A recent survey of 1000 American workers showed that a full two-thirds of them bought lunch while at work, costing them nearly $2000 a year.  We spend our money trying to get through the workday, leaving less of it for pleasure outside of work.  For some, the solution is to pack a lunch, but others imagine a soggy and are immediately depressed by the thought of that.  If done right, packing a lunch for work can be healthier, more cost-effective, and less wasteful.  Here are some tips for preparing healthy, filling work lunches:

Invest in a good set of Tupperware.  I mean a set of Tupperware, not just your one dirty, depressing rough plastic thing with the dividers for different dishes.  To make good and varied work lunches, one needs a full set, including small containers for sauce and medium containers for grains.  One can buy Tupperware new for a fairly low cost.  Avoid Tupperware sold at CVS or Walgreens as there is a considerable convenience markup.  Most thrift stores have plenty of Tupperware, but I find that if I’m not using something from the set, I don’t keep track of it as well.  A washed-out screw-top jam jar is helpful for storing peanuts, pretzels or raisins, and needs a wash less often than proper Tupperware.  Invest in a travel mug for coffee or tea, and brew it at home.  Save paper bags from the grocery store and carry your stored food into work in them.  Learning how to transport your lunch to work is the first step- all else stems from that. 

Prepare food in the evening.  Mornings are often half-asleep and frantic.  Reconfigure leftovers from dinner or make a simple dish after dinner and before washing the dishes.  If I have rice left over from dinner, I will fry an egg in it, make a sauce mix of garlic and soy, and a greens mix of spinach: five minute egg-fried rice.  Boil the bones of your meat to make a broth.  Don’t rely on your 6 AM self to feed you the next day, be proactive. 

Protein.  Your body needs food, not caffeine, for energy.  This may be the only time you’ll hear me endorse Costco, but their big containers of unsalted nuts are a great deal- far better than what you get for nuts at normal grocery stores.  Fill up a rinsed-out jam jar with nuts each evening and pack it with your things.  Hard-boil a carton of eggs and take one or two with you to work each day.   There are many good beans and rice recipes out there.  Make sure you get your protein, but try to avoid red meat and turkey, both of which can cause drowsiness.

Separate your foods.  It is important to keep foods separated from each other in the stretch between  the evening and lunchtime the next day.  If you’ve bought some good Tupperware, this will be something you’ll probably start to do anyway.  Keep all foods intended to be reheated in separate containers from foods that are intended to be kept cool.  Pack all dressings and sauces in different containers (notable exception: pasta sauce often tastes better when mixed in and left unrefrigerated).  Make your own salad dressings in bulk, and store them in your fridge.  Keep minced garlic, black peppercorns, sriracha, cayenne, and soy sauce on hand in your kitchen for rice sauce mixes.     

Cooking for a microwave.   Keep in mind while you’re preparing food that you will likely reheat it later in a microwave.  Overcooking rice can make it mealy.  Microwaving spinach knocks out some of the flavor.  To prepare for the microwave, cook rice a minute or two less than you normally would, then pour in ¼ cup water at lunchtime before you microwave.  After you microwave, mix in your cool greens and sauces.  If you have chicken for lunch, be sure to sprinkle on some water before microwave to avoid drying out.  In short, ask yourself what flash heating your dish will do to its textures and flavor, and do your best to account for it.   

Diversify.  Try to buy groceries that can be used to make multiple dishes.  Sometimes creating a chart helps.  Here is a possible food chart for a week of lunch at work. 

Dish Lemon- 2 Whole Rotisserie Chicken- use for meat and bones for broth Jasmine Rice- 5 lbs. Dry beans- 1lb.  Spinach 12 Eggs Romaine- 1 head Celery- 1 bunch
Red beans and rice X X X X X     X
Salad X   X X X X X X
Egg fried Rice   X X   X X   X
Chicken Salad on  Rice X X X       X X
Jerk Chicken w/ Red Beans and Rice X X X X X     X

Create a weekly budget and a shopping list before you leave for the grocery store.  Don’t assume you’ll “throw something together” before work.  Think it out, and if necessary, write it down.

What to avoid.  Prepackaged microwaveable lunches are often badly proportioned, expensive, and lacking sufficient nutritional value.  You can prepare much cheaper, healthier meals on your own.  Avoid cereal bars and snack packs.  Granola and fruit are great substitutes.  For God’s sake, don’t go to the vending machine at work.  I compared prices of the vending machine at my workplace to those of the same items at a chain grocery store, and the former was marked up 33%!  If you want soda, buy 2 liter bottles and carry it in a thermos. 

Packing a lunch for work is not only a good way to save money, but promotes a healthier lifestyle.  Eating healthier makes you happier, which will, no doubt, help you tolerate your workday.