Bringing your lunch to work every day is a surefire way to save money during the week, but, if you don't already have a foolproof plan for food prep, it can also seem like more trouble than it's worth. Not everyone wants to brave the crowded aisles of Trader Joe's on Sunday, let alone spend their last precious evening moments trapped in the kitchen under piles of Tupperware and dirty dishes, for the sake of a homemade lunch. And that's totally okay because not all money-saving, lunch-packing hacks are created equal!
Ahead, the Refinery29 food team tested out five different weekday lunch plans. Then we broke down our findings from shopping lists to total number of lunches made, budgeting out our spends, and broke down each price per lunch. See which methods we were fans of and which we'll be ignoring in the future. Maybe one of these approaches will inspire you to "pack lunch like a kid" or go the "no-cook" route next week.
Already have a no-fail food packing plan of your own? Let us know in the comments, below!
"Control Group" Method: Buying Lunch No grocery shopping, no food prep, and no packing. Shopping List None Total Spend $38 Total Lunches 5 averaging $7.60 a meal
Photo: Courtesy of Victoria Tomkinson.
Buying Lunch Victoria Tomkinson, Social Media Editor For the first day, I walked down the block from our office to Pret A Manger. It's an easy, cheap favorite that still feels like a treat because it's not packed. As a notorious work-through-lunch-er, it felt fantastic to walk outside during the day and take a minute, and THEN come back to my desk and eat. The salad was pretty good, decently healthy and cheap! $8 and about a 10-minute trip. On day two, I walked a little further today, about 15 minutes there and back to Chipotle. I'm a big supporter of their quesadillas, so I got one of those. I ended up picking up lunch for a couple of my coworkers as well, so the trip took decently longer. That was the day that I really appreciated not packing lunch though — it meant I could completely relax and watch , plus the break from the office was still a bonus (even though it was raining!), and I was eating more meals instead of slowly picking at my lunch. $8 and a 25-minute trip. Bachelor In Paradise For my third lunch out, I walked a few blocks away and got a salad from Potbelly. It was the first day that taking a break stressed me out — I felt like I was literally running out to lunch and on my phone the whole time. The salad was delish and affordable though! $9 and 15 minutes (I was legit running). I decided to go real cheap and cheerful on day four, so I just popped over to Pret again and got a sandwich. These always remind me of England, so whenever I need something affordable that I know will hit the spot I go for this. Quick, enjoyable walk! $5 and 10 minutes. On my final day, I wanted to try out "buying lunch and being cheap" while using Seamless, so I ordered small: a sushi lunch, and it was my only day I didn't leave the office to get lunch (a true treat for me, obvs). I did appreciate not leaving since I was trying to get out of work early for a summer Friday and I love this sushi place because it's cheap and tastes great. $8 and 2 minutes of ordering. Since I bought fewer groceries on Sunday, I felt like this method didn't make me spend that much more than usual. I'd estimate around $10, which is only two coffees in internet money language. It felt nice not to stress about making lunch as one extra thing to do each night, and even nicer to leave the office each day. Plus I hate cooking, so it checked that off my list in a way I actually enjoyed! I'd do it again, especially on weeks when I can't find time to make it to the store, but my money tracking app missed the celebratory zero dollar day posts.
Method: Sunday Meal Prep One big Sunday shop and prep for a week's worth of lunches. Shopping List Ground Turkey Onions Tomatoes Tomato Sauce Basil Red Lentils Jalapeños Garlic Ginger Quinoa Spaghetti Squash Meals Total Spend $54 Total Meals 15 averaging $3.60 per meal. This made 2 week's worth of food, including some dinners. I froze half of each meal for a future week.
Photo: Courtesy of Zoe Bain.
Sunday Meal Prep Zoe Bain, Senior Food Editor I made two meals on Sunday to eat for lunches and some dinners throughout the week: turkey meatballs with tomato sauce served over spaghetti squash, and red lentils served over quinoa. First I headed to the grocery store to pick up everything I needed. Since I cook regularly, I already have a pretty well-stocked pantry of spices, oil, etc. So, I spent less than someone who would have to buy a slew of seasonings when they try a new recipe. Cooking two meals in one day can seem exhausting, but the trick here is to split up the work. Have a friend or S.O. that wants to get in on your meal prep action? Split up the work. Or make the things that will take the longest in the morning, take a break, and do last minute prep later on. I also found that prepping containers in advance so I could grab-and-go made a huge difference in whether or not I made it out the door with a lunch. Obviously, the one drawback to meal prep is that I ate the same two things, all week long. It didn't particularly bother me, except when I would see someone else with a delicious ordered lunch. But, then I would remind myself how much money I was saving, and all would be well again. My takeaway? I'm a meal prepper for life. Yes, that is a tad dramatic and makes me sound like I'm one of those people who always has my shit together, but that's not the case. Meal prepping is the one thing that helps me hold everything else together because I never need to worry about what I'm eating or whether or not I'm staying on budget. I know I'll have two meals that I can switch off eating for lunch and dinner for the majority of the work week. It's easy, it saves me major cash, and I find that I eat healthier when I'm cooking for myself. Win, win, win.
Method: 1 Ingredient, 5 Ways One anchor ingredient to easily build a week of lunches from. Shopping List Rotisserie Chicken Pasta Bread Tortillas Cheese Mayonnaise Tomatoes Onions Total Spend $50 Total Lunches 10 averaging $5 a meal
Photo: Courtesy of Marshall Bright.
1 Ingredient, 5 Ways Marshall, Food Writer One ingredient, five ways: on the surface, it seemed genius. No meal fatigue, while using the same few ingredients over and over again. Inspired by this no-cook meals story, I picked up my own pre-made bird at Whole Foods. I got ingredients to do a simple pasta, sandwich, salad, quesadilla, and a classic mayo-based chicken salad. A lot of the dishes required, besides the chicken, the same few things: tomatoes, onions, cheese, keeping me from buying a whole lot of one ingredient for just one recipe. I still spent a bit more than I was hoping, however. It was $50, though it also was enough of everything to include dinners for the week as well, working out to $5 a meal. The only real problem was that I had a hard time actually making myself prep five new meals every night. I would have rather done one or more big meals throughout the week and eaten leftovers than prep a dedicated recipe for each meal.
Method: Packing N0-Cook Lunches No messy kitchen cooking time makes for fast and easy morning assembly. Shopping List Cottage Cheese Romaine Lettuce Avocados Feta Cheese Cannellini Beans Canned Tuna Grape Tomatoes Cucumber Bananas Sliced Turkey Pita Total Spend $25.53 Total Lunches 8 averaging $3.20 a meal
Photo: Courtesy of Elizabeth Buxton.
No-Cook Elizabeth Buxton, Food Writer No-cook meals are my go-to thing for no-fuss food assembly. If you've got a good pantry staple base started (i.e., olive oil, vinegar, and nuts/nut butters, canned beans, canned tuna, etc.) then you can pretty easily and affordably work a week's worth of lunches without ever turning on the stove or oven. So, the only work need to put in is picking up an assortment of your preferred produce and getting a little creative the morning of with chopping, combos, and assembly. For my week's worth of no-cook lunches, I relied on various salad mashups that were heavy on the veggies and topped with a dash of proteins and cheese (note: if you are vegan/vegetarian, go the tofu-nut route!). And to avoid salad boredom, I switched things up with pita pockets and cottage cheese-banana-nut bowls. I easily managed to work over five lunches out of my shop list (with my pantry pre-stocked) and clocked in under $5 a meal — which for me, is a steal.
Method: Packing Lunch Like A Kid Simple lunches equal simple spending and no cook-time. Shopping List Whole Wheat Bread Small Jar Of Hellman’s Mayonnaise Sargento Sharp Cheddar Cheese Slices Pringles, 12-pack Baby Carrots Fruit Gushers, 6-Pack Boar’s Head Smoked Turkey Breast Slices Total Lunches 9 averaging $3.60 a meal
Photo: Courtesy of Olivia Harrison.
Pack Like A Kid Olivia Harrison, Food News Writer As someone who does not at all mind eating the same simple meal for lunch every single day, I’d say my experiment was a success. I’m already a big fan of the turkey, cheese, and mayo sandwich because it takes no time to put together, and I think it’s delicious. Upon revisiting Gushers, however, I realized I don’t love the way they stick to my teeth, though it was nice to have something sweet with which to finish off my lunch. The Pringles, of course, tasted amazing — pro tip: put them inside the turkey sandwich for an added crunch — and it seemed economical to buy them in a 12-pack, which lasted for longer than any of my other purchases. Overall, I think this is a great way to pack lunch, although eating Gushers and drinking Hi-C every day might not be the best. It didn’t cost that much for nine-days-worth of lunches. I also liked having five different elements to look forward to eating every afternoon. There are, however, a couple of obvious drawbacks to this way of lunch packing. For one, it doesn’t make for the most sophisticated meal, so if you like impressing your co-workers with your cooking, maybe don’t eat lunch like you’re in fourth grade. There’s also no variety if you pack your meal like this every day. For anyone who prefers new and exciting food each day, this probably wouldn’t work. Since I’m a creature of habit, though, I didn’t mind one bit.