How to live on $2.50 lunches and save $14,000

Skip the  dumpy salad line at work and feast on this deliciousness instead for just $2.50 a day. Photo by April Greene.

Skip the dumpy salad line at work and feast on this deliciousness instead for just $2.50 a day. Photo by April Greene.

There’s one culprit in New York’s vast selection of overpriced dining options that I’ve made it my personal mission to trounce: The work-week lunch. For a decade, I watched my midtown coworkers shuffle outside every time the clock struck 12:30, in biting cold or stifling heat. They’d cram into bleach-reeking lookalike delis, drop $10 for a wilty salad or couple of greasy pepperoni slices and can of Coke, and trek back to the office, lopsided with their plastic bag meal weighing one arm down. By this time, they might have 30 minutes to jaw and read the Internet before decorum called them back to work (but not before they’d filled the trash can under their desk halfway up with landfill-lacing greasy napkins and clamshell boxes).

What was I doing all this time? I, my friends, was enjoying a full 60 minutes of Reddit in the company of my $2.50-a-pop super-duper healthy and tasty homemade lunches! They take an hour once a week to prepare and have spared me countless rides in the office elevator with undesirable neighboring tenants. As if that all weren’t enough, a conservative calculation estimates that these lunches have saved me $14,000 in those 10 years, versus what my esteemed colleagues shelled out. That’s what I call lunch money. Let me show you how you can do it too.

I call this my Love Your Layers Formula for Lunch Mastery. I came to it after piloting many other lunch hack methods first: pre-making sandwiches (they get soggy), massive pasta bakes (I’m sick of the leftovers by meal No. 5, let alone No. 10), and making the time to assemble lunch each morning (right), and have finally honed what I believe to be the most time-efficient, nutritious, filling, delicious, versatile, and absolutely cheapest lunch-acquiring model around:

The Love Your Layers Formula for Lunch Mastery

Prep time: 1 hour
Yield: 4 lunches

Formula (example ingredients below):

  • 1 part grains
  • 2 parts vegetables
  • 1 part protein
  • Sauce, seasoning, and/or seeds to taste
  • 4 tight-sealing containers

Pricing generalizations (per lunch):

  • Serving of rice = 15¢
  • Fistful of veggies such as kale, carrots, arugula, beets = 75¢
  • Sprinkling of cherry tomatoes = 75¢
  • Serving of tofu (or tuna) = 63¢
  • Jigger of peanut sauce = 22¢

Total: $2.50 per lunch (does not include your precious time spent prepping or your fractionally-increased utility bills)

______________________________

Rice rice baby.

Rice rice baby.

PREPARATION

Start by preparing a cup of your grain of choice on the stove (quinoa, millet, barley, wheat berries, polenta … there’s a lot out there beside Uncle Ben’s). A dry cup of grains will usually yield four servings cooked.

While the grains are simmering, prep a couple of vegetables to layer on top. Some of my favorite pairings are kale, a box of baby arugula and a pint of cherry tomatoes; a pound each of string beans and carrots, sauteed with garlic; and a few fistfuls of brussels sprouts with a bunch of raw beets, both thinly-sliced. (Many veggies can actually be left appetizingly raw if you chop them finely enough, but a quick steam bath or toss in the frying pan are also easy prep options.)

Next, prepare four servings of some kind of protein. I’m vegetarian, so my go-tos are a brick of flavored tofu, a jumbo can of black beans or chickpeas, or four eggs, but omnivores have options ranging from tins of Alaskan salmon to ground turkey patties — go nuts! Oh, that’s right: you can also use nuts.

______________________________

Fancy sauce, regular sauce or just sriracha will do fine.

Fancy sauce, regular sauce or just sriracha will do fine.

TOP IT OFF

When the grains are done cooking, portion them out equally into four tight-sealing containers (disposable plastic take-out jobbers will work just fine, at least for a while, if you don’t have proper Tupperware). Then divide the veggies into four portions and layer them on top, followed by the protein. Finally, decorate each meal with a complimentary condiment: teriyaki sauce, sunflower seeds, basil from your windowsill, Sriracha, peanut sauce, tahini, etc. Or, for the die-hard budget-conscious, there’s no shame in sticking with good old salt and pepper packets from McDonald’s.

Snap the lids down on these suckers and toss them in the fridge. Now you’ve got lunch to take to work for the next four days! On the fifth day, I recommend congratulating yourself on saving money all week and springing for a discounted sushi tray.

Can you picture how these lunches taste? No! And that’s the beauty of them! The Love Your Layers model is as adaptable as they come: sushi rice with carrots, tofu, cabbage, and tamari is light years away from couscous cooked with thyme and topped with steamed chard, baby peas, marinated tofu, and sesame seeds. Whatever flavors you’re feeling, this lunch can deliver.

______________________________

winnie-the-pooh

STORING IT FOR THE WEEK

If you like your midday repast cold, you can fridge it when you get to work and eat it right out of the container when the noon whistle blows. If you’re the room temperature type, just leave your lunch at your desk when you get in. And if you want it hot, invert it onto a microwave-safe plate and nuke it for 60 seconds (bonus: if your veggies are raw, the grains on top will steam and soften them a tiny bit—delicious). Just BYOF (that’s a fork), and remember to give your Tupp a rinse before you put it back in your briefcase at meal’s end.

Bon appetit, from my cubicle to yours.

Grocery shopping disclaimer: I shop at the Park Slope Food Coop, and realize these prices are pretty great for mostly-organic in NYC. If you’re shopping elsewhere, and find yourself having trouble approximating the above prices, I recommend: 1) Buy in bulk. Everything is cheaper by the pound than the ounce. Plus having a full larder will encourage you to cook more and save you shopping trips. 2) Frozen & canned foods can be your friends. Sealed-up veggies like spinach, collard greens, corn and tomatoes can be just as good in this recipe as their fresh counterparts, are usually cheaper and save prep time because you don’t have to wash them. 3) Keep it simple. Save the spendy microgreens and smoked trout for when you get that raise. Seasoned beans and rice with spinach and corn on top is delicious, dirt cheap, and very healthy.

2 Comment