How much do you usually spend on lunch? If you’re like any of the people I’ve worked with over the years, probably between $5 and $10 for a sandwich or some kind of takeout. It takes quite a bit of time to walk to the restaurant, wait for the food, and walk back to work—much more time, in fact, than it would take to throw something together in the morning. What would you do with an extra $25 a week, or $100 a month? Even if you’re eating half the takeout for lunch and half for dinner, or you think you’re brown-bagging it with frozen dinners from the grocery store, you could still be saving $30 a month, not to mention some time out of your day.
Like most people, we’re rushed in the morning; anything we take not only has to be able to be thrown together in just a few minutes, but has to cost less than 50 cents. (Breakfast as well has to be under 50 cents, which leaves about $1.50 per person for dinner. Dinners over $1.50/serving are balanced by dinners under $1 elsewhere in the week.) I eat one of the below meals pretty much every day, and I’m still not tired of them.
1. Spinach salad & toasted bread with cream cheese and jam. I’m cheating a bit with this one because I make my own bread and jam, but it’s still a quick, healthy and filling meal. A bundle of regular old spinach—actual grown-up spinach, not the washed-and-bagged stuff—is only 99 cents at most; wash a quarter of it and tear up the leaves. Combine 2 tsp olive oil and 1 tsp balsamic vinegar in a small container. Shake it up when you’re ready to serve, toss with the lettuce. Toast the bread and spread with about a tablespoon of cream cheese (I use store-brand neufchatel cheese that’s usually about $1.30 a package, which lasts about two weeks) and on top of that, a thin film of jam.
2. Vegan “pork” slices in hoisin sauce. Though this particular bag came from the Asian market, you’re apt to find something similar at any natural-foods store or co-op. It’s basically textured vegetable and soy protein, extruded to create a cellular texture not unlike meat. Granted, it’s not for everyone—it’s chewy and slightly spongy—but I happen to love it. A 50-cent serving comprises a totally fair-sized bowl; about 9 oz., dried weight. Though a serving is fat-free and only 80 calories, it packs 4 grams of fiber and a whopping 14 grams of protein. Just reconstitute according to package directions and, just before serving, toss with hoisin sauce.
3. Tuna ’n’ rice. I don’t eat seafood, so I can’t vouch for the palatability of this one, but my husband eats it all the time. Just put some rice in the rice cooker when you get up—brown or white—and you should have a cup or two ready by the time you’re ready to leave. Dump half a can of tuna into a bowl (a can of the store brand is about 59 cents), mix in the sauce of your choosing (sometimes my husband makes his own mayonnaise and mixes it in, other times he mixes in Dijon mustard), spread the tuna over the rice, and you’re good to go.
4. Bread + cheese + 1/2 oz. walnuts or almonds from the bulk bin + an apple. Pretty simple stuff, even though they sell almost the exact same lunch at Starbucks for like $6. A thick slice of homemade country bread, slice of whatever cheese is on sale at the grocery store that week, a very small handful of nuts, and an apple, cut up or whole.
5. Spam musubi + a banana. It’ll make your day, but I don’t recommend it if you don’t like people coming up and asking what the hell you’re eating, because they will.
6. PB&J on homemade bread. Again, kinda cheating because I make my own bread and jam, but did you know you can grind your own peanuts at the grocery store? Look around the health food, bulk, or natural foods area and odds are you’ll see a machine (it’s often red) with a hopper full of peanuts. At WinCo they have two—one with peanuts and one with almonds. Just put one of the provided plastic tubs under the spout and flip the “on” switch. Totally cheap, and 100% natural. If you like a sweeter or smoother peanut butter you can even add sugar or oil once you get home.