Five fast brown-bag lunches
Photo: J Muckle
Ka-ching! That was the sound of me handing over $8 and change for a medium-size salad—not including a drink or a bag of chips—as I did almost every day of the workweek. The economy being what it is, I decided to see just how much I was spending on lunch: a little over $2,000 a year. Whoa. And these weren't memorable dining experiences with loved ones; this was a meal I ate over my computer keyboard.

The only way to keep my money in my purse was to whip out a brown bag. I worried that making my own lunches would be time-consuming and boring—and I kept having flashbacks to the soggy tuna sandwiches of my school days. Then again, I had two thousand good reasons to change my habits. So I came up with my brown-bagging rules: I'd spend only 10 minutes fixing the meal, and it had to be something I'd look forward to eating.

At the end of the week, a funny thing happened on the way to the ATM—I didn't need to take out any cash because I still had plenty in my wallet. But wasn't I spending more at the grocery store for lunch items? Surprisingly, the answer was no. Switching from an upscale food store to my less-expensive neighborhood supermarket made a huge difference. I also started using food more efficiently; leftovers, formerly banished to the back of the fridge and tossed out a week later, were repurposed immediately. Last night's chicken became today's chicken sandwich; extra couscous joined grilled veggies for a salad. Almost nothing went to waste. Since some foods, such as tabbouleh and pasta salad, taste even better after they've marinated, I started making extra for dinner so I could take some to work the next day—sometimes stuffing salads into pita bread (and always packing a snack like fruit, good-quality dark chocolate, or dried apricots).

Besides the savings, I discovered other benefits inside my lunch bag. There is the comfort of knowing who prepared my food—Chef Moi. I know exactly what's in it: no trans fats, not too much salad dressing, and I didn't skimp on the sun-dried tomatoes. There's also a sense of pride when my co-workers ask, "Hey, where did you get that?"—and especially when my husband sees me preparing my lunch in the morning and asks if I'll make the same thing for him. That's a feeling even an extra $2,000 can't buy.

Are you ready to redo lunch? Try the recipes for...

Cold Peanut Noodles Then, pack up in one of these 5 stylish lunchboxes!

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