I am not a lunch packer. Or, at least, I wasn’t a lunch packer, until one day, in the throes of mid-July ennui, I said to my co-workers, I think I’m going to try to bring my lunch every day for a month! Their response? Something along the lines of, like hell you will.
In the almost-year and a half that I’ve worked at Refinery29 (prior to this experiment), I’d brought my lunch once, maybe twice. And only because I had good leftovers. With the exception of my very first adult job, where I was barely making enough money to ride the subway regularly, much less eat out, I’ve always been of the lunch-buying sort. I even bought my lunch when I was living at home and working my sad post-college retail gig (in my defense, chicken nuggets were the only thing that could soothe my angsty 22-year-old soul). Nothing about hauling around plastic containers full of sad little rations meticulously pre-portioned on a Sunday night has ever appealed to me. To be honest, it still mostly doesn’t.
But I was looking for a challenge, and perhaps so much financial advice of the anti-latte variety had finally gotten to me. But instead of mocking and dismissing it (my usual go-tos), I wanted to poke a hole in it. While I knew I’d probably save some money by bringing from home, I was curious just how much it would be. Would the difference be negligible enough to justify my store-bought lunches? Or would it be such an obvious money-saver that I’d have to swear off Dig Inn and Sweetgreen for life? The stakes were high. The results, however, were mixed.
Here’s how it all went down.
“I’ve just volunteered to do a story where I bring my lunch every day for a month I am scared please advise,” I tweeted upon confirmation that I’d be writing this piece. Suggestions I received from gracious followers range from “bring crackers and tabouli” to “don’t make five of the same meal if you’re meal prepping.” I would later go on to make five of the same meal while meal prepping.
I was feeling pretty ambitious about the whole thing when a co-worker innocently inquired as to whether or not I had any containers with which to transport these lunches. I quickly did a mental scan of my kitchen shelves, which I determined contained exactly one badly-stained Tupperware container. (Said container later cracked after I put something hot inside it.)
Thankfully, the kind folks at Takenaka, Oxo, and Corelle volunteered to take part in my experiment. I learned that, when it comes to reusable containers, glass is the new plastic (just be very careful with it), that bento boxes can be used for more than sushi, and that cute containers can bring me joy, even when meal prepping doesn’t.
Despite the excellent Twitter advice, I’d be lying if I told you I entered the first week with anything resembling a real strategy. I’d been travelling every weekend for a month, and on the Sunday before I was set to start, I got off a bus from D.C. and headed straight to Whole Foods. Would Trader Joe’s have been a more cost-effective option? Heck yeah, but there was no way I was dealing with those crowded aisles at six p.m. on a Sunday with a travel bag. The first few days were actually great, though. I made big, beautiful batches of roasted broccoli with garlic, couscous, and spicy tomato chickpeas and paired them with whole grain bread. I hauled my little lunches to work every day in cute tote bags. I was officially a meal prepper, and I was proud to be part of a club that had always eluded me.
This lasted about three days. By Thursday, I was very, very bored of chickpeas and very, very bored of broccoli, and the lucky, happy, oblivious people marching around my office with their poke bowls and their fancy salads filled with me with a rage that simmered like the chickpeas themselves once had.
One thing about having to bring lunch everyday is that it motivated me to eat home-cooked dinners too. I actually like cooking for dinner, and the primary thing that often stops me from doing so is not having proper ingredients at home. Well, all of a sudden, I had ingredients at home. We’d done a massive Trader Joe’s trip the weekend before, from which I made things like roasted butternut squash, roasted tofu, and lemon-parmesan broccoli. I even bought dried mangoes and granola bars to bring to the office for breakfast. I was really adulting!!!
And yet, when during the middle of the week my boyfriend offered to Seamless us some sushi, I practically shot through the roof with delight. The concept of eating food cooked by someone other than myself filled me with joy. It was then that I realized something I am now ashamed to admit, which is that I could just bring my takeout leftovers to work in plastic containers and pretend to be part of the meal prep club. This is a shameful workaround, and I really tried to avoid it, I promise I did, but I’d estimate over the course of the month, I did this about four times. Forgive me, reader, for I have sinned.
Weeks Three & Four
You know what the not-so-cool thing about 30-day periods are? Sometimes they last not four weeks, but five. That’s why weeks three and four kind of blend together for me. At one point, I made pasta, at another, a large batch of potatoes and carrots. I think there was quinoa involved. I don’t know. I came to hate all of these things deeply. They sat in my fridge at home, mocking me. I brought them to work where their mocking continued.
I began the practice of showing up to non-mandatory work meetings that boasted pizza, hoarding Friday morning bagels, and scrounging around the office kitchen like a hungry animal, desperately seeking something — anything — to save me from my homemade meals.
I guess you could say things were not going well.
I went out of town for two days in the middle of this week, so it was slightly disrupted, but get this: during the end of week four, I got a second wind. I abandoned my big-batch cooking once and for all. I did this for a lot of reasons. For one thing, as you may have already gathered, eating these repetitive meals was making me profoundly sad, and a little bit scary. I chalk this partially up to the fact that I’m just not that good of a cook (I tend to go rogue and deviate from the recipe, if I even bother to follow one). It’s one thing to eat one or two servings of mediocre food, it’s quite another to eat five or six. I also found microwaving things in the office kitchen to be full of social minefields ranging from small talk to the physical navigation of the space. I’m not sure if you could tell, but I have social anxiety.
Instead, I began making fresh salads, which, as my very smart Twitter follower suggested five weeks earlier, varied slightly from day to day. I should really listen to people on the internet more! I had shied away from salads initially thinking that for some reason my homemade versions wouldn’t be filling enough, but adding beans, chickpeas, nuts, and rice or couscous eliminated this problem. And it turns out, I’m down to eat basically anything as long as it’s drenched in balsamic vinegar.
What I’m saying is, I finally hit my stride! But, well, not so much that I didn’t march my ass straight to Dig Inn the following Monday. What can I say? Old habits die hard.
Clearly, my overall meal prepping experience was pretty hit or miss. That being said, I did discover a few recipes I really liked and plan to use (or make variations on) again. Because I am very, very lazy, many of these recipes require just one pot or pan and are super easy to recreate, should you choose to do so. Below, a few newfound favorites.
Buying: I estimate that, typically, I’m spending about $200 - $250 a month on lunches. I try to keep daily meals at or under $10 — though I occasionally spring for a $12 poke bowl or my favorite $14 salad from Gotan — so that means, on a good week, $50 on lunches. Four weeks times $50 equals $200. Plus give or take $50 for the financial cheat days.
Bringing: It’s hard to calculate exactly how much I spent on lunch ingredients, since I used some for dinners and shared some with my boyfriend. So I’ve calculated the cost of the ingredients I used to make food for lunches, even though some of those ingredients were consumed in other ways, and some pre-existing ingredients like oil and spices were used to make the lunches. Over the 30-day period, I did four major grocery runs; one to Whole Foods (approx. $35 on lunch food), two to Trader Joe’s (approx. $25 and $37) and one to a health-food bodega in my neighborhood (approx. $40). This is a pretty rough estimate, especially considering a handful of these meals were supplemented by takeout food (I’m sorry) or food scrounged at the office, but it comes out to $137.
From a financial standpoint, if we’re comparing a bad month of lunch spending (approx. $250) to this month of lunch prepping (approx. $137), well, that $113 difference resembles a good chunk of change. That’s a nice dinner out — a meal I’d be much more likely to enjoy than those taken at my desk — or a new dress from the Reformation sale. If, however, we’re comparing this month to a good month of lunch spending, where I only drop $200, it’s only a $63 difference. Still nothing to sneeze at — that’s the cost of two Sunday brunches — but a less galling number.
When it comes to spending and saving, I tend to be an all-or-nothing kind of person. I’m either balling out or surviving on ramen. Moving forward, I’m going to try to meet myself in the middle more by bringing lunch one or two days a week, or re-upping my expired MealPal membership, which would bring my cost per meal down to less than $6.
In terms of cooking, I think the biggest thing I learned is not to try to eat the same stuff every day for a week. I told myself I was going to try to avoid this by making enough food that I could mix and match, but then I just got lazy and resigned myself to my repetitive fate. Do not do this! Also, if a recipe doesn’t turn out — a particularly terrible pasta dish I made comes to mind — don’t keep trying to force yourself to eat it. Cut your losses (feed it to your dog, or your roommate who will eat anything!) and start again.
I won’t lie to you: For me, This experiment was hard, and it kind of sucked. But it did show me that change is possible. There’s no secret to ‘being the kind of person that brings their lunch to work’ except for, well, just bringing your damn lunch to work. Sure, people might comment on the change at first, but for the most part, no one cares. Too often in my life, I’ve short-changed myself on experiences or self-improvements by clinging to the narrative that I’m a certain kind of person who does certain kinds of things and not others and that I can’t deviate from that. This is, of course, bullshit. If I can pack my lunch for a month (mostly) without cheating, then I can probably do anything. You probably can too!