Teardown: Am I Really Saving Money by Packing Lunches?

Am I Really Saving Money by Packing Lunch?

I’ll admit it. My go-to lunches are extremely bougie. Quinoa? Avocados? I may live in a coastal bubble, but I know ingredients like that aren’t on the grocery lists of many of my fellow Americans.

Because last time I checked avocados cost $1.50 for ONE. And that’s with the Amazon Whole Foods takeover. Avocados are sneaky. Remember when I was horrified my husband and I bought four avocados in one weekend? Bye, money.

For a while, I was meal prepping the same thing for lunch every week. Cooking isn’t my bag and I didn’t want to spend my time coming up with a new recipe every week. Let’s face it, I’m not Blue Apron over here. So, each week I would make four quinoa bowls with sliced eggs, arugula, grape tomatoes, edamame, and sliced chicken nuggets to make it more filling. Then every morning I’d add the avocados, salt and pepper, lime juice and olive oil.

I copied the recipe from Pret a Manger, a ubiquitous cafe for healthy fast food in the city. (Although the chicken nuggets were added by Chef Luxe :)) After paying $3.99 for a yogurt-sized (seriously, ugh) pot of quinoa for the fifth time in a row, I thought, why can’t I just make this at home?

You know, to save money. And it’s a lot healthier than the greasy $0.99 pizza slice I’d grab from around the corner from work.

But after weighing the cost of the ingredients and the time investment to make said lunches, I wondered: am I really saving much money by packing my own lunch?

So today I thought it would be fun to do a little teardown comparing the costs of three of my work lunch options.

Option 1: Buying Out Every Weekday – $118 Monthly

I usually buy my lunches from Pret a Manger. Then I was further validated by my choice when I read that an award-winning chef loves their sandwiches.

Half a tuna sandwich and a bag of chips sets me back a little over $5. I know I could buy chips elsewhere but I really, really love their chips. Sometimes I’ll buy other things there, so looking at my last couple of transactions, I’m averaging about $5.90 per lunch.

Per meal cost: $5.90
Total monthly cost: $118

Option 2: Making Bougie Quinoa Bowls + 1 Day of Eating Out – $64.48 Monthly

The seven ingredients I need for my quinoa bowls:

  • Quinoa
  • Edamame
  • Avocados
  • Eggs
  • Grape Tomatoes
  • Arugula
  • Chicken Nuggets

I buy mostly everything from Trader Joe’s:

Trader Joe's ingredients for my quinoa lunches

Aside from the cost of the ingredients, there’s also the time factor. I have to spend about two hours on a weekend passively cooking and assembling everything. That’s definitely two hours I’d rather be doing something else.

Things I Need to Cook Separately:

  • Quinoa
  • Edamame
  • Eggs
  • Chicken nuggets

Then the avocado and the sauces need to be prepped every morning for optimal freshness. Final prepped meals in their tupperwares:
Meal prepping quinoa, edamame, eggs, arugula, and grape tomatoes

Since I buy two avocados, this makes four meals. I’ll also bring a piece of fruit every day, adding an extra $2. Then the last meal I eat out, which costs about $5.90.

Item Weekly Cost
Quinoa $1.80
Edamame $0.50
Avocados $4.00
Eggs $1.00
Arugula $0.25
Chicken Nuggets $1.00
Grape Tomatoes $0.67
Fruit $1.00
Eating Out $5.90

Quinoa per meal cost: $2.30
Fruit: $1.00
Eating Out: $5.90
Total monthly cost: $64.48

Option 3: Salad Kits + 1 Day of Eating Out – $65.92

Recently I’ve discovered these pre-made salad kits from Trader Joe’s:
Trader Joe's Southwestern Chopped Salad and Broccoli & Kale Slaw

At first I was skeptical: they look kind of sad in the bag. But damn, they are surprisingly tasty! Each bag costs $3.29, and I buy one of each for variety, making up four meals. All I do is bring the bag to work, then assemble it in the kitchen. Since salads are kind of light, I’ll add chicken nuggets (are you surprised, yet?) to make them more filling. Plus, I’ll bring a bag of pita chips ($1.99) to snack on for the week, and some hand fruit, which costs about $1.00. Then of course, eating out on Friday, which costs $5.90.

Salad kit per meal cost: $1.65
Pita chips: $1.99

Fruit: $1.00
Eating Out: $5.90
Total monthly cost: $65.92

Lessons Learned

  • The avocado in the quinoa bowls accounts for 40% of the cost!
  • Buying the salad kits is only costing me a few dollars more than making the quinoa bowls from scratch.
  • By not eating out every day I’m saving a little over $50 a month.
  • But when I DO bring my own lunch, that one day I buy out really ADDS UP…

The Verdict

For now, I’m going to stick with the salad kits because they’re a good compromise between saving money, valuing my time and eating healthy.

But in the meantime, I’m still going to troll for some more cost-effective lunches I can make myself and see if I can bring a lunch for all FIVE DAYS. For me, it’s also so important to use lunch as an easy opportunity to get in my daily greens. Otherwise I’d be eating mostly carbs and I’d feel tired all the time. But sometimes it feels like the cheapest lunch options are all based off of rice and beans.

Or am I just unimaginative?

So friends, help me out.

Are there any healthy, tasty and EASY recipes that don’t involve crockpots, lentils, rice or pasta? How much are you spending on work lunches? Any good recipes to share?

Image: Unsplash

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  • Erin @ Reaching for FI

    The price of avocados makes me want to cry. So good, so expensive! I studied abroad in Chile during college, where you could buy a kilo of them for about $5. I didn’t know how good I had it back then!

    Not sure what I’m spending on work lunches since usually I’ll make a few things for the week and eat them for both lunch and dinner, sometimes alternating. But, here’s a recipe I’m OBSESSED with. There are beans and potatoes, but you could easily make it with quinoa instead of bulgur to cut out some of the carbs: https://www.budgetbytes.com/2017/05/sweet-potato-grain-bowls-green-tahini-sauce/. Yeah, there are avocados there (can’t escape them. So good, so expensive!), but from experience I know that this is ridiculously tasty even without them. I bet this would also be great with some greens/tomatoes thrown in, so I’m going to start using this as a base and experimenting from there.

    • So jealous you could get avocados for super cheap! I always thought if I moved to California I would try to set up my own tree in the backyard!

      Oooh, that recipe looks really good! Although I see it’s one of her more “expensive” meals, no doubt because of the avocados. I’ll try it without and see what happens. Thanks for the suggestion!

      • Erin @ Reaching for FI

        I’m not going to lie, moving to California is totally a thing I think about doing solely for the possibility of having an avocado tree in my yard! 😉

  • This is such an interesting comparison. Since I work from home, I almost always eat lunch at home (I’m not changing out of my PJs just to go buy lunch). I normally base my lunch around two things: a salad (arugula, peppers, cucumbers, protein, dressing), or half a baked potato with an egg on top plus arugula. I do prefer to make most things myself, but those salad kits sure do come in handy sometimes! We also do a ton of batch cooking, especially in the winter. So, my lunch is often what we had for dinner the night before. My slow cooker might be the most well used appliance in my kitchen!

    • I don’t know why, but whenever I’ve made my own salad it always tastes like crap. And I’m the slowest chopper ever. My husband sometimes sees me chopping and basically takes over because he can do it so much faster, heh. And yes, I used to get potatoes a lot when I was one more of a budget and basically just eat that for dinner with butter! The good old days…

      I had a stirfry today for lunch from last night’s dinner, but I’m trying to stay away from rice for lunch!

  • Mandie

    I am still trying to hack the perfect cheap, bright, healthy, easy to prepare lunch so I feel your struggle. However! As someone with a #blessed metabolism that works out a lot, buying lunch that’ll keep me going until ~7PM runs me way more than $5.90. Mine averages more like $10, so even a bougie brown bag lunch saves me money.

    • Yeah, I feel it’s an ongoing struggle. I really love the concept of 10 ingredients or less for making stuff and thought this would be perfect:
      https://minimalistbaker.com/

      But sometimes the sauce needs 10 ingredients, too!

      I feel guilt over buying lunches out so I try to make it as cheap as possible. Hence, the $5.90. I buy juuuust enough to not be hungry and then load up on dinner. I don’t consistently exercise like you, though, so that helps as well.

      “Bougie brown bag” is my new favorite phrase 🙂

  • GYM

    Yum that quinoa bowl looks really good! I usuallg make a salad for the week with a bag of spinach, almonds, cherry tomatoes, two hard boiled eggs, some avocado if it was on sale, and some balsamic vinegar and olive oil. And a banana and apple. By 3pm sometimes I would get hungry and by the time I get home I would snack on chips at home lol.

    It’s not very tasty or imaginative. Sometimes I make a cream cheese sandwich with cucumbers.

    • The quinoa bowl is pretty tasty and it makes me feel good to eat somewhat healthy for lunch. Your salad sounds really good! Maybe I need to add an extra egg to mine instead of the avocado. ha. I feel you on the getting hungry part, so I’ll always try to bring some hand fruit to supplement. I’m never stuffed, but not starving until it’s dinner time.

      Cream cheese and cucumbers is something I never thought of. Maybe it can be made fancy if you use a baguette for the bread?

  • Done by Forty

    Hardly anyone does the analysis to see if the juice is worth the squeeze. Often, it is not.

    I’m all for spending less because, hey, that’s like half the equation to winning with money. But there are actions that have a fantastic payoff and some others that have a terrible ROI. Without looking at the payout, it’s hard to know if you’re spending your limited time in the optimal places.

    • I feel like whenever you have to do work to save money you have to wonder if it’s actually worth it to you. By bringing even my bougie homemade lunch I’m saving about $600, which is not chump change to me. So I’ll continue to do it. I’m sure others have way more bragging rights on how much they spend on food, but I do value my time AND want to eat healthy-ish.

  • Alicia McElhaney

    I adore the salad kits from Trader Joe’s. They have helped me save by deterring me from buying lunches out. If you buy the teeny tiny avocados from TJ’s you can get six for $3.99 I believe. Budget Bytes does a good Sririacha tuna salad I was into for awhile. I also love to get the spreads from TJ’s (eggplant dip, etc.) and put it on naan with lots of arugula, feta and maybe chicken or egg.

    I totally struggle with lunches though. I slowed my roll and found a cheaper place to grab food but I’d like to pack more than I do.

    • I was sooo skeptical about the salad kits at first, but to me, they’re an easy win. Less work to put something together and you eat out less, like you said. I’ve seen those little avocados from TJs, but not sure why I never looked into them. I do notice the TJ avocados tend to be hard, so you have to wait a bit to actually use them. I’ll check them out again next time.

      Both of those food options sound great! Simple enough, but with an ethnic twist, they aren’t boring at all.

  • Dang, that sucks! Avocados are, like 80 cents in our area. I’d starve if they were $1.50 apiece. 😛

    The easiest lunches for us are just leftovers of our dinner. For example, we made fried rice last night for dinner and I just had it for lunch.

    My other fave recipes (that reheat well for lunch) include:

    1. Burger salad (have hamburgers for dinner and use two leftover patties in a salad with mozzarella, pepperoncinis, greens from our garden, Italian dressing, and olives).

    2. Chicken salad sandwiches (make chicken salad with any leftover chicken from dinner). You can load this with veggies, too, and use yogurt instead of mayo.

    3. Tortellini veggie soup. Suuuuch a cheap meal and loaded with veggies. You can make it even cheaper if you use rotini pasta instead of stuffed tortellini.

    4. Italian farro with asparagus, kale, and walnuts. This is a Rachel Ray recipe and it’s phenomenal.

    5. Grilled fish with a side of cucumber-tomato salad

    • EIGHT CENTS. I’m moving to where you are immediately. I wish avocados weren’t so dang tasty!

      Thanks so all of those ideas! The faro one sounds right up my alley. I forgot to mention it, but I’m never going to be one of those people that is going to wake up early and prep everything every day. So, for that reason, things like sandwiches (which will get soggy after a few days) are difficult options for me.

  • I enjoy cooking and, left on my own, I’d buy relatively bland work lunches for $10-15, so prepping generally makes sense for me. I bulk prep all my meals and select lunches from there. This week I made: beet fennel salad with sliced potato and hard-boiled egg, shakshuka, lentil/quinoa pasta with beef bolognese, and egg tacos with an eggplant corn salsa. Took about 3 hours to prep everything.

    I don’t know how carb-sensitive you are, but you can often do grain substitution or omission for a lot of typical frugal recipes (cauliflower rice for white rice, for instance). If you are okay with sweet potatoes, you can make sweet potato toasts pretty easily. Caprese, egg/chicken/tuna salad, frittatas, meat/tofu skewers are all things that take little time to make and assemble. You can also check out Mind Over Munch on YouTube. Her most recent video is on keto meal prep and she has a bunch on easy bento box lunches and budget-constrained/time-constrained prep. Various levels of expense and ease, but maybe will give you some ideas?

    (Repost since Disqus thinks I’m spam.)

    • I usually catch when stuff goes to spam and I dig it out. Disqus doesn’t like it when links are in there, but I just marked you as a “trusted user” so you should be good for the future!

      I have a lot of patience for certain things, but sadly, cooking is not one of them. Wow, your lunches sound so incredible and fab, and yet, so out of reach for someone who’s slow at cooking like me. I find that the prep part is a barrier for sure. That’s why I only do it once a week!

      I’m not super carb sensitive, but I’ve noticed when I eat heavy meals I tend to go into a food coma. So I instead like to eat lighter at lunch, even though all the articles tell you you should go heavier then. And instead of meats, I’m totally cool with swapping with tofu. I also get these fish cake thingies from Chinatown which help makes things more filling, too.

      Ugh, I just saw Mind Over Munch’s vid for a poke bowl, but that’s prob going to cost the same as what I do now. I’ll browse around her channel, though. Thanks so much for all the great ideas!

  • Emily

    I LOVE those salad kits!! Also all your talk about TJ’s chicken nuggets has convinced me to buy them. I can’t resist tasty chicken nuggets.

    • I like the chicken nuggets because I’m secretly still a kit 🙂 They cost $4.99 a bag, so if it’s in the budget then go for it!

  • So I eat PB&J or a salad with hard boiled egg every day. A rice bowl if I’m really fancy. Ha! Your lunches sound delish!

    • That’s a classic lunch! Funny, how my food tastes have turned fancy over the year. When I was in my early 20s and didn’t care about my health at all I’d grab a 99-cent bagel with cheese for lunch every single day. Then ramen noodles for dinner. Ugh.

      My lunch is delish, but when I think about having to cook 4 things separately to prepare them I start to wonder if I’m certified insane.

  • Those quinoa lunch kits look amazing, but I could see the prep being a little more high maintenance than you’d like. When I used to get up 15 minutes before I needed to leave the house, prepping the sauces morning of would have been impossible. I used to do Rice + Sauteed Spinach + Tilapia filets for lunch all prepped on Sunday night, though the tilapia would get kind of fishy by day 4 and 5.

    The salad option seems like a great in between and is still relatively inexpensive AND it’s REALLY healthy! Back in the day before I found my 50% deli, I’d literally buy the giant bag/box of organic spring mix for 5-6 dollars and sprinkle sunflower seeds on it + slice half an apple. I’d keep balsamic vinaigrette in the fridge at work and it’d last the whole month generally!

    • The quinoa bowls are definitely a production, but I feel like I’m investing in my health in a way. If I didn’t do the salad kit I wouldn’t consume any raw greens, like, ever. I remember I used to buy these $12 salads from Chop’t and good lord, are those expensive.

      As a night owl, there is no way in hell I can prep anything before work without it being a real struggle. So for me, I’ve found I’m a lot more successful at following through when I work with my natural tendencies. So weekend, one-day meal prepping it is!

      Yeah, I’d be scared about the fish being able to hold out that long. And are you that person at work who’s microwaving fish in the communal kitchen? Tsk, tsk, ha!

      That salad sounds good (fruit and salads, yay), but is it filling?

      • Oops, I’m afraid I am that person microwaving fish, though honestly I’ve probably microwaved worse before. The salad was honestly not enough, I’d feel hungry by 3-4 pm, but it was the true lazy woman’s meal, and then I’d hold out for work to end!

  • Jen @ JenOnMoney

    I recommend stir frys with rice, soba noodles or vermicelli noodles instead of quinoa! A package of vermicelli noodles is like $2 – $3 and will last at least a week.

    • Funny, I had stirfry today, which was left over from last night’s dinner. I definitely like noodles more than rice so the cold soba or vermicelli ideas are great. Especially as I can them for pretty cheap in Chinatown. Thanks for the suggestions!

  • Packing your own lunches affords you the privilege of eating what you want. You’re still saving money as opposed to eating out. Why not enjoy a great lunch from home? Who said anyone had to compromise quality for affordability? It just has to be a savings over eating out, in my opinion. I noticed you shop at Trader Joe’s. If you want to save more, maybe shop at more affordable places. We used to always shop at Trader Joe’s for organic foods but I’ve noticed that the quality isn’t always on par with other places when you factor in price per unit.

    • Yeah, you’re right in a way. Bringing your own stuff means you can apply the savings to go all out!

      “Affordable” is a relative word. And where I live TJ’s IS cheaper for me. We also have Whole Foods and expensive mom and pop stores in the neighborhood, but I try not to shop there. We don’t have Aldi, but we do have Costco. My husband and I went there once, but couldn’t find that much to buy that we’d actually use. All of these cheaper places require going out of your way to save money on food, so in a way, that time factor you spend needs to be incorporated, too.

  • Piggy

    Girl I got one word for you: leftovers. Most recipes we use are 4-servings, and we’re a household of two. So we just split the other two servings between us for leftover lunches most days (and then we eat out/make salads/make sandwiches the other days). Knowing that the amount I eat at dinner directly affects how much I have leftover for lunch the next day keeps me from gorging myself on the fine meats and cheeses my soul requires for sustenance!

    • Since my husband does most of the cooking (OK, ALL of it), I’m gonna go ahead and forward this to him as a reminder to make more than one night’s worth of food!

      Hehe, I would also hold back whenever I would buy takeout, always making sure to save at least one serving for lunch the next day! That way I’d feel less guilty about ordering takeout.

  • A “full” lunch here costs around $9+. There are salads and things that cost $12, but they are loaded with toppings like meat and stuff. I’m one of those freakish people who has a naturally small appetite, so my $6 meal is enough to get by until dinner time.

    I’m craving sweets right now and now I want peanut butter and fruit–yum!

    Fancy brunches are my one saving grace!

  • At first chicken nuggets sound weird with salad…and then I remembered it’s breaded fried/baked chicken just like the restaurants salad but under a different name. I eat super Asian. I’m surprised you don’t pack rice – when I pack lunch it always has rice as base and then stewed pork belly with veggies and an egg over easy.

    • I can see why you’d think that. But at the same time, chicken nuggets are basically kind of like chicken panko, no?

      Mmm, yum, love that Asian-themed rice bowl of yours, but I grew up on rice and like to have variety, too. Whenever I go to my mom’s house it’s like all rice and meat and ZERO fresh veggies. So when I get back to the city we immediately juice as a cleanse.

  • Pia

    I actually just cook extra during dinner and pack that for lunch. I can’t be bothered making the extra effort making meals just for lunches, so credit to you for doing so! We cook multi serves, we usually only end up cooking half the week, eat leftovers for the other half and I still have enough for lunches. You save time AND money, and I also freeze leftovers depending on what it is so that on the weeks we come up short, I always have lunches in my freezer. My meals average from $1 – $4 per serve. Last night’s dinner was $1.50 per serve. I was rather pleased with that and it made 12 serves. That was garlic naan with red lentil dahl.

    I’m starting to share what I eat every week on the blog – maybe that could be helpful?

    • Would love to see what you’re eating each week!

      I brought up the leftovers idea to my husband last night, and he was like, “But we never have leftovers.” We’ve got some hungry, hungry hippos in the house! Like, last night my husband made pizza and that got annihilated immediately. Maybe we just need to be a bit more strategic about what’s made for dinner. The start-up time to make something new from scratch is a very real consideration!

  • Wait! It isn’t normal to buy 4 avocados in a weekend?! I guess I’m a weirdo and I don’t even care. But seriously, you are spot on about lunch time costs. I try to eat really healthy and at first people would say ‘you know you’re probably spending more to pack your lunch than if you just went out to eat.’ They had no idea that I had actually run the numbers and found I was saving a boatload of money each month. Unless you’re dousing your food in truffle oil and garnishing with saffron you’ll probably save by packing your lunch!

    • Hey Cato,

      Thanks for stopping by. Hehe, sounds like you’ve got some spendy lunches, too! I’m definitely saving with my own lunches, but I also have to factor in the hours of prep time, too. I guess depending on how much I value my time I could potentially be spending MORE than just grabbing something out. But I do think there’s something to be said about spending more for something healthy, versus just rice and beans to get the lowest cost.

  • OK, so you win best suggestion. That salmon couscous is soooo something I want to eat, like, right now. I don’t know why I didn’t think to check your site! How far ahead can you make this? I’m always skeptical about how long fish lasts!

  • Pret a manger was all I ate all throughout college and grad school. It was so convenient and I agree, their chips are SO good. I used to find myself staring at their little pods, grabbing them, and putting them back because I just couldn’t justify paying for them. Their almond croissants are also amazing! Now I am salivating haha

    It was really cool to see how much you were really saving by making your own lunches. I definitely have to try the salad packs from Trader Joes- I am also not much of a cook … if there’s a carb, a protein, and vegetables I’m good to go. When I used to pack lunches for work, I always found that that one day where I ate out, felt much more like a treat.

    We are also guilty of buying avocados on a weekly basis. We get about 4 a week and we always seem to get through them. Chicken nuggets are clearly a staple in your kitchen. I love getting the Bell & Evans chicken strips but they always seem to go like that and never really last longer than the one meal in our household-and they’re expensive. But maybe I’ll venture into the Trader Joes frozen aisle to give them a go.

    Thanks for another great post!

    • I’m so mad that Pret “rebranded” their chips recently. Different package and I’m sure you get less in the bag now, too! The sea salt ones gave me life, haha. Oh my God, yes, those tiny little pods. So cute, so delicious looking, and yet…such a rip off.

      I used to be so skeptical about Trader Joe’s, but otherwise, we have to go to Whole Foods or the expensive mom and pop shops! The salad packs are a good compromise between eating somewhat healthy and not spending $12 on something from Chop’t, you know? And I agree with you, the one day I DO eat out it feels more like a nice luxury. If I went out to eat every day I think I’d appreciate it a lot less.

      Glad to hear we are not the only avocado-stricken family! They are so good and we love to make toasts on the weekend. Stereotypical coastal millennials, haha.

  • I was going to check salmon prices this weekend, but sardines sounds like a nice way to make it cheaper! Thanks for chiming in 🙂

  • Duskpunk

    I actually have to say that, for making multi-serving meals, my best investment ever was my Instant Pot and finding recipes that serve 8 or 10 for my little household of 2. Getting wings (I bought some duck wings from the local Asian market) or saving bones and tossing them in for a couple of hours at high pressure makes stock for a week, and we eat a lot of soup around here.

    One of my favorites (before I went keto) was spinach potato soup. Chicken stock, russet potatoes (maybe 2 for a big pot) and a bag of spinach, blended with an immersion blender (also worth the $15-20 they usually cost), and toss in some cooked chicken. Make a big 8qt pot full and you can get a bunch of servings and it’s just as good cold as hot. (Cheese crackers make it even better.)

    • That duck soup sounds absolutely delicious, and very fitting for the upcoming cooler weather (at least, where I’m at). My husband, for some reason, is against the whole one-pot thing. He prefers to do MORE work by cooking fresh meals every night???