lunchinabox.net/
    http://wererabbits.wordpress.com/
    http://veganlunchbox.blogspot.com/ – inspiring for non-vegans too!

    There are plenty of lunch & bento blogs out there for ideas. I think cooking and assembling ahead has got to be the key. I imagine once it’s a habit, you wonder how you lived any other way :)

    Good luck, Jon (and to the rest of us)!

  30. posted by Sue on

    Oops… forgot to add…

    I’ve used the plastic bentos before, but now that I’m becoming more and more concerned about plastic, I’m considering using the To-Go Ware stainless steel tiffins (like Shalin mentioned):
    http://www.to-goware.com/store.....t&c=4

  31. posted by Kari on

    We pack lunches mostly using planned overs–things we know we like to eat again. When I make stews or soups and such, I also pack up and freeze one or two lunch sized servings and freeze them, so we always have at least one or two dozen frozen lunches that can be pulled out, defrosted that morning and eaten at work. And a piece of fruit or some cut up veggies (always in our frig), and we’ve got a quick and easy lunch.

  32. posted by chris on

    I take my lunch almost every day, and I always have to get it together the night before (I go to the gym at 5:30am on my way to work in the mornings — if I didn’t do it the night before I’d have to get up even earlier, and I just won’t do it.) I mainly take a big salad, and the key for me is to have all the components ready. So after I grocery shop, I wash up a big salad spinner full of lettuce, cut up all the other veg, etc, so that all I have to do the night before is assemble it. I throw in a yogurt and snacks, and it’s ready to go.

    I used to use the laptop lunchbox bento set, but I found that the containers were too small for my needs — it would be great for a kid, but not for an adult.

  33. Profile photo of

    posted by camellia tree on

    If you’re making your kids’ lunch, don’t forget to add a little note to their napkin. You know, just “Have a great day, I love you!” My mom always did this when I was a kid.

  34. posted by Kirsten on

    We use the laptop lunchboxes as well, and there is are flickr pools that have good ideas (and pics) of the amazing lunches people make in bento boxes (but they could be put in any container…): http://www.flickr.com/groups/laptop_lunches/ and http://www.flickr.com/groups/bentoboxes/. Also, EatingWell magazine has a feature about bento boxes with some yummy recipes: http://www.eatingwell.com/heal.....unch_boxes

  35. posted by JustGail on

    for me, it’s been the frozen single serve entrees for lunch. Add a yogurt & some fresh fruit or veggies for snacks. I prefer do do this over taking leftovers, as I don’t have to worry about keeping it cold (it’s anywhere from 5-7 hours between leaving home and lunch). The insulated bag I use works well, especially if I leave it in my tote bag. There’s also the added advantage of grab-&-go in the morning. It’s probably not as inexpensive as leftovers or making a sandwich, but I try to stock up when they are on sale.

  36. posted by Dawn F on

    Camellia tree – that’s the best entry so far!

  37. posted by Mario . on

    Great item! I would take the plastic mini-containers out and use the stainless steel tube to store my bananas in. I am learning they are are far more fragile fruit than I have been lead to believe.

  38. posted by Annie on

    Check out these reusable sandwich bags – http://www.snacktaxi.com/ I’m just a satisfied customer who packs two lunches every day.

  39. posted by Kirstine Vergara on

    I now use clear microwavable containers for my lunch because it’s lighter and much easier to re-heat. I used to have a metal lunch box just like yours, but someone stole it. =( Good thing that I had an early lunch that time.=)

  40. posted by infmom on

    My gosh, what happened to the brown paper bag and Baggies? :) Actually, my husband usually takes a Ziploc reusable/disposable container full of some kind of leftovers, an apple, sometimes another container full of salad and a small container full of dressing, and a Thermos bottle full of tea.

    When I was taking a lunch to work I’d put a can of Healthy Choice soup in my lunch bag (I had a can opener and a large mug to eat it out of in my desk at work) and add in a salad, or some crackers, or maybe a cookie for dessert.

  41. posted by empty on

    We have the Mr. Bento but rarely use it anymore because it’s just so heavy. Even empty it weighs something like 5 pounds+. That’s a lot for a walking/bus commute, especially for a container that doesn’t have a handle. Ultimately we ended up using BPA-free plastic bentos from Japantown for our kids (who don’t have access to microwaves at school anyway), a couple of stainless steel Lunchbots, and a handful of other metal containers with silicon lids for wet foods.

    A lot of people have told us that our bentos seem too small for them, but my husband has lost 10 pounds in the last 2-3 months thanks solely to switching to bento lunches (none of his other eating habits have changed), and he claims after the first week he didn’t even notice that his lunch was smaller. So their size might be an issue if you’re at a healthy weight and start losing more than you’d like, but otherwise I think it’s actually an advantage. The kids rarely finish their lunches.

    As far assembly goes, I make all four lunches the night before, while the kids are taking their bath. Trader Joe’s, which is across the street from my office, actually has a lot of stuff that can go in lunches with minimal preparation–tortellini, edamame, bean salads, fruit, yogurt, applesauce, etc. We usually make some room-temperature salads on the weekend to take in as well; this week it was panzanella and a red quinoa salad with chickpeas, corn, and peppers. The whole process seemed overwhelming when the kids started school/preschool but with practice it is almost mindlessly simple.

  42. posted by Brad Rice on

    http://amzn.to/aCNiCk

    I’ve found Bento love (and any of Vertical’s cookbooks) to be a fantastic resource for something like this. Definitely worth checking out!

  43. posted by Jennifer L on

    I have used the Laptop Lunch lunchboxes http://www.laptoplunches.com/ for my two school-age kids for about 5 years now. They greatly simplify my life by being sturdy, long lasting, dishwasher safe, and giving me a visual guide — four compartments to fill to make a good lunch. They are also flexible — If I’m sending a whole sandwich, I take out two of the small boxes and the sandwich fits just fine. They also come with a cookbook of lunch ideas. They greatly reduce waste — paper bags and zip-top plastic bags that would get thrown away. I used my first set of boxes daily for four years. A very good value.

  44. posted by Tiffany on

    Let me just add to the love for JustBento.com and LunchInABox.net- both written for people who just want to get a nutritious lunch packed, without a ton of fuss. I find that the key for me is to make sure I have on hand at all times
    – a vegetable
    – a starch
    – a protein

    That I can grab out of the pantry/fridge and put into my bento container without having to do a lot of prep. Sometimes this is leftovers, sometimes this is food I have specifically obtained for lunch-packing, but the idea of having a few ready things to throw in helps me stay moving in the morning.

    Beyond that, the key is to have an appropriately-sized container, and then some way to manage the food while it’s in that container to keep the wet food from making the dry food soggy. For me, that’s a small bento box and some silicone baking cups, with a couple of small lidded containers for the days I really want to bring a sauce or dip of some kind. Honestly, I could go on and on.

  45. posted by Babs on

    If I weren’t trying to reduce the amount of stuff I have I would get this

    http://www.planetbox.com/planetbox.html

    it is so darn cute

  46. posted by Nana on

    As a single working mom, I enlisted the kids. We took turns: someone made breakfast for the 3 of us, and someone else made 3 lunches. Made them more aware of the difficulty of thinking of something ‘interesting’ each day.
    Now I’ve simplified: commercial container of cottage cheese lasts all week…and I bring 5 yogurts. Mindless and reasonably healthful.

  47. posted by jen on

    @leonie: I had the set featured in this post for a while, but recently gave it to a friend for a couple of reasons: 1) it was heavy and bulky. I commute via public transit or walk a mile+ in to work and I’d have to use a much larger bag if I wanted to carry the set in. 2) I like big salads for lunch and this is not well suited to that kind of lunch. If you like to nibble on small quantities of food, then this set might work well for you. It was not well-suited to my needs.

  48. posted by carolyn on

    I have this
    http://www.black-blum.com/prod.....#CartFocus
    and really love it, unfortunately I often forget that I have it. The same company has also published a lunch cookbook and sells carrier bags

  49. posted by Dallee on

    For an adult lunch if you have access to a fridge at the office, take in a container of organic lettuce, a salad dressing, and some small fish or fish-related cans.

    I particularly like oysters in olive oil for a salad topping, which gives you a lot of Omega-3s and excellent nutrition. Alternatives include sardines in olive oil and trout, although you could branch out to shrimp and crab (canned chicken is not bad). The typical tuna and salmon cans are a bit larger and, to my taste, too much for lunch.

    Reduces the lugging … and great for your health (especially for diabetics doing low carbohydrate eating, which is essential).

    On bento box supplies, I particularly like the square egg presses for hard boiled eggs available on Amazon. Square eggs slice up nicely to add to a cracker! The other shapes are a bit tricky because you have to figure out the perfect size to fill the press to achieve the shape (even an extra large egg does not fill the heart shape perfectly in my experience).

    Nice topic!

  50. posted by LJ on

    This is approaching the question of “how” rather than “what”: I use assembly line to pack my daughter’s lunches. While she is now more varied in her sandwiches than she was in kindergarten, the rest of the items are still ready-to-go. I talk about this here:

    http://www.simpleproductivityb.....e-lunches/

  51. Profile photo of

    posted by Zen friend on

    I eat out too much. I live by myself, love my job but don’t have much energy after work and don’t enjoy cooking for one. Grocery shopping isn’t fun either: I live about 4 miles from the only grocery store in the area, which doesn’t carry much.

    But I looked at my budget–so many things I could do with an extra two hundred dollars a month.

    So:
    I spent about a hundred stocking my fridge and freezer. (Google led me to a Marie Claire site with a stocking list and several simple meal ideas)
    I’ve started a notebook where I write down intriguing recipes. (This month’s Cooking Light had some good sandwich ideas.)
    I sent all my stained/mismatched plastic containers to the recycling center and bought a set of stacking/nesting Rubbermade ones.
    And I splurged on a Bento. Not the one in the picture; I went to justbento.com and ordered a really attractive oblong one, which should fit in the bottom of my work tote. It’s dishwasher and microwave safe: there’s a microwave in my office.

    My hypothesis: if I have a beautiful box, it would be easier to “enjoy the ritual” of making and eating a tasty lunch.

    I’ll see if it works..

  52. posted by Maura on

    I’m a big fan of cooking and freezing multiple meals at once. I can just grab a couple of frozen containers and take them to work, or have them for dinner if I don’t feel like cooking. I cook and freeze hamburger patties, chili, grilled chicken, grilled italian sausage, and vegetable soup. I also keep bage of frozen vegetables, fruit, and cheese, and crackers around. So a quick meal could be a hamburger patty and vegerable soup, or a grilled italian sausage and some frozen vegetables. A midafternoon snack could be fruit and cheese or cheese and crackers.

  53. posted by Dia on

    What great ideas! I also take salad greens to my office (have a fridge) & keep rice crackers, olive oil vinagrette & kelp flakes in my cubby. I sometimes think of taking main dish items, but I can eat a lovely, healthy lunch for less than $5 at the natural foods store a block from my office, so often do that :)

  54. posted by JP on

    Soup!

    While I have a stainless thermos I use from time to time, access to microwave has led me to the ease of the carry-and-heat approach. I enjoy making large pots of soup when I can. When I make soup, I pour it straight to containers which suit me for lunch. Repurposed short salsa jars are sturdy, have a wide mouth and a decent seal, are microwaveable and a great soup portion size. During busy stretches where I must pack both lunch and dinner, I take a taller glass jar of soup and use a microwavable mug or bowl I keep at work for each portion. I am lucky to have access to a refrigerator, so can opt to have the soup jar serve and two days in a row rather than two meals in a day.

    This worked so well, I’ve occasionally snagged a frozen plastic quart of soup as I’ve dashed out for work.

  55. posted by Sara on

    I tend to make large quantities of soup, pasta, or other things that can be frozen as individual serving. Then we can just grab a frozen container and a piece of fruit on the way out of the door.

    Although, there’s nothing wring with a good pb&j. For about two years I ate a pb&j for lunch every day. On the nights I had class after work, I would eat one for lunch and one for dinner. I lost about 40lb over the course of the two years, and I never worried about what I was going to fix for lunch. :)

  56. posted by newscaper on

    This article and nearly all of the responses to it miss two key points:

    1) It is easily possible to spend well under $100/week for lunch eating out — example, Morrison’s cafeteria $4.99 meat and two veggies & bread (drink water), or hit the dollar menu at fast food places — a burger is *not* particularly bad for you if you skip the mayo and the accompanying french fries.

    2)Going out to eat — even on a shoestring, even by yourself — is a great mental health break escaping from cubicleville, particularly more important if your workplace does not have a nice breakroom. Or even if you have a decent office, you might be prone to getting pestered constantly because you’re still there.

    I do find the idea of getting overly elaborate with lunch packaging a bit silly given the idea is to supposedly save so much money.

  57. posted by Kalle on

    That bento looks sweet. I am now officially tempted to join the fancy lunchbox bandwagon. If only I wasn’t already eating goverment subsidized student lunches for about three dollars a day. It’s hard to justify taking lunch out to campus when there are so many cafeterias around serving homestyle cooking every day. Even with a box this nice.

  58. posted by hi there on

    Bollocks. Get the pyrex glass rectangular containers with the rubbermaid lids if you can bring containers to work upright (the seal is okay but not spillproof) or just get gladware plastic reusable containers. Cheap, spillproof, easy to use, easy to store, easy to wash. I wouldn’t microwave anything greasy in them, though, because hot oil can break down the plastic. Then I would use pyrex!

    Nobody needs thermos these days except for their coffee. Bring refrigerated food to work and put it in the break room fridge.

    I once had a coworker who brought cold cheese and eggs to work and cooked them in ceramic coffee cups in the microwave. Before you laugh, it wasn’t bad.

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