One common tip for saving money (and eating healthier) is to pack your own lunch instead of eating out. Which makes sense, home cooked food is almost always cheaper than eating out. But although it’s fairly easy to get some sort of meal from your house to the office, the result isn’t always good making it hard to resist the temptation of going out. So, here’s some stuff I’ve figured out to make the whole ‘brown bagging’ thing better. Some of it’s pretty obvious, but maybe someone reading this is starting at the beginning.
Take food you like
Peanut butter sandwiches are cheap and easy, but although I could choke them down at my desk I only like peanut butter when I’m hiking or camping and trying to eat them every day would send me to the drive-thru in no time. However, if I bring in my homemade tacos I don’t miss Taco Bell at all. I also tend to crave hot meals in the year-round AC of my office, a cold cut sandwich might be easy to make but will be absolutely unappealing at lunch time.
Pack components separately when appropriate
Taking a single dish meal is convenient but can make reheating a pain when one part only needs 30 seconds but another needs 90. Also, some meals start to lose something when they’ve been assembled, for example taco shells get mushy when the filling sits inside for too long. I also like the flexibility of being able to eat part of my lunch early and save the rest later without having to reheat it too many times.
Take enough food
When I was a kid dinner was the big meal of the day and my packed lunches were fairly small. It took me a while to realize that as a grownup I like to have lunch as my main meal instead, which was why I liked the days when I went out better – I’d get a bigger serving than the little lunches I carried. When I started bringing more food it was easier to stay in.
Get a good cooler and reusable ice blocks
After my first few jobs I learned that you can never rely on the public fridge. Either it doesn’t get cleaned out and there are molds on the brink of sentience, or it gets cleaned out too often and you risk your food getting thrown away. Some places I worked had completely packed fridges and I couldn’t always find room. So far I’ve only worked one place where someone was accused of stealing food but I assume it happens in other workplaces. By carrying a cooler I avoid all that drama and the food I want to keep cool stays cool during my commute. A good cooler doesn’t have to be expensive, I think I paid $12 for mine.
Plan for food to be reheated
When I cook certain things for lunch, like hamburgers, I don’t quite cook them all the way. I do get them up to temperature for safety, but I take them off sooner than I would if I was eating them immediately. Then, when I heat them in the microwave, they finish cooking instead of drying out. When packing spaghetti, I use more sauce for much the same reason. I refuse to microwave certain things, like pizza or some fried chicken, and will plan to either eat them cold or I won’t take them at all. If my office had a toaster oven I’d have more options, but they don’t.
Keep emergency meals on hand
Unless you’re a cooking fiend, or have a stay at home spouse, or are otherwise in the habit of cooking lunches (or dinner with leftovers) on a regular basis, there’s a good chance you’ll run out of fresh meals before you’ve cooked some more. By keeping something in the freezer – home made or store bought – or pantry will keep you from having to buy something else. It’s also handy for those (rare) occasions when I cook but fail to produce something edible.
Find other ways to get out of the office
Some days I would go out to lunch not because I wanted to buy food, but just because I didn’t want to stay in the office. Other alternatives are to eat outside, take a walk, or just plain go for a drive. It can also help to just go to another part of the office away from my desk.
Give lunch its own place in the fridge, and get everything together the night before
I can barely function when I get up in the morning, so if I have to hunt around the fridge to get everything together for lunch I will forget something. Often, something important. By putting everything in one place I know exactly where to go. Which doesn’t mean I never forget the green beans that were right next to the mashed potatoes, it just happens a lot less often. This might not be an issue for morning people.
For a while after I got this job I did pretty well on the bringing lunch to work routine, but then I was focused on getting the house ready for sale, then selling my house, and I slipped until I was buying lunch almost every day. But ever since I had my knee surgery a month ago I haven’t been out to lunch once. At first it was somewhat forced, getting around was difficult and it wasn’t worth the effort to drive somewhere and try to manage a tray with crutches. Now it’s pretty much become habit again, one that I’m trying hard to maintain. Writing this post is really just a reminder of what I need to do to keep that habit going.