With potential savings of over £1,000 a year, making packed lunches makes a lot of sense. So why don’t more of us do it? We ask some foodies what they would put in their own lunch boxes. Ofgem, the government regulator responsible for the electricity and natural gas markets in the UK, has branched out from the energy market to issue a guide for “financial fitness”, with tips on quitting the gym and cracking down on coffee and sarnie habits. They note the average office worker squanders £2.83 a day on buying lunch, before admonishing: “Save your money and instead make and take your own food into work.”
They have a point. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that buying a cluster of 25 grapes in a dinky individual portion from Pret a Manger is not cost effective, nor is treating yourself to daily takeaway coffee. You’ll pay £1.50 for 165g of Pret grapes (£1.80 if you eat in) when spending an additional 50p at a supermarket will get you grapes enough for the entire week. Similarly, buy two Starbucks filter coffees (£1.90) and you’ve covered the cost of a bag of supermarket coffee that’ll make you 15 cups.
Why don’t we do it, then? Research conducted by vouchercloud.com suggests that doing so could save us £1,300 a year, a number far bigger than the paltry figures under discussion when we’re talking about switching energy providers. The research suggests that the 62% of employed Britons who buy their lunches are spending an average of £1,840 each year, based on 46 working weeks, while those who take food from home spend £552.
Several years ago, I worked in an office metres from a superstore and quite far – in lunch hour terms – from anywhere else. On the whole, it didn’t bother us. We were a foodie bunch, and we had a rather idyllic system in play where we’d divide into pockets of people with similar food tastes and we’d trot off on a Monday lunchtime to do our lunch shop for the week. Of course, there are other ways to harness the power of the work kitchen, from boiling eggs in the kettle to nuking veg in the microwave.
I suspect much of our reluctance to make packed lunches stems from traumatic childhood experiences – memories of spillages (luckily, Tupperware has come a long way in recent years), crushed crisps and plastic-clad oblongs of sweaty Cheddar. It needn’t be so. I put the question to several people in the food industry: what makes the perfect packed lunch?
James Ramsden, author of Love Your Lunchbox: 101 Do-ahead Recipes to Liven Up Lunchtime, says, “I’m quite pro the ambitious packed lunch that makes the most of the office kitchen – microwave, kettle, toaster. Most things can be rejigged to work as a packed lunch. Try pre-cooked noodles, a stock cube, a dash of soy sauce and chilli sauce, and a load of vegetables. Just add a kettle.” His suggestion for the ultimate lunch? “It’s the one eaten by Roald Dahl’s hero in My Uncle Oswald: cold chicken, French bread, a fromage dur and a bottle of Romanée-Conti.”
Food writer Felicity Cloake’s ultimate packed lunch is a simple one that channels the rather fun idea that a packed lunch is just a picnic (who doesn’t like a picnic?): “KitKats must feature in the ultimate packed lunch (wrapped in foil). Ham and mustard roll. Ripe tomato on the side. Apple. Bit of cheese. Nice cold beer.”
Chef Jose Pizarro’s ultimate packed lunch relies on one thing: “a nice bottle of aromatic olive oil. If you have a little bottle in your bag, everything is OK.” A handy piece of advice. There are few things that can’t be enlivened with a good glug of the stuff.
So, the ultimate lunch? An element from each of the above should do the trick: French bread, bit of cheese, olive oil. Add to that a twig of grapes from the fruit bowl at home and a coffee-filled Thermos to keep you going throughout the day. Voila. Maybe spend the savings on a posh lunchbox.