Friday, March 20, 2009

Lunch Math

I'm on a quest to eat cheaply at work. It's not easy, especially if you eat out. A complete lunch (food + side + drink) costs anywhere from $6 at Arby's or Taco Bell or Subway, to $8 at most of the food court at the mall, to $10 at King David's Dogs or Dick's Bodacious Barbecue. For only a few dollars more, you can spend $13 or $14 and eat well at Rock Bottom or Weber Grill, but I don't do this; I can much more easily justify two $6 meals at Subway than one $12 meal at Weber.

Packing a lunch is cheap in direct relation to how homemade it is. Peanut butter and jelly: about 70 cents per sandwich. Balogna and cheese is about the same, depending on how refined your taste in lunchmeat is and how thick you stack it. Homemade chili: about $1.80 per serving, the way I make it. Homemade chicken noodle soup: around $1.60 per serving. Any prepackaged lunch food starts at a dime for a package of ramen, jumps quickly to a dollar for Kraft Easy Mac (which isn't a complete meal), and gets more expensive pretty quickly. Frozen entrees range from a dollar for bulk Banquet budget meals, to four or five dollars for the healthier choices.

What I really need to watch for is snack food. It's easy to wander into Au Bon Pain or the South Bend Chocolate Company and spend five or six dollars on a mocha and a scone, or coffee and cookies and hard-boiled eggs. And this is food I should be avoiding anyway. Bringing snacks from home is cheaper, but not necessarily a lot cheaper; bars of any sort (PowerBars, MetRX protein bars, CLIF bars...) are a healthy snack, but also an expensive way to eat. On the other hand, unhealthy snack food is pretty cheap if purchased in bulk and eaten a serving at a time; a double handful of chips costs around 50 cents, and pretzels are about the same. My problem is that I'm prone to cranking through a bag of corn chips in a sitting, instead of stopping after a serving. This adds unhealthy to expensive; if I make a mess while I'm doing it, I hit the Fritos Trifecta.

I've recently discovered the cheapest possible meal downtown. I've got an Einstein's Bagels travel mug, so a coffee refill only costs 99 cents. And bagels are also 99 cents, with nothing on them. So I'll get a cup of coffee and a cinnamon-sugar bagel (if you ask nice, they'll put the cinnamon and sugar on the inside, too) for $2.08 including tax. Sure, it's carb-intensive with almost no protein. But it's also a $2 lunch; it's hard to beat that.

Enough rambling about food; time for my $2 Einstein's lunch!


NerfSmuggler said...

Work snacks and vending machines are definitely your enemy in terms of health and budget. It's just so easy to make a lot of little purchases and get not much good from them.

The trick I use requires a capitol expenditure up front and an ability to eat the same good meal for lunch on several days.

First, recognize that packaging is a major factor in the cost of the food you buy. Getting a big bulk bag of chips and then splitting it into zipseal baggies will, even after buying baggies, will save you something close to 2x over buying lunch sized chip bags at the grocery -- 5x if you buy from vending machines or convenience stores.

For entrees, I found an electric smoker at a garage sale ($30 - new is around $200) then I bought (retail - about $100) a vacuum sealer when I found I was throwing away food which had turned. A $10 turkey breast smoked with chunks of apple wood is very tasty and comes out to around $0.72 to $1 per serving and when vac-sealed into servings lasts for around three weeks. Roasts are also good sealed and last longer. Red meats also freeze (chicken and turkey need to be flash-frozen) and with no air pockets are pretty much immune to freezer burn.

A very handy part of the vac-sealed servings is that can be nuked without popping the bag (stays moist) or even boiled in the bag. Whatever plastic they use for the bags imparts no scent or flavor.

Jeff Mountjoy said...

I've got no problem with eating the same thing every day for a while. I was briefly considering a high-protein exercise-related diet; as part of it, I was considering buying bulk frozen chicken breasts and bringing the Foreman grill to work. Of course I'd need a blender too, to process the cooked chicken. :-)

NerfSmuggler said...

Costco has individually sealed and frozen skinless/boneless chicken breasts with the Perdue/Kirkland label. They last easily over a year frozen and no freezer burn -- which has traditionally eaten almost as many frozen chicken breasts as I did. If I were going to Foreman grill at work, I'd probably go that direction.