How Can I Upgrade My Brown-Bag Lunch? [Ask Lifehacker]

By Melanie Pinola, LifehackerAugust 16, 2012 at 01:00PM

How Can I Upgrade My Brown-Bag Lunch?Dear Lifehacker,
I’m trying to save money by bringing my lunch to work, but I’m already sick of the same old sandwiches. Is there something I can do to get out of this lunch rut and make brown bagging actually work for me?

Bored with Brown Bagging

Dear Bored,
Packing your own lunch is a smart move—you save money and often eat healthier than you would if you got takeout or dined out every workday meal. However, as you’ve quickly discovered, the routine can get awfully boring.

We’ve previously discussed lots of ways to make brown bagging more appealing in general. In addition to jazzing up your lunches, let’s look at how to turn brown bagging into a habit you might actually enjoy.

Rethink Your Notion of the Homemade Lunch

Homemade lunches don’t have to be the bland, purely practical stuff of childhood lunchboxes (peanut butter and jelly again?). They can be gourmet creations or simply elevated sandwiches, salads, and more. By using the best ingredients and adding a variety of flavors and textures to your lunch, you can come up with a meal that’s more satisfying than anything you might buy outside.

Think of it as a creative challenge—one you get to fully enjoy at lunchtime. Here are a few ideas:

Break out of the sandwich mold

Adding more variety to your lunches is easier if you think beyond the two-slices-of-bread-and-some-filling template. Think ethnic options (burritos and wraps you can make and freeze yourself, chicken satay, Mediterranean pita pockets, etc.), picnic-y foods (e.g., chicken drumsticks and crackers and cheese), or salad variations (such as orzo, quinoa, or pasta salads).

Eggs are also extremely versatile (anything you eat for breakfast, you can have for lunch too!). Try the NY Times’ everyday, anytime egg-combination generator for more than a handful of variations.

How Can I Upgrade My Brown-Bag Lunch?

Or upgrade your sandwiches

Sandwiches are a lunch staple because they’re so convenient. You can spice up your sandwiches with a few add-ons or substitutions:

  • Consider adding pre-cooked bacon, basil leaves or a fresh herb mixture, pickles, or lemony mayo.
  • Instead of processed lunch meats, use other sandwich filling alternatives, such as meatballs (from dinner before) to make a meatball sub on a French baguette.
  • Replace regular bread slices with a tortilla wrap or even just use lettuce

Make a feast for your eyes

Eating is a visual act too, so consider presentation.

How Can I Upgrade My Brown-Bag Lunch?Bento box lunches encourage variety and also help with portion control. You don’t have to make cute cutouts or cook Japanese food to follow the principles of the bento (if you don’t want to). As NPR explains, the five main elements of bento are color, texture, seasonality, presentation, and nutrition. It doesn’t have to be complicated, though: Think of naturally hand-held foods, such as mini vegetables and cheese sticks. (NPR’s suggestion to turn a wrap into a colorful pinwheel by slicing it sideways is pretty clever.) See Just Bento for a ton of inspiring recipes, pictures, and even a bento meal planner.

You don’t have to get a compartmentalized lunch container, but they are attractive. We like both bento boxes and tiffin carrier lunchboxes. Just get a container that makes you happy.

Overcome Common Brown-Bagging Hurdles

Beyond the difficulty deciding what to make for lunch, you might also face a number of obstacles.

Don’t feel like you have enough time to make lunch? Plan to have leftovers and make them for your lunch (e.g., roast a chicken for dinner and slice up some for tomorrow). You can also prepare your lunches in bulk ahead of time (e.g., with a salad in a jar that stays fresh for days).

No kitchen or access to a microwave at work? Many foods are still delicious at room temperature or cold, such as barley and mushroom pilaf, cold soups, and that old standby, pizza.

Invest in a quality lunch container, like the Zojirushi Mr. Bento Stainless Lunch Jar, which keeps foods piping hot or ice cold for hours.

Finally, many offices might frown on this, but you could make your own portable solar oven for cooking at your desk (or, perhaps, get a hotplate).

How Can I Upgrade My Brown-Bag Lunch?Just not motivated to make lunch every single day? Remind yourself that brown bagging just four times a week could save you half a million dollars over your working lifetime.

Reward yourself for packing lunches with a Lunch It, Punch It card that gives you a free pass to eat out after every 10 you brown bag.

Need more ideas? Cheap Healthy Good has rounded up an extensive list of links to lunch ideas from sites like The Simple Dollar, Chow, and Serious Eats. That, coupled with any of the many recipe discovery apps (e.g., Punchfork or Gojee), should be enough to keep you from having to eat the same thing twice all year.


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