When it comes to listing personal vices that cost me money, there are only a few, but eating lunch out on weekdays is probably first on that list.
The financial analysis of comparing the cost of lunch out versus lunch brought from home is a staple on many personal finance blogs, with a nearly unanimous vote for the brown-bagging camp.
Rather than re-hash the financial benefits (or get into the health benefits, which I’m also very interested in), I’d like to get very practical about the kinds of things you can do to build a lasting habit of eating lunch in.
Making it practical, easy, simple and realistic was all part of the process of making this habit work for me.
“Going out” to eat for lunch could involve anything from a restaurant, whether sit-down or carry-out, to the increasingly popular “lunch restaurants” that offer upscale food at fast-food speeds (think Panera or Moe’s) or even the fast food “classics.”
If you are doing a lot of business lunch meetings, going out to eat is almost inevitable, but if it’s simply a vice like me, then you have some options.
If convenience, laziness, or the simple need to get out of the office are an issue, I recommend getting lunch from the grocery store. Many local stores in our area offer options like fresh-made sandwiches, salad bars, sushi selections, and tons of fresh fruit and vegetables to round out your lunch.
While you still pay a premium, this option is almost always cheaper than lunch anywhere else, and unless you get the fried chicken sandwich with a donut on the side, you’re limited to rather healthy options.
In our area, lunch like this can cost as little at $5-6 per day, which is not too shabby considering the savings in time. You still have to drive and get it yourself, though.
Grocery At-Home Lunch
The more “classic” option, of course, is to buy groceries and to prepare lunch at home. “Brown bagging” has become increasingly popular as a result of the economic pressure a lot of people are feeling today.
As strange as this may sound, shopping for lunch is a deliberate act. For years, we would shop for breakfast and for dinner, focusing on proteins, starches, and vegetables for dinner and cereals, milks, etc. for breakfast, while completely neglecting lunch. At best, we would get some bread and sliced ham, which made for a very poor variety in meals.
Just like you plan dinners (and many times, breakfast), you should also lay out some lunch plans for the week and buy accordingly.
What does this mean in practical terms for my grocery cart? First, I’ll make sure that I have all of the ingredients to make a simple lunch salad, including baby greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, ham, carrots and corn. For other days, I might buy some quinoa or rice and chicken breasts or pork chops that I can cook quickly at night or in the morning and reheat at work. For sandwich days, it might mean good-quality bread, cold cuts, and trimmings.
The Leftover Lunch
One of the easiest lunch strategies that works for many families is to simply take dinner leftovers from the previous night to work. Many times, we will intentionally cook excess portions of food so that they’re available for lunch the next day.
One key to making this strategy successful is to immediately put away lunch portions before you serve dinner. Very frequently, simply cooking and serving more will result in people eating more, so that just making extra food isn’t a reliable method for ensuring leftovers.
All About Equipment
A lot of your lunch options are determined (or limited) by the means you have at the office of consuming them. The simplest way of reheating lunch is the microwave, and if one isn’t available at your office, you’ll be hard-pressed to eat hot food.
On the cold side, you’ll need to have access to an office refrigerator, or stick to foods that won’t spoil in a span of 3-5 hours.
Department stores like Walmart and Target offer Thermos-like products that are designed to hold a lunch-sized portion of food and keep it hot or cold for several hours. These are not perfect, but if you don’t have any other options, they are an alternative.
If your office doesn’t provide them, I strongly suggest you invest in a bulk package of paper plates and plastic cutlery, as well as salt and pepper if you like your food freshly seasoned.
Making Lunch Prep a Habit
Whatever strategy you decide on, the most important idea to take away is to create a new habit related to your lunch. Whether it’s taking 10 minutes to prepare your lunch the night before, or getting up earlier to do it the morning of, or changing your routine to come home for lunch, it needs to be something.
Unless you modify your life in some meaningful and conscious way, your effort to save time and money on lunch will fall flat as you fall back on your old habits.