3 Golden Rules of Packing Lunch for Work or School

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Would you spend $1,000 on lunch?

That’s nearly the amount the average American adult spends annually eating out for the midday meal, according to a Visa lunch-spending survey. The credit card company found that Americans eat out for lunch twice per week for a total annual cost of $936.

If you instead saved that money annually and it earned 5 percent interest, you’d have $11,772.91 after a decade, thanks to the power of compounding interest.

Only 30 percent of Americans say they never eat out for lunch, according to Visa. If you’re among the other 70 percent, the following tips can help, whether you’re packing your own lunch for work or packing the kids’ lunch for school.

If you want to put a price on your savings, check out Bankrate’s lunch savings calculator and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s compound interest calculator.

Following are three things to keep in mind when packing your own lunch:

1. Invest in containers

Think about the tools you need for your lunch-packing routine. Although buying such things will cost you upfront, they probably will pay for themselves within weeks thanks to the savings of packing lunch instead of eating out.

When I was packing salads large enough to constitute one-course meals, I needed a neoprene lunch bag, large storage containers and zippered plastic bags for the salad components. I bought five containers so I could make a week’s worth of lunches at once.

Common tools to consider include:

  • Lunchboxes: Each style has pros and cons. For example, bags made of neoprene (a synthetic rubber commonly used for wetsuits) are durable, have some stretch and can be flattened when empty. However, their contents can be smashed too. Rigid lunchboxes take up more room but protect contents better.
  • Storage containers: Think about what types of food you most often pack for lunch or snacks as well as the type of lunchbox you use. For example, if you like sandwiches and don’t use a rigid lunchbox, consider sandwich-size plastic or glass containers to protect your meal.
  • Plastic bags
  • Thermos: If you don’t have access to a microwave or fridge, these containers can help keep hot or cold liquids or foods closer to their ideal temperature for longer.
  • Reusable drink containers: In addition to transporting drinks, you can freeze water in these. That way, they can double as ice packs to help keep foods cool without a fridge.

2. Plan out your shopping

When shopping for packed-lunch groceries, keep the following in mind:

  • Plan ahead: As with meals eaten at home, planning out at least one week of packed lunches and snacks at a time can help save time, money and stress.
  • Make a list: Based on your plan, create a grocery shopping list of everything you’ll need for at least the next week’s worth of lunches. It might help to keep this list separate from your regular grocery shopping list.
  • Shop with an eye on price: To get the best bang for your buck, avoid convenience sizes, buy in bulk and choose generic brands.

3. Pack wisely

If you want to stick with the practice of packing lunches week in and week out, you’ll need to minimize the time and stress involved. To do that:

  • Prepare in bulk. After you purchase an item meant for lunches — whether it’s potato chips or carrot sticks — divvy it all up at once into containers or plastic bags. This includes washing and cutting when applicable, such as with carrots.
  • Think leftovers. If you have leftovers from dinner, take them for lunch the next day instead of starting lunch from scratch. Or you could double your dinner recipe and immediately put half of it into lunch containers, and you won’t have to cook anything for lunch the next few days.
  • Prepare a week’s worth of lunches at a time. Keep in mind that, depending on what you’re packing, you might have to freeze foods for the latter half of the week.
  • Keep components separate. Does your sandwich or salad tend to get soggy before lunchtime? Keep the components separate, such as by putting each item in its own plastic bag. Then assemble them right before eating.
  • Finalize the night before. Each evening, make sure everything you need for the next day’s lunch is ready to go. Then there’s one less thing to stress over in the morning, and it saves you from skipping a packed lunch if you oversleep.
  • Take advantage of shortcuts. When I have access to a fridge at work, I skip packing snacks. I instead leave a big bag of prepped carrots and a tub of hummus in the fridge in case I get hungry later in the day.
  • Have a backup plan: Keep ready-made lunch options like microwaveable TV dinners on hand. If all else fails, you can grab one on the way out of the house and keep it in the fridge at work. It might be more expensive than a lunch made from scratch, but it’s still generally cheaper than eating lunch out.

What’s your best tip for packing lunch? Share your thoughts in our Forums. It’s a place where you can swap questions and answers on money-related matters, life hacks and ingenious ways to save.

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