Rebecca Graf is a trained accountant who worked in the field for more than 20 years.
Money leaks out of our pockets when we aren't looking. Food can be the biggest culprit. We can spend too much on a necessity because of convenience. When we need to eat, we don't think about how to save money doing it. That is, until we are tight on cash and have to think about it.
A great way to take care of your need for food and save money is to brown bag it to work and/or school. Don't run from the idea. It can be a lot of fun even while being cost-effective.
Not Necessarily in a Brown Bag
When I say brown bag, it doesn't have to literally be in a brown bag. I'm referring to any do-it-yourself meals and snacks you take to school or work in a bag, lunch box, or other container.
Lunch Is More Than Sandwiches
Traditional brown bag meals are sandwiches. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or bologna sandwiches used to be what everyone took to work and school. Because of that, we all think that we are limited to sandwiches. But we are not!
Remember that we can take anything in our "brown bag" meals. The only thing that limits us are the resources at our disposal, like microwaves or refrigerators. If you don't have a microwave, you might want to avoid foods that have to be heated.
Aside from that, your brown bag can contain a multitude of different kinds of meals. What kind of meals? We'll discuss some ideas later in this piece.
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Use an Insulated Container
I highly suggest that most meals be carried in an insulated container. Replace the traditional brown bag with an insulated lunch box or bag that will keep your food safe and cold or hot, depending on what you put in it. Not everyone has access to a refrigerator to store their food until they are ready to eat it.
Keep your lunch box under your desk, in the car, or in a closet until you are ready to eat. You can add utensils, drinks, and more, which makes it convenient for anyone taking their lunches.
A big key to not eating out for lunch all the time is variety in your meals. The same sandwich everyday has you craving that burger at the local fast food joint. A little variety keeps those urges at bay.
Be intentional with your brown bag lunches. Rarely repeat a lunch, or at least space the repeats apart.
Brown Bag Lunch Ideas
Let's expand on the idea of variety and a little creativity. We'll touch on some standard favorites with new ideas thrown in. Don't let this list limit you. Let it be a launch pad for even more creative brown bag lunch ideas.
- Peanut Butter Sandwiches. This is the old standard of brown bag lunches. They are quick to make, cheap, and don't spoil quickly. Nothing wrong with these, but to prevent boredom, add some zing to it. Ideas are bananas, jelly, honey, granola, cinnamon, bacon, berries, apples, oranges, pickles, cream cheese, marshmallow creme, cereal, potato chips, chocolate, or any combination of these.
- Deli Sandwiches. These are the bologna, ham, or turkey sandwiches. I'll even include salad sandwiches such as egg salad, chicken salad, etc. Fix them up plain, add condiments, add vegetables, or mix and match them. Standard additions are mayo, ketchup, mustard, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and bacon. Consider these: bean sprouts, avocados, pesto, hummus, salad dressing, pickles, and olives.
- Nutella Sandwiches. I guess I could have put this under the peanut butter section, but Nutella and similar spreads have become more popular in many ways. Nutella is the hazelnut version of peanut butter but has chocolate in it. You can also find almond butter, apple butter, and more. Just check out the aisle near the peanut butters.
- "Sushi" Sandwiches. Don't skip this one because I said "sushi". I swear that my idea does not involve raw fish unless you want it to. I'm talking about the way sushi is presented to the diner. Sushi comes as a roll. Pieces of food are wrapped up in a seaweed-and-rice roll. Think of your bread as the wrapper. Flatten out your bread or use tortillas. Then add whatever you want to put in your "sushi". Roll it up and slice it just like sushi is when placed on the dining table.
- Leftovers. I cannot stress enough that this is one of your best sources to make your brown bag lunches even better. Use those leftovers instead of throwing them away. Let others be jealous of that delicious pot roast or chicken casserole you had the previous night. There is nothing wrong with leftovers. Change them about if you want. I've had a pork roast one night and used it as a sandwich filling the next day for lunch.
- Personalized Salads. There is so much I want to put under this category. Let's start with deli salads. Make your own egg salad, chicken salad, or whatever kind you want. Now jump to traditional salads. Get your lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, and radishes if you desire them. Now have fun. Add anything you want. There are no limits here. Avocados. Meat. Boiled Eggs. Cheeses. Beans. Fruit. Whatever you like, add it to the salad. I love to put cottage cheese on mine instead of dressing. Make it yours the way no restaurant ever would to accommodate you.
- Quiches. These aren't just for breakfast. I make these at home and then have one for breakfast and/or lunch for the week. Eggs, cheese, and then whatever else you want in them. I've added bacon, maple syrup, ham, sausage, avocados, vegetables, and more. Like your salad, don't limit yourself in possibilities.
- Pasta Salads. I love a good pasta salad. Make your own or get the boxes that come with nearly everything you need to make a gourmet salad. If you are really lazy, buy a large container at the store's deli and eat it throughout the week. Again, you can add nearly anything you want. It can be hot or cold. Meats, cheeses, vegetables, and even fruit can be used.
- Casseroles. These are a great way to enhance your lunches. Make a casserole from anything. I take my leftovers and make them into casseroles that I can eat for other dinners or for lunches. Leftover roast can be mixed with cream soups, cheese, and pasta into a delicious casserole. It brightens up your brown bag lunch and is not the same meal you started out with.
- Cheese and Crackers. You don't have to have an elaborate lunch. Take cheese and crackers. Use gourmet cheeses and crackers to really make it more than a simple brown bag lunch. I love to shop the cheese section of a store that has gourmet choices. There are some unique flavors that can really make a lunch.
- Fruit and Cheese. Same here. Get different kinds of cheeses. Find fruit that is on sale or something exotic you rarely eat. You can get it precut or prepare the fruit yourself. Like the cheese and cracker idea, this hints of a fancy restaurant. Much different than the standard brown bag lunch.
- Seafood. Do you like seafood? It doesn't have to be just at dinner or just at a restaurant. Eat it for lunch. Shrimp cocktail can now be found in the store ready to travel anywhere. Imitation lobster bites are affordable and can be combined with the cheese and cracker idea.
Last Note: Consider the Bread
Sometimes a change in your brown bag lunch can be as easy as changing the bread you use. Sourdough gives a different flavor to your sandwiches when compared to wheat bread. Then there are wraps or lettuce that can be used in place of bread to lower the carb count.
Look at the different ethnic breads to give yourself variety. There are a lot of breads out there we don't think of.