Lifestyle Changes in Small Packages: Brown Bag Lunch

In 2013, I read David A. Kessler’s somewhat horrifying yet engrossing book The End of Overeating, in which he provides an inside look at how the food industry perpetually entices us to shove the ideal mix of sugar, fat, salt, and who knows what else down our throats.

After being shown how I was being taken for a ride by companies that say they prepare “food,” but want us to be loyal patrons of junk, I committed to making changes in my diet. I bought fewer prepared foods, read food labels more consistently, and ate more fruits and vegetables.

Doing these things helped me try out cooking a little more and expand my palate. I’m still not a good cook, but purchasing food in a purer state increased my awareness of the hidden ingredients in packaged foods and even restaurant fare.

And yet, I would not bring my lunch to work. For the past 20 years, I have been an idly aspiring, largely unsuccessful brown bagger. Instead, I have spent most lunch hours wandering downtown like a mangy coyote in search of the elusive and healthy five dollar meal. I still haven’t figured out if it exists in D.C.

I used my recent job shift as an opportunity to make a commitment to brown bagging it. I examined my excuses for not bringing my lunch:

  • I don’t cook well.
  • Preparing meals takes up too much time.
  • There is a space shortage in my bags, especially when I run-commute.

I then pondered my reasons for wanting to prepare my own lunch:

  • I prefer to spend my money on food I really desire, and not something I’m settling for at midday because I’m starving.
  • I dislike waiting in line.
  • I like more control over my eating schedule– what I eat when I want to eat it.
  • I would know more about the food I’m eating, including where it came from, and how it is prepared and seasoned.
  • I think I’d eat better in the long run if I brought my own lunch.

I thought about the time I spend walking to a lunch spot and waiting in line for service. How about applying that time to preparing food the evening or morning before work?

I considered the food going into my body– preservatives, sodium, fat. I really did not know the truth about the ingredients in my food. Even though I may not have a complete understanding of that in the grocery store either, at least I have a better idea of what I’m consuming.

I defeated all my excuses for not preparing my own meals, one by one. I don’t have to be a good cook to eat better. I don’t have to bake casseroles or spend lots of time on brown bag meal prep. I refused to accept that it was impossible for me to find a small space for my lunch in my work pack or pannier.

On December 1, New Job Day, I also kicked off a new habit. I brought my lunch in with me. Since then, I’ve only bought lunch out twice. Both instances were pre-planned treats.

I store my lunch in an insulated lunch bag that is soft, rather than rigid. That allows me more options for storing food in my panniers or running pack.

I’ve kept my brown bag lifestyle a simple one, founded primarily on fresh fruits and vegetables with a side of sardines or canned salmon and the occasional sweet potato. I am not adding salt or seasonings to my food. It’s sort of boring, but I think that many foods don’t need much to bring out their flavor.

This brown bag way may seem like no big deal to people, but to me it has been huge, in an overwhelmingly positive way. By having my lunch with me, I save time by not wondering where and what I’m going to eat each day.

I can exert more control over my diet. I eat before I’m at the point of hungry where my energy level plummets and I’m vulnerable to making poor eating choices. I’m less hungry throughout the day and my energy doesn’t elevate and sag like it did when I relied on outside eating. I don’t crave sweets as much during work hours, although I still like them a lot!

My food digests better. No more bread that doesn’t settle well, mystery marinades, and food that may be past its prime. And what a reduction in the amount of waste! I love using reusable food containers, and eating with real silverware and a cloth napkin.

I have also noticed a tangible difference in my bank account. I spend more money on groceries, but still come out ahead of the game overall. While saving money was not my primary reason for going the brown bag route, it’s nice to see it rewarded with a few extra pennies in my pocket. More for biking and running gear! Wait, I mean more for savings!

I’ve always been under the impression that people bring their lunch because they want to save money. Maybe some do, but I was a dope for thinking this was the only reason. This small lifestyle change has altered my work days for the better. I’m proud to be a member of the brown bag nation. Here’s hoping I stick with it.


  1. Love the way you are always branching out and exploring new things in all facets of your life.
    I started bringing lunch long ago because I chafed at spending that amount of money on a mediocre sandwich. It has taken years but I have gone from “chop extra veggies to add to jarred spaghetti sauce” to actually a pretty darn good cook. Just like working out/running you really do get better day by day.
    I also love the sardines! I don’t think I’ve ever opened them without being surprised at just how delicious they are.


    1. You were another part of my inspiration, Kirstin! I was like, if you can do Whole30, then surely I can bring my own lunch to work every day. Ta dahhh! I do find that the more I’m around real food, the more I feel like learning about different ways to prepare it. It’s a slow process, but I still see bits of progress.


  2. love this post.
    i’ve been a “brown-bag”-er for quite a few years now. i very rarely eat prepared/canned foods. i cook my salmon once a week on my weekends, doling it out for each night i work. and i make a fresh salad every night, also. home-made salad dressing. i confess to loving sardines, but what are they other than just a simply-canned fish. i limit my sweets, because, well, i’m addicted.

    i am surprised to read that you love sweets, you little twiglette of a woman, riding her bicycle every day. you inspire me, you do….

    ride on, little gypsy bug!!


    1. Yes, I love the sweets. Argh! I had to learn to like the sardines, by the way. It was a somewhat new texture to me. But now I see them as an easy and healthy addition to my meal plan. Homemade salad dress and sauces is something I should look into doing this year.


  3. I often get sick from prepared foods (an MSG intolerance) so I bring my own out of necessity. I’m somewhat glad to have developed this condition, it forces me to forgo the bag of Fritos or the Chinese takeout and have an apple and some almonds instead.


  4. I’m lucky that my work has a full kitchen, which I utilize quite a bit. I still eat out more than I should, but having a place to make food makes it easier to eat meals at work.


    1. Dang, a full kitchen! We have a kitchenette in our office, which has been undergoing renovation the past month. I told someone that the kitchen renovation taught me about what people think are the important things in the office: the microwave, the fridge, and the water club!


  5. I’ve been an avid brown-bagger for several years now. Bike/bus commuting has made me a better brown-bagger. I work at a University that is located in an out-of-the-way location. Besides the on-campus dining options, there are few choices within walking distance. Not having a car on campus forces me to bring my lunch with me, lest I be at the mercy of campus dining services. I do miss having a kitchen at work though and I long for the “crockpot Tuesdays” that was a regular happening at my old workplace.


    1. Crockpot Tuesdays sound great! Yes, my last job did not have a kitchen area and I really appreciate that my new job has one. It feels like such a luxury!


  6. I don’t ride to work every day but when I do I take a soft sided “cooler bag” that I was given at the end of a 1/2 marathon. It fits great inside one of my touring Lone Peak “front” panniers (which also run on the rear of my commuter bike). I don’t take a camp stove to work but use commuting runs to “test” possible distance touring foods. So, I will often use the commute to try new dried soups, pasta/sauce combos, tinned fish concoctions, and so forth….turns riding to work into something akin to a seriously mini tour :-). If needed, the microwave at work becomes my “stove” to heat water.

    A few of my touring/brown-bag commuting all time favs:
    – Tinned herring in mustard sauce on a plain bagel
    – Spinach & pasta (cold pasta & cold spinach with gently warmed vinaigrette dressing…reminds me of hot bacon and spinach from my meat eating days!)
    – Stewed blueberries on plain bagel (1 cup or so of frozen blueberries heated for about 2 mins in the microwave (or on a Trangia) spread on bagel.
    – Mozzarella and Tomato Salad (good plain great with a dried dill salad dressing sprinkled on top)
    – The other half of a Subway Veggie delight foot long
    – Lipton or other pasta sides (new flavors)

    Keep a few different seasonings in your lunchbox panniers (or at work) works pretty good too for tour-esque experimentation too. Bonus: your spouse doesn’t end up eating your newest peanut butter and curry pasta concoction. I like Italian seasoning mix, salt, pepper, curry, whatever looks interesting in the grocery that day….


    1. Thanks for the suggestions! That’s such a smart idea to give your touring food a test run on the bike commute. And I agree the soft-side lunch bag has made it much easier for me to bring my lunch. No rigid sides!


  7. I’m psyched you wrote about this:) I’ve basically never bought lunch, mostly because when I was teaching our lunch period was too short to go anywhere, and by the time I stopped teaching it was a super ingrained habit. Plus, I generally like the food I make more than I like whatever-random-food-option-by-my-work (and like you mentioned, I REALLY like knowing what’s in my food).

    Something that works well for me is that whenever I make dinner I just make extra and bring it for lunch the next day. I guess it could be somewhat repetitive, but it takes out the lunch prep step altogether:)


    1. I can’t believe I waited almost 2 decades to get my act together with bringing my own food. It’s ridiculous so I’m glad to read you have been doing it for the duration of your career!

      I need to start doing as you mention, make a little extra to take with me the next day. I rarely do this, but if I just make sure to plan it into my dinner prep, that would be perfect. Otherwise, I worry my lunches will become too boring.


  8. Visit for simply, healthy and yummy recipes. We have Gina’s cookbook and signed up to receive recipes from her blog. If you like artisan breads, Jim Lahey’s no-knead high hydration bread is easy to make and very tasty. I took a freshly baked loaf to our club’s tandem potluck dinner. The loaf disappeared within 15 minutes.
    Watch the video to learn how to make the bread. There is no second proofing. The key to this bread is not to overwork the dough after the 1st proofing. “Any 6-year old can make this bread.” Cheers


    1. Your timing on this comment is perfect, as I’ve been looking at bread making! My mom used to make all our bread growing up, and I want to be able to do it again. I’ve actually been looking over a few recipes, but have been hesitant about which ones to try. Thanks, Rod!


  9. Read Grant Peterson’s new book, “Eat Bacon, Don’t Jog” and you’ll be changing your diet again. You’ll be cooking at home most of the time, therefore mucho leftovers for lunches. The best part is you FEEL the difference and you develop a strong desire to continue eating that way. Actually I’ve been eating Paleo for about a year now. Grant’s book isn’t paleo, but reinforces the whole insulin thing. Got the book as a gift and couldn’t put it down!


    1. I need to figure out this leftover thing… thanks for recommendation on the book. I found the title of it off-putting because I am not a huge fan of bacon. I was like, don’t tell me to eat bacon! Silly I know, so maybe I’ll give it another chance based on your thoughts.


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