Sunday, March 9, 2008

The dreaded homelunch

There was a time when I used to work in an office environment for nine hours a day, five days a week, fifty one weeks a year. It was a pretty grueling experience to say in the least. My days were made up of high pressure deadlines, keyboarding and a fair amount of incompetent technophobes yelling at me because they couldn't exactly wrap their heads around the whole purpose of having secure passwords and anti-virus software.

Needless to say the best part of my day was almost always the lunch hour. Sixty sweet minutes of peace and quiet to do with what I please and enjoy a nice meal. And with the missus in the next office over we could take a leisurely break together. And maybe vent at one another as to why, exactly our boss felt the need to be such an arrogant waste of skin.

Because it was a busy office environment in an area populated by office buildings, real estate brokerages and banks there was a dangerous temptation. It was called "the strip" and it was glorious. A mere sixth of a mile down the busy seven lane artery that could have passed for a major highway were more places to eat than stars in the sky. Everything from the usual fast food garbage to upscale twenty dollar sandwiches. If you felt like anything at all on any particular day of the week, you could find it, order it and consume it in less than an hour.

And man, oh man. Would that seven lane motorway clog like a low flow toilet at 11:55 every weekday, without fail.

I'm pretty ashamed to admit that we'd waste a good $60 every week on lunch. That's more than half of our current food budget for two full weeks, breakfast lunch and dinner included. We did this for more than half of a year. Our rough estimates put this at around $1,500 of pure excess. Sure, the food was marvelous and the stress relief was great. But not only were we wasting an extraordinary amount of money, our waistlines were also exponentially increasing. I gained 30 pounds at that job, due to eating out and sitting on my ass all day, typing.

Now that I work from home for the vast majority of my work week I have full access to every household appliance in my home in addition to my fridge and pantry. Lunch is no longer a problem. There's no temptation to go out, as I live in the boonies.

But I did start to get serious about being frugal before I left the office grind. While there was still a little bit of excess involved, it was far more manageable. Here are some of the tips and tricks I experimented with.

  • Don't change your life style all of a sudden
    If you're used to eating out, you're going to get withdrawals it you all of a sudden stop and switch to the loathed Peanut Butter & Jelly sandwich at your desk. Going out for Thai with your work buddies is far more appealing.

    So continue to do it, but work on scaling yourself down. Form a rough budget and evaluate your performance on a week to week basis. But don't get depressed if you go over budget once in awhile.

    Start bringing your lunch on your less stressful days and enjoy a nice time out on the more head grinding days. Eventually over time whittle it down so you only go out one or two days a week.

  • Remove temptation
    It's depressing to see a group of your coworkers go out to your favorite lunch canteen. It's downright torture to see (and smell) them get delivery. Curb your potential torture by taking your lunch break earlier than most of your peers, if possible. Leaving the building altogether works well if you don't mind being a little antisocial. I used to bring a good book to my car and read in the spring and summer months.

  • Snack
    Okay. Not all of us can be antisocial nerds and read under a tree when the clock strikes 12. Let's say you need to go out on a daily basis, if only to chat with your friends and coworkers and get a little bit of socializing in.

    Have a snack about an hour before lunch time and order something relatively small when you do go out. Since you won't be famished, you'll be less likely to order something off the menu that could feed a cow.

  • Don't drink soda
    Soft drinks like Pepsi and Mountain Dew are mostly carbonated water. Which is essentially tap water with a bit of gas dissolved into it. I once knew a woman who managed a restaurant for a number of years. She informed me that soft drinks have an enormous third party markup. It costs the average restaurant about $0.03 to provide you with a frosty cold Pepsi. Which is why most establishments tend to offer free refills. Likely because they're charging you about $2.00 for something that costs them three cents. The same is more or less true for coffee.

    So if you find yourself as a fast food joint or elsewhere, simply drink water. You'll be cutting down on empty calories and saving yourself a bit of money.

  • Utilize the microwave
    Microwaves are more common than toilets nowadays. There was a time when I lived off of Hot Pockets. Granted, they were still incredibly unhealthy and still cost me $2.50 a box, but that sure as heck beat going to McDonalds and buying a $6.50 double quarter pounder.

    You don't even have to buy microwavable convenience meals. Microwaves in the work place allow you to bring pretty much anything you can fancy for lunch, be it left overs from the night before or something you whipped up that morning.

  • Utilize icepacks
    Say you're on the run more often than not and a microwave is not always an option. There's nothing chaining you down to just sandwiches. So long as you have a lunch bag and an icepack there are a number of things you can eat cold and on the run.

    Some ideas include:

    So long as you can dice it and shove it inside of a tortilla or a tupperware container, you can bring it and eat it cold.

  • Set aside dinner portions
    Regardless of what I'm having for dinner on any given night I try to put an extra portion into a piece of tupperware before I sit down to eat. This could be anything from mashed potatoes of taco filling. This stops us from eating it and it gives me something to work with for the next day's lunch.

    There's no rule saying you have the have an exact duplicate of your previous night's dinner. Roast chicken can be diced up and put into a salad. Taco filling can be mixed with rice and corn. Roast beef can be sliced thinly and placed into a wrap. Mashed potatoes can be mixed with cheese and sour cream, et cetera.

  • Don't underestimate the power of carbs
    I love carbohydrates. They're tasty and extremely filling. Whenever I work outside of my home for a long period of time, I always bring some seasonal fruit and a slice of breakfast bread with me. The breakfast bread will keep me filled for a long time while I bust my hump. The same is true for any complex carb, be it pasta, potatoes or a big hunk of pumpernickel.
So long as you make an honest effort to try to curb your unhealthy and wasteful lunch habits you'll succeed, if only a little bit at first. But it's not incredibly difficult.


Anonymous said...

I hate spending money on "artificially colored and flavored" water - but I'm ashamed to say I do! I am a total Diet Pepsi fan. I don't consume a lot... but I have to have one at least every couple of days or so!

Ed said...

It's okay, Dawn. I have to admit that while our soda consumption has been reduced to one 2 liter bottle of orange soda every two weeks for the missus, I do occasionally consume it myself.

I've been on my own for the past week or so. I bought a 2 liter bottle of Pepsi today out of weakness.


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