The world remembers 18th Century British aristocrat John Montagu every day around lunchtime -- not for his lousy statesmanship, nor the islands Capt. Cook named after him (which became Hawaii anyway), but for the name he unwittingly gave a food morsel that's been around probably since Neolithic times.
You see, Montagu was a card player -- cribbage, to be precise -- and legend has it he hated getting his cards dirty almost as much as getting up from the table during a good game. So when this 4th Earl of Sandwich instructed his valet to bring him a few slices of meat tucked between two slices of bread, it wasn't long before others around him started ordering "...The same as Sandwich."
Trillions of cold cuts and untold gallons of condiments later, the sandwich is still going strong -- and in pretty much the same form as our earliest human ancestors ate it. But that doesn't mean you have to settle for "the same as Sandwich," or the same old sandwich, every day for lunch. Which options might save you the most money and stimulate your taste buds to boot? We'll find out in this installment of the Savings Experiment.
Need we state the obvious? It's always more fun to eat out every day, especially if someone else picks up the tab. But it's going to cost you quite a bit in the long run; a conservative estimate puts lunch at $8 a pop just to order a main course and a 16 oz. drink, even if it's grab and go. Sit down to eat, add an appetizer and you're looking at a lot more once you throw in the tip--$15 at minimum.
So if packing your lunch is the way to save dough, which option ranks as the most cost efficient? Since we started this lunch lab with a little sandwich history, let's take a look at how much it costs to pack a sandwich in that brown bag. For our comparison, we compared a pound of roast beef cold cuts to London broil.
The cold cuts cost $10 a pound. At 2 slices per sandwich, we were able to make 6 sandwiches, for a cost of $1.66 each.
The London broil, by contrast, cost $5 a pound and yielded 9 sandwiches once we cooked it up. That's 55 cents per sandwich.
Obviously, the condiments and trimmings you add (lettuce, cheese, etc.) will affect the cost, but all things being equal, it's much more cost efficient to cook and slice your own meat. London broil, jolly good! You're the winner, and you've done the Earl of Sandwich proud.
Lesson learned: Buying and cooking your own meat will yield savings over cold cuts, unless your store or deli is having a blowout sale of sliced meats. For example: Deli Ham cold cuts cost us $6.99 a pound, whereas a ham steak we later sliced cost us $3 a pound.
Brands such as Healthy Choice and Stouffer's Lean Cuisine often go on sale at supermarkets, and Marie Callendar's dinners are often priced to sell at bargain prices, sometimes as low as $1 an entree. The idea here is to stock up on these items when they go on sale--a great idea especially if you have a separate freezer for storage.
Otherwise, figure that frozen lunches will cost you between $2.50 and $5. A quick tip: Be sure to watch the sodium levels in these meals. Lean Cuisine and Healthy Choice tend to be among the brands more conscious about this, but other entrees may load you up with as much as 1000 mg of salt--way more tan you should intake for a day, let alone one meal.
Bagels represent a good frozen food bargain. They'll run you about $1.50 for a pack of 5, compared to as much as $2 each from a deli.
LET THE LUNCHER BEWARE
That said, buying in bulk is not always the answer. Be sure to check unit prices on lunch items to make sure you;re getting the best bargain; you might be surprised. With yogurt, for example, we found that a 32 oz. tub cost us $2.99, or 9 cents per ounce. But the little 6 ounce cups only cost us 8¢ per ounce, while allowing us to sample different flavors. How's that for frugality?
Frugality also reminds us of fruit, and fresh fruit has multiple dietary benefits, from all-important anti oxidants to fiber and nutrients. Plus, fruit often represents a cheap way to load up that lunch bag and fill yourself up with something good.
My mom had a saying she taught me that still holds me in good stead. She grew up in the Great Depression, and said, "Never buy something at the store unless it's on sale." On my last trip to the supermarket to load up on lunch goodies and such, I saved 25 percent just by shopping for sale items. Apply this to your lunchtime logic, and soon you'll have enough to splurge ... for a really sinful dessert.
By the way, as long as we're on the subject of lunch, remember that as an active working person bent on savings, it's your job to get the brown bag meal ready. We heartily suggest getting everything packed up the night before. Whether you carry it to work in one of those cool Spider-Man lunch containers is up to you.