Cheap and Healthy Brown-Bag Lunch Ideas (for Grownups)
10 workday lunches that will save you time, money, and calories.
By Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD
Taking a healthy lunch to work is one of the simplest ways to trim your budget. Most people think nothing of spending $10 or so for a restaurant lunch, but over the course of a month -- or a year -- the expense can really add up.
Beyond the cost savings, most meals packed at home are healthier than foods at restaurants. When we eat out, we're often faced with whopper portions and fattening extras -- like the french fries that routinely come with sandwiches. But when you pack lunch at home, you can control your portions and choose healthier ingredients.
Still, unless you're willing to eat the same peanut butter sandwich day in and day out, it's easy to run out of ideas and fall back into the restaurant rut. So WebMD asked the experts to recommend healthy, creative lunch ideas that are not only cheap, but easy to prepare.
What Makes Up a Healthy Lunch?
First of all, make sure your lunch is balanced, experts recommend. Lunches that include some lean or low-fat protein along with carbohydrates will keep your body fueled for the afternoon, says Connie Diekman, RD, president of the American Dietetic Association.
"The combination of protein and fiber from whole grains, beans, nuts, vegetables and/or fruit will give you the most satisfying and nutritious combination of foods that will keep you feeling full until dinner," she says
If you love sandwiches, use a variety of whole-grain breads, pitas, and wraps. Choose lean fillings like sliced eggs, tuna fish, cheese or lean meats. Then jazz up your sandwiches with assorted greens, fresh basil, sprouts, sliced cucumbers, onions, and/or tomatoes.
But sandwiches are far from your only option when you're brown-bagging it. Last night's dinner, hard boiled eggs, vegetarian wraps, cereal -- anything you enjoy at home can be packed up and eaten for lunch.
In fact, you might want to make extra food for dinner so you'll have leftovers to bring for lunch, experts suggest. "Leftovers are the perfect food to pack and take for lunch because you can control the portions and calories in the meal to ensure it will be nutritious, filling and delicious," says Diekman.
For example, she suggests packing the leftovers of a black bean, brown rice and salsa dinner casserole, topped with shredded cheddar cheese, into a reusable container that can be microwaved at the office. Add some carrot, celery, and pepper strips for a hearty and satisfying lunch.
To take this idea a bit further, try cooking in bulk. On the weekend, make a big pot of chili, soup, or rice and beans and freeze into individual portions that are ready to take to work in a flash.
Convenience foods can also make quick and easy lunches. Canned soups and frozen meals can be inexpensive, especially if you stock up when they're on sale, and all you have to do is grab one when you're running out the door. Pair these portion-controlled items with a side salad or piece of fruit to provide enough calories to keep you feeling full.
10 Easy Lunch Ideas
American Dietetic Association spokesperson Angela Ginn-Meadow, RD, says planning ahead is essential for quick lunch assembly. "A planned menu with all the ingredients in the kitchen will make it easy to put together tomorrow's lunch after dinner," she says.
She compiled this grocery list for a week's worth of lunches costing $5 or less a day (assuming you already have salad dressings on hand):
Whole wheat pita bread
With this list of foods, you can prepare:
Diekman offers 5 more cheap lunch options that are also simple to prepare: