Food Q&A: Cheap Brown-Bag Meals

I'm looking for inexpensive, take-to-work lunches. What can I do to keep my costs down?

Need ideas for coping with restaurant buffets? Want some good snack ideas? In our Q&A series, nutritionist and food editor Leslie Fink, MS, RD, answers questions about food, nutrition and weight loss.

Q: I prefer to take my lunch to work, but sometimes my homemade meals cost more money than the lunch specials at some places. How can I brown-bag and save?

A: Fast-food super-value meals and lunchtime restaurant specials can be great for the wallet, but they're not always great for the waistline. Learn how to keep both your spending and your stomach slim with these tips for preparing inexpensive, take-to-work meals.

  • Buy in bulk and freeze. When chicken breasts are on sale, stock up. Same goes for nonperishable items like canned tuna.

  • Clip coupons. A 35-cent coupon might not seem like a lot, but find a supermarket that has double coupon days and before you know it, the savings will add up.

  • Shop at discount stores. Seek out bread outlets, wholesale food clubs and the like. You may have to pay a small membership fee, but your savings over the course of the year usually outweigh that cost. (One word of caution: Know your prices. Not all items at "discount" stores are discounted.)

  • Do the manual labor yourself: Grate your own cheese, clean and shred your own lettuce, and chop your own fruit salad to save a few bucks.

  • Buy large and divide. There is certainly a huge convenience factor to buying individual containers of yogurt. But one large container, split into several servings (tote to work in small plastic containers), costs much less.

  • Consider using beans for protein. They're cheaper than beef, poultry and fish and provide lots of filling fiber. One of my favorite ways to use them is to fill a large tortilla with canned beans, canned corn, salsa and low-fat shredded cheddar cheese. Sometimes I even add in some diced, canned pineapple chunks. Just roll up the tortilla, wrap in plastic and heat in the microwave.

  • Think green. Make a huge salad at the beginning of each week and store it in a salad spinner to maintain freshness. Buy seasonal produce to keep costs down. Leave juicy veggies (e.g., cut tomatoes, marinated mushrooms, roasted peppers) and dressing on the side to keep the salad crisp. Toss in a different topping each day such as crumbled feta cheese, canned beans, canned white tuna or deli-sliced turkey breast.

  • Make your own deli sandwiches. It's much cheaper to buy your own turkey breast, loaf of bread, lettuce and tomato and assemble it yourself than to buy a pre-made sandwich.

  • Opt for inexpensive convenience foods: Fill a thermos with warmed, canned low-fat vegetarian chili and enjoy with baked chips and some carrot sticks.

  • Leftovers! Nothing beats a homemade microwavable meal. Double recipes and store the extras in microwave-safe, freezable containers.
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