What’s in the Box? Creative and Cheap Packed Lunch Ideas
Ever ask yourself why cafe sandwiches are so expensive? Or why noodle dishes at restaurants are $13 when a pack of dry spaghetti costs 99 cents and is 7 servings? Well, you should!
Going out to lunch every day at work adds up fast, but you don’t have to fast to keep money in your pocket. Before we get into my favorite packed lunches, there are a few main tenants to keep in mind while planning for your meals:
- Buy in bulk: If you know you’re going to be making a meal over and over again, it’s best to buy materials in bulk. It’s far more cost-effective and means you’ll go to the store less as well.
- Cook in batches: If you love a meal, make more than one. You can either do this by cooking all your meals for the week on a Sunday or cook extra servings of your dinner to eat the next few days.
- Make it quick: If your favorite meals take too long to cook, you’ll give up on the task because it’s not sustainable. Keep things fast and easy for your lunch prep. Or use a slow cooker — throw in all of your ingredients in a pot and leave them alone.
Now that we know what we’re looking for, grab your grocery list and listen up, because lunch is about to get a lot more funding friendly while still being tasty as heck with these four recipes.
Those Summer Bites
Making cheap, healthy lunches is even easier in the spring and summer — which means fruit and veggies are the best they’ll ever taste, and cheaper than the off-season. My all-time favorite go-to lunch is easy, tasty, and rather affordable. It’s a Caprese salad.
Here’s how it goes:
- Cut up baby tomatoes in half, or slice up a big beefsteak tomato.
- Cut up small chunks of mozzarella.
- Slice up some basil. Or you can just tear it up, easy peasy.
- Put it all together. Throw olive oil and vinegar in that mess.
Presto, a traditional Italian meal that’s fresh and light so that you won’t feel sleepy after your lunch break, but filling enough that you don’t need to snack after. If you want it fancier? Add arugula. Hardier? Throw it in a baguette.
You Buddha Believe It
This is the cheapest meal-trick of all but has a lot of opportunity for creativity. It’s simply a combination of the following:
- Grains: Rice, Quinua, Orzo, etc.
- Veggies: Roasted roots and tubers, leafy greens, raw tomatoes, etc.
- Sauce: Tahini, Olive Oil, aioli, you name it!
Boom, you’ve got a Buddha Bowl! My favorite combination for this is:
- Jasmine Rice: Buy in bulk, babies. I get 25 pounds of rice for $35 dollars.
- Roasted Potatoes: Also ridiculously inexpensive.
- Mushrooms or Avocados: If you buy in bins, bulk or bargains, they’re more affordable.
- Green Goddess Sauce from TJs: Get that avocado flavor without that avocado cost!
Sometimes I throw in lettuce, like a handful of arugula, to add some extra fresh crunch to my bowl, but really the most important rule to the Buddha Bowl is that you experiment! Find your favorite mix, then find a new one after that.
Banh Mi, Bon Appetit
Sandwiches don’t have to be boring. Throw away those cold cuts (well actually, eat them, but don’t buy them again) and get ready for the best sandwich you’ve had in your life: the Banh Mi. A fusion of Vietnamese and French flavors, the Banh Mi is hardy, cheap, and flavorful.
You can make Bahn Mi a fancy affair but when I’m in a hurry or am exhausted the night before work prepping for lunch, getting things done quickly and easily are the most important thing to me. Here’s the deal:
- Peel one carrot.
- Chop half a cucumber.
- Grab half a handful of cilantro.
- Put your Baguette in the oven (350 degrees Fahrenheit).
- Take your protein of choice and throw it on the pan. Personally, I slice extra firm tofu, batter it in corn starch, and cook it in a pan of sizzling peanut oil. Or you can fry an egg in the protein’s place. Yum!
- Take the protein off of the pan, and the baguette out of the oven.
- Slather the inside of the baguette in mayo, place the proteins in, and throw the veggies on top!
Whole Lotta Enchilada
One pot to rule them all, the slow-cooker enchilada is where your spicy dreams come true. This meal doesn’t come from my back-pocket by noodling around in the kitchen. It comes from my one true love, Creme de le Crumb.
This dish only takes 30 minutes to make and has a ridiculous amount of leftovers. With the easiest prep imaginable, and only one bowl to clean up after you cook, making this meal for dinner and storing the leftovers is a sure-fire way to start of the workweek right. Bonus? Reheating it only makes it taste better.
Bonus tip: Cooking easy meals makes preparing for your next day’s lunch easy, but so do friends, podcasts and music. Invited a friend over to help you cook for the workweek, blast your favorite tunes, or get up to date with your favorite podcasts or audiobook. Food is fun!