Savings are in the bag
Five bucks here, 10 there and before you know it, lunch is taking a bite out of your pocketbook.
With consumers looking for ways to save, carrying a lunch to work or school can save hundreds or thousands of dollars a year.
Mary Krisco, a registered dietician and coordinator of the Wisconsin Nutrition Education program for UW Extension-Rock County, offered tips on saving money on lunch.
n First, some motivation. Go online and search for “brown bag savings calculator.” You’ll enter the average cost of your lunch when you eat out and other variables before it shows you how much you are spending/could be saving.
“It’s a big motivator,” Krisco said.
-- “A lot of people who know they should brown bag to save money don’t do it because of several things,” she said.
Reasons include: not in the habit, no time in the morning, no refrigerator or microwave at work, job requires to be in a vehicle all day, need to network with clients at lunch.
“If you can just cut down on your lunches, you can save anywhere from $1,000 to $1,5000 a year,” she said.
-- “Nobody can make a change cold-turkey,” Krisco said. “Take one step at a time until becomes a routine.”
If you’ve never packed a lunch, start small by picking one day a week to make your lunch at home.
“The easiest and best thing is if you can pack the leftovers from dinner the night before in a nice, shallow, microwave safe dish so it’s ready for reheating the next day,” she said.
-- Keep your lunch cold. Invest in an insulated lunch bag. Krisco recommends one that can fit several plastic food containers plus a cooler cube. If you don’t have an cooler cube, freeze a bottle of nearly full water overnight.
-- Pack your lunch the night before, or at least have all the ingredients ready for the morning.
“Don’t make it complicated when you’re first starting out,” Krisco said.
-- The best items are portable: apples, oranges, bananas, baby carrots. If you’re not excited about washing and cutting veggies, you can save money by packing pre-washed vegetables bought in bags at the store, she said. Use peanut butter as a dip or create your own veggie dip with plain yogurt and a tablespoon of ranch dressing.
Other handy and healthy items to pack: cherry tomatoes, canned fruit, yogurt, string cheese, boiled eggs and salads from the night before—just don’t put dressing on until you’re ready to eat.
Items to keep in a “survival drawer”: Box of whole-grain crackers, salt-free pretzels, unsalted sunflower seeds, nuts, dry breakfast cereal and canned soups.
-- The old stand-by: sandwiches. They can get soggy by lunchtime, so if you’re fussy, pack the fillings separate from the bread, Krisco said. Use a whole-grain bun, which doesn’t get as mushy, she said.
-- If you’re just starting out and all of this is too much prep, start with frozen dinners. Frozen dinners can be $2 to $3.50.
-- If you still want to get out of the office occasionally, look for the best lunch deals. Many cafes, bars and restaurants know you have cost in mind and are advertising $5 specials and other deals. Know the schedule for two-for-one days at your favorite establishment and split the cost with a friend.
But, Krisco warned, “don’t let specials tempt you into eating more than you need.”