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. Avatar 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.

    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 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..

  2. 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.

  3. 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 :)

  4. posted by JP on


    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.

  5. 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. :)

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

Comments are closed.