What's your lunch really costing you?
With a little planning, it's easy to transform leftovers into healthy, affordable lunches. We'll show you several choices for dinner tonight, plus options for tomorrow's lunch, and compare how our lunch portions stack up―nutritionally and money-wise―to their counterparts at popular chain restaurants.
Dinner Tonight: Grilled Lemon-Herb Chicken
Make this for dinner tonight, and we'll show you three tasty options for tomorrow's lunch that are healthier than their restaurant counterparts.
Lunch Option 1: Cobb Salad
Homemade Alternative: Chicken Cobb Salad―$5.11
Using leftover chicken from the previous recipe, you can save more than $8 by brown-bagging your own Cobb salad. This way you can control the calories, saturated fat, and sodium that can often go unchecked in restaurant salads with heavy dressings. California Pizza Kitchen's Cobb Salad, without dressing, contains 630 calories, 15 grams of saturated fat, and 1,510mg sodium―not a great start. Add ranch dressing, and the totals jump to 1,150 calories, 24 grams saturated fat, and 1,960mg sodium. Our salad contains almost 77 percent fewer calories, 90 percent less saturated fat, and 60 percent less sodium.
Lunch Option 2: Thai Chicken Wrap
Homemade Alternative: Thai Chicken Rollups―$2.39
Make this simple swap and you’ll cut calories and sodium―and trim your food costs. The restaurant version of the Thai Chicken Wrap is fine when it comes to calories (about 530 calories per wrap), but contains a whopping 1,340mg sodium. That’s more than half of the maximum daily recommended intake of sodium. The homemade alternative saves you more than $3, cuts 200 calories, and reduces sodium by almost half.
Lunch Option 3: Chicken Sandwich
Homemade Alternative: Chicken-and-Brie Sandwich with Roasted Cherry Tomatoes―$3.76
A chicken sandwich is a go-to lunch for many who assume it's a healthy choice. But not all chicken sandwiches are created equally. Chili's Chicken Ranch Sandwich has a staggering 1,170 calories, 71 grams of fat (11 grams saturated), and 2,910mg sodium. Our version gets its robust flavor from creamy Brie and roasted tomatoes, but contains 730 fewer calories, half the saturated fat, and only one-third of the sodium of the restaurant version. Plus, our sandwich contains calcium, fiber, and iron that your body needs.
Dinner Tonight: Flank Steak
Lunch Option 1: Steak Sandwich
Homemade Alternative: Grilled Vidalia Onion and Steak Sandwiches―$3.78
A delicious steak sandwich for less than $4? You bet! But the real savings here is for your waistline. T.G.I. Friday's Chipotle Grilled Steak Sandwich (with cheese) is a heavyweight, packed with 900 calories. Our chipotle-seasoned steak sandwich has 72 percent fewer calories and just 3.3 grams of saturated fat. With 30.5 grams of protein, plus iron and calcium your body needs, this meal is plenty substantial.
Lunch Option 2: Steak Fajita Wraps
Homemade Alternative: Southwestern Steak, Corn, and Black Bean Wraps―$1.87
Our delicious spin on steak fajitas will work for nearly every budget. Plus, they've got just 327 calories and 10.4 grams of fat (4.7 grams saturated) per serving. Compare that to the aptly named "Fat Sam" steak fajitas at Moe's: 1,591 calories, 86 grams of fat (31.3 saturated), and 4,306mg sodium if you opt for rice, black beans, queso, sour cream, chipotle ranch, guacamole, pico de gallo, and veggies.
Lunch Option 3: Steak Salad with Cheese
Homemade Alternative: Steak, Sun-Dried Tomato, and Mozzarella Couscous Salad―$3.45
It's tough to find a restaurant-style steak salad with so much good nutrition in so few calories. But this couscous-based salad, which could be served over greens, delivers fresh veggies, fiber, calcium, protein, and healthy carbs―all for about $3.50 and just 332 calories. Compare that to the restaurant version: 562.5 calories, 29.7 grams of fat (10.2 grams saturated), and you'll feel great about this recipe.
Dinner Tonight: Baked Ham
Lunch Option 1: Ham and Cheese Sandwich
Homemade Alternative: Ham and Cheese Toasted Sandwich―$1.49
A good ham and Swiss sandwich is a comfort-food classic. By making your own, you'll benefit your budget as well as your taste buds. Our homemade version comes in at 246 calories, 4.3 grams saturated fat, and 859mg sodium. The restaurant alternative featured here is a bit harder on your wallet and your waistline at 690 calories, 10 grams saturated fat, and 2,320mg sodium.
Lunch Option 2: Pizza
Homemade Alternative: Ham and Pineapple Pizza―$1.90
Premade pizza crust and commercial pasta sauce make this pizza a cinch to assemble, and chipped leftover ham makes it tasty. With just 298 calories and 7.9 grams of fat (3.7 grams saturated) for 2 slices, it's a more nutritious choice than the slices you'll find at most pizza parlors. As one example, Pizza Hut's Ham & Pineapple 6-inch Personal Pan Pizza has 550 calories and 20 grams of fat (8 grams saturated).
Dinner Tonight: Whole Roasted Turkey
Lunch Option 1: Turkey Sandwich
Homemade Alternative: Turkey Reuben Sandwich―$2.33
Bacon aside, a club sandwich sounds like a fairly good choice, right? Don't assume so. The Cheesecake Factory's sandwich "The Club" weighs in at 1,432 calories, 20 grams of saturated fat, and 3,196mg sodium. Our Turkey Reuben Sandwich is a better choice for your belly and budget, with just 255 calories, 4.8 grams of saturated fat, and 865mg sodium. Here's what you save: $9.62 in your pocket, plus 82 percent fewer calories, 75 percent less saturated fat, and 73 percent less sodium.
Lunch Option 2: Turkey Salad
Homemade Alternative: Romaine and Turkey Salad with Creamy Avocado Dressing―$3.69
This is another example of a seemingly healthy option―grilled chicken salad―that can be deceiving. Guacamole, sour cream, and Mexi-ranch dressing pack Applebee's Santa Fe Chicken Salad with 1,270 calories, 24 grams saturated fat, and 3,460mg sodium. Our homemade version uses avocados in a creamy dressing and subs your leftover turkey meat for 80 percent fewer calories, 82 percent less saturated fat, and 69 percent less sodium.
About Our Methodology
Recipe costs were calculated using supermarket prices (from Peapod.com) in the Milwaukee area. Recipe ingredient costs were calculated by dividing the full cost of the grocery item by the amount of the ingredient required for the recipe. Total recipe cost was divided by the number of servings per recipe to arrive at the cost on a "single serving" basis. Grocery items selected were generally mid-to-lower-priced brands. For example, we used olive oil that was $10.49 per 17-ounce bottle. Some brands were a few dollars less, others substantially more expensive for the same amount. Restaurant prices were taken from the St. Louis and Milwaukee areas. We used single serve entrée, sandwich, salad etc. costs for comparison with the single serving cost of our recipes. For both groceries and restaurants, we used medium-sized cities with moderate pricing/cost of living. Restaurant prices do not include tax or tip.
About the author: Cooking Light contributor Katherine Brooking is a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in nutrition education from Columbia University. Additional reporting by Kirsten Soelling.