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Finances & Money Frugality

An Illustrated Frugal Lunch

saving money on lunches, preparing a frugal lunch, meal prepAlmost 1 year ago, I posted Frugal Lunch by my Registered Dietitian wife, Stacie. She put together a sample menu of frugal, yet nutritious, lunches including peanut butter and jelly (PBJ) sandwiches. Well, since beginning my new job, I’ve been trapped at work and getting out for lunch is just too much of a pain.

Now that I’m stuck in the office during lunchtime, I have begun to rely on a staple diet of PBJ sandwiches (and side dishes) for lunch. In fact, I’ve developed a way to make a work-month’s worth of sandwiches in 25 minutes! I’ll even give you a near-exact price per sandwich for your own budgeting AND step-by-step photos! I’ve even gotten my boss and a classmate to try it just by mentioning my method and they’re hooked!

The Idea

When I worked in PA for 5 months and lived there by myself, I didn’t want to take time to make lunches every morning, and there were no restaurants near our office building. Being the lazy yet resourceful guy that I am, I developed a method where I made a week’s worth of lunch on Sunday night. I just made a whole bunch of PBJ sandwiches at one time and froze them. I would grab 1-2 sandwiches out of the freezer each morning and by lunch they would thaw and still taste perfectly fine.

In the last article, so many people complained that it took too long every morning to make lunch and it’s just not worth it. Well how about taking an average of 2-3 minutes per day for the central part of your lunch instead? At the time, I would only make 1 loaf at a time, but now I make 2 loaves of sandwiches at once. And not counting the time I took to take pictures, this time only took 25 minutes from setup to cleanup.

The Cost

So how much does it cost to make 2 loaves of PBJ sandwiches. In my example, I was able to make 23 sandwiches. I was cheated out of a slice of bread, so I couldn’t make an even 2 dozen. For the jellies, I used a standard Welch’s grape as well as a fancier strawberry jam (for a change of pace).

So here’s the per-sandwich cost roundup using my example:

  • Bread: $0.09. I got 2 loaves of wheat bread for $2. It’s the cheap store brand so the slices are smaller, but you should easily find wheat bread at this price in your local grocery chain.
  • Peanutbutter: $0.12. I used half of a 40oz jar of Jif creamy peanut butter (so 20oz). I bought it in bulk at Sam’s club ($0.11/oz), but I’ll use the regular price of $0.14 per ounce. So 20oz divided by 23 sandwiches times $0.14 per ounce is 12 cents.
  • Grape Jelly: $0.07. I used 10oz of grape jelly for 12 sandwiches (the other 11 were jam). I also bought the jelly in bulk, but the regular per ounce price for Welch’s is currently 8 cents so I’ll use that.
  • Strawberry Jam: $0.12. I got Knott’s Strawberry Preserves in bulk from Sam’s for $0.13 per ounce and used 10 ounces of it across 11 sandwiches.

Total per grape jelly sandwich: 28 cents
Total per strawberry jam sandwich: 33 cents

That’s $6.99 for a full month of sandwiches! Do you know how much Panera charges for a PBJ sandwich? Well I don’t either because they’re too embarrassed to print it on their website, but I know it’s at least $2-3 from experience!

These are real numbers based on my actual grocery bill, and even rounded up since not everyone buys in bulk. This is even cheaper than Stacie’s original prices because I got the cheaper wheat bread. Also, I won’t count the baggies I used since they’re so cheap, but you might want to use reusable plastic containers or wash the baggies and reuse them.

Step-by-Step Illustrations (and some tips)

If you need more than just numbers, I’m going to lay out every step I went through to make 23 sandwiches. Along the way, though, I found some tips such as:

– Wheat bread doesn’t absorb the jelly juices like white bread, so your sandwich isn’t soggy when it thaws
– Knott’s Strawberry Preserves has some giant strawberries in it. It makes spreading difficult, so I’ll probably skip the preserves next time.
– I recommend stirring up the jelly before spooning it out. It makes spreading it MUCH easier.
– The messiest part is trying to stuff 2 sandwiches into a single baggy, not actually making the sandwiches.

Step One: Lay out the bread. Our kitchen island was a perfect spot to make these sandwiches as you can see.

Step Two: Plop the peanutbutter onto the bread. Of course you want to only put it on half the slices of bread. I put a generous amount on each slice because I really like peanutbutter. You’ll spread out the PB in the next step.

Step Three: Spread the peanutbutter. I do each step for all slices first in a true assembly line fashion. If I spent time making each sandwich in its entirety, I’d get tired of it and probably stop after one loaf.

Step Four: Lay out the jelly. I just dropped a glob of jelly on top of the PB, not the empty slice, because it’s easier to close up the sandwiches when one slice is plain.

Step Five: Spread the jelly. Sounding familiar?

Step Six: Close up the sandwiches. This is the best part because it’s the fastest. just place the lids on each sandwich. A tip is to match up the shape of the top with the bottom so you don’t have unneeded overhang. Oh, and yes I use the crusts.

Step Seven: Bag them up. This is my least favorite part because I cram 2 sandwiches into a single baggy. I used one baggy because it’s less wasteful.

Seriously, it took me 25 minutes, not counting the picture times, to get out all my materials, make them, bag them, put them in the freezer and clean up the counter (watch out for all the crumbs). Now stop complaining that it takes too long to make your lunch. Also, since you’re freezing them, you don’t HAVE to eat PBJ every day, but at least they’re there to grab if you’re in a hurry or know you won’t get out for lunch.

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73 Comments

  • Wow, that’s great that you have lunch for less than $7/a month! I think I’m going to do a bulk PB& J lunch pack. I can use them for days I have no leftovers.

  • I just moved and to help off-set some of the moving costs I have been eating PBJ for the past month or so. It didn’t occur to me to make them all at once. Plus, I knew it was cheap but I hadn’t run the numbers. Now I’m even more inspired to keep this up. Thanks!

  • I’ve been eating just PB sandwiches for lunch since I started my new job back in July. Yes that’s a lot of PB sandwiches. No, I’m not really tired of them yet 😛

  • I’m also a big fan of the PBJ. Two things: 1) You must have a huge freezer and 2) nothing gets soggy or funky at all???

  • My question is:
    How many calories is two PBJ sandwiches and can they really be all that healthy for you? I mean, I know they aren’t horrible, but I’m kinda surprised that your Nutritionist wife allows this. My wife is far from a registered nutritionist (although she acts like it), but she would freak if I ate like this. No bagged carrots? No apple? No orange? I can almost hear my wifes sympathetic arteries clogging.

  • Rob, I’ll ask my wife about the calorie content (actually, I can do it myself), but I didn’t say this was my whole lunch. I also bring in a giant orange plus a vegetable/pasta dish.

  • Nice. I look forward to doing this when my daughter is old enough to take lunch to school. But you did not include the cost of the baggie in your calculation which leads me to ask whether or not you re-use the bags? Please do let us know!

  • Lay Judge: I have a regular freezer and the sandwiches don’t take up much room at all. And no, they don’t get soggy. I use wheat bread (as I said in the article), but I haven’t tried freezing white bread sandwiches. I assume white bread would soak up the thawing jelly. Also, you need to freeze them right after making them.

    Kristen: I personally don’t reuse the baggies because I rip them open and use them as a plate at work. I didn’t include the baggy cost because it’s not part of the sandwich and others might choose a different storage method.

  • A 28 cent PB&J sure beats a $8.00 lunch at Subway. Not to mention I never get too old for PB&Js… they’re great!

  • ah, but how long does it take to thaw? can i grab one when i’m headed out the door at 7am and have it nice and thawed by the time noon or 1pm rolls around?…

  • Jennifer, yep they do. I said that in the first paragraph. I get mine out of the freezer at 7am and they’re thawed by about 10am (that’s the earliest I’ve eaten one, so maybe even earlier)

  • You’re brilliant. I love this. I am going to make a bunch for myself to have as snacks. And some for my son too. I might even invest in that sandwich cutter that removes the crust and seals the edges since he doesn’t eat crust. Thanks!

    @Jennifer – I’m sure it would be thawed by then. And the beauty of it is that these don’t need refrigeration at all.

  • We’ve been doing this for quite some time now. When you have four kids, you need to save time wherever possible. We’ve actually branched out to hot school lunches, as well, but making sandwiches by the load and then freezing them was the only way we could make it through the mornings before we discovered the joys of the school lunch program.

  • Well, I must say Peanut butter and jam does sound a little odd but I’ll try it before I knock it.

    So, what else could we do this with and freeze? I’m mulling about ham and mustard, but I like lettice in my ham sangers and that wont freeze well.

    Same with Marmite and cucumber, cucumber doesn’t freeze well…

    Any thoughts anyone?

  • Healthy Recommendation: For just a bit more $ you could turn this from a quite unhealthy meal to a very healthy meal.

    JIF is BAD for you (hydrogenated oil – don’t ever put this in your body! also lots of added sugar and other junk). Switch to a natural peanut butter (ingredients: peanuts, or peanuts and salt). “Jelly” is bad (tons of sugar) – switch to “all fruit preserves” which is plenty sweet. Cheap “whole wheat” bread is probably only a fraction “whole wheat” and a lot of white flour. Switch to a true whole wheat that you like.

    Sure it will cost a lot more, but you’ll still be getting a cheap lunch, probably like $0.60 a sandwich, and it’s a much higher quality sandwich as well.

  • Matty, I agree with you about the healthiness of the sandwiches, but I’ve found that natural peanut butter dries out quickly. Also, I did use preserves in this example (only slightly costlier than jelly), but I didn’t get the right texture.

    And you’re right about the cheapo wheat bread. You can more than double the bread cost if you go for read wheat bread because they usually include less slices per loaf (but they’re a bigger diameter slice) and loaves start at $2. However, we have a bread store near us that sells older loaves from the grocery stores. The bread is a little drier, but half the original price if not less.

  • Great idea with one small suggestion. If you split up the peanut butter (1/2 the amount on both slices) it will keep the jelly from making the bread soggy if you have that problem. My wife and I do LOTS of bicycling trips, so the PB&J is a diet staple. Making them this way, they stay ‘drier’ even in the hot summer.

  • Many toasters have a bagel setting that only toasts one side of the bread. Just a light toast on the wet side helps keep any condiment from making the bread soggy during storage.

    A more solid bread loaf costs more but is often a better food per cost value. Check the nutritional label & weight on most generic bread and you’ll find it’s half air.

  • Hi, CleverDude. This is a pretty clever and inexpensive lunch. Well, I love PBJ, but I don’t think I could stand to eat it everyday. I do another thing, though, that is pretty frugal and also nutritious. I buy meat at the store, like chicken breasts, chicken legs, etc. and bake enough for 5 days of lunches. I sometimes include rice in the baking dish. If I can buy a package of chicken for about $2-3 and a box of long grain rice (at Big Lots for $1.00), the per meal cost is only about $.60. I do usually bring along an apple or orange and a bottle of tea, also.

  • I do this with turkey & cheese sandwiches as well. A very light layer of mayo on each slice of bread. Or no mayo, I got mayo packets (you can get ketchup, pickle relish, mustard packets too) at the restaurant supply store. Then I pack the sandwiches dry and add a packet to be added later. You can also do lettuce/tomato slices in a separate baggy (make one for each day) and keep in the fridge to toss into lunch with the frozen sandwich. Just add it before eating.