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21 ways to rock a brown-bag lunch

Use these tactics to save some serious money on your noon meal.

By Donna_Freedman Jul 11, 2012 12:51PM
Image: School lunch (© Stockbyte/SuperStock/SuperStock)Sometimes lunch out means networking, or wining and dining clients. For plenty of us, it translates to just an extra expense.

How much of an expense? Even if you could do it for $5 a pop -- unlikely these days -- that amounts to as much as $1,300 a year. What else could you do with that kind of money?

Yet I've heard the darnedest excuses for not brown-bagging, from "It takes too long to pack" (as opposed to waiting for a table at a restaurant, right?) to "Sandwiches just get too boring."

Guess what. It doesn't have to be a sandwich.

You can dine on grilled chicken Caesar salad, stir-fries, pasta or whatever you feel like packing. And if PBJs are your thing, then chow down on the goober 'n' grape daily.

Try carrying your lunch just twice a week. Even if you buy top-notch lunch fixings, you’ll still notice a difference in the bottom line.

Post continues below.

After a while, bump it up to three times a week. You don't have to do this every day, but eventually you may decide you like the idea. The following tips can help.

No-sandwich meals

1. Loving leftovers.
Reheat last night's pasta or pork chops. No microwave at the office? Buy a stainless steel thermal container to keep food hot.

2. Creating leftovers.
Set aside a portion of pasta or half a chicken breast before you serve dinner.

3. Cook a little more.
Throw an extra wedge of salmon on the grill, or add another half-cup of dry beans to your next batch of chili.

4. Cook a lot
more. Try batch cooking one weekend a month. Put some of it into small containers instead of freezing the whole lasagna.

5. Salads with heft. Lentils or pasta, plus vinaigrette and whatever vegetables you have on hand make light, healthy meals.

6. Go European.
Good crackers or bread, plus cheese and fruit makes for a perfectly nice lunch.

7. Go Middle Eastern.
Hummus and baba ghanoush are filling but not too heavy.

8. Have some backup.
Keep one or two nonperishables at work: peanut butter, jelly, canned soup, crackers or shelf-stable entrees. Even those prefab tuna or ham salad kits are cheaper than going out if you forget your lunch.

But if you like sandwiches . . .
9. Vary your breads.
Tuna tastes different on an onion roll than on white bread. Pita breads are fun to eat. Corned beef belongs on rye; it just does.

10. Shop the bakery outlet.
The variety can be pretty amazing, and at those prices, you can afford to experiment with a flavor you've never tried.

11. Roll with it.
Spread sandwich makings on a tortilla, roll it up and slice it into pinwheels.

12. Schmear it.
Bagels with cream cheese (plain or flavored) are real rib-stickers. In the winter, enjoy them with tomato or vegetable soup.

13. Add bacon.
A little bacon makes just about everything better. Even just a few crumbles completely changes a sandwich's identity.

14. PBJs revisited
. Try almond, soy or multi-nut butter (I'm fond of one called Nuttzo, including the peanut-free variety). If you like peanut butter and banana sandwiches, make them on hot-dog rolls.

A little advance work

Even just an hour on Sunday can set you up for the rest of the week.

15. Veggie bites.
Roast vegetables in the slow cooker or toaster oven and marinate them overnight. Serve in sandwiches or add to those lentil or pasta salads.

16. Fruit fest.
Wash apples, grapes or whatever fruit you like and keep it in the "lunch" section of the refrigerator. Mix a fruit salad and put it into small containers.

17. Salad days.
Wash enough greens for a few days and add any other fixings you like (peppers, radishes, mushrooms, grape tomatoes). On a hot day, a cool green salad might be enough lunch.

18. Think beyond chips.
Cut up a few days' worth of carrots, celery or cucumbers for a nice bit of crunch.

19. Easy protein.
Keep a few hard-boiled eggs on hand, to make sandwiches or to add to those salads.

20. Sweet stuff.
Make a batch of gelatin, pudding or yogurt on Sunday and ladle it into small containers.

21. Cool lunches.
No workplace fridge? Freeze a bottle of water to pack in an insulated lunch bag. (I found one in the free box at a yard sale.) Your food stays safely chilled and you have something to drink with the meal.

How often do you brown-bag it? Got any tips to share?

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Jul 12, 2012 10:17AM
I work in a small office and there are many places where I could go grab stuff to eat and drink nearby. My office did not have a frig so I was spending a lot of money by going out. Then one day I asked my boss if I bought a small dorm size fridge could I put it in the break room at the office. Not only did he say yes he also had me reimbursed for it. Just doing that one thing has saved me thousands of dollars a year because now I can buy a few of the extras and just take them to work and use them when I want without having to always remember to bring the items from home everyday.
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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.