Whether you’re getting the kids ready for back-to-school season or preparing for another long week at the office, make sure everyone in the family is eating a good lunch each day. Relying on cafeteria food, vending machines, convenience foods, and takeout can derail your diet—and also put a dent in your wallet. Packing your own lunch is one of the best ways to save money on food, and you’ll find it’s much easier to eat healthfully because you’re in control of what goes in that lunch bag. Choosing nutrient-rich, wholesome foods is one of the best ways to keep your diet on track. And, you don’t have to spend a lot of money to do it.
Here are some cheap ways to pack a healthy lunch this season:
1. Pita bread sandwiches. If you enjoy a good sandwich for lunch, make it that much healthier by stuffing whole wheat pita bread with your favorite ingredients. An entire pita round can be much more filling than two slices of wheat bread, and it’s also a cheap addition to the lunch menu. Be creative with different fillings like a chicken Caesar salad, grilled chicken strips with salsa and low-fat cheese, or a mix of roasted veggies with feta cheese for a healthy and hearty lunch.
2. Stuffed wraps. Flavored tortillas are perfect for making some tasty wraps, and you can fill these up with ingredients like a low-fat tuna salad, sliced turkey with avocado, hummus and veggies, and virtually any common sandwich ingredient. Restaurants serve these for as much as $10 per wrap, but a homemade version will cost a fraction of that—and will probably be healthier as well.
3. Loaded salads. If you prefer salads at lunch time, skip the salad bar at the local restaurant or cafeteria in favor of a homemade salad loaded with fresh and roasted vegetables, some grilled chicken or tofu, and a side of cottage cheese. Salads are among the healthiest options for lunch, as long as you don’t overdo things with a calorie-laden dressing. Stick with balsamic vinegar or lemon juice to keep things healthy and affordable.
4. Lentil soup with pita bread. Lentil soup can be a very hearty meal, especially on a cold and dreary fall day. An entire bag of lentils costs less than a dollar and you can get dozens of servings out of a single bag. Flavor the soup with spices and add some squash, zucchini, and other vegetables to the mix to turn this into a hearty and satisfying dish. Enjoy it with some pita bread wedges for a complete meal.
5. Peanut butter sandwich. This popular childhood favorite can actually be a nutritious addition to your lunch menu this season. Peanut butter with some banana slices on whole wheat bread is a very filling meal and also a good pre-workout snack. If you plan on hitting the gym right after work, be sure to eat this a few hours before your workout. Add a cup of low-fat Greek yogurt and some fresh fruit to the mix for a well-rounded meal on the cheap.
6. Spaghetti with shrimp and tomatoes. If you want a cooked meal for lunch, make this dish ahead of time and let it sit in the fridge for a few days. Spaghetti with fresh tomato sauce and some cooked shrimp is a nutritious and hearty meal for those long days ahead, and it’s also easy on the wallet. Buy frozen shrimp to cook up with homemade tomato sauce to save some extra dollars.
7. Chicken and bean burrito. Don’t spend upwards of $5 on a burrito for lunch when you can spend a fraction of that for a homemade, healthier version. A wheat flour tortilla filled with grilled chicken, fat-free refried beans, low-fat cheese, and your choice of veggies is loaded with protein and fiber. It will keep you full and satisfied for hours, and will also be one of your most affordable lunch options this season. Make a few of these ahead of time, wrap them in foil, and leave them in the fridge for a few days’ worth of tasty meals. Add a cup of yogurt or fresh fruit with cottage cheese as a side for a complete meal.
For more great frugal lunch ideas and articles by Sabah Karimi, check out personal finance blog WiseBread.com.