I used to eat lunch out most days. I was right out of school and didn’t cook all that much and didn’t have leftovers. I went to work too early and didn’t have the time to make lunch in the mornings. It was just easier to go grab something. I was building better relationships with my coworkers.
Those things were all excuses. At around $8 for a fast food meal or a Subway sandwich combo, you’re looking at close to $40 a week. Someone in the office will want some variety, so mix in something a little nicer on Friday and you’ll be closing in on $200 a month. There are more efficient and cost effective ways to have a satisfying and delicious meal at work.
With a little forethought and a couple of hours one weekend, you can prepare a month’s worth of lunches. Make that same commitment a few more times and you’ll have options that will let you pack a different lunch every morning of the week in about 60 seconds. The best part is you’ll spend closer to $50 a month than $200 on those work lunches. Even going with higher quality options won’t drive the cost up beyond $100. The image at the top is a smoked leg of lamb that’s around 5 lbs. It freezes well and only costs about $30. At a third of a pound per meal, you’re looking at 15 servings for the low cost of $2 per meal. Add a $1 worth of extras like a sweet potato and some buttered toast you’ll have a very nice lunch that only costs $3. That low cost option isn’t even the frugal route; when I post some of the rice and beans heavy options later you’ll be able to make lunches that come in close to or under $1.
This is the first post on meal prepping for work lunches and focuses on preparing to prep. We’ll get set up with a well built lunch kit that has the containers, lunch box, and ice packs you’ll need to be successful in packing pre-made lunches. Links below may be affiliate links; see Disclosure on Affiliations .
You want lunch packing to be easy, effective, and low effort. If you get set up to do those few things well, it’s much more likely that you’ll form a habit that becomes an everyday behavior. The good news is that it won’t take much in terms of money or storage space to get started. Really, you just need three main things to have a well built lunch kit:
Well Built Lunch Kit Item 1 of 3: Containers
Since this guide is focused on making several weeks worth of meals in one go, you’ll need to be freezing food so it won’t spoil. That means you need containers that freeze well. Here are a couple of good options.
Freezer Bags – Quart – If you need to go cheaper than the other options shown here (save some of that cash you were spending on lunch to upgrade later), grab some freezer zipper baggies. They’ll work and are available at pretty much any grocery in a pinch.
Reusable Container – Half Quart Size –I prefer the reusable types as they’ll be cheaper over the long haul. These are the simplest version of freezable multi-use containers I’ve found (I’ve referred to these as takeout containers for years now). They do need to be the freezer type as they won’t let air through the plastic which causes freezer burn. Also in a quart size and Square Version.
Compartment Version – If you’re looking for a version that has different compartments for sides, give these a try. Do try to be aware of how much air is in the free space of the lid as it can impact flavor in longer freezes.
Well Built Lunch Kit Item 2 of 3: Lunch Boxes
Now that we’ve got our food in a container, we need something to carry it in. I recommend an insulated lunch cooler. You may not need to keep your lunch cold everyday but the insulated cooler works just as well as a lunch bag when you don’t put ice packs in.
Free/Almost Free Option: Brown paper bags or grocery store plastic bags. This really works well if you have foods that don’t need to be kept cold or you live close to work and have refrigerator access to store your lunch. Be aware of food safety though, keep things cold that need to be cold.
Recommended Option: Any insulated soft-side lunch box will get the job done. Lots of mega-corporations will even distribute these to employees as a freebie with a company logo on the front. If you don’t already have one laying around, check out these:
The Upgrades: Looking for style upgrades? Sometimes your workplace culture is going to react differently if you roll in with a plastic bag full of food in zipper bags versus a well designed sleek cooler. It’s alright (maybe even required) to look good while lugging in your lunch.
Well Built Lunch Kit Item 3 of 3 Ice Packs
Again, starting out with a basically free option to get you going on the cheap, you have the option of just freezing some water in the disposable plastic bottle it comes in. It’ll work but they eventually leak after a few uses. A side benefit of this method is you’ll have a cold bottle of water available about half way through the day.
Look for sizes that work with the lunchbox option you select. For example, the smaller ice pack in the image below can fit around food and stack vertically. Gel packs can be wrapped around food or containers. The gel pack types or the hard plastic will both work well and I have no preference; just pick something that works with your lunch box.
Lunch Kit Extras
You’ll also want to have some standby extras. I keep the following items in a drawer in my desk at the office, but you could just as well keep them in a compartment of your lunch box:
You’ve got to have condiments handy, such as salt, pepper, and hot sauce. For instance, red beans and rice freezes well (this will be one of our first recipes for meal prep) and loves a healthy dose of hot sauce. If you’re looking to keep it in your bag, something like the Spice Missile might be right up your alley.
Utensils are another must have item. The set in the link is a backpacker’s titanium set that would be overkill, but really nice. Disposable plastic ones bought in bulk (or snagged from the fast food joint and stuffed in that kitchen drawer) work just as well. You could also just throw some of your normal everyday utensils in the bag.
With everything setup and ready to go, all you need to do now is cook some lunches. Next on the to-do list for posts is a red beans and rice meal prep that’s based on products available at Costco. There will be a ton of pictures to show how it should look. It also doesn’t require 3 years of french cooking school to get it right, and tastes great out of the freezer. The meal prep area of the Subject Matter Organizer will have a section for this and all the future recipes intended to be made in big batches and frozen for lunch prepping.
After your meals are frozen, your daily lunch will take about 30 seconds to put together. Place a container in the fridge the night before work. Grab the container, and ice pack, and a piece of fruit, and any snacks you’d like for the day and put them in your lunch bag and you’re done.