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The Amazing Habit of Bringing Your Lunch to Work + A Recipe for Greek Quinoa Salad

Today I want to talk to you about a habit that is the pride of frugalistas everywhere. It is a daily act that saves significant amounts of money every year and is immensely better for your health. Since Finn and I joined the working world, bringing our lunch to work has been one of our most essential frugal habits.

As I discussed in our Frugal Manifesto: 5 Critical Success Factors for Frugal Living, buying a lunch every day at work is a truly expensive habit. In our area, buying a filling lunch will usually cost between $9 and $11 - let’s say $10 on average. In contrast, a home-cooked lunch can be made for much less. Extremely frugal lunches can cost less than $1 per lunch, but even more typical lunches that use a few expensive ingredients can normally be made for less than $3 per lunch.

Bringing your lunch to work can therefore result in savings of at least $1,750 a year ($7 x 5 days x 50 weeks). Over a working career of 40 years, this equates to $70,000 - a significant sum of money that will certainly help bring you closer to your retirement goals.

The Health Benefits of Cooking Your Own Food

This is one frugal strategy that truly cannot be divorced from its health impact. To me, the health aspect is not just a side benefit - it is even more important than the financial aspect. At least where we live, the options for buying your lunch during a workday consist almost exclusively of unhealthy fast food. Usually, people who buy their lunch go to a food court where they will buy foods filled with fats and empty starches such as burgers and fries, pizza, pasta/noodles, deep-fried Chinese food, etc. There are one or two healthier options such as a salad place, but they are a lot more expensive, especially for a filling portion.

The reality is that workday lunches are inherently rushed, and as a result, it simply isn’t possible to go with a “slow food” option when eating out. In addition, even foods from sit-down restaurants (rather than fast food) tend to have much more oil and salt than foods made at home. As someone who has always brought my lunch to work, I truly can’t imagine how it would physically feel to be eating this kind of food every day. It can’t be good!

Food Court

A typical lunch spot… but not for us.

In my opinion, bringing your lunch to work or buying it outside is a habit that is often learnt during childhood as a result of seeing what your parents do. My mother always brought her own lunch, and as a result, it never occurred to me not to do the same. However, I see people who regularly go out for lunch and I know that they do not see it as strange or unusual; it is likely what they grew up seeing in their own homes. It can be hard to turn off that switch and begin to see buying your lunch as an unreasonable activity. But the effort to make that mental shift will reap great rewards.

The fortunate thing about bringing your lunch to work is that once you get into it, it is a habit that is likely to stick with you. The nutritional benefits are so obvious that in my opinion, it would be very hard to go back to eating out all the time. Making the switchover today will have a significant impact on both your finances and your health for many years to come.

Our Preferred Strategy: Making Lunch For the Week

The goal is simple: Prepare a lunch at home for every day of the workweek. There are different ways of achieving this objective. Some people prefer to make larger weekday dinners and then use the leftovers for lunch the next day. Finn and I have a different approach that we feel is simpler and easier to maintain. Every Sunday, we make a large batch of lunch food that will feed us for the week.

Lasagna Casserole

Lasagna casserole lunch for the week.

The problem with the larger-dinner approach is that it supposes that every weeknight,

  1. you will cook dinner;
  2. it will be a dinner that lends itself well to leftovers;
  3. you will have the time and energy to make a larger portion.

These seem to us like three pretty big assumptions to make for every single weeknight. The reality is that

  1. once in a while we may be busy or have something planned and not be able to cook dinner;
  2. some of the dinners we make do not lend themselves well to leftovers. Examples: crispy fried foods, nachos, omelettes, fish and seafood, baked goods that get soggy in the microwave, etc.;
  3. we are tired in the evenings, and just cooking a normal-portion dinner already takes some energy. Forcing ourselves to spend more time and energy on cooking every single night is just not a reasonable option for us. It is highly unlikely that we would be able to sustain this kind of behaviour.

On the other hand, cooking one big batch of lunch only requires us to expend the time and energy once during the week, which is much more sustainable than having to do it five times. In addition, we can do this on the weekend, a time when we have more energy and are less pressed for time. Due to economies of scale, making a large portion of one dish also takes less time than making a larger portion of multiple dishes. We have found this approach to be simple and effective, and we absolutely recommend it.

Usually, on Friday or Saturday, we come up with a plan for our “lunch of the week.” We get the groceries on Saturday or Sunday and then cook the lunch on Sunday afternoon. Sometimes, it also serves as our Sunday dinner. We need 10 sizeable portions every week, which means that we often double or triple recipes.

What to Cook

Shelf of Cookbooks

Our cookbook shelf.

A good homemade work lunch has to be something that

  1. you can bring to work
  2. you can eat in your office
  3. will fill you up until dinner

With good tupperware, almost every conceivable food can be brought to work. Cooked meats, vegetables and grains, stews, soups, casseroles, sandwiches, salads - it all works. However, foods that require less assembly do tend to be easier. We prefer dishes that contain several food categories in one “package”, such as hearty soups, grainy salads, pasta dishes, etc. These foods also have the advantage of tasting just as good - or better - after they have had some time to sit in the fridge.

Finn and I work in fairly typical office environments. Our offices have kitchens with sinks, fridges, microwaves and toasters. Most of our lunches need to be heated, and using the microwave in the kitchen has always worked very well. If you do not have a microwave at your workplace, you may be more limited - but honestly, if you don’t have a microwave in your workplace, we suggest you buy one and bring it to the workplace. Microwaves are cheap these days and you and your colleagues will all be happy.

Snacks for the week

Pre-prepared snacks for the week… we reuse the ziplock bags, of course.

Other than that, eating at the office is just a matter of keeping a few basic kitchen items at your desk. I keep one wide and deep bowl (which serves as both a plate and a bowl), a tablespoon, a fork and a knife.

It is important to remember that your portion should be big enough to keep you full until dinner. What you certainly don’t want is to find yourself getting hungry in the afternoon and hankering to buy a snack. Another option is to also bring a snack to work. We recommend healthy seeds and nuts, such as toasted almonds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts mixed with raisins, etc.

What if the Food Runs Out?

We always look at the number of servings a recipe is supposed to yield and double or triple the recipe accordingly, aiming to have at least 10 sizeable portions. However, it can be difficult to predict how many such portions a recipe will truly generate. Sometimes, after preparing our “lunch of the week” on a Sunday, we see that we don’t have enough portions for 5 days. What are two freegalistas to do?

Sometimes, this results in us making a larger portion for at least one weekday dinner, in order to ensure that we have a lunch ready for the last 1-2 days of the week. However, in the past, we would often accept that we would just have to buy lunch for those few days. Knowing that we bring our lunch to work on most days, we treated this as a minor cost and didn’t challenge it.

However, recent efforts to be even more frugal have caused us to move away from this mindset. As I examined our monthly spending, looking for areas to cut back, I realized that we were buying lunch a few times a month and that this was an expense that we could easily reduce. All we had to do was change our attitude and not passively surrender to the lunch-buying scenario.

Peanut butter and banana sandwich ingredients.

An easy lunch to pull together

Now, we take it for granted that we are not going to buy a lunch at work, ever. We have realized that it is very easy to find or make something to bring to work, even on short notice, and that there is no excuse for not doing it. When we find ourselves running out of the “lunch of the week,” we make sure that we prepare something either the night before or the morning of and bring it to work. The key to doing this successfully is identifying a few quick meals that you can pull together on short notice. For Finn, this has been a tossed green salad or some vegetables with homemade blue cheese dip. For me, it has been roasted chickpeas or a peanut butter and banana sandwich with healthy bread.

I estimate that this has saved us around $30 a month - nothing to sneeze at. In addition, I actually find it freeing to know that I always have a lunch ready at work and don’t have to worry about where to go to buy lunch or take the time to do it. I realize now that I found it a bit stressful to have to try to find a lunch that I felt was reasonably healthy and that was not overly expensive either. Knowing that my lunch for the day is always there and available at the office is one way that I simplify my workday.

Don’t You Get Tired of Having the Same Lunch the Whole Week?

Honestly, not at all. We make tasty foods and they make for very satisfying lunches. The truth is that we don’t see our weekday lunches as a critical opportunity for foodie enjoyment. To us, lunch is simply something that must be done during the workday, and we save our foodie indulgences for the weeknights and weekends. We require work lunches that fill us, are tasty and are easy to eat at the office. We don’t need or seek the excitement of trying a new dish for the first time in the middle of our busy workdays. Plus, we tend to make a new lunch that we have never had before most weeks, which means that the food we are eating is not something we have eaten countless times before.

And Now, One of Our Favourite Recipes

Every so often, we will use this blog to highlight one of our favourite frugal lunch recipes. We will also calculate the cost per lunch serving for you. Today, we would like to start with one of our true keepers - Greek Quinoa Salad.

Greek Quinoa Salad

This recipe is adapted from Rose Reisman’s cookbook The Complete Light Kitchen . It is a quinoa salad with Greek flavours and ingredients, and we have made it many times as our “lunch of the week”. We love it because it is

  • delicious, and tastes even better after it has sat in the fridge for a day
  • easy to make in large portions
  • very healthy - quinoa is a complete protein with excellent nutritional value and is a worthy addition to anyone’s diet
  • super easy to eat at work, since it is eaten cold
  • cheap - it costs $1.91 per serving (see calculation below), which saves us $81 per week compared to the alternative of buying $10 lunches

The process to make the salad is quite simple: cook the quinoa, chop a bunch of vegetables, whisk together the dressing and combine everything together. You can speed up the process by cooking the quinoa in a rice cooker, which is effortless and results in perfectly-cooked quinoa. For the mixing of the ingredients, we recommend using a big bowl with a lid, so that you can close it and give it a few good shakes until everything is well blended.

The original recipe says it makes 6 servings, but they are pretty small. We triple the recipe and have ample lunch for the week for both of us (approx. 11 lunch-size portions). The recipe below is tripled, but you can always adjust the amounts.

Greek Quinoa Salad

Adapted from Rose Reisman’s The Complete Light Kitchen

Makes 11 meal-size servings (2 cups each)

Ingredients:

Greek Quinoa Salad Ingredients
  • 6 cups chicken or vegetable stock (we use homemade chicken stock)
  • 3 cups quinoa
  • 2 diced red, yellow or orange bell peppers
  • 2 diced green bell peppers
  • 1 diced English cucumber, skin on
  • 5 chopped green onions
  • ¾ cup sliced kalamata olives (optional)
  • 2 cups diced red onion
  • 3 cups feta cheese, crumbled
  • 1 cup chopped fresh basil or parsley (we usually use parsley)
  • 1 ½ Tbsp grated lemon zest (requires approx. 3 lemons)
  • ¾ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (requires approx. 3 lemons)
  • 6 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 Tbsp minced fresh garlic
  • 1 Tbsp dried basil
  • 1 ½ tsp dried oregano
  • A few pinches of freshly ground black pepper

Instructions:

    Cooked Quinoa
  1. Cook the quinoa, either in a rice cooker or on the stove.

    • If using the rice cooker, just put the quinoa and stock in the rice cooker and turn it on.
    • If using the stove, bring the stock to a boil in a saucepan. Stir in the quinoa. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and cook for 15 minutes, or until the quinoa is tender and the liquid has been absorbed.

    Transfer the quinoa to a baking sheet (where you can spread it out) and set aside to cool.

  2. Greek Quinoa Salad Dressing
  3. Whisk the lemon zest and juice, oil, garlic, basil, oregano and black pepper in a small bowl.

  4. Greek Quinoa Salad In Bowl
  5. Put the cooled quinoa in a large bowl. Add the red and green pepper, cucumber, green onion, olives (if using), red onion, basil/parsley, feta cheese and dressing. Toss to coat well.

Here is the cost per serving in Canadian dollars based on how much the recipe cost us. We made the chicken stock ourselves (see note below); bought the quinoa, feta, olive oil and red/yellow/orange peppers at Costco; bought the dried spices at Bulk Barn (a bulk food store); and bought the other ingredients at a grocery store called Metro.

Ingredient Store $/package Package Qty $/unit Qty used $/recipe
Chicken stock1 Homemade / / 0 6 cups 0
Quinoa Costco 15.99 1.81 kg 8.83 0.5 kg 4.42
Red/orange/yellow bell peppers Costco 6.99 6 peppers 1.17 2 peppers 2.33
Green bell peppers Metro / By weight (kg) 4.39 0.37 kg 1.62
English cucumber Metro 2.99 3 cucumbers 1 1 cucumber 1
Black olives Metro 2.49 375 ml 0.01 187.5 ml 1.25
Red onion Metro / By weight (kg) 4.39 0.192 kg 0.84
Feta cheese Costco 12.99 1.2 kg 10.83 0.45 kg 4.87
Lemons Costco 7.99 5 lbs 1.6 1.20 lbs 1.92
Olive oil Costco 15.99 2 L 8 0.09 L 0.75
Garlic Metro / By weight (kg) 11 0.009 kg 0.1
Dried basil Bulk Barn / By weight (100 g) 1.68 2 g 0.03
Dried oregano Bulk Barn / By weight (100 g) 1.5 2 g 0.03
Fresh parsley Metro 1.88 153 g 0.01 71 g 0.87
Total cost for recipe 21.02
Number of servings 11
Cost per serving 1.91

1 We make our own chicken stock using leftover chicken carcasses and bones from previous meals. In addition to the bones, we throw in some carrots, celery and parsley from the freezer, which we freeze when we buy bunches of these items but have no use for the entire bunch. Therefore, the cost of the stock is negligible. If we were to buy the chicken stock, the cost would be approximately $2 for 900 mL when on sale at Metro, which equates to $3.03 for the amount required for this recipe and $0.30 per serving. The cost per serving would therefore be $2.21.

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