I try to pack my lunch for work as often as possible. But there have been weeks in which I buy it, ignoring my dwindling bank account. Because, truth be told, I’m only human and going through the effort of making my own food seems like a lot at 7 AM.
Yes, this is even though I know it’s good for my wallet and for my health. And yes, even though I know that the healthier you are, the more productive you are. (Nothing like a junk food coma to slow you down hours before an important deadline.)
So, in effort to break my bad habit (and yours!), I’ve put together a list of 52—52!—ideas to inspire you. And because I’m just like you when it comes to making excuses, I stuck to three rules when selecting each recipe:
1. It Needs to Be Cost-Effective
There are recipes out there that look and taste great, but the ingredients required are absurdly expensive. If you’re buying them in bulk and can use them for several different meals, that’s great. But if not, you might as well have just grabbed it from the restaurant down the street.
2. It Needs to Be Easy to Make
Just as you want to keep the cost down, you also want to keep the time it takes to make it low as well. Nobody wants to spend hours every night preparing lunch for the next day. That’s a habit just asking to be broken. So, with the exception of slow cooker options, they’re also pretty fast.
3. It Needs to Be (Somewhat) Exciting
No, I don’t think every lunch needs to be a gourmet meal. And I don’t think every bite needs to be the most mind-blowing sensory experience ever. But you also don’t want to pack a lunch where you’re just like, “Eh, I’m just not in the mood for that.” And then you pretend you didn’t bring it and you go buy a better one (admit it—you’ve done it).
So, check out the list below for some lunch ideas that are bound to make you the most enviable person at work and prevent you from breaking the bank.
Here’s the thing about salads. Sometimes, they include a lot of ingredients. And while it’s a great way to incorporate tons of nutrients and keep your palate intrigued, it can be awfully annoying and tedious to prepare.
So, here’s a trick: Do all your chopping and dicing at once. You can prepare bulk amounts of the salads below and then save them in an airtight container in order to keep it fresh all week. Or, take it one step further and save them in several smaller portions you can just plop in your lunch bag on the way out the door. Efficiency at its finest, folks. (Another bonus tip: Store the dressing separately to avoid it making any of your leafy ingredients soggy.)
This salad’s not only delicious, but it’s pretty, too. If the number of ingredients in the dressing overwhelms you (understandably), pick up something similar to this Sesame Soy Ginger Vinaigrette.
This chicken salad has four ingredients. Four! Plus avocado. Point made. You can also make it into a sandwich or a wrap, which makes this quite the versatile recipe.
A vegetarian twist on the salad above, this one uses chickpeas instead of chicken, so you can still get a great source of protein. Smash away!
Brussels sprouts are a great alternative to lettuce for a greens-based salad (maybe because they look like tiny heads of cabbage). And as someone who studied abroad in Spain, I can tell you that Manchego cheese is the best. Want a hack for this salad? Many stores sell sprouts that are already chopped and bagged, meaning you can just open and dump into a bowl.
Farro’s a grain with a ton of fiber and will help to fill you up (so you aren’t ravenous and stealing from the office candy drawer 30 minutes later). And the cherries are the perfect sweet and tart addition.
This combination of foods is the perfect protein and fiber powerhouse. While the recipe calls for red miso paste, you can easily substitute another dressing for that (because who has red miso paste?). But if you do have it, go for it!
A reminder that simple doesn’t always equal boring. The chorizo adds some smoke and spice to really make this salad pop.
You had me at goat cheese.
It’s a salad made with—wait for it—noodles. Plus, if you want, you can reuse that dressing you bought for the Asian Quinoa Salad.
Go ahead. Tell me you aren’t singing the Beatles’ song right now. (Straw-BER-ry Fi-iields For-EV-ah.) It’s not a requirement to listen to it while you’re eating this scrumptious salad. But it should be.
11. Succotash Salad
This salad’s fun to say and yummy to eat. Don’t stress about shaving the kernels of corn from the actual cobs. You can use frozen or canned corn to expedite your way to a tasty dish.
Sure, the jar is cute, but the best part about it is that it’s holding a yummy yet healthy taco salad inside. You can also do this with a burrito!
13. Three Bean Salad
This recipe has three main ingredients, and they’re all beans. Talk about easy. And fibrous. Beans—they’re good for your heart and for your lunch.
You’ll be pleasantly surprised about how well watermelon and cheese goes together. And when summer comes around, you’ll be craving something this refreshing.
Which ’Wich Will It Be?
Sometimes you just want to eat your lunch with your hands. Sandwiches are a handheld favorite, but your go-to can end up being a snore. Take yours to the next level by using one of the alternatives below. Trust me: It won’t leave you wishing you had chosen something else.
And for those that may not hold together well during your commute, pack the outsides (i.e., the wrap) and the insides (i.e., whatever you put in it) separately and throw it together when you get to work.
Talk about non-traditional. You’ve probably spread peanut butter (or almond, or cashew, or [insert nut here]) on your apple slices before, but have you ever thought of making your apple into a sandwich? Yep, mind blown. But this is the perfect lunch if you’re craving something sweet but don’t want to crash later.
How cute and simple are these? Plus, it’s OK to bring fish to the office if you’re not microwaving it, right? Report back.
Need I say more? You’d be nutty not to try this one. (Someone requested dad humor, right?)
The combination of vegetables (and fruit—ahem, avocado) in this sandwich provides a variety of textures to keep your palate excited.
Yes, you read that right. I did not accidentally write “pickle” instead of “jelly.” These flavors actually do work together, and the chips are a crunchy bonus.
Cinnamon-raisin bread for a sandwich? Yep.
This wrap has four ingredients (not including some extra salt) and the contents have strong and complementary flavors. Plus, it takes less than 10 minutes to prepare.
So simple, yet so tasty. And yes, cheese and apples go together. Perfectly.
Hummus is the perfect ingredient to really tie the ingredients of this wrap together and make every bite the perfect fusion of flavors.
Sure, these may take a little extra time to prepare. But if you prepare a bunch of them at once, all you have to do is grab one out of the freezer or fridge and throw it in your bag with a bun and some toppings!
How can you not like something that has the words “taco truck” in it? That’s what I thought.
These savory and sweet ingredients result in some pretty tasty pockets. Note: the pockets must be made of pitas; they cannot be made from denim.
Pesto adds the perfect punch of flavor to this well-rounded sandwich.
When You Don’t Want a Salad or a Sandwich
Did you know that lunch has no rules? That’s right. It doesn’t have to be a salad or sandwich. So when you’re craving something different, whip up one of the meals below. Here’s a hint: Make a few extra servings, and the time it takes to make will be well worth your while.
28. Buddha Bowl
With hard-boiled egg, salmon, and edamame, this bowl is packed with protein. With or without the noodles, it will leave your tummy satisfied.
29. Burrito Bowl
What’s that you say? I can make my own burrito bowl? Why yes, yes you can.
Cooking the chicken and asparagus in lemon juice, garlic, and soy sauce takes the main ingredients from relatively bland to super savory.
The cranberry and mustard are the perfect match for the savory ham and slightly bitter arugula.
A smoothie for lunch? Yes, just go with it. And yes, it’s green. But before you say “blech,” give it a try. I promise, it doesn’t taste like grass.
33. Mini Frittatas
Weekends aren’t the only time for brunch. (But leave the bottomless mimosas for your days off.) Yes, these require some oven time, but make a bunch in advance and you’re set for the week.
Another lunch for someone with a sweet tooth—also for someone who needs to put together a lunch quickly.
Easy to make, easy to eat. Substitute any lunch meat if roast beef isn’t your thang.
Usually avocado is a topping, but in this recipe, it runs the show as a fantastic and edible vessel for your salad (though I wouldn’t eat the peel).
Not just take-out food. You can make your own healthy version and gobble it up all week (or at least a few days). And on the side, maybe you can have some rice (see below).
Or, you can eat this all on its own. Yum.
This may be made with blueberries, but you certainly won’t feel blue after you drink it. (Hint: you can also use other berries, too.)
Cook it Slow
Speaking of making things in bulk, casseroles and Crock-Pot meals are a great way to do this. My slow cooker is one of my favorite kitchen items. You can find some very reasonably priced options on Amazon.
Making a casserole or using the slow cooker not only provides you with enough food for days, but it also requires a longer time to cook, meaning the flavors have enough time to blend together perfectly. What better way to spend your Sunday afternoon than surrounded by delicious food?
40. Beef and Barley
This hearty meal is the perfect lunch during the chillier months (or during the summer when your office building’s AC makes your cubicle feel like an icebox).
Sometimes all you need for an exciting meal is hot sauce. And the meat soaks it up even more when it’s in a slow cooker for a couple hours.
Putting a sweet twist on your traditional lasagna. Caramelized onions are everything.
What’s better than chicken enchiladas? Chicken enchiladas that last for days.
If you haven’t added coconut milk to a dish before, you’re missing out. It adds a different flavor profile to all ingredients in the dish, especially in the potatoes and rice.
Pineapple and pork? You better bet it’s a perfect pair.
Cannelini beans, also known as white kidney beans, are just as much a star of this recipe as the sausage is.
Another three bean dish? Yep. This one has a smoky flavor from the bacon and paprika.
Not all soups are just all broth. In fact, this one has tons of greens and beans. As long as you have a secure vessel to transport this liquid lunch in, this is a great option.
Again, so much more than broth here. The lentils are packed with fiber and protein and soak up all the flavor of the tomatoes.
50. Turkey Chili
While this is a solid recipe, there are a bunch of other great chili options. If you’re feeling extra ambitious, whip up some cornbread to go with it.
Curries are optimized in slow cookers—all the spices have ample time to blend together and make one awesome-tasting meal.
The great thing about quinoa? It absorbs all the flavors it’s cooking in.
Now you have tons of these great recipes to make your lunch something to look forward to. Need something to put it in? Here are some awesome and unique ways to pack it. But hey, a paper or plastic bag is just fine, too. What matters most is what’s inside, right?
Happy lunching! Let me know which recipe you like best on Twitter.
Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.
Abby works in health education and prevention at a university in Washington, DC. When she’s not trying to make the world a healthier place, you can find her taking selfies with her cat (Mildred Meow Meow), hunting down the city's best grilled cheese, or zipping through the city on her bike, named Libby. Say hi on Twitter.More from this Author