Let's face it: we all know making lunch is cheaper (and healthier) than buying lunch, but we're busy, and we don't want to eat boring foods. So where does that leave us? It leaves us with more options that you might think. All of these cheap lunch ideas come together in less than 20 minutes and make enough food to cover lunch for a week. Enjoy them at home or pack them and take them to work.
01 of 10
Ramen Noodle Bowls
And no, we're not referring to those instant cups of ramen that got you through college. We're talking the kind you'd get in a really good ramen shop—noodles and broth topped with colorful veggies and a protein or two. In other words, we mean the kind of ramen that'll give your co-workers serious lunch envy.
Just carve out 10 to 15 minutes on Sunday, and you can make enough ramen noodle bowls to take you through the week. Putting these together couldn't be easier (in fact, you don't even need a recipe). Just get a big pot of ramen noodles going on the stove. Then cook up your proteins and veggies while you're waiting. Try chicken, pork, shrimp, or soft-boiled eggs for your protein. Or make a batch of flavorful kimchi eggs and use them throughout the week. Try carrots, cabbage, mushrooms and spinach for your veggies. Once everything is done, divide your noodles between a bunch of bowls or lidded containers. Then, layer in your veggies and proteins; cover with your favorite style of ramen broth—shio, miso, shoyu, or tonkotsu.
Savings Tip: Treat meat as a condiment in your noodle bowls, and one or two servings of meat can stretch across the whole week.
02 of 10
Salad in a Jar
Chop up a bunch of fresh vegetables, like lettuce, peppers, corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, and broccoli. Then use them to assemble a week's worth of jar salads. Use the same combination each day or vary things to keep your lunches interesting throughout the week. Add cheese, nuts, hard-boiled eggs, beans, and meats to make your salads more filling. This is a great way to use up all those leftovers in your fridge, so get creative with what you have on hand.
To keep your salads from getting soggy, put your salad dressing at the bottom of the jar. Then, layer in the hard veggies, soft veggies, proteins, and your salad greens. Bring croutons, corn chips, and other toppers in a separate container so they don't lose their crunch.
Savings Tip: Keep your produce costs down by using vegetables that are in season.
03 of 10
This is another dish that you can prep at the start of the week, for easy grab-and-go lunches. Experiment with a variation of the classic mayonnaise-based pasta salad—BLT, Jalapeno popper, Mexican street corn—or take a lighter approach with pesto, taco or Asian pasta salad. Since these use herbs, sauces, or a small amount of olive oil in place of the mayo, they're lower in fat but still just as satisfying.
Divide your pasta salad into lunch-size portions, so it's ready to eat when you are.
Savings Tip: Use frozen veggies in your pasta salad. They're usually cheaper than fresh veggies; if you have leftovers, they can go right back in the freezer. No waste!
04 of 10
Tired of eating the same old sandwiches day in and day out? Shake things up by trading in your regular sandwich bread for a bag of bagels. Just slather on your favorite condiments, add some meat, and then pile your sandwich high with fresh veggies and herbs. Things like chicken breasts and bacon can be cooked ahead of time to cut down on your prep time.
Prefer a vegetarian option? Then try egg salad or a sandwich spread, like pimento cheese. A bagel won't get soggy like sliced bread, so it's a good option if you're using wetter ingredients or if you prefer to make your sandwiches ahead of time.
Savings Tip: Buy your bagels at a bakery outlet store, and you'll pay half as much. Your grocery store probably also has a rack where they sell day-old bread at a substantial discount.Continue to 5 of 10 below.
05 of 10
Chicken or Tuna Salad
Whip up a big bowl of chicken or tuna salad. Then divvy it up between several 4-oz. jelly jars. Add crackers and you have the perfect main course to build your lunch around. Just add a couple of sides–like fruit or chips–and you're all set.
Tip: If you plan to take this in your lunchbox, be sure to include a knife so you'll have a way to spread the salad on your crackers.
Savings Tip: Buy a whole chicken and roast it. Use the meat to make chicken salad. Make broth from the bones.
06 of 10
Keep pita bread, tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, and your favorite pizza toppings on hand, and you can have pizza for lunch whenever a craving hits. This one couldn't be easier. Just spread some tomato sauce on a pita, sprinkle on some cheese, add your favorite toppings, and pop the whole thing in the microwave or oven long enough for the cheese to melt. We're talking 30 seconds to a minute in the microwave tops. That's a lot sooner than you'd be eating if you were to order a pizza, and there's no tip required.
Want to take this in your lunchbox? Just pack the individual ingredients, and assemble your pizza when you're ready to eat it. This will keep the crust from getting soggy and make it easier to transport.
Savings Tip: Pita bread freezes beautifully. Tuck a bag in the freezer to preserve its freshness. It doesn't need to be thawed before you make your pizza.
07 of 10
Prepare a bunch of burrito ingredients—rice, beans, chicken, and chopped veggies. Then divide them up between several small containers to create individual burrito bowls. Finish each one off with salsa, cheese, sour cream, ranch dressing, cilantro, or whatever else you'd like.
Fresh avocados and guacamole brown quickly, so don't add them until you're ready to eat. Use these easy tips for keeping avocados and guacamole fresh. Or look for single-serve containers of guacamole in the produce section. They're perfect for sticking in lunchboxes.
Savings Tip: Use dried beans instead of canned beans. They're substantially cheaper and easy to cook.
08 of 10
Cook up a mess of quinoa, following the directions on the box. Then toss it with chopped veggies, beans, nuts, cheese, spices, herbs, and dressing to create a colorful and nutritious salad that'll fuel your afternoon. Start with a recipe, or make up your own as you go. As long as you stick to ingredients that you like, you really can't go wrong with this one.
Savings Tip: Buy your quinoa from the bulk bins. It's usually substantially cheaper that way.Continue to 9 of 10 below.
09 of 10
Homemade Yogurt Cups
Store-bought yogurt cups tend to be full of sugar, and they aren't very filling. So buy a large tub of plain yogurt and use the savings to purchase fresh fruit and other mix-ins that you can use to create your own yogurt cups.
Some mix-ins to consider: honey, oatmeal, nuts, dried fruit, granola, jam, and dark chocolate chips.
Savings Tip: Those big 32-oz. containers of yogurt are usually the best deal, and it's really easy to divide them into smaller portions.
10 of 10
Slow Cooker Recipes
There's no rule that says you can only use your slow cooker to make dinner. So pick out a recipe that looks good and make that dish your lunch for the week. The Crock-Pot brand even sells a single-serve lunch crock that's designed to keep your food warm, until lunchtime. Just heat your food in the morning and enjoy a warm lunch anywhere.
Savings Tip: Look for recipes that require few ingredients, so you'll have less to buy.