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On the Hunt for the Perfect Office Lunch

For sixty minutes every day you’re let loose from your cubicle confinement, so don’t waste your precious freedom by blowing $12 on a Tex-Mex combo platter. Use these 8 tips for saving money and eating well that will make your lunch hour at the office more than just the daily half way marker.

By Max Corey

It’s 12:59 pm and my lunch hour is approaching.  I have two options:

  1. The frozen Chicken Marsala that tastes like gerbil meat dipped in moist towelette juice.
  2. A Chipotle steak fajita burrito with guacamole, a side of chips, and a small soda.

Since I wasn’t making I-banker money, I went with option 1. Yet, the satisfaction of saving 5 bucks was outweighed by the lackluster frozen crud.

Unless you’re making I-banker money, you similarly struggle with the age-old battle of “go out to eat versus home made piece of crap.”  Everyone agrees that saving money on lunch is necessary during the current recession. However, I am not going to assail Chipotle runs. Going out to eat provides networking and friendship opportunities. Moreover, you deserve to treat yourself as you toil away in corporate America.

The goal of this column is to provide efficient ways to save money, while balancing the conflicting needs for a healthy, tasty, and happy office lunch (some at Primer have already beaten me to the punch.  Check out Single Serving, and Planning Your Meals Like Your Mom Did for some helpful tips).  As the Greeks do, find the golden mean between your desires to save and your desires to splurge.

You can save both time and money by bringing a home made or prepackaged lunch. (There are some other upsides to eating at your desk as well). Think about the time you spend leaving your desk, walking or driving to the restaurant, waiting in line, and then returning your office. That extra 30 minutes means you might be able to finish your work earlier and go home. At the very least, it allows you to catch up on back issues of Primer.

As for the money saved, Savvy Discounts provides a nifty way to show savings.  I inputted an average home lunch as $4.00 and then set the average restaurant lunch to $7.00.  For 5 days a week, every week of the year, you would save $865.80. While this figure is actually a bit lower — it doesn’t factor in holidays or time off from work — the savings are definitely real.

Here are my tips to improve the your office lunch experience.

1. Always Grab Breakfast

We’ve been hearing it all of our lives: eat a healthy and filling breakfast.  If you do go out to lunch that day, eating a sizable, but low calorie breakfast will help you avoid eating extra at lunch.  For some fast, easy recipes, check out these instant recipes at Men’s Health.

2. Frozen Dinners

Frozen dinners are a decent way to get some variety without having to cook.  Unfortunately, many of the tastier options are high in calories (a Hungryman will set you back 700+ calories).  Low calorie options often tend to taste like wheat germ masquerading as chicken.

But there are a few low calorie options to consider:

  • Amy’s. Amy’s products are pricey –4 bucks for 2 bean and beef enchiladas –but are tasty and still cheaper than Chipotle. At about 160 calories an enchilada, they’re also good for your washboard abs in training.
  • Healthy Choice. Healthy Choice’s entrees taste like garbage. One entrée actually instructed the consumer to have a meat thermometer. Hey Healthy Choice, do you have any items that require me to bring a strainer, melon baller, and a garlic press?  Just an awesome way to make frozen food inconvenient.
  • Lean Cuisine and Weight Watchers. Lean Cuisine products are generally solid, but not filling enough. I would thus recommend Weight Watchers, which tend to be just as savory and a bit more filling.  In particular, I’d avoid products with rice: for some strange culinary reason, prepackaged frozen rice doesn’t taste as good as freshly cooked rice. I’d also go with Asian/Latin flavors over Italian flavors.  The marinara sauces in frozen entrees tend to be bland, while the Asian and Latin meals at least try to offer some spice.

3. Pre-Plan Ahead

If you’re like me, you have maximized the exact time you need to wake up before work in order to: shower, shave, brush your teeth, change, and then head out the door.  Getting up another 15 minutes earlier to pre-make your lunch that day is just not happening.

One easy way to avoid this is to simply make more food whenever you do cook at home.  If you’re cooking pasta, cook 1-2 full boxes and save the rest for the week. There are plenty of meals that can be made in 15 minutes or less, including tuna salads, simple Foreman grilled meats, and even paella.  Check out this article on Rachel Ray’s site (I know, I know) which  offers several more 15 minute meals. Leftovers taste better than frozen items and are still cheaper than going out. (http://brokeassgourmet.com/ provides gourmet recipes at a bargain price, however most take at least 40 minutes to finish).

Also, spend an hour on Sunday making your meals for that week.  A friend of mine working 9 to 5, spends a small part of her Sundays chopping up vegetables, preparing Ziploc bags of crackers, and doling out hummus into small Tupperware containers.

4. Grocery Store Guide

First, stores like Costco and Sam’s Club are a godsend. See if your parents can put you on their membership plan or split a plan with your roommates.  Once there, buy the 42-pack of granola bars and bring them to work as snacks.  And if you can get your roommates or girlfriend to split the bill, buying perishable items like cheese and meat are also a good idea.

Second, when you’re at the grocery store, take some extra time. Ask yourself how motivated will you be to cook any item for work.  If you’re too lazy to cook raw meat, then splurge on the pre-made chicken breasts.  Even the pre-packaged/pre-made items will usually be cheaper than sit down restaurant options (you can get a large, full rotisserie chicken for 10 bucks, which should provide you with at least 3 meals).

Third, reward yourself for not going out to eat by splurging at the grocery store. Personally, I enjoy kalamata olives in my salads.  An 8 oz jar or so costs 4 bucks, which is not exactly thrifty.  But, when you consider that premium salads are 8-12 bucks, splurging on grocery store items makes more sense.  Again, the point is not to buy a 90 pack of Ramen and relish in your massive savings. First, I’m pretty sure that a year’s worth of Ramen will ruin your kidneys. Second, if you have a 9-to-5 job, you can likely afford to spend an extra buck on your meal than Ramen.

5. Assemble at Work

I saw one office mate bring in all of the ingredients for her sandwich and put it in the fridge. Doing so means you don’t have to prepare lunch that morning. Warning: this should probably not be tried for complex pastas, steak entrées, or giant vats of stew. You don’t want to be known as the curry-fish stew guy, do you? Here are some more tips for bringing food to work for assembly.

6. Restaurant Coupons

Even if we never have to experience breadlines, coupons are always a good idea. Seek out promotional events for free food giveaways, which have seen a noticeable increase during this recession. Quizno’s just gave away a million free sandwiches.  I’ve recently gotten 2 free tacos from Jack in the Box and a free medium curly fries from recent promotions (Note: do not spend more than 15 minutes finding coupons online.  Saving 99 cents after sifting through hours of Internet coupons is not worth it, unless you’re an unpaid intern. Then by all means, sift).

7. Exercise

If you have an hour for lunch, you might want to go for a 20-minute power walk outside. Even circling the office building outside, while making you seem like a stalker, it will make you feel refreshed and deserving of that ham and cheese sandwich.

8. Go Gradual

Finally, set realistic goals for bringing homemade food and recognize that the business lunch should not be totally abandoned.  If you eat out every day, try cutting back to 4 days a week and see how it goes.  In addition, try to figure out how truly important each business lunch is. Are you going out to Subway every day with your best buddy of 5 years? He probably won’t get offended if you eat alone at your cubicle once in a while. But, is there a new co-worker, someone in a new department, or a higher up inviting you out? In those situations, 9 bucks is a small price to pay for building solid office relationships.

Following these tips may not save enough to buy a flat screen TV. However, if you can efficiently bring in a homemade lunch, your body and your wallet will still thank you.

 
  • http://jackbusch.net/blog Jack

    I appreciate the examples of brownbagging in #5 that go beyond a sammich and bag of chips. I’m not a real sandwich guy myself and for some reason only enjoy warm foods. So I’ve had to get pretty creative with the microwave. I stock my desk with instant rice and cans of black beans and the fridge with hot sauce for a pretty satisfying warm meal. A box of frozen burger-type patties (I get morningstar stuff, personally, for the variety) are an easy-to-assemble alternative to drab cold cuts, too.

  • http://sf-counseling.com spanish fly

    Gerbil meat and toilet juice. Yummy :)

  • Ricardo

    I buy:
    -a large bag of frozen, cooked chicken or beef fajitas (any diced/sliced/small pices frozen meat will do, but i usually opt for the leaner chicken) – Usually ends up around $10-15
    -3-4 small bags of forzen vegtables (betwen $.75 and $2.00 each depedning on your taste.) Variety is key with these; I like yellow squash, zuccini, broccoli, and asian blends.
    -1 package of (10) Ziploc microwave steamer bags.

    Every saturday, open up 5 steamer bags, and throw a hanful of frozen meat in each one, along with a different veggie for each day.

    Go to your spice rack and throw in a different spice for each day, and maybe a little of your favorite sauce.

    Then, throw the five bags into your freezer, and grab one each day as you leave before work.

    Booya. Minimal (3-6min) microwave prep time, variety, steamed (healthy, no nasty microwaved meat flavor), HIGH nutritional value, easy cleanup, and best of all, 10 solid quality meals for under $20 total.

    If you need a little more subtsance, ofr a few extra pennies throw a handul of (cooked) pasta or rice (rice is tricky) in there as well before freezing.

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