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Monday, June 23, 2014

What I pack in my husband's lunch bag that saves us money

There was a time when eating lunch in a restaurant during your work day was just unheard of. Every working person either packed a lunch to eat at noon, or was provided with lunch by their employer, if they were working in someone's home. Heading out to drop an hour's worth of wages would have seemed ridiculous to most folks.

Today, it's relatively common to grab a restaurant meal during the lunch hour. If you have money to spare, that's great. But for our family, that money we don't spend on restaurant lunches is put to better use in other areas of our budget.

So, earlier in the month, Kristen from mentioned that she had to send her husband out for lunch on a couple of occasions, as she simply didn't have any leftovers to pack for him. I totally understand where she's coming from, as we reached this point, too, several years ago. The kids get bigger and suddenly, there's nothing left from dinner to pack for lunch.

In our house, this is now compounded by not just my husband needing a lunch to take everyday, but also my two daughters. (My son gets lunch for free every day, the lucky guy!) I suspect that packing lunches for the workers in the family becomes an issue at one time or another, in other frugal families, as well. So, how have I managed this, while keeping to a small grocery budget?

I could buy bread, chips, lunch meat, fruit roll-ups, pudding cups, etc. But that would burn up a large chunk of my grocery budget and, depending on choices, may only provide marginal nutrition. Here's what I do instead.

On Sunday evenings, I scramble to put together enough for my family for lunch the next day. Often this includes, some nuts, raisins, pbj sandwich, bottle of milk, and a muffin, piece of cornbread or a biscuit. This may sound like a lot of food, but what I pack covers breakfast and lunch, as my husband and daughters are out the door before 6 AM and eat breakfast while commuting.

Batch-cooking, but for lunches instead of dinners

I used to think of batch-cooking as a dinner prep help. But I've found batch-cooking to be extremely valuable for preparing lunch items, as well.

On Monday morning, I prepare large batches of 4 to 6 items from my list below.  (I'm usually in the kitchen anyway on Monday mornings, making bread or yogurt.) I choose simple-to-make items, and spend about 2 to 3 hours total.

The bonuses with making these lunch supplies are three-fold: 1) any time anyone wants a snack, they can help themselves to these healthy and low-cost, home-cooked items, and 2) any busy night when I just can't get dinner made, I can pull together a meal in minutes using some of the lunch supplies, and 3) I use whatever is left on Friday afternoon to add to a simplified version of that night's dinner menu.

I often find that I've made more than a week's supply of some items. As I'm packing menu items for the fridge, I'll put extras into the freezer, to use for another week's lunches sometime in the future.

Remember, I only make 4 to 6 of these items, not the whole list!

One fruit -- in spring and early summer, this is usually rhubarb sauce, but may also be cut up melon, fruit salad, opening a can of pineapple, or homemade fruit gelatin cups. In late summer, we usually have a lot of fresh plums and apples for lunches. When my daughters had braces on their teeth, I would slice up apples, swish with lemon juice and put into small containers or baggies, several days worth, and keep in the fridge. Just like those packaged, sliced apple snacks, only practically free (apples from our trees).

One vegetable -- this can be cut up raw veggies, or, undressed salad greens, or, oven-roasted carrots, onions, sweet potatoes, or green beans, or, a veggie medley with zucchini, onions, garlic and tomatoes.

One grain item -- usually a rice dish, such as herbed rice, Spanish rice or Asian-style vegetable fried rice. Some weeks I make a batch of flour tortillas, for making burritos, or a pan of cornbread, or make a batch of corn tortilla chips.

One soup  -- this item will usually have a good source of veggie protein, like lentils, split peas, or other cooked beans some of the soup stock from the freezer, and a lot of vegetables.

One main dish salad -- in warmer weather, I'll prepare either a pasta and veggie salad (w/lentils or beans) or a tabbouleh-type salad with grains, beans and veggies.

One treat item -- this is usually something like muffins, or, a loaf of banana bread, or, a batch of tapioca, rice pudding or custard.

One simple, low-cost protein item -- refried beans or a bean-based spread or dip, or boiled eggs. These can be eaten, as is, or in a sandwich or burrito, or with crackers, tortilla chips or raw veggies.

A small pot of cream cheese spread -- simply softened cream cheese blended with herbs from the garden (chives, parsley, basil) and some chopped olives, or, softened cream cheese blended with dried fruit or crushed, canned pineapple. I may also pick up a box of crackers from the dollar store, or make a batch of crostini, if time allows.

One quick to assemble casserole -- often this uses the odds and ends from the fridge and freezer. It can be as simple as cooked pasta, chopped canned tomatoes, Italian herbs and topped with grated cheese. I bake this in a small baking dish, for about 10 minutes to melt the cheese. Family members cut squares of the casserole and put into containers.

One batch of smoothies to freeze -- I make a pitcher of protein smoothies, using milk, peanut butter, banana, cocoa powder or berries, vanilla extract, sweetening if desired, and rolled oats (I use the recipe for a weight-gain shake one of my daughters was drinking several days per week, only I now pour into smaller containers). I pour into 6 ounce containers and freeze. These can be grabbed from the freezer on the way out the door, and eaten semi-frozen with a spoon while commuting.

Every week I choose different items, so lunches never become hum-drum. Last week, it was lentil-vegetable soup, herbed rice, refried beans, roasted carrots and rhubarb sauce. I made a batch of flour tortillas later in the week, for do-it-yourself burritos for Thursday and Friday lunches. This week, it's fruit gelatin cups (creamy rhubarb jello),  a pasta-tomato-chicken-cheese casserole, a tabbouleh-style salad, carrot sticks and sour cream-herb dip, kale-ham-cheese muffins, and I'll open a can of pineapple.

In the mornings, family members chose the items they want and we work together to scoop into containers. They may also make a pbj sandwich, grab some yogurt, or a handful of raisins -- it's up to them. But the above items give variety to make lunches interesting for the week, hit the major food groups (whole grains, protein, fruit and vegetables) and are very low-cost to make. I estimate that I save about $20 to $25 per week preparing these items, instead of buying typical lunch fixins'.

I do have to add, all of my kids (and husband, too) are adults and have more mature tastes. Many of the items that I now prepare would not have been huge hits with the kids when they were, well, kids.

(And just an FYI -- Kristen from did say she now tries to have back-up lunch ideas/items for when there are no leftovers in her house. She didn't give details, but I'm sure she's come up with some awesome lunch ideas.)


  1. Such great lunch ideas! I've always prepared dinners with the idea that leftovers would be my husband's lunches. He doesn't eat out except on very rare occasions. Now that one of my daughters is also out in the work force she does the same thing. She will also buy various ingredients (fruit, tortilla wraps, etc) of her own choosing to make her own lunches ahead of time. And that saves a lot of money over eating at a restaurant. Right now she's saving for a car so she's pinching her pennies as well. Still, your idea of making batch lunches would save so much more. Thanks so much for sharing.

    1. Hi Linda,
      Thank you. It's what's been working for us for a while. I imagine some year, when we're empty-nesters, we'll have leftovers again!
      Brown-bagging does save an incredible amount of money. Your daughter will have her car saved for in no time!

  2. Brilliant, girl! Just what we have come to expect from Lili!

    1. HI Connie,
      Thank you! I was just on your blog, trying to leave a comment and my computer wouldn't let me. I'll send an email to your address and see what happens. (Frustrating computer problems!)

  3. Now that my son is getting older, I find that my old lunch standby of sandwich/fruit or veggie/treat doesn't cut it anymore--you have some good ideas for supplemental items. I'm sure I'll be referring back to this post as my kids get older. I'm glad I'm not the only mom who goes heavy on raisins--they are quick to eat and don't take up much space and I don't have to worry about using them before they go bad. :) One of the challenges I have when packing my kid's lunches is that their lunch breaks are very short, so the food I pack has to be quick-to-consume.

    1. HI Kris,
      That's a problem for us as well. One of my daughters simply can't eat an entire lunch in a short time period. In high school this was much more of a problem. Now in university she can nibble on stuff in class.And during the summer, at work, she gets a morning and afternoon break, in addition to lunch. But still, she's often eating "lunch" on the bus coming home at night.

      Some foods do seem to be easier to eat quickly, like pizza or breakfast cookies. And protein shakes seem to work for us. When my daughter was needing to gain weight rapidly, I could make a 600 calorie shake for her and put in a thermos for her to drink while commuting.

      We love those raisins! I buy a 2-lb bag every month. They fill the gap when we're out of other fruit items. And they're sweet, so we'll reach for them instead of sugary items.

      Good luck finding items to add to your son's lunches this fall!

  4. I had just thought about asking you about this very topic. Our situation is a bit different, with the five kids home for all their meals, but I still run out of healthy, inepensive, and simple lunch ideas to feed this clan. The dinner leftovers usually go with my hubby to work as his lunch (and dinner twice a week when he has his night classes), leaving us to figure out our lunches here at home. A few dinner meals I can stretch for us to all have a lunch out of, but often that would entail cooking much extra meat which would increase the cost. Maybe I could employ some of your ideas here at home to simplify a bit. I don't want to spend a lot of time cooking at lunchtime as we're simply taking a lunch break before finishing our homeschool day. Thanks for sharing them!

    1. Hi Cat,
      I feel the same way about needing to cook midday. I'm usually busy with other things, and taking time out to cook for every lunch, is a nuisance, and buying the traditional lunch makings is expensive.

      Now it's just me at home during the day, but I use some of the batch-cooked lunch items that I prepare for my husband and daughters, too. It works for me, as it ensures that I eat something nutritious midday.

      Good luck finding a solution that fits your lifestyle and budget!

  5. Good suggestions as always. However, no need for much variety here. My husband finds what he likes and takes it over and over again for months and years. For a long time it was oatmeal with raisins and some yogurt. Now, it is a couple of fruits cut up, yogurt, cheese and tomato juice. Of course, all of this saves money, but what he likes best is that he can eat these things at his desk throughout the day while he is working. That way, he can exercise during his lunch break.

    I also eat while I'm working and try to have food that are easy to eat without any fuss. However, I like more variety than my husband does.

    1. Hi live and learn,
      You know, my brother can eat the exact same lunch day after day. And one of my kids would happily eat the same pbj day after day. I need more variety, otherwise I'll stop eating the healthier stuff, and begin on cookies and anything else sweet that I can find. Mostly, I need items ready to put on a plate.

      Sounds like your husband has found a way to get his exercise in and not miss out on lunch.

  6. I totally agree... batch cooking is a concept that can be applied to all meals in many, many situations! Back when I was still running the music school my regular working schedule was 2-10pm, and I very quickly grew tired of never having a "real" dinner. So I would batch cook all sorts of things and freeze them in meal-sized containers. I had a constantly rotating variety of things to choose from, so as I headed out the door each day all I had to do was grab something from the freezer. It worked great even for stuff designed to eat at room temps because it would defrost in my bag throughout the evening.

    But even now that I "work" from home, I still rely heavily on batch cooking techniques because I'd go nuts if I had to cook every day! I try to make sure that my fridge is well stocked with a variety of mix & match options so I can toss a meal together quickly without getting bored. I'll boil up a big pot of rice or pasta, roast several pounds of chicken, pre-cook pots of beans, make up salads that keep like coleslaw, bean salad or chop salad etc. Having that sort of thing on hand makes it really easy to throw a meal together in 10 minutes or less. I generally just saute some veggies, toss in the protein and carb du jour, season with whatever sauces or spices I'm in the mood for, and voila! Dinner (or lunch) is served! Sometimes it gets a bit like a crazy potluck dinner, but I don't mind having Mexican, Italian and Chinese food on the same plate! :-)

    1. Hi Cat,
      I love a crazy potluck! I like variety on my plate.

      Yeah, I understand how cooking for one could be a real drag, day after day, if you were starting from scratch with each meal. I'm having a hard time remembering what I used to eat when I was single. But I'm guessing that I didn't cook every night!

  7. My daughter, like your son, gets free lunch, so that helps a great deal. I tend to eat salads at lunch time and usually top them with some sort of bean salad that I have in the fridge. I try to make enough on Sunday to last the whole week, but am not always successful in that department. lol

    1. Hi Belinda,
      It's such a daily time-saver, isn't it, to have made up your salad items at the beginning of each week? And there's no thought of buying lunch, when you know you have something all made up already. Good job!

  8. What a fantastic Idea! I usually prepare for the lunch the evening before. Everyone at work always wants to know what I have while they stare at their dull sandwich. My oldest daughter is going to high school in september and she will be taking lunch with her. I already made snacks for school in little cotton bags (home made fruit roll ups, nuts etc) I think this is a great idea and I will sure going to try it!

    1. Hi Maria,
      As our budget has tightened, I have found that we eat a much more interesting diet. Plus, being a more varied diet, I think it is likely more healthful.
      I'm sure your lunches are wonderful and the envy of your work-mates!

    2. I experienced that as well: a way more varied and interesting diet. I printed your ideas today at work and I am going to get this idea going! I will write our favorite recipes and give it a go after our 'holiday' (visiting my parents for 2 weeks). They live very close to a big city so we annually buy products we can't buy here (miso paste, sushi rice, tahin, some type of beans, polenta etc). I always look forward to this. Visiting my parents, my old home town, the intercultural shops and products and refilling my pantry :)

    3. I hope you have a wonderful time away, Maria!


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