How To Pack A Healthy, Filling Office Lunch

I’ve always been a frugal person. My mother would study the sales section of our town newspaper at the beginning of every week and put together a carefully budgeted grocery list. Our family mainly went to second-hand stores to stock up on clothing. Me and my brother ate off-brand ramen noodles for lunch, and we didn’t think anything of it. These habits helped me grow up into a pennywise adult, loathe to pay full price for any item that I could reasonably obtain at a discount. Economizing was a reflex. That was, however, until I started working at an office job in downtown Toronto.

Don’t get me wrong, living it up a little comes with the territory of being in your twenties. Being young and independent, it’s not wrong to put whatever small amount of disposable income you have to use. I love to huddle over drinks with friends, or plan lunch dates with contacts I haven’t seen in a long time. Unfortunately, this joie de vivre attitude had bled over into my daily life in a way that was excessive and unnecessary. I was buying my lunch nearly every workday, sometimes from a food court, sometimes from a salad bar, sometimes from fancy coffee shops. I became fearful of looking at my bank account balance. I was earning enough income to cover my basic living expenses, but not enough to cover lavish lunches five days a week. I was literally eating away at my savings account.

This was the kind of thing my mother had taught me was wasteful. Eating out, she said, was multiples more expensive than making a homemade meal. What’s more, it was the lazy option. There was no valid reason not to prepare the bulk of your food at home. Getting a takeaway lunch, my mother held, was reserved for emergencies only.

I decided to listen to the gnawing guilt that whispered in my ear everytime I grabbed lunch near the office. No more, I told myself. From now on I’ll be cooking in bulk, packing my lunch, and resisting the urge to “treat myself” in a way that was actually holding me back from my long-term goals.

It’s difficult to change our habits. Chances are, if we’ve found ourselves entrenched in a negative habit, there’s actually some positive outcome we’re receiving from it. In my case, getting lunch everyday was convenient. It allowed me to leave the office and get some fresh hair and clear my headspace. Not to mention, the prepared food I bought was delicious. There was no denying that on some level I was enjoying my little lunch vice.

I had to get clear with myself on the reasons that buying lunch so regularly had to change. It wasn’t hard to come up with a pretty compelling list:

  • If I’m paying $10 per lunch every day I work downtown, that’s easily $50 per week. I’m spending $200 per month on lunch. Shockingly, that's more than my monthly grocery bill.
  • My pants no longer fit me. I work out, and I eat healthfully at home. The contributing factor to my weight gain seems to be the prepared lunches.
  • I’ve always been a health-conscious individual. Ordering lunch from shops and restaurants throws a wrench into my healthy lifestyle. I’ve worked in restaurants before, and I know how much oil and salt the chefs use to make the food taste delicious. They want you to come back, and that’s how they hook you.
  • I need to face the reasons why I really feel the need to go outside. Grabbing lunch is a distraction, a breather. If I need to take a moment to refresh myself, there are other ways I can accomplish that.

Part one of fixing my situation was complete: facing the truth. Now, I had to implement phase the second. Changing a habit is a process of hacking the motivational and pleasure centres of our own brains. In a sense, we have to train ourselves like we might do for a dog. Give a command, reward good behaviour. Here’s how I went about doing that:

1. Make It Pleasurable

  • Don’t give into the stereotype of packed lunches being plain and boring. Invest in a cute lunch bag or box that’s big enough to contain your tupperware containers. You’ll get a little serotonin hit from taking out your specially-chosen lunchbox, rather than from being handed your bagged takeaway lunch.
  • Pack food you actually enjoy. The beauty of packing your own lunch is that you get to choose every element. When changing your habit, make sure your lunch bag is packed with food you can’t wait to eat. If you pack food that you’re only “meh” about, chances are you’ll find an excuse to “accidentally” walk into your old standby lunch joint.
  • Pack a frozen water bottle in your lunchbox. This will keep your lunch items nice and cool, and you can drink the thawed water alongside.

2. Make Sure You're Not Still Hungry

  • If you pack too little for lunch, you’ll either be miserable and hungry at work, or you’ll cave and buy food again. It’s better to pack too much food than too little.
  • Choose filling foods such as beans, potatoes, nuts, oatmeal and protein sources like meat, tofu, tempeh, eggs or cheese.

3. Make It Healthy

  • Use the “plate method” when arranging your lunch items. This means that 40% of your plate should be comprised of vegetables, 40% should be carbohydrates and 20% should be proteins or fats. The idea behind this method is that by loading up on vegetables you’ll be working towards your daily recommended intake of plant foods, getting lots of vitamins and minerals while filling your stomach up with few calories.
  • Include sources of fiber. Fiber is linked to low BMI, and increases the satiety factor of a meal. You’ll be stuffed to the brim, and your digestive system will thank you.

4. Make It Convenient

  • In order for a new habit to stick, it has to work within your lifestyle. Many lunch preppers like to do a bulk cook on Sundays, then portion out their food into designated tupperware containers for lunch throughout the week. You only have to cook once, and you have lunch until next Sunday.
  • Do a bulk cooking of foods that freeze well, such as rice, stew or pizza. This will ensure your food doesn’t go off before you get the chance to eat it.
  • Invest in a slow cooker. This was my method of choice, as I wasn’t a fan of devoting my whole Sunday to cooking up a storm. I made lots of bean and stew dishes in my slow cooker. You can buy a slow cooker from a second-hand store for around $10 (newly married couples always end up with too many slow cookers that they wind up donating, so you can find ones that are brand new).
  • Pack leftovers from dinner for lunch the next day. If you’re cooking dinner for yourself, purposely make extra. If you’re out at a restaurant and you’re served a portion you can’t finish in one go, ask for a doggy-bag and you’re all set for a delicious lunch tomorrow.
  • Include “whole” foods in your packed lunch; that is, foods that don’t need to be assembled. Whole fruits are a good example of this, as are potatoes.

5. Track Positive Progress

  • Changing our habits can seem like rolling a boulder up a mountain, so it’s important to recognize the positive progress we’re making to reinforce why we’re going in a new direction. Look at the difference in your monthly spending, and think of all the ways you can more intelligently use that money you’ve saved. If you’re health-focused, take a look at yourself in the mirror...wow, your abs are coming back!

6. Find A Mental Outlet

  • So many of our detrimental habits are an outlet for stress. Smoking, drinking, checking social media too much, these can all be symptoms of a busy or bored mind that needs a little vacation. If you’re buying lunch as a form of retail therapy, or to have a good reason to step away from your desk, find other ways to channel that energy. Going for a walk is a great place to start. Instead of grabbing lunch, take a walk around the block, or stroll through a park that’s nearby to your workplace. If you like the ritual of shopping, a bit of window shopping might be able to curb your craving.

7. Give Yourself A Reward

  • Yes, reward yourself for being a virtuous lunch packer! Just don’t reward yourself with buying takeaway lunch. Remember, you’re still in recovery. It’s a slippery slope. But maybe a new pen from a cute stationery store, a new video game, a face mask from the drug store, a new houseplant...it’s important to give a small reward to connect the brain pathways that associate an action with an outcome. And you genuinely do deserve it!

By getting into the habit of packing my own lunch, I found I saved over one hundred dollars per month, and my pants resumed their normal fit. Best of all, I felt more in control of my own life. It wasn’t that I wanted to buy my lunch all the time, it was that I was failing to forecast my upcoming week and make appropriate plans. I also found my skin cleared up; I’m the type of person who’s sensitive to certain ingredients, and that usually manifests as skin problems. Because I was packing lunches with whole foods and healthy ingredients, my body was a lot happier inside and out.

Packing your lunch may be the last thing you want to do in the morning, but trust me, it’s worth it. And, it’s not as annoying as you’d think it might be. Figure out what works for you, try some of my tips, and give this new habit an honest shot. For what it’s worth, my mom will be proud of you.