Weeklongs 5 | The Economics of Packing Lunch

by Scott - 3 Comments

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This post is part of My Weeklongs Project.

People always say its cheaper to pack your lunch. I’ve never doubted this, just always been hesitant because of the perceived time it takes to pack a healthy lunch each day.


This week I wanted to put this theory to the test. I wanted to measure how much time it really takes   as well as how much money I’d save. This framework would help me determine whether consistently packing my lunch is a significantly better move.

So last Sunday I went grocery shopping and prepared 5 lunches for the week.  They were all grilled chicken salads with walnuts and balsamic vinegar. The monotony was fine with me because my paleoesque diet is pretty limiting.

Total time to shop and prepare the lunches (grill chicken breasts, chop salad and walnuts):   1hr 15 minutes  total = 15 minutes/day

Cost itemized:

Chicken: $4.07 + $5.55 = $9.62

Single Serving Containers of Mixed Greens: $2.50 + $3.10 + $3.20 + $2.40 + $ 3.10 = $14.30

Two (7oz) Containers of Walnuts: 5.99 + 5.99 = $11.98

*I already had a big thing of balsamic vinegar

Total = $35.90 = $7.18/day

If I wanted to optimize on $$ and ditch the walnuts it’d be $4.78/day. But to be honest it’s my favorite part of the salad and without it the meal would be unsustainably bland.

Using Mint.com I was able to determine eating lunch out during a normal work week cost me $41.86 =  $8.37/day. Projecting these numbers over a really boring year of salads, packing lunch would save me $309.92. From a time standpoint, there’s no significant difference. Though I didn’t measure how long it takes for me to purchase lunch everyday, I can comfortably estimate it’s 10-20 minutes depending on where I go.

Quality of Food, Portion Size, and Other Observations

As bad as I wanted to walk away from this week saying the food was so much better when I prepared it, it really wasn’t. It tasted pretty much the same (if not worse) which could be a function of my spartan meal selection. From a portion standpoint, I actually noticed I had less overall food then when packed my lunch. The difference was there were more walnuts and slightly more chicken when I packed it myself. Those deviants at Flavors really pile on the lettuce!

One thing I realized this week** is how much I like the ritual of leaving my desk to go get lunch. There’s something rejuvenating about a 10-20 minute change of scenery. I actually think I’m more productive when integrating this ritual. On the other hand, packing a really healthy lunch eliminated the opportunity to eat unhealthily. Opting to buy a healthy lunch isn’t really a challenge for me. My willpower is strong at this time in the day so it’s challenging for me to put too much weight on this benefit. However, this could be a huge benefit for someone whose challenged by this decision.

The results of this experiment are certainly unique to my own diet. I’m sure if I packed a yogurt and banana or even a sandwich with cold cuts I might see a greater difference in savings. But what was important to me was to observe the disparity between price and time within the framework my personal diet. And at the end of the day there wasn’t really a significant difference.

I’m really happy I did this experiment. Certainly not because I uncovered a way to save a ton of money, but  because I can move forward with greater confidence that I’m making the right choice. I don’t have to feel guilty when I’m not packing lunch because the compounded difference isn’t significant enough for me to spend time or energy optimizing around.

Moving forward, I may pack lunch a little bit more than I used to, but I’m definitely not worried about making it a habit. It feels great to test something you’ve always thought about and eliminate that uncertainty. It brings peace to your life.  This is a foundation of this project and I look forward to doing this in the coming weeks in other areas where I’ve felt the same way.

* *I ate lunch out with my boss one day so had the packed lunch for dinner

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