lunch break sign on messy desk

Dining Dilemma: Do You Pack or Pay?

If you're like most individuals in the workforce, lunch is a welcome break in your day. But midday meal eaters differ in how they tackle the daily dilemma of whether to dine out or brown-bag it. To make the right choice for yourself, you need to weigh the financial, health and social ramifications. 

When you want to save

Costs can add up quickly when you eat out — especially if you're hitting the diners daily. A 2013 survey by Visa found the average American lunched out twice per week and spent about $10 each time, meaning they dropped $1,000 a year on eat-out lunches.

At first glance, brown-bagging seems like a no-brainer money saver, but to really assess the financial merits, you need to take into account your eating habits. The cost of your lunch — whether you bag it or buy it — is directly linked to the food choices you make. For example, do you hit the drive-thru dollar menu or do you sit down to a $7.99 chain restaurant entrée and end up paying $13 by the time you add your drink, tax and tip? Or maybe you frequent local eateries and spend even more?

The cost of a homemade lunch can also vary wildly. If you bring leftover chili, a hunk of cornbread and a piece of fruit from home, your food cost is low — probably only a couple of bucks. However, if you buy organic, whole-meal entrées to pop into the microwave and pair them with a fancy drink, you could spend about $8. 

Keep track of what you spend on bring-from-home lunches versus eating out for a month, and you'll see what is causing the most significant monetary drain. However, the question of whether to dine out or in goes beyond the impact on your wallet; time, health and social aspects should be considered as well. 

When you don't have time

For some working parents, the convenience and ease associated with buying a lunch trumps the money considerations. If you're already expending energy to drive kids to soccer practice, cook dinner and help with homework, the idea of adding another chore — lunch-making — may be unappealing.

Here's where a little meal planning may work to your advantage if you don't want to buy lunch every day. Designate a day (or evening if that works better for you) to make up a big batch of something you like that keeps well. Then, pack it into ready-to-go lunch containers for a no-sweat brown-bagging option. 

When you want to eat healthy

A healthy diet is more difficult to adhere to when dining out because though lighter fare is often offered, the bulk of most menus at fast food or eat-in restaurants tend to sag under the weight of calories, unhealthy fats, sodium and processed ingredients. If you do make your own lunch at home and feel stuck in a rut, look to resources such as Pinterest and health blogs, which are rife with ways to fill your Tupperware with healthy and creative alternatives.

For those times when dining out is a must, but you are still concerned about your diet, take advantage of the chance to exercise and find a restaurant within walking distance from your work. 

If you do decide brown-bagging is for you, plan ahead. Keep an assortment of salad and sandwich toppings in stock. Maybe prepare a giant salad at the beginning of the workweek, then portion from it daily. When making dinners, whether burritos or lasagna, double the recipe and freeze the extras for ready-made lunches. Get creative. Be sure to keep yogurt, nuts and granola bars on hand to augment your lunches on the days your meal planning flops. 

When you need a friend

Because of social reasons, you most likely don't want to abstain entirely from eating out. Friendships with coworkers are often forged outside the office, in neutral territory, when work deadlines and bosses aren't looming. 

However, coworker camaraderie doesn't have to be built solely over a restaurant lunch. If you prefer to bring your own lunch, try finding a spot away from your desk where you can join your office mates whether you pay or pack.

For many working professionals, the best option is probably a combination of packing and buying. The good news is that by carefully considering your food choices and with a little planning ahead, you can make either option work for your budget, waistline, hectic schedule...and of course, your taste buds.

Budget, Coworkers, Workforce

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