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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 is quite an operation! I may have to try this. I am with commenter Aaron above– based on my mom’s example, I’ve always put PB on both slices of bread to keep the jelly from making it soggy. Only problem is that it makes it easier for the jelly to squirt out.

  • Madame X-
    You can fine tune the jelly to prevent this. We do a circle in the middle of the sandwich. Once you squish it together, it spreads almost perfectly. It takes a few sandwiches for practice, but I bet you can nail it.

    Oh, and to all the posters who mentioned grilling them; you’re RIGHT ON! Grilled PB&Js are delicious.

  • I don’t get it – these aren’t healthy. Your packaged bread is full of processed flour and preservatives, and your JIF pb is full of sugar and trans fat. And grape jelly? Is that even a food? Who turns grapes into jelly? I really like the idea, but how about an example with whole foods? It might be a little more expensive, but this is your health we’re talking about here.

  • I found this solution when I searched for alternatives ways to make P B & J when I became completely frustrated with my teen kids loading sticky knives and spoons into a clean utensil basket in the dishwasher. Yes, as you can imagine, having 2 teen boys with ADHD wears me down! Here is my spin on premaking PB & J, which most likely wins me the award for being a little less frugal and a whole lot more lazy. I buy the Strawberry (Knotts) preserves at my $.99 store. Sometimes they have them 2 for .99 which is awesome! Same goes for the peanut butter- I buy a 1 or 2 lb. Bag of peanuts, I choose unsalted with skins for texture- toss them into my blender and make peanut butter- her goes my genius…. Pour both into separate freezer bags, lay out the bread, snip off a tiny ½” section of the freezer bags and squeeze out on to bread in zig zags- toss bags- NO STICKY KNIVES- put soap water into blender and turn it on high while you microwave soap water in your jam jar, rinse both. All done, gained a jar, wasted 2 bags.

  • Will toasting the bread beforehand affect the thaw time or absorption postively or negatively? I prefer a toasted pb&j sandwhich, which may be a bit of a moot point since the sandwich will then be frozen, but more for the bread constinensy.

  • JoJo, if you’re looking for the crunchiness of the toasted bread to still be there after thawing, you’ll probably be disappointed. I haven’t tried it myself, but I can only assume that it won’t be crunchy anymore.

  • Awesome. I would buy better bread and natural peanut butter, and then spread the peanut butter on both slices of bread, but otherwise it’s a great idea. I bring my sandwiches in reusable containers, so maybe I could put the sandwiches back in the bread bag to freeze, then take out as needed?

  • This is fun to read about – I did this too as a college student and may have to start again…

  • There is a trick to avoiding soggy sandwhiches–put a thin layer of peanut butter on the jam side too. It helps seal in the bread so the jam doesn’t soak through. Once you do this, its more slippery inside and the jam could slide out; so be careful when you eat it.

  • My fiance and I have been doing this for two weeks and it is great. We both love PB&J’s and this is saving us around $100 a week. This is great for us because we are saving for a wedding. Thanks for the tip!!!

  • One final thing, if you take the sandwichs out of the freezer make sure you eat them or put them back in freezer. Do not attempt to leave it in your office refrigerator for the next day because the bread will be hard as a rock.

  • @Flaime, I could, but doing it in batch mode would still come out on top because I’ve removed all but one prep and one cleanup step. If I made my sandwiches one per day (or even 2 per day), I have a setup/cleanup every time.

  • Very detailed. Thanks.

    I wonder if you might improve your least favorite step by wrapping the sandwiches in plastic wrap instead of baggies? You could tear the 26 sheets first or lay the bread on long sheets of plastic wrap, which you snip and wrap after all the sandwiches are made. Not sure how it would affect the freezing.

  • @daretoeatapeach: good idea. I have a 5 mile long roll of cling wrap from Sam’s Club that we’ll never get through. That’s much cheaper than each baggie. I’ll try it next time, but I am worried about its protection against the freezer as it’s thinner than the ziploc baggies.

  • We love PB and J at our house! I actually mix the PB and J together in a big bowl and then I only have to spread one slice of bread. Using this method, we have not yet leaked jelly through our bread. They freeze great too!

  • My husband is 55 and has been eating 1 or 2 peanut butter sandwiches daily since we married 20 years ago for Lunch! A few years ago his doctor told him that he has arteries of someone in their 20’s! He cholesterol and blood pressure are normal as well. Just thought i would give you some food for thought on the subject.

  • That’s one way to save money on lunch. I have to hand it to you — that took some effort, but definitely worth it. I used to do something similar with spaghetti. I’d make a big batch, package them in the resealable containers and eat well for lunch all week long.

  • I can’t thank you enough for posting this. I would have never thought of freezing PB&Js, but it is so easy to grab out of the freezer to take to work on those days that I don’t have leftovers. They are super tasty with Trader Joe’s Crunchy All Natural Peanut Butter (surprisingly cheap at ~$1.69/16oz = $0.10/oz), Kirkland Whole Grain Bread w/ 5g fiber per slice (raised to $3.99 for 2 loaves), and Smuckers Strawberry Jam from Costco. A bit more expensive than your sandwiches, but 1 and a piece of fruit is enough for a decent-sized lunch. The 10g of fiber per sandwich (plus fiber from the peanut butter) really fills you up.

  • I love this idea! I fix my daughter’s breakfast every morning and I like the idea of having the sandwich ready to go…plus she can help me assemble! We’ll be making sandwiches tonight. 🙂