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Rethinking lunch: Things to know and do when you brown bag to save cash-Tips from Jersey City author
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Rethinking lunch: Things to know and do when you brown bag to save cash

by Robert Rastelli
The Star-Ledger
Tuesday July 22, 2008, 1:51 PM

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The modern lunch box, in the form of an updated bento box, has compartments for all your favorite items.

Unlike the stock market, the price of food -- if you haven't already felt it -- is going up and up, something of a balloon effect from field to supermarket shelf. Budgeting is getting harder and harder to master, and those register tapes have taken on an alien quality.

Start at the source -- the grocery store -- if you are going to pack a lunch for work instead of calling out to the nearest deli where a simple (and often tasteless) salad can be as much as $8. Along with using mass transit instead of the Escalade, taking a hard look at building lunch for the office can add up to significant savings if done right.

There is no doubt that buying in bulk is the right way to start. The more chickens you buy, the cheaper they are. Then cook them up a couple at a time and freeze portions for those great chicken sandwiches and chicken salads for the whole week. (There's something comforting in a rut).

However, before making a better and cheaper lunch for the office, be sure to follow some simple rules for food safety. Keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot. This can be done with insulated lunch bags with freezer packs nestled in. Wide-mouth thermos bottles preserve the integrity of everything from cold gazpacho to hot chili.

Even if you have a Kermit the Frog lunch box, play it safe.

"If you are brown-bagging to work, you are automatically saving money by not eating out. So by all means, make your food more enticing than the local fast-food chain's," says Kate Heyhoe on her site This is easily done with a selection of more enticing ingredients for a simple sandwich, although there's nothing wrong with the friendly pb&j.

Take that "plain" chicken sandwich and add sun-dried tomatoes and basil. Use flavored mayonnaise -- like roasted garlic -- for an added layer of taste. Pack a small container of hummus to use as a dip or dressing.

Did you make your Mom's favorite meatloaf on the weekend? Excellent.

Meatloaf sandwiches can be as comforting as mac and cheese, given the right circumstances. Use special lettuces, like romaine or arugula, and add fresh shredded carrots and perfectly sliced garden tomatoes.

"One of the most boring things about brown bag lunches is the lack of variety and texture. Adding nuts or sunflower seeds to salads, soups and even sandwiches makes for crunch appeal. Try some toasted, spiced pecans in your bag instead of chips," writes Heyhoe.

"Wraps are some of the easiest and best things to pack in a lunch," says author and recipes developer June Jacobs of Jersey City, the brainchild of, a specialty food site on the Web. "One of my favorites is to make a wrap with lettuce leaves instead of bread, which makes it much lighter and more fun to eat. Use romaine or leaf lettuce, wash and dry it well, and carry it separately in a small piece of paper toweling. Bring the other ingredients with you and then create the wrap at work.

"Don't make the wrap until you are ready to eat will be fresher and nicer, and remember to keep the ingredients -- especially the dressing -- cold," she adds.

Jacobs also uses leftover dinner vegetables that have been sauteed in olive oil for the base of one of her favorite salads for work. Add a small can of salmon or tuna to the veggies, toss with a squeeze of lemon juice, a little salt and pepper and there you have it. "You don't even need any dressing, since you already have the olive oil from the cooking and the lemon juice adding zing."

A few more little things that can lead to bigger things in the end:

-- Remember plenty of fresh fruit in the lunch box, since it's easy to drop right in and doesn't need any special care. The peaches, grapes, apples and bananas can play double duty as snacks throughout the day.

-- Leftover vegetables can be chopped up and turned into a savory salsa to go with the sandwich of the day. Save grilled vegetables for hand-held treats or wrap ingredients.

-- Small packets of fresh vegetables, like julienned bell peppers and broccoli florets, make handy snacks that pack nutrition as well.

-- Don't ignore last night's grilled steaks or chops. They make great sandwiches or wrap ingredients if sliced very thin and mixed with fresh herbs and dressings.

-- Let staples lead the way. Try rice salad with leftover cooked rice, adding steamed veggies and fresh spices.

-- Items like canned beans can save time and money, and can be the base for a healthful dish right for any lunch. Add shredded greens and your favorite dressing.

-- Pasta can be a lifesaver. Once it's cooked, it can become anything you want it to be. A main dish, a salad, even a soup when microwaved with a little canned or fresh broth.

-- Frittatas are great served cold and are perfect for packing in a lunchbox, according to Savory tarts, pies and quiches can often be served at room temperature and add an elegant touch to any box lunch.

-- Instead of costly pre-made single serving packs, use sealable plastic bags and even mix up your favorites, says Heyhoe. Some of them, like those tasty bean chips, vegetable chips and garlic bagel chips, don't come in single server packs.

-- When in doubt, let your pantry be your guide. Take a look in there and see what's available, then use your imagination to create bag lunches that are flavorful and amusing.

Saving money by bagging -- even if it's not every day -- is a matter of common sense and strategy. Use your brain and keep the change.

Posted on: 2008/7/23 2:19

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