Buying lunch every day can put a serious dent in the household budget. If each noontime meal costs $6 during the workweek, the tab hits close to $1,500 over the course of a year. But a little planning can yield dramatic savings. Preparing lunch at home in bulk at the start of each week easily pares the lunch bill by half. (For a more precise estimate of potential savings, use Bankrate's lunch savings calculator.) Moreover, a brown-bag lunch provides control over portion size and ingredients. Overall, a win for your wallet, waistline, and health. In honor of National Pack Your Lunch Day on March 10, here are 12 ideas for budget-friendly school or workday lunches.
CHICKPEA, CHERRY TOMATO, AND FETA SALAD
This salad is a tasty and light lunch with Mediterranean flair. It requires no cooking, just some basic assembly and mixing that should take only 10 minutes. Combine equal amounts of canned (drained and rinsed) chickpeas and crumbled feta, double the amount of cut-up cherry tomatoes, a big squirt of lemon juice, a splash of olive oil, a pinch of dried oregano, and salt and pepper. This recipe is easy to scale for multiple servings.
COLD SESAME NOODLES
Fans of Chinese takeout will dig into this cheap brown-bag lunch with relish. The necessary ingredients include Chinese egg noodles (spaghetti will do), sesame oil, soy sauce, Chinese rice vinegar and sesame paste (tahini will do), peanut butter, sugar, grated ginger, fresh garlic, and cucumber and carrot sticks. Make enough for several lunches throughout the week. Leftover chicken from dinner? Shred up a piece and add for extra protein.
THREE BEAN AND BEEF CHILI
This hearty homemade lunch is a good option for the winter months. Cooking a pot of chili on a lazy Sunday afternoon may take longer than slapping together a sandwich or a salad, but the payoff is well worth it. Different combinations of beans and seasonings make for endless variety. Portion out servings in reusable containers and freeze several for future lunches.
CHICKEN FRIED RICE
Enjoy a filling and tasty brown-bag meal made with pantry staples. The base of this dish is cold, leftover rice enhanced with cooked chicken and egg, sautéed onion and garlic, chopped scallion, and soy sauce. Tip: Many low-cost rice recipes can be easily adapted to lunchtime fare.
A schoolyard classic that's just as satisfying to the adult palate, tuna salad requires little kitchen know-how. Open a can and drain the liquid, mash in a bowl with a hard-boiled egg, a bit of minced onion and celery or maybe some sweet relish, a squirt of lemon juice, and a tablespoon or two of mayonnaise. Sandwich between two slices of a favorite bread or pack into a container with a side of lettuce to cut the calorie count.
A tuna alternative that's also loaded with protein (and mayonnaise) is egg salad. A quick and easy egg salad requires a couple of hard-boiled eggs, lemon juice, scallions and/or a dab of Dijon mustard, and parsley. Double the egg count and you've got lunch for two -- or two days. Pack up a sandwich or accompany with crackers and celery sticks.
BEAN AND CHEESE SALAD
Beans are a cheap source of protein, come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors, and show up in all kinds of flavorful dishes. For a portable bean and cheese salad, drain and rinse a can of cannellini or white kidney beans and mix with sliced cucumber and shallot, crumbled goat cheese, lemon juice, and olive oil.
Vegetarians can get a hit of lunchtime protein with a salad built on quinoa. Prepare the grain (technically, the seeds of a grain plant) according to package directions. Mix quinoa with a minced shallot, mild vinaigrette, a small handful of minced parsley, a spoonful of dried cranberries, crumbled feta, and chopped toasted almonds. In summer, substitute fresh sweet (pitted) cherries for the dried fruit.
THREE BEAN PASTA SALAD
This picnic standby throws three beans into the mix -- canned chickpeas, pinto beans, and fresh string beans. Cook up some pasta shells and add the green beans for the last few minutes. Drain and toss with (drained and rinsed) canned beans, homemade Dijon-honey vinaigrette, and chopped scallion and celery. The salad is tasty served warm (microwave for a few seconds at work) or cool.
SUN-DRIED TOMATO SALAD
Do you love pasta? Sun-dried tomatoes give pasta salad welcome depth of flavor and texture. With black olives and capers, fresh mozzarella and cherry tomatoes, grated Parmesan, garlic, oil, and vinegar, this lunch will transport you to the Mediterranean -- if only for 30 minutes.
A basic green salad is highly customizable and serves as the basis for a healthy and inexpensive light lunch. Start with mixed greens, arugula, or spinach and add tomatoes, apple slices, dried fruits, nuts, and a favorite cheese. Round out the meal with a hard-boiled egg; a slice of whole grain bread makes it more filling.
Don't let last night's leftovers go to waste. Pack up the remains from a slow-cooker meal. Dice up a roast chicken breast or leg and mix with celery and mayonnaise for a salad, or simply slice for a sandwich. Concoct a salad using whatever leftovers are hiding in the refrigerator -- pasta, roast vegetables, olives, and fruit. Using up leftovers is the height of lunchtime frugality.