Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Brown Bag Brigade: Your One-Stop Shop for Work Lunch Ideas

For two years, I’ve been fairly consistently packing my lunch for work. And like tons of other personal finance bloggers, it’s saved me mad dough – somewhere in the neighborhood of $2500, I’m guessing. To put it in more concrete terms, that’s 5% of the down payment on a house, two sweet vacations, rent for four months, ten 160GB iPods, or 80 semi-decent pairs of shoes. Nice.

Alas, life’s been a little hectic lately, so last week I opted for takeout soup, sandwiches, and Z-grade sushi over homemade salads and be-tupperwared leftovers. Admittedly, it was a nice change, but it also served as a reminder. I was stuffed by the end of each day, down $40 by the end of the week, and couldn’t BELIEVE how many disposable plastic and Styrofoam containers I had plowed through. (Thanks, Midtown!)

I know brown bagging has been covered exhaustively by every single media source in existence (ABC, BBC, Highlights Magazine, The Hills, etc.), but its importance can’t be overstated. Simply, because bringing lunch to work is:
  1. Cheap (see first paragraph),
  2. Healthy (as it gives you control over your food), and
  3. Good (for the environment).

So, with great excitement, ado, celebration, frankincense, and myrrh, I present you with … the rest of the post! It has two key sections: the first is chock full of tips to help plan your midday meals efficiently and effectively, while the second is an extensive database of lunch ideas from The Simple Dollar, Chow, WebMD and beyond. (Suggestions welcomed!) I guarantee, with time and a teaspoonful of effort, you’ll never blow $7 on a lame, last-minute Subway hero again.

Plan ahead. When you’re drawing up a grocery list and/or shopping, don’t forget to include enough food for a few lunches. Make sure it’s stuff you like, and wouldn’t mind repeating two or three days a week, to boot. Unfussy, healthy, easily-pulled-together mainstays like bread, sandwich fillings, spreads, salads, fruits, and vegetables are all solid bets. Be sure to ease up on the pre-packaged frozen meals, though (Weight Watchers, Lean Cuisine, etc.). They cost more, both in cash and sodium intake, than a self-created lunch.

Prep the night before. No one wants to wake 20 minutes early so they can half-assedly slap a bologna sandwich together before the 8am train. Assembling an simple lunch in the evening will let you sleep longer AND increase the likelihood of a meal you’ll enjoy. If those nightly 10 minutes are too inconvenient, you can always …

Prep in bulk. Clever Dude and The Simple Dollar have the best posts I’ve seen about constructing meals en masse, but there are tons – TONS – of similar strategies online. (That I’m having problems finding, naturally. Help?) You can knock out a week’s lunches in a single Sunday half-hour, then freeze or refrigerate them until needed.

Don’t settle for sandwiches. Variety is the spice of lunch. Any burgeoning brown bagger will get sick (real fast) of PB&Js repeated ad nauseum, so try to change the menu up whenever you can. Portable chow like soups, bento boxes, burritos, make-your-own pizzas, and especially leftovers are vital to making BYOL more palatable. (See the attached list below for more ideas.) Speaking of…

Use leftovers wisely. Once The Boyfriend boarded the Brown Bag train (it’s right next to Soul Train), planning lunches became a little tougher. I solved a lot of that by making double the dinner servings and packing half away for Next Day Consumption. The leftovers add a ton of nutritionally-sound variety AND it’s infinitely thrifty, since I’m not creating entirely new meals.

Pack snacks. Ahhh … the four o’clock coma. Fellow desk jockeys, you know what I’m talking about: that mid-afternoon lull in brain activity where work takes second priority to napping on your keyboard. To battle the snooze, I try to pack one or two light, portable snacks per day. Fruit is ideal for this, but crackers, hummus, vegetables, popcorn, and nuts should be enough keep you from raiding the vending machines. Avoid the 100-calorie packs, though, as they are the biggest ripoff, ever.

Invest in reusable lunchboxes and utensils. Seriously, the waste created by Chinese takeout lunches could fill an entire office in about two months. Why do that to Earth when carrying environmentally-sound meal packaging can make a gigantic dent in your garbage without costing a fortune? Personally, I use thoroughly-cleaned Parmesan containers. (That is, until they A) break, B) are broken, or C) steal off to form their own secret Container Colony.)

With that, it’s on to the lunch ideas themselves. Each "#" is a different post full of suggestions, from DIY sushi to star-shaped turkey clubs. Readers and fellow bloggers, if you have any favorite articles or comment threads please pass 'em along. I’ll add below, and together we can create THE master lunch database.

Ask Metafilter: #1, #2, and #3

Chow: #1, #2, #3, and #4

Clever Dude: #1 and #2

Dollar Stretcher: #1

Fabulous Foods: #1

Global Gourmet: #1

Just Bento: #1 (see whole blog)

Lunch in a Box: #1 (see whole blog) #1

Serious Eats: #1, #2, #3, #4, and #5

The Simple Dollar: #1, and #2

WebMD: #1

Weight Watchers: #1

Wise Bread: #1

Yahoo Answers: #1

Zen Habits: #1

And that's it! Happy lunching, everybody!

(Photos courtesy of Flickr members stelladoll7 and luckysundae.)


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