Genius packed lunch ideas you'll be craving all day

Love your lunchbox



While the words ‘packed lunch’ may conjure up memories of soggy sandwiches and lacklustre school meals, we’re here to change all that and help you to create your most delicious (and budget-friendly) lunchbox meals ever.

From tips that save time and money, to healthy hacks and frugal hints, these super-easy ideas will transform lunch prep, whether you're sending the kids off to school or putting together something to eat at your desk or on the go.

Batch cook wholesome grains

<p>Meal Makeover Moms/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0</p>

Meal Makeover Moms/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

Cooking grains in bulk at the weekend, in anticipation of a busy week ahead, is a game-changer when it comes to thrifty, tasty lunches. The likes of freekeh, bulger, buckwheat, rice, couscous and quinoa will all sit happily in the fridge in an airtight container, ready to form the base of midday meals throughout the week. Keep things interesting by varying the ingredients you add each day; think slivers of cured ham or leftover meat, roasted or raw vegetables, crispy, crunchy pickles and handfuls of fresh herbs.

Blanch and refresh to keep your greens green



If you’re batch cooking green vegetables like fine beans, frozen peas or spinach to put in your lunchtime salads, make sure they stay green by taking a moment to blanch and refresh them. Cook the veg until just tender, then drain and run under the cold tap or tip into a bowl of iced water. This stops the cooking process and sets the colour, ensuring they don’t go soggy and unappetisingly grey as the week progresses.

Roast vegetables for the win



Roasted vegetables are lovely hot or cold, make a great addition to salads and sandwiches, and are easily cooked in large quantities. To save money, make the most of seasonal gluts; depending on the time of year, chop courgettes, aubergines, red peppers, tomatoes and red onions into small chunks, then toss with olive oil, salt, pepper, halved garlic bulbs and any spices you like, before cooking at 180ºC/360°F/gas mark 4 until tender (about 30 minutes). For a more earthy, wintery note, the likes of carrots, parsnips and beetroot work well, too.

Keep kale in mind

<p>Love Like Salt/Shutterstock</p>

Love Like Salt/Shutterstock

As vitamin and mineral rich as it may be, raw kale often gets a bad rap for being tough and chewy. Make that a thing of the past by briefly massaging your kale leaves with olive oil and salt (or your chosen dressing) for a couple of minutes in the morning. Come lunchtime, those leaves will be nice and tender – this is one of those rare occasions when adding the dressing to your salad early will actually improve it.

Swap crisps for kale

<p>Olga Bondas/Shutterstock</p>

Olga Bondas/Shutterstock

Delicious, healthy and far more budget-friendly than a packet of posh crisps; we’re making the case for homemade kale crisps. Simply tear the leaves from a bunch of kale into pieces, discarding the stems. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle lightly with salt and brown sugar. Tip onto baking trays lined with baking paper and roast in an oven preheated to 150°C/300°F/gas mark 2 for 20 minutes, until crispy. Feel free to vary the flavourings: smoked paprika, cumin, ras el hanout and garlic granules all work well.

Give salad a go



Done right, a lunchbox salad can be a delight – packed with flavour, colour, character and nutritional value. With that in mind, seek out fresh produce (no limp lettuce allowed), give a bit of thought to your ingredient pairings and make sure there’s plenty of different textures going on. Cooked grains and vegetables will add both flavour and bulk here (see earlier tips about cooking in batches), while making your salad dressing from scratch will make all the difference.

Dress it up (at the right time)



When it comes to regular salad leaves (as opposed to robust brassicas, like kale) the key to success, and a spritely salad, is adding the dressing at the last minute. Decant your chosen dressing into a small airtight container (think mini jam jar), then stash in your lunchbox, alongside your salad. Drizzle over just before tucking in.


Make a French connection...

<p>Elena Hramova/Shutterstock</p>

Elena Hramova/Shutterstock

A useful rule of thumb for a basic salad dressing is three parts oil to one part vinegar (or other acidic element). Make a classic French vinaigrette with 3 tbsp olive oil, 1 tbsp white wine vinegar, ½ tsp Dijon mustard and ½ tsp honey. Put everything in a large jar, season with salt and pepper, then shake until well combined. Transfer as much as you need to a small container that will fit in your lunch box. Experiment with different oils and vinegars (or use lemon or lime juice), and try flavourings such as garlic, minced shallot, chilli and fresh herbs.

Use store cupboard ingredients to your advantage

<p>Lyudmila Mikhailovskaya/Shutterstock</p>

Lyudmila Mikhailovskaya/Shutterstock

Varying your dressing is a really useful way to keep salads interesting. There’s no need to shell out on new ingredients, though. Instead, get inventive with items already in your store cupboard. Honey and mustard is a classic combo, a blend of soy sauce, sesame oil and balsamic vinegar goes really well with tomatoes and a mix of peanut butter, sweet chilli sauce and white wine vinegar is great drizzled over noodles and shredded vegetables.

Try tahini for something different

<p>Candice Bell/Shutterstock</p>

Candice Bell/Shutterstock

Tahini makes for another fantastically versatile salad dressing base. Mix 3 tbsp of the sesame paste with 3 tbsp water and 1 tbsp lemon juice. Stir together until loose and creamy, then add a crushed garlic clove and a drizzle of honey. This dressing is particularly good trickled over roasted vegetables or served with falafel. Top tip: when the tahini jar is nearly empty, add all the other ingredients to that jar and shake well, to ensure you use every last bit of tahini (the same principle applies to jars of mustard, peanut butter, honey and the like).

Keep your finger on the pulses



If you’re worried that having a salad or soup for lunch won’t fill you up, then pulses are your friend. Delivering both protein and fibre to help keep you feeling fuller for longer, the likes of chickpeas, lentils and beans will all pad dishes out at minimal extra cost. Either cook in batches and use as needed, or opt for tinned varieties.

Up your condiment game



Having access to a few key condiments will allow you to instantly upgrade any lunch (salad, sandwich, soup or wrap) the inexpensive way. If you work in an office or similar, do consider keeping a stash of mini soy and hot sauce bottles, olive oil, balsamic vinegar and Japanese furikake seasoning there, as well as good-quality sea salt and black pepper.

Add some crunch to your lunch



For a truly satisfying lunch, texture is as important as flavour. Croutons make a great addition to soups and salads, and are also a tasty way to use up stale bread (tear into pieces and toss with a little oil and salt and pepper, then bake in a 180ºC/360°F/gas mark 4 oven until golden brown and crunchy). Toasted nuts and seeds are another way to add textural variation, as are crispy shallots and seaweed. Whatever you opt for, keep separate from the rest of your lunch and add just before tucking in.

Give instant noodles a gourmet twist

<p>Sergey Mironov/Shutterstock</p>

Sergey Mironov/Shutterstock

One of the best ideas for a budget lunch is giving that old student favourite, instant noodles, a grown-up spin. Put the noodles in a jar or sealable container along with a spoonful of miso paste or a vegetable stock cube. Add a few slivers of ginger or garlic, a handful of chopped coriander, some finely sliced veg and even a boiled egg. At lunchtime, just cover with boiling water from the kettle, stir and leave to soften for a few minutes before adding soy sauce (from your condiment stash) and slurping down.

Get the recipe for quick miso ramen here

Embrace al desko avo toast

<p>Elena Shashkina/Shutterstock</p>

Elena Shashkina/Shutterstock

Although undeniably delicious, avocado toast can be a pretty pricey brunch or lunch order. The good news is it’s easy to make a wallet-friendly al desko version. Boil an egg at home, bring your avocado with you as it is, and pack a couple of slices of bread and half a lemon. Come lunchtime, while your bread is toasting, mash the avocado with the juice from the lemon and add salt and pepper. Spread thickly over your toast and top with the halved boiled egg. Scatter with nuts or seeds, dot with hot sauce (from your condiment collection) and enjoy.

Assemble a mini mezze



A pot of dip and some flatbreads or crudités accompanied by a few olives and a handful of roasted vegetables makes for lovely mezze-inspired lunch. Add interest to a shop-bought dip (and make it stretch further) by stirring through a spoonful of chilli sauce or pesto, or fold natural yogurt into hummus for a lighter, creamier finish. If you really want to treat yourself – and impress your colleagues – bring a handful of herbs and pomegranate seeds in a separate container and scatter over just before eating.

Find some super-speedy dip recipes here

Make a nacho bowl

<p>Marie Sonmez Photography/Shutterstock</p>

Marie Sonmez Photography/Shutterstock

For the easiest transportable, Mexican-inspired meal around, bring a bag of tortilla chips, a small can of kidney beans or black beans and a pot of grated cheese with you. When you're ready to eat, empty the tortilla chips into a microwave-safe container, then top with the drained beans and the cheese. Microwave until the cheese is bubbling. Top with sour cream and smashed avocado (if you’re feeling fancy) and dig in.

Bake mini frittatas

<p>Elena Veselova/Shutterstock</p>

Elena Veselova/Shutterstock

As well as being cheap and easy to make, mini frittatas are tasty, packed with protein, and perfectly portable. Lightly oil the wells of a muffin tin, then whisk one egg per well with a splash of milk and pour in. Add whatever extras you like here; think cooked vegetables, grated cheese, ham, crispy bacon or leftover chicken. Bake in an oven pre-heated to 180ºC/360°F/gas mark 4 until set – about 10-15 minutes. Store extra frittatas (turned out from the tin) in the freezer, then defrost in the fridge overnight ready for lunch the next day.

Raise your sandwich game

<p>AS Food Studio/Shutterstock</p>

AS Food Studio/Shutterstock

We can't really talk about frugal lunches without mentioning sandwiches, but that doesn’t have to mean boring; with a little thought, a sandwich can be a work of art. Begin by varying your bread: opt for chewy rye one day, seed-speckled wholemeal the next, fill bagels with your favourite ingredients, or choose a freshly baked baguette. If you do go the baguette route, a Vietnamese bánh mì, which combines savoury pork (or tofu) with pickled carrots, hot chilli sauce and fresh coriander, is a must-try.

Find our recipe for bánh mì here

Wrap it up



If you want a bigger filling-to-carbs ratio than is generally offered by the humble sandwich, consider a tortilla-style wrap. Pretty much anything is good in these, and they have the added bonus that the filling won’t fall out in transit. If you’re eating at your desk or on the go – and it happens to the best of us – a wrap can be a neater, more convenient option than a sandwich.

Go the cheese and crackers route

<p>New Africa/Shutterstock</p>

New Africa/Shutterstock

Simple and yet seriously good, there are endless riffs on the cheese and crackers combo which can be varied according to your taste, budget, and whatever happens to be in the fridge. The only rule here is that you pack your ingredients separately and assemble at the lunch table. For a classic that always tastes great, try sourdough crackers, aged Cheddar and fruit chutney, mix things up with crostini toasts, cream cheese and a dot of pesto, or top bagel crackers with cottage cheese (trust us) and a little smoked salmon and sliced cucumber.

Use shop-bought puff pastry for a quick tart



Ready-made puff pastry is great for creating quick, tasty tarts. Just unroll and top with your chosen filling, leaving a 2 cm (1 in) border. Brush the exposed pastry with beaten egg and bake for 20 minutes in a 200ºC/400ºF/gas mark 6 oven. Favourite easy toppings of ours include thinly sliced tomatoes scattered with fresh basil, beetroot and goats’ cheese, and grated courgette mixed with pesto. Eat cold, or reheat in the microwave.

Try this recipe for beetroot, goats' cheese and thyme tart

Feast on a humble baked spud

<p>Africa Studio/Shutterstock</p>

Africa Studio/Shutterstock

For pure, carb-filled comfort at a minimal cost, there’s nothing better than a baked potato – but cooking one at work would be a fool’s errand. Even if you could hog the microwave for the necessary time, your potato would emerge sad, pallid and tough. Instead, bake your potato at home (rub the skin with a little olive oil and salt, then give it an hour or so in a hot oven for a soft inside and crispy skin), then reheat at lunchtime.

Discover our top tips for tasty baked potatoes here

Give leftover pizza a new lease of life

<p>Tatiana Frank/Shutterstock</p>

Tatiana Frank/Shutterstock

Pair leftover pizza with fresh salad leaves and you’ll quickly have yourself an extremely enjoyable and economical lunch. You can go one of two routes here: either tear last night’s pizza into bite-sized pieces and add to your salad instead of croutons, or scatter salad leaves – tossed seconds before in a punchy, vibrant dressing – over leftover pizza slices.

Make good use of leftover chicken



When there’s leftover chicken in the fridge, lunch is looking up. Add shredded roast chicken to wraps, salads and sandwiches, along with a generous swirl of Caesar dressing, drizzle wings or drumsticks with chilli sauce and serve with sesame oil–soused noodles. Or shred poached chicken breasts into pieces and pack into an airtight container along with a pile of crunchy veg and a simple satay sauce for dipping (mix peanut butter with a drizzle of both soy sauce and honey, then add a squeeze of lime juice).

Think eggs, eggs, eggs

<p>Robert Anthony/Shutterstock</p>

Robert Anthony/Shutterstock

Affordable and packed with nutrients, eggs are heroes when it comes to economical lunches. A hard-boiled egg is the perfect low-cost addition to a packed lunch (salt and pepper is of course essential for dipping). If you have access to a microwave, scrambled egg on toast can become a simple, tasty and thrifty lunchtime go-to. Alternatively, pile those scrambled eggs into a flour tortilla, add grated cheese and wrap up. And don’t underestimate the simple beauty of a classic egg and cress sandwich.

Don’t forget a sweet treat

<p>Africa Studio/Shutterstock</p>

Africa Studio/Shutterstock

Bring dessert from home to satisfy your sweet tooth. A yogurt pot cake is as easy as one, two, three. Empty a standard 125ml (4.4oz) pot of yogurt into a bowl (any flavour will work, as will low fat options), then use the pot to measure out the rest of the ingredients: one pot of oil, two of sugar and three of self-raising flour. Add an egg and a handful of fresh fruit, nuts and/or chocolate chips, mix well and pour into a lined loaf tin. Bake in an oven preheated to 170°C/340°F/gas mark 3 for 45-55 minutes. Once cool, cut the cake into slices, and keep the extras in the freezer for another day.

Make a mug cake in the office microwave



If you know that you’ll need something sweet to eat post-lunch, this quick and easy office-friendly recipe is for you. In the morning, pop all the dry ingredients you need in a little bag, then break the egg into a small jar and add the oil and milk. When that sugar craving hits, mix the wet and dry ingredients together in a mug and cook in the office microwave for a couple of minutes.

Get the recipe for microwave mug cake here

Fight the 3pm snack attack

<p>Nina Firsova/Shutterstock</p>

Nina Firsova/Shutterstock

We’ve all been there – having enjoyed a frugal packed lunch, come 3pm the hunger hits, and those good intentions not to spend money go out the window. To avoid splashing the cash on sub-par baked goodies or raiding the office vending machine, try bringing an afternoon snack from home: edamame beans, a homemade granola bar, apple slices spread with peanut butter or a smoothie are all good choices.

Find the recipe for homemade granola bars here

Opt for beeswax wraps over clingfilm



Of course, you'll need to wrap up your thrifty lunch items to keep them fresh. Reusable beeswax wraps are a good sustainable alternative to clingfilm (plastic wrap) and sandwich bags. They look pretty, last for up to a year and can be cleaned with regular washing up liquid and cold water. What’s more, as these products have become more mainstream in recent years they’ve reduced in price, making them friendly on both the planet and your purse.

Invest in a thermos flask

<p>Courtesy of Zojirushi</p>

Courtesy of Zojirushi

Sometimes a salad, however hearty, just won't cut it. If you want something warming for lunch and your workplace (or the school) doesn’t have a microwave, it might be a good idea to invest in a vacuum flask. That way you can enjoy hot soups, stews and pasta dishes for lunch whenever the mood strikes (or the temperature outside dips).

Get inspiring soup recipes here

Box clever

<p>Elena Veselova/Shutterstock</p>

Elena Veselova/Shutterstock

Whatever you take for lunch, you'll need something to put it in. A lightweight yet good-quality lunch box with a few different compartments is your best bet here. Seek out leak-proof boxes that will keep your food properly fresh, and you won’t look back. Depending on what you’re most likely to pack, it could be well worth considering a microwave-safe option. Or, if you like your lunch to include lots of different bits and pieces, a Japanese-style bento box might be just the thing.

Now discover how to turn tonight's meal into tomorrow's lunch