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Building a better brown-bag lunch

By Georgie Miller

Building a better brown-bag lunch

If you're anything like me, it's hard enough finding your way to the coffee pot in the morning -- let alone making a plan for a healthy and delicious lunch.

As a result, it's easy to fall into bad habits. Takeout and frozen meals may be fast and convenient, but they aren't necessarily the best choice for your wallet or your waistline. So how can you take the pain out of bringing a healthy and affordable lunch to work?

Here are two brown-bagging strategies that require a minimum of advance planning -- and money.

1. Simmer your way to savings

Every Sunday, I get out my slow cooker and survey my refrigerator and pantry. Then I collect likely-sounding ingredients, throw in oil, spices and broth, and make myself some soup. I find that my slow cooker easily makes six to eight servings -- enough for dinner on Sunday and lunches for the week. This leaves me with plenty of time to focus on other things, like how to get out of holiday work expenses. Bah, humbug.

When I first took up cooking as a hobby, I was a religious recipe-follower. If you're a cooking neophyte, you can always use a bookmarking app like Pinterest to keep track of recipes you'd like to try. You could also check a cookbook out of the library for free until you have more experience and confidence in the kitchen.

But feel free to experiment too. One of the other nice things about the slow-cooker is that it's a great way to use leftovers. Got a chicken breast, half an onion and some wilted kale? Chop them up and throw them in! It's also a good idea to keep some staples on hand. Bulk up on items when they're on sale so they're ready to go anytime you're ready to cook.

2. Make a travel-proof salad

Salads may be tasty and (usually) healthy, but they aren't known for traveling well. If I eat a salad out at a restaurant, I'm always hesitant to take any leftovers "to go." I know that by the time I get home, I'll be left with nothing but a soggy, unappetizing mess. However, there are ways to pack a salad lunch and avoid a wilted fate.

Salads packed in mason jars can last up to a week, provided that the components are layered properly. The most important tip is to make your salad backwards. Put your salad dressing on the bottom of the jar and then add toppings. Closest to the bottom, focus on veggies that either don't need to be cut or that hold up well in liquid, like cherry tomatoes or carrots. Then you can add heavier items like cheese, meat, pasta or beans. The lettuce goes in last.

When you get to work, all you need to do is empty the contents of your mason jar onto a plate and presto -- your salad is ready to go. It's also simple to vary the ingredients in your mason jars and make different salads at the same time. Varying your produce purchases based on what's in season, like hassle-free couponing, will also help you save money at the grocery store.

Going further

Slow cooking and pre-made salads are just the beginning. It's easier than you may think to prepare delicious and homemade meals that are simple and hearty.

Try turning your cooking into a game. Analyze your spending to figure out how much money you were spending on fast food. Then shop for your lunch ingredients from that budget. The amount of money you save may surprise you!

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