Brown Bagging It

by Elise Nussbaum

“Bring your lunch!” chirp bloggers giving advice to those who wish to save money. “Cook a stew on Sunday night and it will feed you at work all week long!” “Pack up leftovers from the night before!” This advice isn’t wrong; a little planning and a little flexibility can definitely help your food budget, particularly if you are surrounded by spendy lunch options. But there are other reasons why people go to Chipotle, Chop’t and Panera, among them the time outside, workplace camaraderie, lack of interest in cooking, the phrase “sad desk lunch,” and the need to indulge oneself.

I haven’t always put a lot of thought into preparing nutritious, interesting lunches. During a financially precarious time in my life, I not only ate the same kind of sandwich at my temp job every day, I kept a loaf of sliced bread and a package of cheese in the office kitchen so that I would never have a reason — or excuse — to visit the office cafeteria. Little wonder, then, that when I got a full-time position, I went out for Japanese onigiri, pizza, deli lunches, salads, falafels, and anything else that was fast, easy, and felt like a treat.

It doesn’t have to be that way! With just a little planning, a brown bag lunch can give everything you get from Hale & Hearty, Subway, or Lenny’s, plus a few extra dollars in your pocket.

1: Stepping away from the desk

Starting with a red herring! I always eat lunch (but never red herring) at my desk, and take a walk in the park afterwards. But you should eat outside, if that’s your thing. Step away from your desk, from the spreadsheet you’re working on, from your co-workers’ questions, from your phone, from your to-do list. Sit outside for a little bit if you can, or eat your lunch in a quiet indoors place and then take a walk. It will all still be there when you get back, and research has shown that we are actually more productive when we take breaks!

2: Lunch swapping

Full disclosure: I don’t do this one, either. Unfortunately, I have never worked with someone on the same lunch wavelength. But doesn’t it sound lovely? One day a week, a friend prepares lunch for you, and then you return the favor. If your lunch system involves a big batch cook on Sunday night, it’s an easy way to introduce variety into your menu. The lunch swap also mitigates the “but I buy lunch to hang out with my friends” impetus for going out.

A word to the ambitious: this would work best with just two or maybe three swappers.

3: Doggy-bagging It

A friend of mine from Paris came to visit New York a few years back. I asked him what he thought of the city and he replied, “The restaurant portions are huge!” He was completely bumfuzzled by the overwhelming serving sizes, and spent his trip subsisting on appetizers and side dishes. I take a different approach when confronted with a mountain of food: I take the knife with which the restaurant has also thoughtfully provided me and I divide my dinner in two. After eating half, I take a moment to really check in with my body and consciously decide if I am still hungry. If not, that’s the next day’s lunch sorted with zero effort.

4: Using real dishes and silverware

Though it seems so obvious in hindsight, I only recently figured this one out. Aside from the apparently horrific effects that microwaving plastic has on frogs’ genitals, eating from Tupperware denies your lunch respect, as if you are stealing moments from the work day, and not enjoying a perfectly legitimate, necessary activity. When I ate from plastic containers, my posture might be described by onlookers as “hunched” or “furtive.” My boss had no qualms about interrupting me.

Eating my meal from a real plate, with a real fork, sends the message, however subliminally, that I am doing something important. My boss still interrupts me, but less often, I am certain (though I should really follow point #1 and step outside, physician heal thyself, etc etc etc). Salt and pepper shakers not only drive home the mealtime je ne sais quoi, they make your food taste better.

5: Treating yourself

I am a candy fiend. Candy’s sole purpose is to give us pleasure, and so we buy it not just for the sweetness it provides, but also the awareness that we are doing something purely for our own enjoyment. Eating lunch out can be an indulgence as well, but you can scratch that itch in other ways. Just because you are bringing your lunch from home doesn’t mean that you should deprive yourself — or more importantly, feel as though you are depriving yourself. I don’t spend $10 every day on lunch, but I do spend $1 every day on candy. Find something you can do to light up those reward centers in your brain.

6: Not using a bento box

Frugal people get as excited as anyone else about new products to buy, and every time I see a cute lunch-bringing container, I think … maybe? Cute bento boxes! Pinterest-worthy Mason jar salads! Cunning tiffins that hold soup, salads and sandwiches in glorious isolation until that devoutly wished moment of consumption! They are all so photogenic, so appealing, but … so complicated.

The simpler your lunch system is, the likelier you are to stick to it. Can you commit to carefully washing several containers a night and then repacking them with the following day’s meal? I can’t, so I just use whatever’s handy. The most important thing is using a system that works for you — figuring what, besides food, you get out of buying lunch and asking yourself how to transfer those qualities to a new routine.

What makes you bag or buy your lunch? If you bring it from home, do you have any favorite strategies for making it more fun? Do you even need strategies?

Elise Nussbaum lives in Jersey City with her husband, their cat and their toddler.

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