As tempting as it may be to hit Chipotle or Panera at lunchtime, brown-bagging it can have big payoffs. In one survey, people said they spend about $20 per week on lunch, amounting to more than one grand per year. Factor in the pricier chains, dining out more than a couple of times per week, or living in a big city, and you could be spending much more. Setting your budget aside, it seems pretty obvious that frequently picking up lunch is less healthy and more costly than preparing meals at home, and science backs this up.
Meal prep your lunches and you could be on your way to a healthier, leaner body. In one study among more than 100,000 participants, meal planning practices were tied to improvements in diet quality, increased diet variety and was linked to lower body weight. "One of the greatest benefits of meal planning is that it leads to healthier eating habits," says Jessica Levinson, RDN, culinary nutrition expert and author of "52-Week Meal Planner." “Planning in advance allows you to put together balanced meals and ensure you have the ingredients to make them instead of relying on takeout, fast food or prepared foods, which are often higher in calories, sodium, added sugar, and saturated fat,” she explains.
How to meal plan like a pro
Meal planning isn’t as daunting as it sounds. Spend just 10 or 15 minutes mapping out your meals, jot down what you need and head to the store. That’s it.
Levinson suggests stocking up on convenience foods to make planning and prepping easier. Canned fish (tuna, salmon, sardines, anchovies), canned beans (no- or low-sodium preferred), boxed soups (such as tomato or carrot ginger soup from Pacific, Imagine, or Trader Joe’s), microwavable whole grains (including brown rice and quinoa), and nut butters (or nut-free butters) are among her must-haves. Her picks for the fridge and freezer include eggs, frozen whole grain waffles, ravioli and tortellini, herb pastes, shredded and sliced cheese, veggie burgers, frozen or refrigerated shelled edamame beans, hummus and other bean spreads, yogurt, cooked beets, and cooked lentils.
Use seasonings and other staples you already have, or create a list of those you’ll turn to time and again, and make sure to pick them up on your next grocery haul. "One of the benefits of meal planning is that it can save you money by only purchasing what you need and by basing your plan on the price of groceries and what's on sale," she says.
A week’s worth of healthy lunches on the cheap
For just under $20, you can enjoy five, low-fuss meals that are high in flavor and nutrition. To help you ease into bringing lunch, I’ve created a blueprint lunch plan and shopping list based on the tips above. The total investment: $19.35. So put that $20 bucks (or $40, or whatever the number may be) you spend picking up lunch toward your vacation fund, paying off debt, a monthly massage or another worthy investment, and brown-bag it instead.
Note: I’ve assumed you have some staple seasonings and condiments at home. Prices were based on a suburban market in Norwalk, CT, and may reflect a weekly sale.
- 1 5 oz. can solid white albacore tuna in water $1.49
- 1 dozen large, cage-free eggs $2.29
- Frozen riced cauliflower $2.99
- Frozen brown rice $1.50
- Frozen shelled edamame $2.69
- 1 package romaine hearts $3.00
- 1 avocado $1.00
- 1 package matchstick carrots $2.09
- 1 pint grape tomatoes $2.50
- 1 red onion $1.29
Advanced meal prep:
- Chop the red onion and store in a re-usable container. Beyond lunches, you can use the onion to add fresh flavor to other meals throughout the week. Think: with egg scrambles, lox breakfasts or cooked in roasted potatoes. Keep some of the pieces bigger if you want to use them in kebabs.
- Wash, dry, and chop the romaine, reserving 4 lettuce leaves to make wraps. You can store both the chopped lettuce and the pre-washed leaves in a container with paper towels, which helps keep them fresh. Change out the paper towels during the week if they’re damp.
- Boil five eggs. They’ll stay fresh in the shell for up to a week. Pro tip: Boil extra eggs to enjoy as snacks or with breakfast.
Meal 1: California tuna salad
To 2 cups chopped romaine, add ½ can tuna, one boiled egg, halved, and 1/4 avocado, sliced. Top with ¼ c. matchstick carrots and 5 grape tomatoes, halved. Drizzle with olive oil and vinegar or dressing of choice. (Keep dressing in a separate container until ready to eat.)
Meal 2: Avocado and edamame rice Bowl
Heat ½ c. brown rice in microwave according to package directions. Then heat 1 c. riced cauliflower. When heated, combine the cauliflower with the brown rice, season with salt and pepper to taste, and set aside in a food storage container. Heat ½ c. edamame according to package instructions. Place ¼ c. matchstick carrots, 1-2 tsp. red onions, 5 grape tomatoes, ¼ avocado, diced, and one boiled egg, halved, in a separate container along with the edamame. (A compartmentalized container, like a bento box, would work well here.) At lunchtime, warm up the rice mixture and top with the fresh (cold) toppings. Drizzle with vinaigrette to serve.
Meal 3: Tuna salad in lettuce leaves
Heat ¼ c. edamame according to package instructions. Mix remaining ½ can tuna (from day 1) with edamame, 1-2 tsp. chopped onion, 1 Tbsp. mayonnaise, and 1 tsp. Dijon mustard. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Optional: Fresh dill, which could also be used on the turmeric egg salad (meal 4, below). Place tuna salad in a food storage container and top with ¼ avocado, diced. Bring the 4 lettuce leaves, wrapped in a paper towel to transport. At lunch time, scoop the tuna salad with some avocado and divide among the four lettuce leaves. Alternatively, chop or break up the lettuce and eat as a salad.
Meal 4: Turmeric egg salad
Chop 2 boiled eggs and 1 boiled egg white. Mix with 1 Tbsp. mayo, ¼ tsp. ground turmeric, 1 tsp. chopped onion, and salt and pepper to taste. Serve the egg salad atop 2 cups chopped romaine mixed with ¼ cup matchstick carrots, 5 grape tomatoes, halved, and ¼ avocado, diced. Optional: Whole grain crackers (from your pantry), which you can crumble on top (instead of croutons) or enjoy on the side.
Meal 5: Cauliflower fried rice
Recipe notes: Make the night before or allow yourself about 10 extra minutes in the morning.
Heat ½ c. brown rice in microwave according to package directions. Then heat 1 c. riced cauliflower with ¼ c. frozen edamame; when heated, combine the mixture with the brown rice. In a skillet, saute ¼ c. matchstick carrots. When tender, place in the bowl with the cauliflower mixture. Whisk two eggs and scramble in the same skillet. When done, toss the scrambled eggs with the cauliflower mixture along with about 1 tsp. sesame oil and 2 tsp. reduced-sodium soy sauce. Optional: Add chopped peanuts or cashews, if desired. At lunchtime, re-heat.
Just like any other new skill you attempt, meal planning may take a bit of practice. Be patient and don’t give up. No one learns a new language in a day! With each try, you’ll get better and better, and you’ll start noticing benefits, like quicker trips to the grocery store, an easier time sticking to your budget, a better variety of food to enjoy and perhaps feeling more energetic and better in your clothes.
MORE FROM SAMANTHA CASSETTY, RD
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