Lunch on the Cheap
Buying lunch on the go may be fast and easy, but it can also be a huge money waster for Americans on a budget. After all, in some cities buying a sandwich, drink and bag of chips can cost $12 or more, which can add up quickly week after week.
Preparing your own lunch is a great way to keep more money in your pocket, but what if you’re not into cooking and the microwave is your go-to kitchen appliance? And do you really want to add another task to your day just to save a few dollars?
Luckily, there are ways to make your own lunch without putting a lot of effort into the preparation. Here are tips from celebrity chefs and food experts on how to create easy, tasty lunches for less than $10.
Photo Credit: Meneer Zjeroen
Stock Up on Lunch Essentials
No need to make extra trips to your grocery store for your homemade lunches – to save time, stock up on the lunch-making essentials during your usual weekly grocery store trip. This way, you’re always prepared to whip up even the simplest dishes.
Chad Sarno, chef for Health Starts Here, Whole Foods Market’s healthy eating program, suggests having the following items in your refrigerator and cabinets at all times to make the perfect lunch:
Beans: Canned or dried beans are affordable and versatile.
Brown rice: It takes just a couple of minutes in the microwave to prepare before serving.
Nuts and seeds: Almonds, cashews and toasted sunflowers with some dried fruit make a delicious and quick pick-me-up snack.
Whole-wheat wraps: They’re healthier than regular wraps and you can fill them with anything you want.
Canned tomatoes: Combine with some caramelized onion, garlic, chili pepper and a handful of Italian herbs for a quick and cheap pasta sauce.
Veggies: Having fresh veggies on hand is a must when it’s time to throw together a quick, easy and healthy meal. If you know you will not use them all, chop them up and freeze in plastic bags for later in the week. You can also buy frozen veggies for a great value.
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Buy in Bulk
A great way to save money is to buy lunch essentials in large quantities, says Andrea Woroch, consumer savings expert at Kinoli.
“Tuna is a cheap and easy-to-make for lunch,” Woroch says. “I recommend buying tuna in bulk from warehouse stores like Costco since there is no expiration date. Prices at grocery stores are expensive for brand-name tuna.”
Woroch says you may want to add some veggies for flavor. “To keep the meal prep time down, prepare two or three cans and save the extra in a food storage container. The tuna salad should last a few days in the fridge.”
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Do Prep Work Ahead of Time
Cooking can be time-consuming, and the last thing we want to do is add another task to our to-do lists.
Luckily, Nikki Cascone, contestant on Season 4 of Bravo’s Top Chef, says there are plenty of ways to reduce cooking time simply by doing some prep work in advance. “Cut small amounts of fresh vegetables and store them in containers,” she suggests. “Start with grape tomatoes, red onion, cucumbers, carrots, cauliflower florets and green beans.”
What about dressing for a salad? “Another thing I always have in the fridge is my favorite vinaigrette, which I make once a month with white balsamic, shallots, a touch of agave and olive oil. I can always grab some when I’m in a hurry and don't have time to dress my salad,” Cascone says.
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Bring Your Own Beverages
You definitely want to avoid going to the cafeteria or local deli and spending $4 on a fancy iced tea or a bottle of water that looks like an art piece that belongs at an auction house.
Instead, make your own coffee and steer clear of disposable water bottles.
“Bring your own reusable water bottle to work and fill it up at the office cooler before heading to lunch,” Woroch says.
After all, many offices have spring water machines, so you don’t necessarily have to fill the bottle up with tap water.
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Avoid Soggy Sandwiches
It’s a common scenario for those who pack a sandwich for work the night before: You refrigerate it at home, then store it in the office fridge at work the next morning, only to find the sandwich soggy come lunchtime.
Of course, you don’t want to spend money making a sandwich the night before, only to have to run to the café the next day since the one you made turned out to be soggy and uneatable.
How can you avoid this? “One rule of thumb is to never place tomatoes directly on the cheese – the juice from the tomatoes will make the cheese soft and cause the bread to become soggy,” says Jill Houk, a chef for Hillshire Farm. “Instead, place tomatoes in between lettuce slices. Cucumbers are also great alternatives for lettuce.”
And if you have extra time on your lunch hour, Houk suggests bringing each ingredient of the sandwich (the bread, meat, vegetables and dressing) to work and actually making the sandwich in the office kitchen.
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Recipes for Inexpensive Wraps and Sandwiches
Forget making lunch for less than $10 – how about less than $5? Here are some healthy recipes for tasty wraps and sandwiches courtesy of Jill Waldbieser, nutrition and food editor for Women's Health:
Mozzarella, tomato and pesto sandwich
Spread two teaspoons of pesto on two slices of whole-wheat bread and top with one slice of reduced-fat mozzarella and two slices of tomato. If you have access to a microwave, this tastes great with the cheese melted.
Asian chicken lettuce wraps (recipe makes two wraps)
Whisk together 1/2 tablespoon of light mayonnaise and 3/4 teaspoon of sriracha or hot sauce.
Add 1/2 cup chunked chicken, 1/2 tablespoon of finely chopped scallions, 3/4 teaspoon of finely chopped fresh cilantro and a dash of sea salt and stir to combine. Sprinkle with 3/4 teaspoon of fresh lemon juice, stir and spoon onto center of lettuce leaves. Top with one tablespoon of bean sprouts each and wrap up.
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Healthy Salad Recipes
In addition to making sandwiches on the cheap, you can whip up healthy salads without breaking the bank. Waldbieser of Women’s Health recommends these recipes.
Quinoa, goat cheese, apple and walnut salad
Combine 1/2 cup cooked quinoa, 1/4 teaspoon of sea salt, two teaspoons of olive oil, two teaspoons of balsamic vinegar and 1/2 teaspoon of honey.
Add one tablespoon of chevre, one tablespoon fresh mint leaves, 1/4 cup chopped apple, and one tablespoon of chopped raw walnuts and toss well.
Simple salad niçoise
Top two cups of romaine lettuce with one thinly sliced Roma tomato, two ounces albacore tuna, one sliced hard-boiled egg, 1/2 cup of leftover cooked red potatoes and 1/2 tablespoon of capers.
For the vinaigrette, combine two teaspoons of red wine vinegar, 3/4 teaspoons of Dijon mustard, 1/4 teaspoon of honey and one teaspoon of extra-virgin olive oil.
Photo Credit: NatalieMaynor
Inexpensive Dessert Recipes
Who said dessert always had to be after dinner? In addition to the yummy wraps and salads mentioned earlier from Waldbieser, she offers these delicious dessert recipes you can enjoy at lunch:
Combine one small chopped apple, 1/2 tablespoon chopped pecans, 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon and one tablespoon grape juice or as needed to moisten. Cost: 97 cents
Melt one tablespoon of dark chocolate chips in the microwave for about 30 seconds. Dip 10 mini marshmallows and one graham cracker square in the chocolate to coat and let cool and harden before packing. Cost: 23 cents
Lightly mist two cups of air-popped popcorn with nonstick cooking spray, then toss with 1/4 teaspoon cayenne powder, 1/4 teaspoon paprika, 1/4 teaspoon cumin and 1/8 teaspoon salt. Cost: 15 cents.
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How to Keep Food Fresh
Freshness is key to having a great lunch, and since you’re making it yourself, here’s what Sarno had to say about keeping common lunch ingredients in the freshest and tastiest state.
Beans: “Once they’re cooked, I like to keep them in airtight glass containers in the refrigerator so they can last for several days and be used in different dishes. I prefer to store in glass, not plastic, especially more acidic dishes such as ones with tomato sauce.”
Lettuce and herbs: “I usually keep lettuces and any fresh herbs wrapped in a damp paper towel or dish towel to maintain crispness and freshness.”
Photo Credit: Rubbermaid Products
Helpful Smartphone Apps
You probably wouldn’t associate your iPhone with lunch, but these days you can relate the smartphone to just about anything. Here are some of our favorite apps when it comes to making lunch:
Harvest – Select the Best Produce: Chances are fruits and vegetables will be the main ingredients in your lunch, and since you’re making it yourself, why not pick the best produce? That’s what this app helps you do by providing the tips and tricks for how to tell which avocadoes are the freshest or how to detect the ripest watermelons. Price: $1.99
RecipeGraze: If you like trying new dishes and experimenting with your cooking skills, the RecipeGrazer app provides access to some 400,000 recipes. Price: Free
Photo Credit: Apple.com
Scott Gamm is the founder of the personal finance website HelpSaveMyDollars.com. He has appeared on NBC’s TODAY, MSNBC, CNN, Fox Business Network, Fox News Channel, ABC News and CBS. Follow Scott on Facebook and Twitter.