How to pack cheap work lunches, according to dietitians

Cheap work lunches don’t have to derail your health goals. Here is a dietitians’ guide to easy, budget-friendly lunch ideas you’ll actually look forward to eating.

Imagine this – you’re doing your regular grocery shop, but you’re struggling to decide what to put in your trolley for a week’s worth of nutritious yet budget-friendly work lunches.

Sound familiar? Between juggling a busy life and the rising cost of living, it’s no surprise that cost-effective and convenient meals are growing in appeal.

But a cheap, quick-to-prep lunch doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice healthy eating.

We asked two dietitians for their tips on packing a healthy lunch that will also save you a few dollars.

Can a healthy lunch be cheap?

Healthy lunches can be cheap if you plan ahead, dietitian Lisa Renn says.

“You need to make sure you have the ingredients in the house. If not, it becomes very challenging and you’re more likely to purchase more expensive and less healthy food outside the home,” Lisa says.

“Planning what you will eat and purchasing for the week is a surefire way of sustaining a healthy eating plan.

“Vegetables and fruit are still cheaper to purchase than less healthy foods, and they will provide more than one meal.”

Cheap healthy lunch ideas for work

A healthy lunch should have plenty of vegetables, a small amount of protein and wholegrain carbohydrates, Lisa says.

She explains that the cheapest and easiest way to do this is by using leftovers.

One example would be to combine a ready-made salad with your leftover steak, making for an easy bite the following day while also helping to decrease the amount of meat you eat for dinner.

“The aim would be to eat 125 to 150 grams of meat or chicken for dinner, and save the rest for lunch the next day,” Lisa says.

“You could also buy salad ingredients, or cook up some vegetables and use these over a couple of days, adding to leftover meat, boiled eggs, or a tin of legumes such as chickpeas, bean mix or tuna.”

Alternatively, you could use salad ingredients and leftover protein in a sandwich or, if you’re trying to reduce carbohydrates, on an open sandwich using one slice of wholegrain bread, she suggests.

And if you’re worried about getting tired of eating the same food over and over again, dietitian Kate Save suggests experimenting with your lunch styles.

“Opt for a flavourful salad with grilled chicken for one day and the next, try out some wholegrain, low-carb wraps such as a rye mountain bread, filled with veggies and hummus,” Kate says.

“As long as they (meals) are nutritionally balanced, they can look exactly as you like!”

Try these recipes for nutritious, cheap lunch ideas: 

Cheap go-to ingredients for a healthy lunch

Some of Kate’s go-to ingredients include vegetables such as carrots, capsicums and cucumbers, which are great for adding to salads or wraps.

She also recommends fresh avocados, nuts and seeds for healthy fats and protein; and wholegrains such as quinoa, barley or brown rice for dietary fibre to support gut health and provide complex carbohydrates for lasting energy.

“Fruits like apples, pears and any citrus or berries are also great sources of fibre and antioxidants,” Kate adds.

Lisa suggests opting for the following easy options:

  • Small tins of legumes such as baked beans, three bean mix or chickpeas: These are great options for low GI carbohydrates, soluble fibre and plant-based proteins.
  • Yoghurt mixed with fruit and/or muesli: Yoghurt contains calcium, protein, vitamins and probiotics with fruits being packed with vitamins and antioxidants, while muesli provides fibre and grains.
  • Nuts: They’re a fantastic source of fibre, good fats and protein, and can form part of a healthy lunch or be enjoyed as a snack.

Pull these ingredients together for lunch with the following recipes: 

Cheap snacks to avoid mid-afternoon sugar cravings

If you often find yourself reaching for snacks to satisfy your 3pm cravings, a well-prepared lunch may just help keep you on the healthy-eating track.

The mid-afternoon slump generally happens because your blood sugar levels drop as more time passes after lunch, Kate explains.

“To prevent this, you need to ensure your lunch provides you with enough low GI, slow-burning energy, including a 1:1 ratio of carbs to protein, and some liberal amounts of healthy fat to keep you sustained until dinner,” she says.

This includes incorporating protein-rich foods such as Greek yoghurt, hard-boiled eggs or edamame to sustain your blood sugar levels until dinner.

Lisa says adding  higher fibre carbohydrates to your lunch box will keep  you fuller for longer, such as high-fibre dry biscuits or bread, brown rice, or legumes.

And if you’re still hungry at 3pm after your lunch, she suggests having a small handful of nuts or trail mix, if you’re after a sweeter hit.

Tips for preparing healthy work lunches

Make it in bulk

Preparing your weekly lunches in bulk on weekends can help you save time if you have a busy week ahead, Kate says.

“While it can take a bit of time away from your Sunday, it is the perfect way to set you up for a healthy, nutritious and stress-free week,” she says.

“I recommend cooking easy-to-store meals like Bolognese or stir fry, while also preparing portions of grains, proteins and vegetables that can be used throughout the week for assembling quick and nutritious meals.”

Have a sustainable plan

If you prefer not to use your weekends preparing your lunches, Lisa says there are ways to get around to it during the weekdays.

“For me, I hate the idea of using my weekend to cook, so I do my meal planning and shopping on the weekend, and prepare the food during the week,” she says.

“Healthy eating doesn’t have to be exotic or complicated – the most important thing is to plan ahead and make sure your plans are sustainable.”

Meet our experts

Lisa Renn is a dietitian and nutritionist based in Melbourne. She specialises in healthy eating and weight loss, and has over 20  years of experience helping people manage both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes. Lisa loves helping her clients change unhelpful thinking and habits, and uses a non-diet approach to create healthy sustainable lifestyles. Lisa also focuses on healthy diets to manage heart disease, cholesterol, blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome, and food intolerances.

Kate Save is a dietitian, exercise physiologist and diabetes educator. She is the founder of Be Fit Food and brings a special focus on weight loss, diabetes, heart disease, food intolerance, and bariatric surgery nutrition. Kate holds a double degree in Nutrition/Dietetics and Exercise Science, an Advanced Diploma in Diabetes Education, and a Masters in Clinical Exercise Physiology.

More on having a healthy lunch: 

Written by Melissa Hong