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How Much I’m Really Saving By Packing My Lunch Vs. Buying It Out

I’ll admit it. My go-to lunches are extremely bougie. Quinoa? Avocados? I may live in a coastal bubble, but I know ingredients like that aren’t on the grocery lists of many of my fellow Americans.

Because last time I checked, avocados cost at least $1.50 EACH, at least where I live. And that’s with the Amazon Whole Foods takeover. Avocados are sneaky. Remember when I was horrified my husband and I bought four avocados in one weekendBye, money.

For a while, I was meal prepping the same thing for lunch every week. Cooking isn’t my bag, and I didn’t want to spend my time coming up with a new recipe every week. Let’s face it — I’m not Blue Apron over here. So, each week, I would make four quinoa bowls with sliced eggs, arugula, grape tomatoes, edamame, and sliced chicken nuggets to make it more filling. Then every morning I’d add the avocados, salt and pepper, lime juice, and olive oil.

I copied the recipe from Pret a Manger, a ubiquitous cafe for healthy fast food in the city. (Although the chicken nuggets were added by Chef Luxe :)) After paying $3.99 for a yogurt-sized (seriously, ugh) pot of quinoa for the fifth time in a row, I thought, why can’t I just make this at home?

You know, to save money. And it’s a lot healthier than the greasy $0.99 pizza slice I’d grab from around the corner from work.

But after weighing the cost of the ingredients and the time investment to make said lunches, I wondered: am I really saving much money by packing my own lunch?

So I thought it would be fun to do a little teardown comparing the costs of three of my work lunch options.

Option 1: Buying Out Every Weekday — $118 Monthly

I usually buy my lunches from Pret a Manger. (I was validated by my choice when I read that an award-winning chef loves their sandwiches.)

Half a tuna sandwich and a bag of chips there set me back a little over $5. I know I could buy chips elsewhere, but I really, really love their chips. Sometimes I’ll buy other things there, too; looking at my last couple of transactions, I’m averaging about $5.90 per lunch.

Per meal cost: $5.90
Total monthly cost: $118

Option 2: Making Bougie Quinoa Bowls + 1 Day of Eating Out — $64.48 Monthly

The seven ingredients I need for my quinoa bowls:

  • Quinoa
  • Edamame
  • Avocados
  • Eggs
  • Grape Tomatoes
  • Arugula
  • Chicken Nuggets

I buy mostly everything from Trader Joe’s:

Aside from the cost of the ingredients, there’s also the time factor. I have to spend about two hours on the weekend passively cooking and assembling everything. That’s definitely two hours I’d rather be doing something else.

Things I Need to Cook Separately:

  • Quinoa
  • Edamame
  • Eggs
  • Chicken nuggets

Then, the avocado and the sauces need to be prepped every morning for optimal freshness. Final prepped meals in their tupperwares:

Since I buy two avocados, this makes four meals. I’ll also bring a piece of fruit every day, adding an extra $1. Then I eat my last weekly meal out, which costs about $5.90.

These are the weekly costs of each item:

  • Quinoa: $1.80
  • Edamame: $0.50
  • Avocados: $4.00
  • Eggs: $1.00
  • Arugula: $0.25
  • Chicken nuggets: $1.00
  • Grape tomatoes: $0.67
  • Fruit: $1.00
  • Eating out: $5.90

Quinoa salad per meal cost: $2.30
Fruit: $1.00
Eating out: $5.90
Total weekly cost: $16.12
Total monthly cost: $64.48

Option 3: Salad Kits + 1 Day of Eating Out – $65.92

Recently, I’ve discovered these pre-made salad kits from Trader Joe’s:

At first, I was skeptical: they look kind of sad in the bag. But damn, they are surprisingly tasty! Each bag costs $3.29, and I buy one of each for variety, making up four meals. All I do is bring the bag to work, then assemble it in the kitchen. Since salads are kind of light, I’ll add chicken nuggets (are you surprised, still?) to make them more filling. Plus, I’ll bring a bag of pita chips ($1.99) to snack on for the week, and some hand fruit, which costs about $1.00 total. Then, of course, eating out on Friday, which averages $5.90.

Salad kit per meal cost: $1.65
Pita chips: $1.99

Fruit: $1.00
Eating Out: $5.90
Total monthly cost: $65.92

Lessons Learned

  • The avocado in the quinoa bowls accounts for 40% of the cost!
  • Buying the salad kits is only costing me a few dollars more than making the quinoa bowls from scratch.
  • By not eating out every day, I’m saving a little over $50 a month.
  • But when I DO bring my own lunch, that one day I buy out really ADDS UP…

The Verdict

For now, I’m going to stick with the salad kits, because they’re a good compromise between saving money, valuing my time, and eating healthy.

But in the meantime, I’m still going to troll for some more cost-effective lunches I can make myself and see if I can bring a lunch for all FIVE DAYS. For me, it’s also so important to use lunch as an easy opportunity to get in my daily greens. Otherwise, I’d be eating mostly carbs, and I’d feel tired all the time. But sometimes it feels like the cheapest lunch options are all based on rice and beans.

Or am I just unimaginative?

So friends, help me out.

Are there any healthy, tasty, and EASY recipes that don’t involve crockpots, lentils, rice, or pasta? How much are you spending on work lunches? Any good recipes to share?

The Luxe Strategist is a New Yorker saving half of her income. She chronicles her money-saving strategies on her blog.

Image via Unsplash

  • Hayley Jennings

    I’ve been meal prepping on Sundays lately and it can be time consuming. The easiest recipe I’ve been loving is turkey burgers with roasted sweet potato on the side. Cut up the sweet potato into small triangles and lay on a baking sheet. Coat with a drizzle of olive oil, salt, and pepper, and roast at 400 degrees (F) for 20 minutes. Then cook the turkey burgers in a skillet with a little olive oil and whatever seasonings you like, 5 minutes per side. Portion out the burgers and sweet potatoes, then pack a bun, some greens and a tomato slice, and you’re done! I usually buy a pack of 4 burgers so this lasts me most of a work week.

  • Piggy

    I HIGHLY recommend Budget Epicurian and Budget Bytes. Budget Bytes especially has a whole category for lunch prep, and she breaks it down by ingredient cost vs. whole meal cost. Get it, gurl.

    • Ros

      Sending Budget Bytes.

  • Anon

    Stewed tomatoes and okra over rice. It’s easy to make a huge pot, it’s cheap, especially since you can get pre-sliced frozen okra, and it’s good.

  • Ros

    Personally, the lunch that makes me happiest is a greek-ish salad – tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion, maybe some spinach, Feta, oregano, lemon-y dressing… honestly, that always makes me look forward to lunch.

    I buy the ingredients in bulk (10 meals worth of Feta at costco is 13$, and that’s the schmancy excellent feta. Otherwise we’re looking at 10$/week of veggies).

  • I’m a big fan of soups and chili. I make them on the stovetop, no crockpot needed. Yesterday I threw together a simple chili with some chopped peppers and onions, ground turkey, some canned beans and fire roasted tomatoes (choose low sodium versions and rinse the beans) and a bottle of beer. Some canned chipotle peppers adds the heat (you only need a little, freeze the rest in a ziplock to use for other recipes). The only active time is chopping the veg (which you could buy prechopped) and browning the meat. I’ll eat that for a few days this week for lunch and then, once I’m tired of it, I freeze the rest into portions (ziplock back, lay flat to freeze) to have another time. With some tortilla chips and fruit, it’s a filling and healthy lunch.

    I’ve found some great recipe ideas on Pinch of Yum

  • Lexie

    I loved those salad kits but after awhile, I got burnt out on them! I suggest mixing it up! 🙂

    • Jeremy D.

      The key for me is DEFINITELY mixing it up like you suggested. I usually buy hearts of romaine and cut them up, and I’ll make some chicken breasts every week, but then I vary the other toppings: blueberries or strawberries, different beans, sunflower seeds, sundried tomatoes, different shredded cheeses, sometimes even cocoa nibs. I find it REALLY helps me prevent that burnout of having “another dang salad today”!

      • Miss Meg

        Agreed! And I try to make my “once a week” slightly unhealthy meal something totally different- say, spaghetti bolognese, leftover tacos, a salmon and asparagus flatbread, something very un-salad-y.

  • Rebecca Ann

    I bake a 3-pack of chicken breasts (from Trader Joe’s) each Sunday, and slice them up to make them go for 4 meals. Then I’ll add some kind of vegetable – lately it’s been the Trader Joe’s (surprise!) frozen French cut green beans. I just throw them in the container still frozen. They thaw in the fridge, and it’s fine. Then I heat up the container at lunch time, and I’m good to go. I usually buy a bag of apples, too. Sometimes, I’ll put the chicken as a salad topper, instead of just plain with veggies. It’s boring, but like you, I don’t really enjoy cooking, and I’m trying to save money on getting food out.

  • Allie Cleve

    The thing that really gets me is the sushi counter at the supermarket next to my work where a little box will set me back 8€, so once a month I like to buy sushi ingredients and make a few sushi bowls to take to lunch (you basically take all sushi ingredients and chuck them into a bowl instead of spending an hour cooking) and it’s sooo good! Outside of that I’m a big fan of one pan roast veggies and any sort of one pot soup… I really hate washing up.

  • Taryn

    I am also a sucker for Pret-A-Manger. I am sad I don’t work near one anymore. They had a california sandwich with avocado, chicken, egg, tomato, and a few other things and it was my JAM. I was crushed when they switched from Pesto to a yogurt sauce and didn’t get it for 6 months out of spite. I finally bought one because I missed it so much and loved it. Man I love Pret.

  • Winterlight

    I do a lot of meat and vegetable soups with a roll and some fruit. It’s quick and filling and I don’t have to mess around. I’ve also done greek yogurt in the individual packages with a piece of string cheese, a roll, and fruit. That’s my usual summer lunch.

  • Alexis Graham

    I definitely recommend soups and casseroles. I try to make one pot recipes or things that I can bake. My go to recipes recently are ground turkey chili, chicken noodle soup, and baked ravioli. Usually takes me about 1 1/2 hours and lasts all week for me.

  • Randolph

    I too usually brown bag it during the week, and go out on Fridays. It becomes a hassle to go out every day and find something to eat. It’s a good idea to prep your lunches ahead of time, but I generally just cook extra and bring leftovers for lunch, along with a salad and some fruit. I smoked some Cornish hens and some chicken breasts Sunday, so I have chicken breast the next couple days. Had a leftover pork-chop yesterday (on the george formen, didn’t turn out.)

    As someone mentioned below freezing soup works great. I prefer leeks, potatoes, and some leftover roast meat, along with whatever vegetables happen to be in the fridge; it seems I generally have celery, carrots, and radishes. Just boil the potatoes for 20-30 minutes in some broth, and you’re good to go. Some people swear by mixing in lard for body, I’ve never tried it…

  • Christine L.

    I like to warm up some black beans, then give them a quick sautee in olive oil with black and red pepper, garlic, cumin, coriander, and a pinch of salt. Top with salsa, and whatever veggies you like. One can of beans makes 3-4 lunches and takes maybe 20 minutes to prep all 4.

  • Lava Yuki

    I’ve been bringing a packed lunch ever since I started school as a tot, and it’s helped me wonderfully in terms of saving money during my university days and now as a working adult. I prefer packed lunch more so because it’s healthy, you know there’s no funny stuff in it like all those additives, sugar, tons of salt etc. and it also saves a lot of time in that you don’t have to queue up or anything. Plus, no worry of having what you want being sold out, so I find it reduces stress as work can be hectic enough.

    In terms of financial cost, I don’t use any expensive ingredients like avocados. My lunches are usually salads with quinoa, a couple of cooked veg like courgettes, spinach and tomatoes, chickpeas, tinned tuna and flavoured with some cumin and pepper.

  • Amy Y

    I love Amy’s frozen burritos! They now have all different varieties and they only cost $2.50-$3 at target! They save me so much money. I just pop them in my lunch bag before I go to work 🙂