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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Our frugal lunchbox: sandwiches

We all know that brown bagging lunch can save money. In high school, a cafeteria lunch would cost my daughters $3.75 per meal. For 180 school days, that would come to $675 per daughter or $1350 for 1 year, for the two of them to buy their lunches. Our homemade lunches (consisting of a sandwich, piece of fruit, homemade cookies, water or lemonade) cost about 40-55 cents per lunch, or $72-99 for 180 lunches, or $144-198 for a year's school lunches. Brown bagging school lunches saves us well over $1000 a year.

For sandwiches, we do the traditional pbj. But we also have a couple of other frugal favorites -- homemade sunflower seed butter and jelly, homemade yogurt cheese and dried cranberries, and a veggie sandwich, featuring garbanzo bean spread on whole wheat bread. All of these sandwiches can be made the afternoon before, kept in the fridge overnight, and can remain outside the refrigerator for a few hours, the day they're eaten, with no ill-effects.

Here's my recipe for garbanzo bean spread, if you'd like to give it a try.

Garbanzo Bean Spread (yields just over 2 cups of spread, at a cost of about $1.25-$1.40)
2 (30 mL) tablespoons oil
1/2 onion, chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2  - 3/4 green pepper, chopped
1/2 cup (120 mL)  pasta/pizza sauce
1/2 teaspoon (2.5 mL)  dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon (1.25 mL)  black pepper
dash red pepper flakes
2  1/2 cups (about 410 g)  cooked garbanzo beans
1 tablespoon (15 mL)  minced basil, fresh
1/2 - 1 (2.5 to 5 mL)  teaspoon salt

Add oil to skillet, saute onion, garlic and green pepper, until translucent. Add pasta/pizza sauce, herbs and peppers, but not salt or basil. Simmer for 8-10 minutes. Puree garbanzo beans in a food processor. Add vegetable and tomato sauce mixture, puree. Add basil, and salt, according to taste, and pulse food processor to blend.

For sandwiches, we like to spread whole wheat bread with a bit of butter or margarine, then top with garbanzo spread, lettuce, thin sliced onions, tomatoes and/or pickles slices. This also makes a great filling for pocket bread.

Do you brown bag it to lunch? Does your family have a favorite sandwich filling?

For more on what to put into a frugal lunchbox, see The frugal lunchbox:alternative to potato chips and for a recipe for lunchbox cookies here's a freezer recipe that gives you 4 kinds from 1 dough.

If you'd like to sew a lunch tote, give this article a read


  1. My daughter qualifies for free lunches here, but I brown bag it for lunch when I sub. Some of my favorite sandwiches are PB & J, Ham & Cheese, and Roast Beef if I have that on hand. Sometimes I don't even need a sandwich and cheese and crackers will make a nice lunch. I also like to carry a pouch of tuna or salmon in my sub bag in case I am called in to work at the last minute then I still have something that I can eat. You can definitely save a lot of money by brown bagging your own lunch as you've shown, Lili. Your sunflower seed butter sounds especially delicious. :)

    1. Hi Belinda,
      That is very smart of you, to keep a pouch of tuna or salmon in your bag, as a just in case provision. With your work schedule a job could come up at the last minute, and you wouldn't want to be caught out with nothing to eat at lunchtime! But I also think that idea could benefit many other people. Mornings are such a rush in most households. It's easy to run out the door without your lunch!

      Since you like pbj, I'll share the "latest" according to my daughter, Julia. My girls looooove peanut butter. I bought many jars last fall, just before the huge price hike. But we ran out late April. This saddened my two girls. So when they heard me talking about the peanut crop this year, one of them did her own research. Evidently, many peanut farmers planted extra peanuts this year, just in case the crop was not as good. As it turns out the crop did well. Peanuts can take hotter temps and longer periods of draught than other crops. Sometime in October we should hear the official news on this year's peanut crop. But so far, it looks very good! And that's the latest according to Julia.

      The sunflower seed butter is good too. I priced it at Trader Joes yesterday -- $4.99 for 16 oz! Homemade is about $1.50-1.80 for 16 oz! Sunseed butter is a good alternative for schools where peanut butter is banned.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  2. One of other the reasons I give my children a packed lunch is the quality of the food provided at school. My son loves ham and ketchup (yuck). Peanut butter is not allowed in our school. I also pack cookies, fruit and carrot sticks. Working as a lunch room supervisor in my daughter's school, I am constantly amazed by the percentage of children who bring nothing but individually packed rice crispy bars, cookie bars, chips and fruit roll-ups. It must cost their family a lot of money while providing not a lot of nutrition.

    1. Hi Jessica,
      Yes, I've heard that peanut butter is banned in many schools. Some schools ban tree nuts as well. I wonder about seeds, though, like sunflower seeds, if those would be allowed in schools with both peanut and tree nut bans.

      Two years ago I was hooked on Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution. I could not believe what some parents packed in their kids lunches. One child had a bag of jelly beans for lunch! I don't understand how a parent could do that. I bet you see a lot of poor food choices, working as a lunch room supervisor.

      I have a question, since you pack ham for a sandwich filling. Yesterday, Kris asked me how I keep the lunches cool. Do you do anything special to keep you son's ham chilled? Do parents seem to use those freezer chill packs in kids lunches? Nothing like that existed when I was in school.

      Thanks for your comments!

    2. He has an insulated lunchbag so I just stick a little freezer pack in there and if I forget then his juice bottle's cold from being in the fridge so I figure it's ok. The bag's getting rather threadbare now though so I shall have to keep an eye out for a new one.

      I really enjoyed Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution. Don't get me started on flavoured milk!

    3. Since we pack our lunches the day before, I've always figured it was 39 degrees F to start the day, and would be okay until 11:30, when my kids get lunch. But I do try to err on the side of caution and pack less iffy things.

      Thanks for answering my questions!

  3. We homeschool so packing lunches isn't an issue for daughter and me...however we do pack lunches for hubby. I invested in a $19 box of plastic containers with lids and whenever possible I simply pack him lunch while I'm sitting at the supper table. He even gets me the containers out. I pop it in the frig and put it in his insulated bag in the morning.

    It is a win win for situation for all of us. We know he is eating healthier. The cost is always less. I don't have to plan separate meals and we have practically no waste now.

    On those days I don't have leftovers for him to take I do one of two things. I either pull something from the freezer (frozen squares of lasagna go over well) or we fall back on his favorite pbj and fruit.

    1. Lunches were so much easier when we homeschooled.

      That does sound like a good plan, making enough supper so that your husband has something to take into lunch. A healthier lunch, I'm sure, and much more cost-effective. Plus, I think a lot of time is wasted if you have to go out and purchase your food every day at lunch.

      Thanks for visiting!

  4. I am a 'grazer'. I like to eat small portions every 2 - 3 hours. Therefore, 'snacky' lunches work well for me. For my office job, I usually bring the following combinations:

    Apple, cheese and crackers
    Grapes, cheese and crackers
    Ham, cheese, crackers, cucumbers and Ranch dressing
    Homemade pimiento cheese spread, crackers and carrot sticks
    Banana, peanut butter and crackers
    Apple, peanut butter and crackers
    Homemade chicken salad, crackers, apple
    Cottage cheese and pineapple
    PB&J sandwich and banana
    PB&J sandwich and apple
    Homemade egg salad on toast and apple
    Homemade yogurt, apple and almonds
    Homemade yogurt, banana and almonds
    and finally...

    Leftovers from supper when I have them!

    As for my children, we buy the school lunches. We live in a lower income area. School lunches are $1.75 for both my child in middle school and my teenager in high school. I know I could save a little by packing their lunches but the school lunches are decent and the kids like most of them. If they see something they don't like coming up on the menu, they ask me to pack a lunch and we do PB&J sandwiches, some fruit or veggie, along with a sweet treat and water. I am lucky we have decent school lunches at lower costs than most. My sister lives a couple of counties over from me and her kids go to a larger, city school. Lunches are $3.25 there and she has three kids so she packs their lunches and saves lots of money!


    1. Hi Angie,
      From what I hear the cost and quality of the hot lunch program really varies from one school district to the next.

      For my kids, the quality of the lunches is poor, IMO. It's a lot of hot dogs, corn dogs, and burgers and chips. When I've asked my girls if there's any salad or fruit, they always say no. I also think it's a bit expensive at $3.75 per lunch.

      I would sure like to see more schools offering a healthy lunch for a low cost.

      Thanks for your comments! (And I loved reading your list of what you take for your lunch. A bit like reading the menu suggestions in old-style cookbooks!)

    2. Hi Lili.

      Hot school lunches in our district are not perfect but I have noticed a lot of improvements in the past few years. They have added something fresh to every meal: baby carrots, carrot sticks, celery sticks, fresh broccoli and cauliflower, salads with spinach, salads with romaine, an apple, a banana, a pear or orange wedges.

      When I attended that school, we had pizza with chips. Now it's pizza with a spinach or romaine salad or carrot sticks. They also have replaced almost all desserts with fresh fruit. Every now and then, they may serve a fruit crisp as a dessert but I never see cake or cookies on the menu, as I did when I attended school.

      It is still standard school fare a lot of the time: pizza, hot dogs, hamburgers, marzetti, breaded chicken, chili, chicken noodles, salisbury steak...but at least they have added fresh fruits and veggies.

      They have added some healthier main dish items as well. I have seen whole wheat corn dogs on the menu. One day this week they had turkey sub on wheat with cheese, lettuce and tomato, fresh broccoli/cauliflower with dip, orange wedges and milk. Last week they had chicken wraps with lettuce and tomato, baby carrots/dip, an apple and milk. Not too bad for $1.75...I feel we are blessed with decent lunches for a decent price.

      In high school, they have an 'a la carte' option that my teenager utilizes frequently. Salad and a baked potato with milk and a piece of fruit are available every day instead of the regular menu, at the same price. We aren't big meat eaters, so my teenager likes that lunch.

      It sounds like your school lunches are poor quality and definitely expensive! Reading this post on your blog makes me even more appreciative of what our school district offers for $1.75 a lunch!

      I am loving reading your blog! Have a blessed day. :)


    3. Hi Angie,
      Your school lunches sound so much better than ours. All the fruit and veggies available -- that's fantastic! I'm really glad that some schools are now paying attention to nutrition for our kids. There are kids who this is there only decent meal of the day. And to have schools provide some real nutrients is so important for them. Plus it gives kids an idea of how to eat/cook for themselves someday. And for $1.75 per lunch -- I want to go there to have lunch!

      I'm glad you like the blog. And blessings to you, as well.

  5. I read an article a couple of years ago which said that it's cheaper to buy school lunches than to pack a lunch as it costs at least $2 to pack a kid's lunch. Hmmmm.

    I'm not an "all or none" person. Our school lunches are $2.10 here (elementary grades). I allow an occasional school lunch--I think lunches from home are healthier, but on the other hand, my kids are much more open to trying different foods because they have tried lunches they have seen their friends eat. When I pack lunches, I usually do PB&J or a lunchmeat/cheese sandwich, fruit or easy-to-eat veggie like carrot sticks or cherry tomatoes, and a cookie. We are also supposed to provide a mid-day snack for the kids--I try to do 3 days of a fruit and the other 2 something more "fun" like crackers and PB. I volunteer frequently and have been horrified at the "healthy snacks" some kids have. Doritos and frosted brownies are not my idea of healthy food.

    Where I really notice the cost savings is with lunches for my husband and myself for work. He typically eats leftovers or a sandwich. I am like Angie--I graze due to low blood sugar issues. This gets tricky as I work on different hospital floors and don't have a "home base", so I carry pre-packaged snack items like string cheese in a storage clipboard. Lunch at the hospital cafeteria would run me about $5-$7 for not-so-great food.

    I buy the insulated lunch bags and use cold packs.

    It's fun to read what other people do for lunches! :)

    1. Hi Kris,
      Yes, I do think buying a $2 lunch would be a savings over what many Americans buy for their kids' lunches.It could be a significant savings, for some, actually.

      Amy Dacyczn did an article something along the lines of "what not to put in your child's lunch box". It included juice boxes, prepackaged chips, fruit-flavored snacks, pudding cup, and perhaps a cheese and cracker thing, or maybe a sandwich, can't remember exactly, but it was all prepackaged foods. 4 or 5 prepackaged snacky things could easily top $3!

      I know several moms who let their kids buy lunch a couple of times a month, then pack the rest of the lunches at home. I think that is a very good compromise. The kids don't feel excluded from something other kids are doing. And it gives you and opportunity to discuss money management and nutrition with your kids (since those seem to be the two issues most brought up about school lunch programs -- cost and nutrition). It's a compromise I use with my kids when buying clothes. We buy some things in regular retail stores and other things at thrift, consignment and vintage shops. They get to see all kinds of places where things can be bought.

      My grown son is now appreciating packing a lunch from home. As he works downtown Seattle, he finds a lunch out to be pricey. Even when the group just goes out to one of the many food trucks, lunch will cost him about $10. My husband (also works downtown Seattle) has always taken lunch in from home. We did the figuring once, and for 25 years of brown bag lunches, 50 weeks/year, at $10/lunch, it would've cost $62,500 for to buy all those lunches. We figure that we have spent about $7500 for all his brown bagged lunches. That's a savings of $55,000 over that stretch of time! That's a lot of money that will go towards our kids' education/our retirement.

      It is fun to read what other people do/bring for lunches. I always enjoy reading menu plans on other sites. I don't regularly give menu plans for our family, because I always think other people would be bored with what I eat!

      Thanks for your input!

    2. I have often thought that financial gurus should encourage a $20/week plan. If you save $20/week, at the end of a year it will amount to over $1,000. Quick and understandable. It's amazing how quickly small expenses add up. For us, lunches are an easy way to cut costs. I had never done the math the way you have; $55,000 is a LOT of money.

      I don't do a weekly meal plan. I have a general idea, based on each week's sales, what I will serve, but we tend to purchase extra meat on sale and freeze it. I keep enough pantry supplies on hand to allow me to whip up a variety of meals. I kind of like the challenge of figuring out a meal based on what food is in the house. Our meal plans usually aren't exciting but it works for us. :)

      Many of the kids at school bring "Lunchables". I have purchased them a couple of times for my kids (on sale, of course!) to use as a teaching tool. We have compared nutrition labels. Neither child was very impressed with the flavor. It sated their curiosity and they learned something, too!

      I love your blog! :)

    3. And I bet you have saved a LOT of money over the years! You just haven't counted it all up (I'm geeky when it comes to math).

      I don't often do a weekly plan, either. I think we manage to waste less by planning about a day ahead at a time. I see right away what needs eating, this way. But when I'm going to be very busy, or when my kids were quite small and I was more than busy, I do/did weekly meal plans. It will keep me sane, if I'm having a terribly busy spell.

      I think it was smart to buy your kids Lunchables a couple of times, both for the teaching aspect, but also, just so they wouldn't be thinking it was this really awesome thing that they "couldn't" have, and inflate a Lunchables value in their minds. You can't always teach kids, or adults for that matter, simply by telling them some things.

      Anyways, thanks for your comments! Now, I've got to go get dinner out of the oven before it burns!

    4. Taking lunches from home to work does save so much money!

      A former co-worker in my department used to complain daily that she wanted so much to be able to stay home with her toddler instead of working. Her husband made good money and her job was one of the lower paid positions in my department.

      My office is in a smaller town with only a couple of restaurants. There is a larger town with many restaurants 10 miles away. She drove to the larger town to eat every day and spent $10 or more dollars. That was $50 - $60/week on lunches out alone. Plus gas for her SUV to drive 20 miles round trip for lunch.

      I commented to her one day that she probably wasn't actually making money by working. You should have seen the shocked look on her face.

      I broke it all down for her:

      * Her house is 20 miles from work...40 miles/day...200 miles/week in a 15 MPG SUV.

      * $50 - $60 a week spent on lunches out.

      * 20 miles/day...100 miles/week driving to eat out for lunch in a 15 MPG SUV.

      * Expensive work wardrobe...not sure how much she spent but she bought expensive clothes and shoes at the mall.

      * Almost weekly splurges on things like Yankee candles and Coach purses...just because she worked and deserved to spend some money on herself. Not sure how much she spent on these things either but it was a lot!

      Meanwhile, she wanted to be home with her toddler. She received multiple phone calls daily from her babysitter with questions/concerns about the child. It was crazy!

      She was shocked when I finally told her I didn't think she was coming out ahead by working. I think she might have been offended. I told her I didn't mean to offend and if she wanted to work, fine...but it wasn't because she HAD to.

      She pointed out to me that I work, have children and have said I miss being at home with them. I told her I actually need to work at this point due to circumstances. However, I live 5 miles from work and brown bag and eat in every day. I have a nice but modest wardrobe that I have purchased inexpensively from Kohl's clearances and thrift shops. I am very frugal and don't make frivolous purchases for things I don't need just because I work. I am actually coming out ahead financially by working! Also, my kids are middle school and high school aged and I don't have a babysitter calling me 3 times daily with issues/concerns over my children.

      We never discussed it again but it probably wasn't 2 months later that she gave her two week notice and told our boss she was going to stay home to raise her toddler. I see her every now and then and she is expecting another child and loves being at home. I'm really happy for her.

      It amazes me that some women who want to stay home with their children don't realize the hidden costs of working.

      Wow! I got off on quite a tangent from brown bagging lunches, didn't I? LOL!


    5. Hi Angie,
      It sounds like you gave that woman a real gift. Before your conversation with her, she'd never really thought this all through. And now, she has the life that she truly wants. That's a real gift.

      And you're right, a lot of people just don't figure it all out, and just assume that in all cases you're better off working. Not true. In so many instances, it is costing more money to work, especially when it's the lesser of two incomes, or doesn't provide any employer sponsored benefits, like insurance.

      Thanks for reading!

  6. We don't have any children at home any more, but my husband and I take our lunches each day. I have frozen dinner leftovers in pyrex bowls with lids, for years. He calls our freezer his "freezer deli"! I try to keep a variety of dishes in there. I usually take something fresher - a favorite for me is egg salad on cinnamon raisin bread. Few of my co-workers cook, and so they are always asking my what new "exotic" item I am bringing. Last time, it was potato salad.....:D

    1. Hi Valerie,
      A "freezer deli" is what I use for lunch! All leftovers either get packed up for the next day's lunches, or put in the freezer -- and I eat them! Egg salad on cinnamon bread, sounds interesting. Could be a new variation on our lunch repertoire!

      Exotic potato salad -- too funny. I guess it's just a sign of how few people really cook much any more!

      Thanks for commenting!

  7. You were asking about how people keep things cold in lunches. We use an insulated bag with small freezer packs. However, I am remembering what we did with my father's lunch when I was growing up. He took a lunch meat sandwich every day. We made enough for a week, and put them in the freezer. He would pull out a frozen sandwich each morning for his lunch. It would be thawed at lunchtime without spending very much time at a dangerous temperature.

    1. Hi live and learn,
      When I get really ambitious, I'll make a bunch of sandwiches for the freezer. It does save time, to do them all at once. And popping them in the freezer keeps them fresh. But I hadn't thought of them actually being the "cold pack" for the rest of the lunch, before. But they are. I'll have to remember that. That could be a good way to pack turkey sandwiches after Thanksgiving, and keep them cool enough to be in the safe zone.

      Thanks for the idea!

  8. Dumb question -- I have never cooked dried chickpeas. It took me a long time to get my hubby to eat them and I only would buy the occasional can of them. So -- if I cook the whole pound I bought can I freeze part of them? I would love to have some on hand.

    1. Hi Shara,
      Not a dumb question, as some foods don't freeze well. But, yes, you can cook and freeze the beans. I do that with all kinds of beans, so that I have them ready when I'm wanting some. Plus, it doesn't take much more than a trace of extra energy to cook the whole bag. Freeze them in quantities that you might want for a particular recipe or dish, so you're not having to chip away at a block of frozen beans.

      Thanks for the question -- I'm sure you're not the only one wondering if they can be cooked and frozen.

    2. Thanks Lili. I was thinking I would be more likely to use them more often if I had them semi

  9. I really have to try your garbanzo spread. It's one of my guilty pleasures I can eat garbanzos plain by the spoonful. Thanks for the recipe.

    1. Hi living simply free,
      I hope you like it as much as I do. I can eat this spread with a spoon. I love garbanzos on salads, marinated in a little vinegar first.

      Thanks for reading!

  10. Marmite (yeast extract) is one of our top sandwich fillings that I don't think has had a mention here (or is it just a British thing?). The slogan is 'Love it or hate it!' and we love it...with cucumber, peanut butter, tahini, cheese...

    1. Hi Sarah,
      so what does marmite taste like? Is it like vegamite? Of course I have no idea what vegamite tastes like either, LOL, but they sound similar! And do you put the marmite with the cucumber and peanut butter and tahini and cheese? Inquiring minds want to know.

      Thanks for reading! (And adding something so unusual -- I used to think marmite was some kind of animal, I must be thinking of something else!)

    2. Very difficult to describe the need to try it! Yes it goes with the cucumber or PB or tahini or cheese...yum! It's essentially Vitamin B12. The superfood that is marmite deserves its own blogpost, especially as I see its just been discovered that its good at fighting hospital super bugs!

    3. I didn't finish that off...I was going to say watch my blog for a post on marmite soon!

    4. Hi Sarah,
      Thanks! I'll watch for more on marmite from you.


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