Your Lunch DIY, On The Cheap

Intro_revisedIllustrated by Ly Ngo.
This article was originally published on Nov. 12.
There is nothing more depressing than facing your monthly credit-card bill and realizing you've dropped a handbag's worth of cash on lunch. Lunch! That thing you stuff in your face between work emails and YouTube corgi videos. Most of us resort to impulse-ordering and end up with a greasy guilty pleasure or a chopped salad that has the gall to cost $15. Work lunch is a disaster, but the good news is there is a miraculous solution: your fridge.
Bringing your own lunch to work is probably the easiest, most effective money-saving change you can make. Unless you're bringing prime rib to work every day, there's no way you'll spend as much on food as if you order it. The most common complaint is lack of time — and we're not buying it. This isn't the same as prepping a dinner party. If you can carve out 30 minutes on a Sunday, you can be eating all week. Worried about money? How does $25 for a week's worth of lunch sound? Ahead, we've highlighted three ways to make your work lunch healthier, heartier, and infinitely easier on your wallet. Give it a shot for a month, and if you're not feeling better in your body and your bank account, then we'll buy you that handbag. If we're right though, you owe us one. ALL of us.
MasonJarSalad_Slide_2_revisedIllustrated by Ly Ngo.

The Mason Jar Salad
Bringing your own salad to lunch was always feasible, but it just wasn't the same as the zillion-ingredient, freshly chopped variety that you can get at a salad bar. Enter: the mason jar. That ancient kitchen tool you use for decorative flour storage is the answer to your gigantic-salad prayers.

What makes the difference with these compact containers is layering. Their size and shape allow you to fit in dressing, greens, and all the other toppings in between without turning your meal into a soggy mess by lunch time. When it comes time to eat, you simply empty the jar into a bowl and...nothing. That's it. Lunch is served.
All you need to make the perfect mason-jar salad is follow this order from the bottom up: Dressing, hard vegetables, protein, grain, soft vegetables, greens.
By starting with dressing then firm vegetables (like carrots and celery, which won't become saturated) you create a seal between the dressing and the rest of the ingredients. Fill in the middle with grains and protein and top with soft vegetables so they won't be crushed. Leave a couple extra inches for greens, and you should be able to stuff two full cups into the top. Once you open and shake out your salad, the ingredients will mix and the bottom layer of dressing will pour out right on top. How great is that?
Here is one of our favorite combos:

Basic Spinach Mason Jar Salad
Lemon-Shallot Vinaigrette (2 tbsp lemon juice, 1 tbsp dijon mustard, 1 diced shallot, 1/4 cup white wine vinegar, 1/4 cup olive oil)
1/4 cup chopped carrots
1/4 cup chopped beets (roasted or canned)
1/4 cup toasted walnuts
1/4 cup wild rice
1/2 avocado
2 cups fresh baby spinach

ZiplocSoup_2b_revisedIllustrated by Ly Ngo.

The Frozen Soup
There is virtually no meal in this world that is easier or cheaper to make (healthfully) than a good soup. It doesn't matter if you do grocery shopping at the deli — you can make a huge pot of healthy, yummy soup for around the cost of a slice of pizza. Better yet, you probably already have most ingredients in your house already. That mysterious can of Great Northern Beans rattling around in your cabinet? It has a purpose now. Half an onion left over from guacamole night? That's your base. Semi-aged baby carrots you purchased in attempt to stop eating chips before bed every night, but then just ended up eating the chips anyway? You know what to do.

The other great thing about making soup lunch is that portion control is a cinch. Once you've cooked it up and let it cool, simply ladle it out into separate Tupperware containers (or Ziploc freezer bags) and stick them in the freezer. Grab one container on your way out the door and reheat the soup in your office kitchen microwave. It's the same process as bringing a can of Campbell's to work — but without the preservatives, heaps of salt, and fat you didn't ask for. Ready for a change midweek? No problem. Most soups will keep well in the freezer for up to three months (up to six if you make it meatless), so if you break down and order pad thai for a few days, your soup will be ready and waiting for you.
There are just a few keys to a perfectly frozen soup:
- Undercook vegetables (and pasta, if using) slightly. They'll be perfect when reheated.
- If using rice, try brown or wild instead of white. They freeze better.
- Steer clear of cream-based soups. They tend to separate once frozen — though nut-milks should work fine.
- If using cheese or fresh herbs, add after reheating.
- Let the soup come to room temperature before freezing.
- Label your storage containers with soup flavors and dates. That way you'll know it's the minestrone you made last month, not the ratatouille you made last week.
- When in doubt, bean-based soups are best.
Not sure where to start? Here's a great beginner's recipe that freezes beautifully and will keep you satisfied all afternoon (for the net cost of a gum ball).

Tomato-Turkey Spinach Soup
1 medium onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, diced or pressed
2 28 oz cans whole peeled tomatoes
1 turkey breast, cooked and shredded (also works great with Thanksgiving leftovers!)
4 cups vegetable or turkey broth
1 10 oz container frozen spinach, thawed (or 1 bag fresh)
2 tbsp olive oil
Salt to taste

Saute onion in olive oil, over a medium heat, until clear. Add garlic, stir, and cook until garlic is golden and fragrant.
Next, toss in your turkey and stir so it's well-coated in garlic and onion. Open tomatoes and pour in. Use a wooden spoon to smoosh the tomatoes open and into large, chunky bites. Stir ingredients to coat well.
Add broth and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and throw in spinach. Let simmer for 10-15 minutes, stir until well combined, and remove from heat. Bring to room temperature and ladle into six containers (use less or more, depending on your serving-size preference). Stick 'em in the freezer, and bask in the glory of your own productivity.
QuinoaBowl_revisedIllustrated by Ly Ngo.

The Quinoa Bowl
The quinoa bowl has long been a staple of our take-out repertoire, which is why, when we discovered how cheap and easy it is to DIY, we felt like dummies. Poor dummies. Quinoa is, as we've said before, the greatest non-grain in the grain section. It's versatile enough to take on virtually all flavors, it's inexpensive, and it's really, really, ridiculously good for you.

The quinoa bowl is as flexible as its base and has a particular talent for satisfying cravings without sending you down a junk-food spiral. Mexican, Thai, vegan, paleo — quinoa goes every which way. Using this as your cheap-o base, you can throw in your preferred aromatics and ingredients to make a great, one-pot meal. Furthermore, unlike rice or pasta, quinoa will not get mushy in the fridge. So, feel free to make a big batch that will last you for days. Or, just make a big batch of plain quinoa and mix up your flavors every day of the week!
If you haven't tried making a quinoa bowl at home, you might be concerned it's labor-intensive. Fear not. Try this dummy-proof starter recipe first, and you'll realize you're already a pro.

Spicy Mexican Quinoa Bowl
1 cup quinoa, cooked
1/2 onion, chopped
1/2 cup canned black beans, rinsed
1/2 cup canned corn, rinsed
1 tomato
1/4 avocado
1 lime
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp cumin
1 tbsp olive oil for cooking
Salt to taste (garlic salt if you're feeling frisky)

Saute onion in oil, until browned. Remove from heat and toss with quinoa in a mixing bowl.
Optional: Wipe oil out of the onion pan and toast corn in it over a medium heat, until fragrant and beginning to brown.
Add corn and beans to the quinoa mixture and toss. Chop tomato into bite-sized piece and add to the mixture.
Squeeze lime juice into a cup, and whisk in cumin, cayenne, and salt. (If using bottled juice, use about 1/3 cup.)
Pour lime/spice mixture over quinoa mixture and toss well. Finish with avocado and pack into tupperware. Fantasize about your quinoa bowl until lunch.

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