Nine Tips to Make Brown Bagging Your Lunch Easy and Convenient

In two weeks, I’ll start working in an office again. For me, that means I’ll need to resume brown bagging my lunch.

When you work out of your home,  eating what’s in inventory is pretty easy. You have a wealth of meal options 60 seconds away. But when you work in an outside your home, you face a horde of dining temptations…take out, fast food, dining out with co-workers, maybe even the company cafeteria.

For years, I gave in to lunch temptations (or even breakfast temptations), even though there’s a host of reasons that bringing your lunch from home is the smarter choice.

  • A 2012 survey showed two thirds of American workers eat lunch out regularly, at a cost of close to $2000 a year. If you take your own food to work, you tend to spend much less on meals. Freeing up that money can be used to meet other financial goals like paying down debt, saving for retirement, or even buying things you want more.
  • Restaurants often serve larger portions than are healthy. When you bring your lunch, you can limit your portions to healthy amounts..
  • Restaurants tempt us with unhealthy food like french fries. When you bring your lunch, you can limit your lunch to healthier choices.
  • Depending on where you work, you may have limited convenient options. Brown bagging your lunch can give you more options.
  • While packing your lunch can take a few extra minutes before work, it can free up time during your lunch break to run errands, take a walk, or get back to work.
  • Packing your lunch can help you finish off leftovers, reducing food waste.

But even people who want to bring their lunch to work can find it difficult to do consistently. There are some tricks, though, to brownbagging your lunch successfully and consistently. If you can make lunch preparation easy and convenient, you’ll find it much easier to stick to a brown bagging routine.

Have the Right Containers

I say brown bagging, but I don’t really use little brown bags to carry my lunch anymore. Instead, I have an insulated lunch box that helps keep my food warm or cool. I have serving-sized containers and a reusable water bottle. As with so many other things, having the right tools makes all the difference.

You can spend a ton on nice containers for your food, and Bento boxes and glass storage kits are cool. You don’t have to buy special containers, though. I find that small Chinese takeout soup and sauce containers, plastic lunch meat containers, and Noosa yogurt containers work pretty well. They’re just the right sizes for various types of food, and I feel better about reusing them as long as I put them in something not plastic to reheat the food.

Shop Smart

If you don’t have anything in the house you want to eat, you’re going to have problems coming up with a lunch to take. So when you do your grocery shopping, shop with an eye towards what could be easily added to your lunch box.

String cheese, crackers, fresh fruit, sandwich fixings and pretzels all are regularly on our shopping list because they make good food on the go. 

Nine Tips to Make Brown Bagging Your Lunch Easy and Convenient


Pack Leftovers in Portions

To me, the easiest, healthiest, most cost effective lunches tend to be the remains of the previous night’s dinner. And when I’m smart, I package them in lunch-sized portions while I’m cleaning up.

I’m busy in the mornings. If the food I need is ready and waiting, i’m a lot more likely to grab it than if I have to make something special. 

Stock Emergency Supplies

When I did have success in taking my lunch before, it was often because I’d pack a frozen entree, like Lean Cuisine or Healthy Choice meals.

There’s a place for frozen entrees and other convenience foods in your brown bagging plan. You can pack and prepare them easily, so they are highly convenient. The portions tend to be limited, and they are less expensive than eating out. However, they tend to have tons of sodium and taste meh.

So lay in a few emergency supplies, but only use them as your emergency lunch. Instead of pulling them out every day, save them for the days you can’t manage anything else. You oversleep or your fridge is bare or your kid has a morning meltdown. If you can put your lunch together even on your busiest mornings, you’ll have a lot more luck reducing temptation to skip a day in your brown bagging routine.

Pack the Night Before

I’ve seen plenty of bloggers suggest packing your lunch the night before when you have more time to get your lunch ready.

In fairness, I’ve never used this strategy. I tend to have time in the morning, if not always focus. But if time creeps up on you on a regular basis in the morning, then getting your lunch together before you go to bed makes a ton of sense. You’ll remove one of your fail points and set a new routine for success.

Pack a Snack

My work schedule can change unexpectedly, and I can go from having a 4 hour office day with no lunch break to having a 8 hour office day.

That doesn’t need to be a reason to buy lunch when I haven’t planned for it, though. On days I don’t pack a meal, I still try to pack substantial snacks just in case. Having a piece of fruit with me and an emergency protein bar or pack of crackers in the car has helped me avoid eating out multiple times.

Even if I don’t need to use them for lunch, having the snack can ward off takeout temptation on the way home.

Don’t Get Bored

I was able to successfully take lunch to work for a while by taking cheese, crackers and fruit every day. Then I tried the frozen meals every day approach.

Not surprisingly, I stopped taking lunch because the dining out options seemed way more interesting.

Now maybe you like a daily PB&J, like my friend Penny. But for me, trying to bring the same lunch every day is doomed to failure. I have to shake things up a bit. If you do too, a quick look on Pinterest or Google for lunch box ideas for adults should yield a ton of easy and nutritious options.

Budget some Breaks

I’m a lot more likely to stick to a brownbagging routine if I know that every so often I’ll get to enjoy a lunch out. I’ll also enjoy those lunches out a lot more.

The key for me is to limit my breaks from brown bagging to once a month and no more. If I do that, I’ll tend to push myself through some of the days when I might want to skip lunch preparation to save my break for a later day when I can enjoy it more.

Whether you limit your breaks from brown bagging your lunch to once a month or once a week, you’ll find it helps keep you on track much better than saying “I’ll never do it.” You’ll give yourself the opportunity to network and enjoy the local dining options while still saving money and eating healthier most of the time.

Track Your Savings

If you’re taking lunch to save money, try quantifying your savings and add it up to stay motivated. Say you were spending less than most, maybe on average just $6 a day on eating out. Maybe you think taking your lunch costs you about $2 a day. So for every day you bring your lunch, put aside $4. At the end of the week or month, add all those $4 increments together. If you brought your lunch every day for 4 weeks, you’ve saved an extra $80, and almost $1000 in a year!

If you can put a dollar sign on what you’re doing, you’re more likely to stay focused and motivated to keep with your brown bagging routine.

Brown Bagging Success

Establishing new habits isn’t easy, even when we know the benefits. And there are a ton of financial and health benefits to taking your lunch to work instead of buying lunch on the job.

So if you’ve wanted to take your lunch to work and just have had trouble setting a brown bagging routine, try these 9 strategies to help set a brown bagging habit by making lunch packing easier and more convenient. Your wallet and your body will thank you!

Do you take your lunch, or eat out more often? What’s your best strategy for making taking food from home convenient?

Nine Tips to make brownbagging your lunch easy and convenient

25 thoughts on “Nine Tips to Make Brown Bagging Your Lunch Easy and Convenient

  1. I had a co-worker that used to keep a loaf a bread and a jar of peanut butter in is mail box. 🙂 I brown bag it most days. Like you I use an insulated lunch bag and many containers or Ziploc bags depending on what I’m tacking. Snacks are key. I often stock pile them, buying them in bulk and leaving them at work. It is good to get out every once and awhile or a lunch out and mingle wit your co-workers too.
    Brian @ Debt Discipline recently posted…What You Need to Know About Reverse MortgagesMy Profile

    • If you can keep a few emergency snacks/supplies at work, you have a lot more success at not eating out too. (Unfortunately, we don’t have designated work spaces so I have to keep anything in my bag or in my car.)

  2. I’m with Penny – totally fine with my daily PB&J. There are a few days when I have some leftovers to bring, but usually stick with my standard fare. It’s just food, fuel to get through the day. Once you push past that feeling of being bored with your lunch, you reach a point of acceptance. This is my food for lunchtime. Of course, it helps thinking about how much money we save on lunch, with homemade bread and apple jelly. I also bring some carrots, cheese stick, granola bar, and some fruit to snack on in the afternoon.

    The tip about leaving emergency food in your desk is a good one. I always have a special stash at work.
    Harmony@CreatingMyKaleidoscope recently posted…Tips For Keeping Your Financial New Year’s ResolutionsMy Profile

  3. I am totally a brown-bagger! I have a few food allergies that make it tough to eat a lot of order out food anyway – so why not take what doesn’t make me sick and saves some money! I definitely pack a lot of snacks – same ones you suggested. There is never a reason to be “starving” – and it helps when I get home, so I don’t go through the cupboards because I can’t wait for dinner! Love your idea about packing the night before. I’m not great at that – but I do it at least a few times a week.
    Vicki@MakeSmarterDecisions recently posted…Today’s Home Buyers – Are Millennials Taking Over the Suburbs?My Profile

    • There are so many good reasons to pack snacks…avoiding take out, avoiding binge eating later, avoiding “hangry”. I do a pretty good job of carrying them when i’m working in the office, but I need to do a better job of carrying them other times as well.

      Didn’t consider the allergy angle, but should have. For some folks, eating out can be taking a big risk!

  4. The last six years I taught school, I had the same lunch every day. I had my own insulated bag, but put it in the Teacher’s Lounge fridge anyway. It consisted of a protein bar, yogurt, a banana, and a diet soft drink. I know that sounds like very little, but I barely had time to eat it when taking the kids to the cafeteria, waiting on all 30 some of them to go through the line, and making sure trouble makers were not sitting together. At any time I had to be ready to jump up and be a referee. Luckily, I could take whatever I was eating with me, LOL!

    • Yeah, teachers and others in education don’t get much time for lunch…or even for bathroom breaks! Taking your own portable food makes a lot of sense.

  5. This blog post really made me smile. I am a religious brown bagger. I give in to colleague peer pressure about once a month, but other than that I bring the same lunch to work every single day. I guess it’s boring, but for me lunch is basically a chore and I’d rather not spend money to eat out when I get no value. I do admit I’m a bit of a freak though in that my lunch is the same every day and somehow I’m not sick of it!
    Jay recently posted…Trend Following Trade Ideas for December 2016, Part 3My Profile

    • Like I said to Harmony, whatever works for you. If fixing the same thing helps keep you on the program, then that’s what you should do. And I do think occasionally eating with colleagues is a good idea for social and career reasons, but once a month probably works just as well as multiple times a week and it’s a heck of a lot less expensive.

  6. I’ve found that keeping nonperishable snacks in my work bag saves a lot of headache, hunger, and calories! It’s usually a bag of mixed nuts and dried fruit, but if you can think of something else that doesn’t require refrigeration or microwaving and doesn’t get squished or go bad, please let me know!
    ChooseBetterLife recently posted…All I Don’t Want For Christmas: My Un-Wish ListMy Profile

    • Mixed nuts and dried fruit are probably healthier options, but I tend to go with granola bars, protein bars or crackers. (My dad still keeps Nabs in his desk drawer at work, so that’s probably why I go with crackers a lot.) If I’m pretty sure I’m going to eat the snack that day, I’ll take string cheese and fresh fruit.

  7. Budgeting breaks has been good for Rick. He’s pretty picky about his brown bag choices, so he can get bored easily. But the good news is that when he does eat in the work cafeteria he only spends about $2-$3.

    • A work cafeteria is generally a better financial option than restaurants, but when i had access to one I still didn’t make as many healthy choices as I did when I took meals. they were there, i just didn’t pick them.

      I’m glad that you and Rick have found a solution that works well for you, though, Laurie.

  8. YES to brown bagging! 🙂 We’ve been brown bagging it for as long as I can remember. Packing the night before is a great tip! I don’t think I would get it done if I didn’t pack lunches the night before. I usually do it immediately after dinner, as we typically incorporate leftovers into lunches. I also make sure I always have bread on hand – for pb&j and deli sandwiches in case we don’t have enough leftovers.
    Amanda @ centsiblyrich recently posted…How to get ready for a no spend month challengeMy Profile

    • Once you make the commitment and get in the habit, I think brown bagging gets a lot easier. It’s one of those habits that can be hard to set but not so hard to maintain. But having the right food in the house is definitely a key factor in maintaining the habit.

  9. Nice set of tips Emily! I used to eat out almost everyday. The $2000 spent annually was mostly unhealthy food. I ended up spending money and eating unhealthy food – it was a double whammy!

    Eating out is something that I have always enjoyed and budgeted for. These days I have cut down eating out a lot more for health reasons than the money.

    Of course, if you talk about brown, you gotta mention turkey sandwich 🙂

    • They’re both important considerations, and maintaining good health (as far as possible) is key to good financial health. Thanks for commenting, Michael.

    • Wow, evidently there’s a bunch of people who can do the same thing every day! Turkey sandwiches are pretty healthy, but after about a week I’d need something else.

      Good luck on getting him to drop the soda habit, Latoya. Between the high sodium, the extra sugar calories, or the neurological side effects from artificial sweeteners, there are numerous health reasons to shift to water, as well as the obvious financial one. But I guess it’s pretty tame as far as vices go.

  10. These are great tips! I have lots of lunches to pack. Both my husband and I teach, so we take leftovers every day. I also pack my son a lunch for school several times a week. I try to have everything ready the night before, so we can just grab it and go. Otherwise, I have to scramble in the morning. Packing lunches is definitely a cheaper option to buying school lunches, and my food is usually healthier and tastes better.
    Tara recently posted…Stay at Home Mom: My Goal for the YearMy Profile

    • I didn’t include the whole “packing your kid’s lunch” aspect, though I suspect in some ways we come out ahead on those days Little Bit buys lunch rather than takes it. On the other hand, those subsidized school lunches she eats 1-2 times a week probably aren’t as healthy. I can’t imagine eating school lunches every day as an adult, and would probably be a pretty committed brown bagger if I worked in a school.

  11. 2016 has been great for many financial experts. Experts can plan properly for themselves as they have excellent knowledge, and also they are known for it. This year has been out of my control, but I will make most of the next year as I’m planning many things out for my 2017 financial year. I have designed to save more money, keep track of the money I have spent, I will increase my earnings or income next year and most important to save money for the emergency fund.

  12. Couscous and pasta salads are healthy, cheap and easy to brown bag (as long as there’s no mayo which can go bad quickly). I saw several cute, inexpensive neoprene lunch bags and water bottle cases on Amazon – I even bought a set as a gift for our family grab bag. But you’re absolutely right that nothing fancy is needed to take your lunch to work.

    Great tips, Emily. The dollar/calories savings can be immense.
    Mrs Groovy recently posted…A Groovy Christmas to AllMy Profile

    • Mayo is about the only unhealthy food I don’t like, which is a nice bonus. But, as long as you have access to and use a fridge at work, it’s probably still okay as an ingredient.

      While I’m all about using old containers for taking food, I do think a good water bottle is a good investment. You can usually pick up really nice ones cheaply after the back to school sales.

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