The Lunch Packers

I come from a family of lunch packers. At a young age, my mother would pack my lunch, but as I matured that responsibility was handed over to me. The refrigerator was stocked for me with nutritious choices and from there I built my lunch. It usually included a sandwich made of peanut butter and jelly or home cooked turkey or ham as my mother didn’t buy lunchmeat. I was told it was expensive and the nitrate preservatives were bad for me which, of course, is all true. There were apples and bananas, carrots and cucumbers, yogurts, cottage cheese and fixings for a salad from time to time.

Occasionally chips or a homemade dessert would be available. My mother dismissed the soda surge of the 1980s, proclaimed the Pepsi Challenge to be nothing more than a ploy to get consumers to drink more soda – also true. Consequentially, soda could not be found in our house – with one exception. Coke was permitted for “medicinal purposes.” Truly, you had to get sick at our house to have soda. Needless to say, I took water in a thermos (not bottled in plastic) or purchased milk from the cafeteria. Mom also packed my Dad lunch every day he went to work.

When we went on a day trip, Mom brought out a large blue Igloo cooler (the one with the cool button on the side), some ice packs and packed our food for the day. At that time, food wasn’t available every mile like it is today and gas stations only sold gas. Oh how things have changed! I never imagined Sushi would be available at gas stations but I’ve seen it. Not only were our packed meals quality meals but they saved our family money. I wonder how much of that savings added up, day after day, year after year. I also wonder how much better our health was by not consuming sodas, lunch meats and fast food. But, there is simply no way to quantify either of these questions.

However, I can establish that from an early age, my mother had an impact upon my view of food. Lessons from packing my own lunch taught me about health choices, responsibility and natural consequences (if you don’t pack your lunch in the morning, you won’t have one). It is only now, later in my life, that I realize how the simple act of packing your own lunch is a venerable tool in the formation of good and lasting food and financial habits. It wasn’t until I had a family of my own that I realized the financial impact packing lunch can have on the family budget.

Primed with these revelations, I cruised the internet to find out if anyone else out there had these “a-ha” moments. Turns out, my question about savings has already been answered. Several articles I found broke down the cost of eating out versus packing lunch. (One author used an average of $8-$10 per take-out lunch versus a $3-$4 brown bag lunch, see article below). Yes, you will save money by packing your lunch. Estimates ranged between $1,500 and $2,400 a year in savings. That’s a nice sum to put into a child’s college fund or a retirement account.

But what if you simply don’t want to pack your lunch? Packing may be the more rational choice, but it’s not always the most popular. Especially when your favorite cafe is just around the corner and everyone else from work is ordering out. Sometimes the decision on whether or not to pack isn’t just economical. There’s an emotional component to it when your brown bag keeps you from the social hour. Conversely, some brown bag it to escape their work environment and co-workers. A quiet picnic in the park listening to birds comes to mind.

I wondered, what are the common attributes people share who are committed to packing their lunch? According to Health magazine, “they plan and prep for the week, they love leftovers, their lunches go beyond sandwiches, they eat away from their desks, they take turns sharing food with friends, sometimes they pack a small piece of chocolate and they don’t pack 100% of the time.” A few friends added that they pack lunch for dietary and health reasons, portion control and finance.

Beyond the money, brown bagging it can provide an environmental impact as well. To-go and take-out containers add to our landfills. By using the same containers over and over to pack a lunch you are reducing the amount of waste and while you are at it why not make those reusable containers stainless steel or glass? In a recent Popular Science article, it states that “Humanity has manufactured 9.1 billion tons of plastic trash since the 1950s and most of it ends up in landfills or in nature. That’s 2,400 pounds of trash for every person currently living on this planet (only 9% actually gets recycled).” Ironically, five of the 12 suggestions the article makes to reduce plastic waste involve meals.

1) Order less takeout and avoid the plastic box, silverware and bags involved in packaging. 2) Reuse things; if you use a plastic sleeve to put your sandwich in, use it again the next day. 3) Use a reusable water bottle. 4) Skip the plastic silverware. 5) Use jars or Tupperware instead of plastic wrap.

My long-time lunch packing friend revealed to me recently that her kids pack real silverware and cloth napkins in their lunches. I love this idea as it is very environmentally friendly and it brings a level of civility to the noon time meal, which for many people is a rush. If you are a longtime lunch packer – kudos. However, I am not patting myself on the back too much, because I can improve. For example, I am going to try not buying those individual fruit cups so much. Their containers are made of plastic and instead I can put fruit in a reusable glass container. I’m also considering cloth napkins and real silverware but it will take time. Longstanding lunch habits are hard to break.

If you’re not a lunch packer, think about trying it, even if you start out by packing two days a week. You may find other lunch packing friends at the office and create new friendships and new patterns to your day. Instead of speeding off in your car to the nearest lunch place, you may find it less hectic to kick back and open the lunch you brought instead, or walk outside and eat in the grass. Who knows, it may become a habit and you may find yourself trading lunch items with co-workers or sharing some dessert. Whatever your lunch time pattern may be, try mixing it up; your wallet and planet will thank you. And, in case you are wondering, yes I do go out to lunch occasionally.

Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering and Rootin’ Tootin’ No Gluten Foods. They have four children, of which all four are Gluten Intolerant. The family also lives with multiple food allergies including tree nut, peanut, fish and shellfish. Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.


“Buying your lunch is a terrible idea. The End. No More Debates,” by Jillian Berman. The Huffington Post, May 28, 2014.

“Why people won’t Brown-Bag lunch, even though it makes great sense.” by Krystal Steinmetz (Watch the 2 minute video called “The $90,000 lunch”)

“Seven secrets of people who bring their lunch to work every day,” by Jessica Maigala. Health magazine,

“Humans have created 9.1 billion tons of plastic. Here’s how you can help stop the madness,” by Sarah Fecht. Popular Science, July 19, 2017.

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