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Ontario, Canada
I am a wife, mother and grandma who enjoys the many aspects of homemaking. A variety of interests and hobbies combined with travel keep me active. They reflect the importance of family, friends, home and good food.
Cook ingredients that you are used to cooking by other techniques, such as fish, chicken, or hamburgers. In other words be comfortable with the ingredients you are using.
--Bobby Flay

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Monday, December 01, 2008

Frugal Kitchens 101: Lunch Money

Anyone who wants to save money on their expenses in general is often given the advice to brown bag it. If you spend $1.50 for a coffee, $1 for an afternoon snack from a vending machine, $5 for lunch and another $1 for soda each work day you are spending $8.50 per day. That doesn't sound like a lot of money does it? Over the course of a year that works out to $2,125 assuming 2 weeks off for vacation. That represents a large chunk of your annual food costs. The reality is you are often spending more than that per day without realizing it. It's easy to see where taking your own lunch can greatly reduce this cost but if you rely on convenience type of lunch foods you will not be saving as much as you could. You will have to change your mindset a little as taking a lunch means making and carrying it as well as bringing your containers home but just keep the amount of money you are saving in mind.

While taking a lunch is a frugal choice the idea of brown bag is not because it is not environmentally friendly. Instead your secondary goal for taking a lunch is to make it garbageless. Replacing lunch items like plastic wrap, paper bags, wax paper and sandwich bags with re-usable containers will save you more money. To start you on your frugal lunch kit the following is a list of suggested items that should cost you about $20.

  1. insulated lunch bag with ice pack - These are widely available and rather inexpensive. Look for heavy zippers, two compartments and heavy straps for durability. An adjustable shoulder strap is nice. I have an AZ MAX™by Arctic Zone® insulated lunch bag with ice pack, water bottle compartment and 16 oz water bottle. It cost $7.99 about 5 years ago.
  2. thermos - In some cases you might want a thermos for hot drinks or soups. I highly recommend the stainless steel unbreakable Thermos for durability.
  3. water bottle - If your lunch bag does not come with a water bottle or you want to take something different to drink in the afternoon you will need one or two water bottles. I recommend the 16 oz size but you can get smaller or larger if desired.
  4. reusable containers - Both Glad® and Ziploc® containers come in several sizes. They are quite durable, reusable and inexpensive. If you have access to a microwave to reheat your lunch take a non-plastic bowl to use.
  5. utensils - Use metal utensils from home.
One trap that many fall into when taking a lunch to school or work is they rely heavily on convenience foods. The problem with this is not only the expense but the over packaging. Avoiding these types of lunch food will save on your grocery bill.
  1. individually wrapped foods - For the most part these are foods that are individually wrapped then put into another type of package. Examples of these are cheese sticks, pudding cups, fruit cups and etc. The over packaging adds to the cost of the food and is environmentally unfriendly. It is cheaper to buy the whole foods and put them into reusable containers. For example 4 oz fruit cups from Sam's Club range from 10¢ to 12¢ per ounce and are over packaged. Apples here based on per lb price range from 4¢ to 6¢ per ounce and they are not over packaged. These also don't have additional sugar or preservatives making an apple the healthy, frugal choice without producing garbage.
  2. lunchmeat - Lunchmeat is a convenience food that can easily be avoided. Price per ounce seldom makes lunchmeat a frugal lunch choice. It tends to be high in sodium as well. The frugal substitution is to slice your own roast beef, roasted turkey breast, ham or boneless skinless chicken breast. When roasting or cooking meats always cook extra. Slice up the extra and freeze in the amount you will comfortably use in a week. Thaw a package as needed. You now have a healthier, low cost lunchmeat.
  3. pop (soda) and tetra pac juice boxes - Both of these drinks are higher in price per ounce that other alternatives. Neither is packaged environmentally friendly and despite being able to recycle the containers in some areas, a better solution is to simply not use them. The tetra pacs are appealing for children though. A good solution is to buy a Rubbermaid® reusable juice box and fill with juice yourself. Homemade juice is often less expensive than store bought but if you do not have a juicer or steam juicer, buy fruit juice in the largest container your family will use in a week. Nutritionally pop (soda) is never a good value for your food dollar. It's best to avoid pop (soda) entirely.
  4. individual sized milk - Everyone is familiar with the 8 oz milk cartons sold in cafeterias and available for purchase at many schools. At $1 per carton this milk works out to 12.5¢ per ounce. At Sam's Club a gallon (128 oz) for $2.96 or 2.3¢ per ounce. Even if a gallon of cost $4 the price would be 3¢ per ounce. Clearly the gallon price is the frugal choice. Pour milk into a thermos for lunch instead.
  5. ready meals - It is very tempting to purchase ready meals for lunches that just need to be heated in a microwave oven. These include but are not limited to individual sized soups or stews, Lean Cuisine® or Weight Watcher's® entrĂ©es, Pizza Pockets® and similar types of convenience foods. All of these are considerably more expensive per ounce than what you can make at home and some of them are extremely high in sodium content. They also are over packaged with some packaging that cannot be recycled. The frugal solution is to create your own homemade entrĂ©es, make your own soups and stews or take left-overs.
As you start making changes to what you pack in your lunches and start to see the savings rise it will be easier for you to find other ways to cut back. Your lunches need not be boring either just because you are making frugal choices. I hope you find these frugal tips useful and please do share your frugal lunch tips.

4 food lovers commented:

Garden Gnome said...

Hi David, thanks for visiting :) I'm glad you like these tips. I think if you always break down the cost to price per unit then you have a good comparison. As far as make your own and believe me if you have followed this blog for any time there are a few dishes that are are not cheaper to make at home but they are not laden with extra salt, sugar or preservatives so even though they may be the same price or a bit more expensive they are still a better value for your food dollar. So sometimes it is ok to spend a bit more money for more nutritious food but when making your own it's not very often you have to do that.

Lola said...

I am all for saving money and when I worked I either brought my own lunch from home or spent 75 cents at the snack machine if I forgot. I'm very frugal. I cook form scratch every day. However, I cannot get my partner on the same page as far as lunches go. We need to save money anywhere we can with me not being able to work, but the going out for lunch seems to be an entitlement thing.

I've even tried making lunches, but my partner either 'forgets' them in the fridge at home or I find the bags intact in her car when I take it to run for the sunday paper.

I guess my point is, you can't 'make' someone be frugal. If anyone else has figured out how to do it, please tell me. We could definitely use the $40 she spends a week on lunch out for other things, especially considering Christmas is coming.

Garden Gnome said...

Hi Lola, no you cannot make someone be frugal. One problem is changing old habits is hard and unless someone wants to change or is forced to. Quite often one partner in a relationship will not be as frugal as the other but it isn't a competition. The biggest motivator for a frugal lifestyle is lack of finances.

In the meantime you may need to sit down and discuss this issue with your partner. Always project any savings into the "big picture". For example using you buying a newpaper at a cost of 75¢ per paper plus the maintenance, licensing, insurance and gas costs of driving to get a paper that paper actually costs you closer to $5 or depending on the distance travelled. One trip per week gives an overall annual cost of $260. I would hazard a guess that you make at least one impulse buy at the same time so you are more than likely spending more than that. But there is something larger going on here when you consider and that is the environmental impact of that one simple act of driving to get a newspaper. So for every expense you want to cut back on put it into an annual cost including all costs involved in that expense. You aren't going to be able to change her habits unless she wants to change but seeing the big picture as to how much could be saved may be incentive enough to make a few changes.

Good luck,

Anonymous said...

If you are going to do a post on homemade bread (as suggested by your poll) you should really cover both the no-knead method and the "Artisan Bread in Five Minutes" method. I don't think that people realize how easy making bread at home can be. Thanks so much for all of your awesome posts and keep up the good work! Thank you!