The Virtues of a Brown Bag Lunch: Meal Prep and Savings Advice

Since you were a kid, you’ve probably been aware that lunches can be a hassle and that it’s cheaper to bring your own from home than to go out to a restaurant (or the cafeteria). And that hasn’t changed.

If you’re looking to save money at work, it’s wise to pack a brown bag lunch rather than head to the closest fast-casual dining spot. The best way to ensure that you’ll bring your own lunch is to make one in advance. While meal prep may sound like another chore to add to your list, it’s a fantastic way to save a few dollars every day and watch the small dollar savings add up.

Mealtimes are a great opportunity to reevaluate your buying and spending habits. Here’s what you need to know about how to grocery shop effectively and why planning your meals in advance can help you save big every day of the week.

Here’s What It Costs You to Dine Out

A disclaimer: Only you know how much you spend at fast-casual restaurants and drive-through windows. There aren’t many numbers available that accurately capture how much folks pay to eat lunch during the work week, but it’s easy enough to come up with an estimate.

Say an office worker in Chicago spend an average of $9 on lunch five days a week for a total of $45. Monthly, that adds up to $180. Assuming they take about three weeks of vacation each year, that’s $2,205 over the course of a working year.

Even if these numbers don’t match up exactly to your spending habits, when you run through this exercise yourself, you’ll likely find room to save money in your lunch budget. The power of small-dollar savings is real; all you need to do to unlock it is learn how to meal prep and how to have lunch on a budget.

How To Meal Prep on a Budget

Once you’ve looked at how much money you spend on food every week and how much you spend on dining out, you’ll be well positioned to create your budget. Decide how much you can afford to spend on lunches before you choose your recipes to help yourself keep your budget on track.

It’s important that you come up with a realistic number that takes into account how much time and money you have to meal prep with. For example, maybe you want to keep one $10 fast-casual lunch in your plan for the week. That’s great! It means you only have to meal prep for four lunches, which can easily be made out of one recipe.

Whatever you choose, you’ll need to get specific to make your meal prep strategy happen. It’s a good idea to make a plan that’s more than an outline:

  • Choose your meal prep containers. If you don’t have containers, build them into your next week’s budget or try batch cooking (where you refill the same container daily).
  • Think through your cooking and cleaning cycle. If you decided to cook a large batch and store it all at home, you may find yourself doing more dishes and ferrying empties home midweek. That may make easy meal prep feel a lot more burdensome.
  • Consider ingredient prep as a half-step to help you create meals on the fly, if you don’t feel ready to commit to full meal prep. Do some chopping and measuring in advance so that you can put healthy lunches together in the morning each day before you head to work. Even this step can make adding a healthy handful of vegetables to your routine less of a hassle.

Whatever level you want to start at, getting organized is key to sticking with your program. Meal prep is all about preparation: knowing how much money you have to spend, what ingredients you’ll need to buy, and when you plan on eating the food you’ve made.

How to Pick Recipes for Meal Prep

If you’re not sure where to start looking for recipes, check out the internet. If you’re not on Pinterest yet, you may not be aware that this site is a haven for meal preppers and organization fiends.

Whether you decided to do a quick search for “easy meal prep recipes” or you’re ready to dive into all the pins you didn’t know you needed, pick recipes that …

  • Will keep throughout the week and endure the refrigeration conditions of your commute.
  • Look appealing! Find food you’ll want to look at and eat. Brights arcs of celery and red pepper look a lot more appealing midweek than slabs of roasted eggplant.
  • Are within your budget and don’t require a huge amount of additional spending. Look for ingredients you know you can buy in bulk or find places where you can substitute a pricey ingredient for an affordable option: For example, try brown rice instead of quinoa.

When you’re learning how to meal prep on a budget, remember that what’s already in your pantry is cheaper than what’s sitting on the shelf at the store. Look in your pantry before you decide what you’ll cook this week to see if there are any ingredients you could make a point of using up. This approach can also help you figure out where to start when you’re staring at pages of recipes.

How to Be a Good Grocery Shopper

Being a good grocery shopper to us means staying on budget and not getting overwhelmed by the plethora of foodstuffs available. In short: Bring a shopping list.

As a dedicated meal prepper, you can use any one of these easy meal prep planning templates to take the recipes you’ve selected and break them out into sections of the supermarket. This format will also help you get a bird’s eye view of your spending before you hit the store.

For extra small dollar savings, use your shopping list as a starting point to look for coupons before you leave the house. It’s also a great opportunity to identify items you can afford to buy and store in bulk.

How to Plan Meal Prep into Your Week

Just like making a big grocery run, meal prep inevitably takes a chunk time. Here are two approaches that will help make it more fun:

  1. Set aside time to meal prep with a team: whether it’s your partner or your kids, find helping hands to make the work go faster.
  2. Designate meal prep time as a time to come together and reflect before the week ahead.

Make meal prep a ritual to keep it from feeling like a chore that you have to fit into your busy day. Sunday night is a great time to set aside because there are typically fewer social events and obligations on that evening.

Use Healthy Meal Prep to Take Control of Your Budget

Cooking for yourself is a great way to take control of your budget and your health. You can plan healthy, delicious meals that you’ll get to look forward to throughout your work week. This food can serve as a reminder of your commitment to your health in the long-term and the love of your family who helped you chop that onion you were avoiding crying over.

It can also feel like a great relief. Meal prep takes the pressure off of what can be three major stressors:

  • Your weekly and monthly budget.
  • The challenge of getting healthy, nutritious food in the workplace.
  • Managing your time at work. If you know that you have a delicious, homemade meal waiting for you, you’ll have a great lunch break and return to your desk feeling refocused for the afternoon.

It can be a lot of work to prepare an entire week’s worth of meals all at once, so start by taking on a reasonable amount of meal prep for your schedule. If you can prepare even one healthy meal a day in advance, it will improve your health (and the health of your wallet).

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