Bringing lunch from home is one of the best ways to avoid unnecessary spending on food. Start by investing a little time on meal planning to make lunch preparation easier. Keep reading for more tips to help you make budget-friendly healthy lunches.
A balanced and filling lunch needs protein, high-quality carbohydrates, and plenty of vegetables.
Planning your grocery list around deals of the week, buying frozen vegetables, adding more plant-based proteins, and repurposing leftovers are all great ways to build a budget-friendly lunch menu.
To keep meals exciting, rotate recipes frequently and add new seasonings to put a fresh spin on a classic dish.
Everyone’s budgeting these days
Worldwide, food costs have increased, and many consumers are concerned about their ability to afford healthy groceries. A skill that can help is budgeting, which helps you keep track of your spending habits. Your food budget will largely depend on the cost of living in your city, but financial experts suggest spending 10–15% of your monthly income on food.
There are ways you can eat well while keeping food costs as low as possible. Try:
- Making food at home instead of dining out.
- Choosing frozen produce over fresh vegetables and fruits, especially when it’s off-season.
- Using dehydrated beans and eating more plant-based proteins.
- Reducing your waste by repurposing leftovers.
If your budget doesn’t allow you to meet your nutritional requirements, consider visiting your local food bank and try to take advantage of community resources.
How to build a healthy lunch
A balanced and healthy lunch plate has half a plate of vegetables, a quarter plate with lean protein, and a quarter plate with high-quality carbohydrates such as whole grains. It sounds simple, but this eating model is an evidence-based recommendation that's included in the USDA 2020–2025 nutrition guidelines. Many people like this tool because it's visual and easy to apply to meals.
Meat tends to be an expensive grocery item. To cut costs, try and buy different cuts of meat when they’re on sale. For example, if you wanted chicken breasts but chicken thighs are on sale — buy the thighs instead. If you can afford it, consider buying the item in bulk and storing it in your freezer (if you have space). Most meats can be frozen for up to 12 months when properly sealed in airtight containers.
Plant-based proteins are less expensive, and eating more of these foods has been linked to decreased risk of disease and different types of cancer. Examples include chickpeas, kidney beans, lentils, other beans, and tofu.
Whole-grain carbohydrates are more nutritious than refined grains because they have higher amounts of fiber and essential nutrients. They also offer small amounts of antioxidants, which are critical for your immune function and disease prevention. High-quality carbohydrates you might want to try include quinoa, barley, oats, farro, and whole-wheat products (bread, pasta, etc.) Barley and oats are two affordable options that can be used in savory and sweet recipes.
Starchy vegetables also offer complex carbohydrates and can be very satisfying at meals. Lower-cost examples include all forms of potato, beets, green peas, parsnips, carrots, corn, squash, and pumpkin.
Buying vegetables in season can save you money, and visiting your local farmer's market is the easiest way to find in-season produce. You can also buy frozen options, which researchers have found to be nutritionally on par with fresh items, although the texture changes after freezing. Canned options are also nutritious and economical, but pick products with no added salt to help you stay within your daily sodium limit.
Here are some delicious lunch recipes you can make at home. A budget trick you can use is to build your grocery list around items that are on sale. You can do this by scanning flyers and coupons from your local grocery stores, and using discounted items to build your lunch menu.
1. Bean quesadilla on whole grain wraps
Cheese can be expensive, but you can make yours last longer by substituting other ingredients. This quesadilla uses significantly less cheese than classic recipes by using beans as the filling (which are very high in nutrition and lower in cost.)
- 1 tbsp cooking oil
- ¼ cup canned black beans (drained and rinsed)
- ¼ cup diced red pepper (fresh or frozen)
- 1 tsp chili powder
- ½ tsp garlic powder
- 2 tbsp sliced green onions
- 2 tbsp grated cheddar cheese
- Whole-grain tortilla wrap
- Warm oil in a pan over medium heat. Add beans and spices and cover; cook for 5 minutes.
- Turn off the heat and use a potato masher to turn your beans into a paste. Add cheese and green onions, and mash a few more times to fully incorporate the ingredients.
- Spoon your mixture into a tortilla and fold in half. You can warm this on the pan again to develop a crust. Enjoy warm with sour cream and salsa, or pack for work the next day.
- Add extra vegetable sticks to your meal to increase your vegetable intake.
2. Curried barley soup
Barley has a mild nutty flavor and is a great choice for soups. It’s filling, hearty, and pairs well with meat or plant-based proteins.
- 2 cups of your favorite mixed vegetables (frozen or fresh)
- 1 can diced tomatoes
- 1 pack frozen spinach
- 1 tbsp cooking oil
- 2 garlic cloves
- 1 box low-sodium broth (chicken or vegetable)
- 2–4 chicken thighs
- 1 tbsp yellow curry
- 1 cup dried barley
- Warm cooking oil in a soup pot over medium heat. Add chicken thighs and sear until golden brown.
- Add vegetables, frozen spinach, and garlic. Stir occasionally to prevent sticking and burning. Once your vegetables are cooked, add diced tomatoes, curry, and stock. Stir once.
- Add barley and stir, then cover and let simmer for 25–30 minutes. Remove and shred the chicken using two forks before adding it to the soup.
Budgeting skills are invaluable
Learning how to nourish your body while staying within your monthly budget is a tremendously helpful skill. If you want to learn how to budget better but don’t know where to start, consider contacting a local community health center. They offer educational classes on several life skills, including personal finance and meal budgeting.
- Nutrients. Defining a Healthy Diet: Evidence for the Role of Contemporary Dietary Patterns in Health and Disease.
- USDA. USDA 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines.
- International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Healthy Food Prices Increased More than Prices of Unhealthy Options During COVID-19 and Concurrent Challenges to the Food System.
- Nutrition Reviews. Role of Plant Protein in Nutrition Wellness and Health.