When I worked in a grocery store and then a restaurant, I was surrounded by food, much of it not only free but part of my job to eat — that chili needs to be tasted repeatedly for seasoning and someone has to decide what cheddar to feature.

2018 was the first time in more than two decades that I had a non-food industry job. It was a revelation in many ways (Paid holidays! Weekends! Chairs!). The lack of ready food, however, had to be dealt with.

People in offices usually arrive at work with take-out coffee and sometimes breakfast — coffee and oatmeal, a latte and a scone, etc.  At lunch, they run out for a sandwich or salad to eat at their desks. While that seems convenient, it may actually not be — not only do you spend time every day standing in line, but it’s pretty expensive.

At breakfast, for example, if you just get plain things, say a large coffee and oatmeal, you’ll probably spend around $8. (Including a tip for your barista, of course!) Assuming you work 235 days a year (paid holidays! Vacation!) you’ll spend $1,880 a year on breakfast to go. Assuming you go to a coffee shop that’s relatively speedy, you’ll also spend about 31 hours a year parking and standing in line.

If you do this every working day, you’ll throw away 235 coffee cups, oatmeal tubs and plastic spoons. If everyone in your 20-person office does the same, that’s more than 14,000 pieces of landfill.

(Perhaps you recycle or compost these things, and hurrah for Davis and curbside recycling and green waste. Nonetheless, those items are manufactured in a plant somewhere, wrapped in plastic, shoved in boxes and transported to us using fuel, then taken away and processed using more fuel.)

 

The easiest of lunches is to cook too much dinner and store the leftovers in your lunch box. Julie Cross/Courtesy photo

 

The obvious answer is to make coffee at home and bring your breakfast with you. It takes me less than a minute to set up coffee the night before: sugar in the travel mug, paper filter in the cone on top of it, coffee in that, water in the electric kettle. In the morning, I flip the kettle switch on the way to the bathroom, add milk to the mug and pour water in the filter before I feed the cat, and have coffee to go in under 5 minutes.  Total cost: under a buck if you buy the good coffee. (Do buy the good coffee, you’re worth it.)

Breakfast is equally easy. Every Sunday I queue up five breakfasts ready to grab and go. At the moment, I’m keen on yogurt with fruit and granola: whole milk plain yogurt sweetened with maple syrup and divided between five-pint mason jars, plus five little tubs of granola. In the morning, I fill a jar the rest of the way with frozen blueberries and drop the jar, granola and spoon into my bag.

Oatmeal is similar — half a cup of one-minute oats in the jar along with a pinch of salt, a spoonful of sugar and a spoonful of dried cranberries. When I’m ready to eat, I add water from the hot water dispenser, stir and wait a minute. If you buy the best quality organic (again, you’re worth it!) of all these ingredients, you’d still be hard-pressed to spend more than a dollar a meal, and putting it together for the week takes no more than 10 minutes.

The net savings in the year for breakfast, then, is $1,428 and about half an hour a week of your morning life back, plus those 14,000 pieces of landfill you didn’t generate. Add to that the fact that you’ll probably be eating a bit better, since you won’t be faced with the temptation of cinnamon rolls or extra syrup in your coffee. (As a side note, though, if one of the things that drives you to stop for coffee is flavored syrup, I’ve given you two delicious recipes below.)

 

Yogurt, fruit and granola — perfect desk food. Julie Cross/Courtesy photo

 

Lunch is much the same story, with the caveat that you probably can’t make lunch cheaper or quicker than the dollar menu at the fast food drive-thru. Since you are an adult, however, you can probably work out for yourself both the quality and the environmental cost of prepared food that can retail for that price.

Making lunch at home shouldn’t be a terrible burden. Some weeks I cater to my inner 5-year-old by packaging a variety of foods that I can grab & stuff into my insulated lunch box:

* carrot sticks, made all at once on Sunday, because they’ll keep just fine
* tiny avocados, washed and tucked in with a picnic knife
* grapes, washed and ready to go
* applesauce, see my January column for the recipe
* cheese, a big block cut into cubes
* salami, portioned and frozen
* tuna, egg or ham salad
* hard boiled eggs, cooked on Sunday
* ham, cubed and frozen
* almond butter, scooped out into small containers
* pretzels
* tortilla chips
* crackers
* nuts

Other times I’ll make a big batch of some kind of salad — grains mixed with veg and protein, or potato salad with chopped ham or a noodle salad with a nut butter dressing — stored in the fridge in lunch-sized tubs so I can grab and run.

The easiest of lunches, of course, is to cook too much dinner and store the leftovers in your lunch box. I’ve been doing a traybake of hanger steak and vegetables that works beautifully for this. Leftover roast chicken works well, too, and most plain, steamed vegetables are very nice the next day.

How much money and time you save on lunch packed at home is more difficult to calculate, since your lunch can vary pretty widely.  If you save only a dollar on food and spend five minutes a day less in line, though, you’ll end the year up $235 and 19 hours, which is nothing to sneeze at! You’ll also save all the plastic clamshells, paper wrappers and bags generated by take-out lunches.

If this all seems a bit overwhelming, then start small. Take your lunch once a week, maybe on Mondays. Make your own coffee, but buy a package of muffins to take for breakfast this week. As with any change, you’ll do great if you start from where you are and work up!

— Julie Cross has left the restaurant world, but will always want to have fun with food — email her at jacross@dcn.org or follow her on Facebook and Instagram at Julie Cross Cooks.

Rich Mocha Syrup

Ingredients:

1 cup sugar
¼ cup cocoa
1 cup cold coffee

Putting it together:

Mix sugar and cocoa. Add coffee and stir to dissolve. Bring just to a boil, then remove from heat. Let cool before straining. Will keep, refrigerated, 2-3 weeks.

Vanilla Coconut Sugar Simple Syrup

Ingredients:

1 cup coconut sugar
1 cup water
1 vanilla bean

Putting it together:

Mix sugar and water and stir to dissolve. Split vanilla bean lengthwise and add to syrup. Bring just to a boil, then remove from heat. Let cool. Remove vanilla bean and reserve for another use. Strain if desired – some people don’t like the tiny vanilla bean specks. Will keep, refrigerated, 2-3 weeks.

Bonus: Add vanilla bean to a bottle of vodka and refrigerate five days for vanilla vodka, or two weeks for vanilla extract. Be sure to remove bean at the end of that time — it gets an unpleasant flavor as it ages.

By  — Julie has left the restaurant world, but will always want to have fun with food – email her at jacross@dcn.org or follow her on Facebook and Instagram at Julie Cross Cooks.

Crossposted from the Davis Enterprise

Printed in the January 16, 2019 edition on page A7 | Published online January 15, 2019

Food Fairy: Save $1,000 a year, one hour a week, and maybe the planet