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Good-for-you lunches on a budget

Going out for lunch can cost about $10 a day, which adds up quickly over a month. Bringing a lunch to work or school can trim your budget and is usually better-for-you too. You can control portions and choose good-for-you ingredients.

Planning your lunch

For a balanced lunch, choose foods from at least two of these food groups:

  • Lean proteins: Chicken or turkey without the skin, eggs, beans, fish canned in water and tofu. Be aware that many deli meats are high in salt and fat.
  • Low-fat or nonfat dairy: Fat-free milk, low-fat yogurt and low-fat cheeses. To save money, buy large tubs of yogurt and divide into your own single-serving containers.
  • Whole grains: Breads, crackers and pastas with a whole grain (like whole wheat) listed as the first ingredient. Brown rice, cracked wheat or quinoa make tasty salads.
  • Fruits: In-season fresh fruits, dried fruits or fruits canned in water or natural juices.
  • Vegetables: In-season fresh vegetables. To save money, prep your own veggies at home instead of buying pre-cut vegetables like carrot sticks.

Get started with these four lunch ideas:


  • Wrap leftovers in a corn or whole-wheat tortilla. Try fillings like beans and rice, chili, stew or chicken. Pack fresh fruits or veggies to balance your meal.
  • Food groups: Whole grains, protein and fruits or vegetables
  • Cost: about $0.97 ($0.25 per whole wheat tortilla + $0.72 per apple)

Tuna Salad

  • Create a salad with lettuce, three ounces of canned tuna packed in water, sliced apple and two tablespoons of light vinaigrette.
  • Food groups: Protein, fruit and vegetables
  • Cost: about $1.93 ($0.81 per three ounces canned tuna + $0.72 per apple + $0.19 per cup of lettuce + $0.21 per two tablespoons dressing)

Mediterranean sandwich

  • Spread two tablespoons hummus on a whole-wheat pita. Add one ounce of low-fat Swiss cheese, sliced cucumber and chopped tomatoes. Toss cucumber and tomato in one teaspoon olive oil and lemon juice for extra flavor. Make your own hummus to save more money.
  • Food groups: Protein, whole grains, low-fat dairy and vegetables
  • Cost: about $1.78 ($0.30 per two tablespoons hummus + $0.22 per pita + $0.43 per ounce of cheese + $0.40 per cucumber; + $0.39 per tomato + $0.05 per teaspoon olive oil)


  • Spread two tablespoons of peanut butter plus one tablespoon of jam on 100 percent whole-wheat bread for a perfect lunch. Add low-fat yogurt and fruit as side dishes.
  • Food groups: Protein, whole grains, low-fat dairy and fruit
  • Cost: about $1.86 ($0.27 per two tablespoons peanut butter + $0.11 per tablespoon jam + $0.72 per apple + $0.60 per six ounces yogurt + $0.16 for whole-wheat bread)

Tips for packing and storing a lunch

  • Make lunches the night before to save time in the morning.
  • Keep lunches in a refrigerator or an insulated lunch bag with an ice pack. Lunches that sit at room temperature for over two hours may not be safe to eat.
  • Instead of buying a drink in a can or bottle, pack water or another beverage in a reusable bottle. Choose a bottle free of the type of plastic known as "BPA." Unhealthy chemicals from BPA plastic containers could spread to the liquids inside.