Cheap Healthy Lunches: Sandwiches & Salads
Healthy Lunches on a Budget: Sandwiches & Salads
Sandwiches and salads—they’re the tried-and-true lunchtime duo for a reason. They’re easy to make, there are a million ways to make them, and they won’t break the bank! Now, I know what you’re (probably) thinking: “Salads and sandwiches? BOR-ING!” But, don’t rule them out just yet. Sandwiches and salads are actually some of the most versatile meals we can make, with some deliciously creative possibilities!
Just about anything could be made into a sandwich or a salad, if you let it. You get to choose your sandwich filling and vessel, whether it’s peanut butter and jelly on wheat, avocado and tuna on a lettuce wrap, or cheeseburger fix-ins wrapped up in a summer roll. Eat it cold, warm it up, panini press it—sandwich however you please! And, you’re just as in-charge of your salads, which means if you never want to eat a bed of leaves, you don’t have to! Have a chopped salad, pasta salad, chicken salad, egg salad, bean salad, or even a rice salad. My point here: the possibilities are ENDLESS. If you’re someone who gets bored with eating the same things, or if you’re someone who really enjoys finding a healthy-eating routine, either way, sandwiches and salads can make lunchtime easier.
Best of all, sandwiches and salads will always be some of the friendliest lunches on our budgets. We can use our salad and sandwich ingredients in other recipes and meals throughout the week, or we can turn leftovers into a sandwich filling or a salad topping! Less food wasted = more money saved. Even if we choose to be adventurous one week with baby shrimp on our salad or fresh mozzarella in our sandwich, buying those ingredients and assembling meals for ourselves is way cheaper than buying it from a restaurant! (Not to mention, homemade meals are generally healthier and more reasonable portion sizes…) You can make healthy lunches that don’t get boring and stay within your budget—the key is to be a budget savvy shopper. I’ve got some simple tips and tricks for making cheap healthy lunches, plus TONS of creative sandwich and salad recipes to give you some inspiration!
Basic Budget Shopping Tips
Before we dive into our budget sandwiches and salads, it helps to know these basic budget tips that can help you save money at the grocery store:
- When items that you eat frequently are on sale—breads, meats, grains, sauces, condiments—stock up on them! If you’ve got room in your pantry and freezer, use it to store those budget buys so you make those great deals last longer.
- Buy produce that’s in season. When it comes to produce, you don’t want to buy more than you can eat before it starts to go bad. But, there’s always produce items that are in season, which means it’s a cheaper buy or on sale. Pay attention to which produce is in season and incorporate it into your weekly meals, rather than paying higher prices for produce that’s out of season.
- Make a grocery list and use it. Sure, it takes a bit of extra time and consideration to make the grocery list, but it will give you guidance in the store and reduce excessive spending. By making a plan, you make the most out of your money.
- Be an efficient shopper. Make your plan and aim to make just one grocery trip per week. When we have to make multiple trips to the store, more often than not, we end up spending extra money.
- Buy versatile ingredients. Plenty of ingredients we use in our sandwiches can also be used in salads, burritos, casseroles, stews—you name it! We all know of healthy foods that we like to eat regularly or stock up on each week, so how can you use those ingredients in more than one way? (This is where making your grocery list is helpful!) You can save serious money by making the most out of the food that you buy, and reducing the amount of food that you waste.
- Make compromises to fit your budget. Sticking to your budget is all about trade-offs.You spend a little more money on wholesome, fuel-filled foods like whole wheat bread, or you can save some by buying more processed, less-fuel-filled foods like refined white bread. You can spend more for the convenience of pre-chopped or washed produce, or you can save money if you’re willing to do some extra prep. (Check out my Healthy Budget Swaps blog for more easy budget substitutes like this!)
Keep these tips in mind, and now onto the budget sandwiches and budget salads!
If you want a truly healthy sandwich or wrap, you’ve got to make it using healthy ingredients, like whole-grain breads, quality protein and wholesome veggies. Plus, it helps to be mindful of the kind and amount of condiments we use. That being said, we’ve got to find the balance between making wholesome sandwiches/wraps and making the most of our budget. Some of the most common sandwiches (and arguably the most boring…) are also the cheapest sandwiches. According to Business Insider’s 2014 survey of sandwich ingredient prices, the cheapest sandwiches you can make are:
- Peanut Butter & Jelly—$0.44/sandwich
- American Cheese—$0.59/sandwich
- Egg Salad—$0.81/sandwich
- Ham & Swiss—$1.04/sandwich
These are classics, plenty of people love them, and they’re darn cheap. Also, keep in mind these prices were calculated using the cheapest ingredients that aren’t quite fuel-filled, like refined white bread, processed peanut butter, and American “cheese product.” There are plenty of ways we can revamp these classics and make them more nutritious (like the recipes you see below), but the world of sandwich possibilities is also SO much bigger than these options! Let’s explore.
PB & Strawberry Quesadilla
Turkey Club Pinwheels
- Find healthy, whole-grain breads and tortillas that you like, so you’re spending your money on quality fuel for your body. (Check out my videos on how to choose healthy bread and how to choose healthy tortillas for some guidance!) Be sure to READ the nutrition labels and the ingredients lists so you know what exactly is in the bread and tortillas you’re eating.
- Yes, whole grain breads and tortillas generally cost more than white bread and tortillas. But, it’s an investment that your body will appreciate. In reality, the cost difference isn’t too massive. At classic budget-friendly stores like Aldi, you can find 100% whole wheat bread for just $0.50-$1.00 more than a loaf of white bread! And, based on recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average price of whole wheat bread is only $1.50 more per pound than white bread.
- When the breads or tortillas that you like go on sale, buy them in bulk! They can easily be frozen so they don’t go bad and you can use them in the future.
- Keep things interesting by trying out different sandwich vessels, like whole wheat English muffins, rice paper, or lettuce wraps. (A head of lettuce generally costs less than a loaf of whole wheat bread and can be used in a salad, so you’ll rack up big-time savings!)
- Homemade bread requires a bit more effort, but it can be SO much cheaper. I’ve got several homemade bread and tortilla recipes that use 3 ingredients or less! Plus, there are healthy bread/tortilla substitutes substitutes out there that could also save you some cash.
3 Ingredient Homemade Bread
Low Carb Cauliflower Tortillas
- Buy lunch meats like deli turkey, chicken, ham, or roast beef in bulk or family-size packages. These are almost always lower in price per ounce.
- Look for which lunch meat is on sale each week (there’s generally at least one). If the kind or brand that you like is on sale, use that as a chance to stock up on it! You can always freeze any extra that you won’t use that week. Just portion it out into the general amount you’re likely to use in a week, then wrap it up, and freeze it. That way, you can defrost one of your pre-portioned packages before you’re ready to use it for the next week and keep the rest frozen.
- Save some extra dough by buying meat chubs (big chunks of meat) from the meat section in the grocery and ask the deli slice it for you. You can ask for your meat to be shaved (thinly sliced) and stretch your dollar even further! (You could also buy an electric meat slicer if you’re a serious sandwicher.)
- For cleaner, less processed meat, buy larger cuts of meat to cook and slice it yourself. It won’t have any of the added water, salt, or preservatives that most deli meat in the store is made with. Again, if you have more meat than you can use in a week, freeze some of it until you need it.
- You can also put shredded, crumbled, or diced meat on a sandwich or wrap! Sandwiches aren’t limited to sliced deli meat. Dice some cooked chicken breast, load up a wrap with ground beef or crumbled tofu, or buy pre-cooked meat (like a rotisserie chicken) and shred it. This can help keep sandwiches interesting, and you can use the meat that you prep to top salads as well!
- To save the most money on your meat buys, choose ground beef, a whole fresh chicken, and canned tuna or canned salmon. These tend to have the lowest prices per ounce, and they’re all cheaper than buying sliced lunch meat! Depending on your grocery store, these items can be anywhere from 15% to 80% cheaper than packaged lunch meat. (Not to mention, they’re all cleaner choices than those lunch meats…)
- Bulk up your meat with veggies! There are tons of delicious sandwiches, subs, and wraps you can make using meatballs, ground meat, or patties. Add some chopped veggies or even frozen mixed vegetables to the mix to spread out your meat across more meals.
- Make use of leftovers! If you make meatballs or patties for dinner during the week, those can easily work in a sandwich. And, you’d be surprised how great that chili, stew, roast, or even sliced meatloaf tastes between slices of bread or wrapped up in a tortilla!
- Having a few (or all) meatless sandwiches during the week can also save big bucks! You can make some incredibly delicious sandwiches using tofu, eggs, beans, veggies, cheeses, and spreads—all of which are more budget-friendly than meat (besides some cheeses and fancy spreads).
Avocado Black Bean Egg Salad
Cheeseburger Summer Roll
- Buy veggies and other add-ons that you can use in other dishes. The beauty of a sandwich is you can fill it with whatever you want really, and it’s a great way to use up leftovers. By the same token, plenty of sandwich fillings (like tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, eggs, hummus) can work perfectly in salads, bowls, and other meals throughout the week!
- Stock up on your favorite condiments during a sale. Most condiments are pretty cheap to begin with, and you can get them for next-to-nothing when there’s a sale! They can be safely stored in the pantry until you open them up to use.
- Make the most of your fillings. Because sandwiches and wraps are often a cold lunch that isn’t cooked (although they don’t have to be), we can create flavors by getting creative with our combinations. Choose flavorful sauces and spreads that will bring new life to your meats and veggies. Also, choose spreads and veggies that give some textural variety. Raw veggies like cucumber slices and sprouts can add crunch, or use mashed avocado and cottage cheese to add creaminess!
Tuna Salad Freezer Sandwich
Using canned tuna makes this simple sandwich SO affordable, and using hummus as its creamy element instead of mayonnaise packs in more healthy fuel! Delicious cold, or enjoy a warm tuna melt by toasting on a panini press. Plus, this recipe is perfect for meal prep because you can assemble and FREEZE these sandwiches for up to 3 months. Check out my Healthy Family Meal Prep for the Week to see how you can also freeze PB&J or turkey and cheese sandwiches, so you’ve always got a healthy lunch prepared!
Get the recipe: Tuna Salad Freezer Sandwich
English Muffin Breakfast Sandwich
Who says you can’t have breakfast for lunch? Here’s another healthy sandwich that you can prep and freeze! Plus, the English muffin is a good way to switch things up from your regular sandwich bread. I’ve also got a Freezer Breakfast Burrito recipe if you’re looking for more healthy meal prep ideas!
Get the recipe: English Muffin Breakfast Sandwich
Sweet Potato, Avocado & Black Bean Burrito
This yummy vegan burrito recipe uses some of the most affordable ingredients—tortillas, sweet potatoes, and black beans! Tons of wholesome veggies with none of the grease that usually comes on a burrito. Plus, this is a great meatless lunch option to help cut down on grocery costs. With all those savings, there’s room to splurge a bit for fresh avocado!
Get the recipe: Sweet Potato, Avocado & Black Bean Burrito
Turkey Club Summer Roll
Try a new spin on the classic turkey club by rolling up your ingredients in rice paper! It’s a fresh, fun alternative to the standard sandwich, that’s low in carbs and no cooking is required. You can use your turkey club ingredients on all sorts of other sandwich vessels to keep things interesting. Plus, rice paper will last months in your pantry so it’s a great investment for your future lunch-making!
Get the recipe: Turkey Club Summer Roll
Apple Cheddar Quesadilla
Go gourmet with the plain old cheese quesadilla by filling it with fresh apple slices! It’s like creamy, warm fondue wrapped in a tortilla blanket. You can’t go wrong with just 3 simple ingredients. And, apples are one of the most affordable fruits year-round, so this lunch is a budget win! Check out my Creamy Quesadilla recipe for another healthy twist, using avocado, chickpeas, and kale!
Get the recipe: Apple Cheddar Quesadilla
Just as with sandwiches, a healthy salad is built from healthy ingredients! The majority of salads that we get from restaurants or pick up pre-made at the grocery store actually aren’t as healthy as you’d expect. They tend to be light on nutritious veggies and greens, but heavy on the indulgent dressing and toppings, like cheese, bacon, sugary dried fruit, and candied nuts. Worst of all, restaurant salads and packaged salads at the grocery store are SO expensive!
We can make our own salads for a fraction of the price, that are also far more fuel-filled. YOU are in control of what goes into your salad, the toppings, and which/how much dressing you use. Fresh veggies and dark leafy greens are loaded with nutrients so they’re always a good bet, but there are SO many other ways that we can make salads. Add some fresh fruit to your salad for a sweet or tangy twist. Top salads with healthy proteins, like sliced chicken, hard boiled eggs, or beans. You can even make a chicken salad, egg salad, or bean salad that uses no greens at all! Experiment with new things to find what you like in a salad, and use these tips to help stretch your dollar at the grocery store.
Pomegranate Spinach Salad
- Buy your greens by the bunch or by the head. The bagged and boxed greens that are washed and trimmed can be convenient, but they tend to cost way more (up to 3-times as much)! The washing and trimming costs you a bit more time and effort, but it can save you good money!
- Make your own mix of salad greens. Again, you can find bags of mixed greens at the grocery store, but they can be far more expensive than just buying several kinds of salad greens and prepping your own mix.
- Prep your greens for easier access! Rather than putting off the rinsing and chopping of your salad greens, do it right away so you’re more likely to use them throughout the week. Trim your greens, separate them into leaves, and rinse them. Then, for greens like romaine or iceberg lettuce, I find it easiest to stack the leaves and chop them to my desired size.
- Remove moisture to make your greens last longer. Moisture lingering on salad greens is what makes them get soggy and go bad faster! After rinsing and chopping your greens, toss them together in a colander to help get excess moisture off of the leaves. It helps if you shake leaves dry and pat them down with paper towels before storing. (You could also invest in a salad spinner if you’re a big salad eater!) Then, store your greens in a big salad bowl, place a paper towel on top of the leaves or at bottom of bowl to absorb extra moisture, and cover with plastic wrap or a tight fitting lid. Every few days, toss the greens with your hands and replace paper towel. You can grab handfuls of greens to assemble your salad daily, or pre-portion them in individual containers for easier, grab-and-go lunch packing.
- Buy greens you actually like to eat. This seems intuitive, but it’s one of the most important tips listed here! Yes, choosing more nutritious greens is a smart choice—in theory. But, all of those nutrients will do you no good if you won’t actually eat them! If you love raw kale, spinach, and arugula, then absolutely splurge on them and eat them to your body’s content. If you’re not a fan, don’t waste your money buying them by the bushel! Try out other greens to find what you like, or try any number of other creative salad options that don’t even use leafy greens as a base.
Spring Vegetable Salad
- Choose veggies you can also use in other dishes. Plenty of the veggies in your salad could also be delicious layered on a sandwich or tossed into a dinner recipe!
- Buy local and in-season. This tip can’t be underestimated! When produce is in season and grown locally, it’s almost always cheaper. For example, spaghetti squash can cost up to $3 per pound, but goes on sale for $0.99 per pound when it’s in season in the winter! The average avocado in the U.S. costs about $1.50 each, but I find avocados for just $0.79 each out here in Southern California because they’re grown locally. It helps to know which vegetables are in season and when, so you can keep them in mind when planning meals for the week.
- Prep your toppings so they’re ready to go. Just like with salad greens, it helps to wash and chop any veggies you’ll use in your salads during the week. If they’re all prepped and ready to toss together, you’ll be more likely to eat them! Store however you like—in plastic storage containers, in mason jars, or in plastic bags. You can prep big batches of each veggie you’ll use, then just pull out the containers and throw your salad together assembly-line style. Or, you can mix your veggies and store them in individual servings to pour onto your greens each day. (Just be aware that “wetter” items like cut tomatoes might make your other veggies less crisp if stored together throughout the week!)
- Store your salad veggies near the front of the fridge. It may be annoying to take up prime fridge real estate, but it will help your veggies last longer. At the back of the fridge, veggies are liable to get too cold or even freeze, and the temperature change results in moisture and condensation. That moisture makes those veggies lose flavor, crispness, and texture, which would be a major budget bummer!
- Embrace variety. If you have a wider selection of mix-ins and toppings, you don’t ever have to eat the same salad every day! Of course, we don’t want to buy more food than we need, but it helps to think about ingredients that can cross over between different meals so you’ve got versatile options. If you’re not sure about what you like in a salad, start trying things and keep a running a list of what you like. Just choose a few items each week and add them to your grocery list!
Avocado, Tomato & White Bean Salad
Squash & Carrot Ribbon Salad
- Think outside of the salad box. Sure, cucumber, tomato, and red onion are classic salad ingredients for a reason, but there are tons of other possibilities! If you’re not a fan of raw veggies, try using some cooked or roasted veggies. Top salads with cubed, sliced, or shredded meat, chopped hard boiled eggs, or even a warm poached egg. Add new flavors and textures with items like raw or roasted nuts, shredded or crumbled cheeses, and dried or fresh fruits.
- Make your own dressing. A salad dressing can be as simple as a squeeze of lemon juice, or a drizzle of olive oil and balsamic. You can also whisk these basic dressing ingredients together with other spices, herbs, or your favorite condiments. Not only will your homemade dressing be healthier than most store-bought dressings that are highly processed, it can also be significantly cheaper! If your not up for making your own dressing, make an effort to read the nutrition labels and ingredients lists to find a healthy, clean dressing (or a few) that suits you. If and when they go on sale, stock up on them!
- Wait to add your dressing until you’re ready to eat. It may be tempting to toss your salad together, dressing and all, but you’ll more than likely end up with a soggy salad! It’s helpful to have some small dressing containers or mason jars that you can fill each day when packing your lunch.
- Make your own croutons. It’s SO easy to make your own croutons, and you can flavor them however you like. Just make a mixture of oil and your favorite spices, dredge some bread cubes in it, and bake at 300°F for about 20 minutes. (You can also sprinkle on cheese if desired!) Homemade croutons are bound to be cleaner than store-bought, especially if you use a clean, healthy bread to make them. This is also a great way to make use of stale bread! If you’re a serious crouton fan like I am, try making your own once and you’re hooked. They’re crispy, flavorful, and will last close to forever stored in an air-tight container.
- Storage containers are your friends. Invest in some quality storage containers so you can put your lunch together quickly in the morning. Toss some greens into a container with a few handfuls of your veggies and mix-ins, pack up any dry toppings, and grab your container of dressing. Easy, efficient, and SO much more affordable than buying a pre-made salad!
Take the tasty taco fillings you love and toss them into a simple taco salad! A fresh, low carb alternative, without the deep-fried tortilla that houses most taco salads. Using canned tomatoes, beans, and iceberg lettuce keeps this super budget friendly! I also have a Burrito Bowl in a Jar recipe, for another fun Mexican twist you can easily pack for lunch.
Get the recipe: Taco Salad
Avocado Pasta Salad
If you’re not a huge fan of greens, there are countless ways to make a pasta salad! Coat your favorite whole wheat pasta in avocado for a creamy VEGAN pasta salad. Using canned corn and black beans helps to keep your grocery bill down. I also have a Cottage Pasta Salad recipe that uses cottage cheese as a creamy dressing that’s cheap and loaded with protein!
Get the recipe: Avocado Pasta Salad
Curry Chicken Salad
A salad doesn’t have to be a light bed of greens that’s tame on flavor… Where’s the fun in that? This curry chicken salad is packed with protein to keep you full and a few simple spices turn this dish into a flavor explosion! Best of all, this recipe is versatile—delicious on its own, or as a sandwich filling.
Get the recipe: Curry Chicken Salad
BBQ Bean Salad
Ditch the greens and mix fresh veggies with beans for a heartier salad! This recipe uses low-sugar BBQ sauce for a more flavorful spin on traditional salad dressing. Check out my Southwest Bean Salad recipe for a tasty Mexican salad that’s just as tasty served as a dip with chips!
Get the recipe: BBQ Bean Salad
Rainbow Brown Rice Salad
Yes, you can even make a RICE salad! Why not? Brown rice is full of nutrients and healthy carbs, and pack in extra flavor by stirring in some fresh basil. Pile on your favorite veggies, or even use a mix of frozen vegetables to keep this dish ultra affordable!
Get the recipe: Rainbow Brown Rice Salad
I hope these budget sandwich and salad recipes gave you some inspiration to switch up your normal lunch routine! With a bit of planning and consideration, we can make SO many tasty, fuel-filled lunches that our budgets can feel good about. Try new foods and flavors, then pay attention to what you like. That’s the key to making healthy meals you’ll actually want to eat!