Bring lunch to work or get takeout: Is brown-bagging really cheaper and healthier?

Stop Telling Me to Bring My Lunch From Home

Stop Telling Me to Bring My Lunch From Home

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Nov. 12 2015 10:37 AM
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Stop Telling Me to Make My Own Lunch

Everyone says brown-bagging it is cheaper and healthier. They’re wrong—but it wouldn’t matter if they were right.

Sandwiches

Photo illustration by Slate. Sandwiches by Lori Sparkia/Thinkstock and iStock/Thinkstock.

This summer, New York public radio host Leonard Lopate launched a campaign pushing listeners to quit their takeout habit and start bringing lunch from home. Citing statistics about how much money Americans spend—and how many extra calories they absorb—eating lunch out, Lopate asserted, “We need to change our lunch habits, together.”

L.V. Anderson L.V. Anderson

L.V. Anderson is a former Slate associate editor.

Lopate’s campaign reflected the conventional wisdom: Bringing lunch from home is better, for your health and your wallet, than eating lunch out. You can find online calculators that take your cost of making a bagged lunch and buying lunch out—it’s taken for granted that the former is less expensive than the latter—and tell you how much you’d end up with if you invested the difference instead. There are entire books devoted to converting readers to the bagged-lunch cause. The subtly titled Huffington Post essay “Buying Your Lunch Is a Terrible Idea. The End. No More Debates” has been Liked on Facebook more than 14,000 times.

I’m sick of this bring-your-lunch consensus. It’s based on questionable assumptions about what’s inside your brown bag and how much you paid for the ingredients. It’s also obnoxiously moralistic—which makes sense, since it’s about diet and money, the topics Americans most enjoy lecturing one another about.

First, the math. It’s probably true that the average takeout lunch is more expensive than the average homemade lunch, but the numbers vary a ton depending on what you’re eating. Sure, if you compare a homemade turkey sandwich (the HuffPo writer’s lunch of choice) to a Chipotle burrito bowl, you’ll come out ahead when you brown-bag it. But if you try to replicate that Chipotle meal at home, guacamole and all, your savings are a lot slimmer. (The Billfold’s Mike Dang calculated that a homemade Chipotle bowl cost $4.03 when assembled from cheap ingredients from Trader Joe’s, but (a) most grocery stores are more expensive than Trader Joe’s, and (b) Dang budgeted a quarter of an avocado per serving, which is not nearly enough avocado.) And the cost of ingredients ignores the time and labor it takes to shop for, cook, and assemble your burrito bowls—time and labor that you could spend on more lucrative or more enjoyable activities. If you dislike cooking and have a bit of disposable income, it might be rational to outsource lunch.

Secondly, homemade lunches are not necessarily healthier than takeout lunches. That turkey sandwich leaves a lot to be desired, nutritionally, and even if it’s lower in calories, that doesn’t make it healthier than a burrito bowl. It’s true that you have more control over your ingredients when you make your own lunch, which is especially useful if you have a dietary restriction, but there are plenty of new fast-food options that serve vegetables, beans, and whole grains—like the salad joint Sweetgreen and the Asian rice-bowl concept ShopHouse. I often patronize Dig Inn, a New York chain that serves a variety of interesting salads and freshly cooked vegetables (a selection of three costs only $6). Obviously, whether you have access to a healthy takeout restaurant depends on where you work—you’ll have more choices in a major city. But the notion that takeout food is intrinsically bad for you grows less and less true with each passing year.

It should go without saying that the healthfulness and cost of your lunch depend more on what you eat than on where it came from. And yet so much of the discourse around lunch insists on the oversimplified dichotomy homemade lunch good, takeout lunch bad. The aforementioned HuffPo article derides the notion that going out for lunch makes some people happy by saying, “Think of how happy your future children will be when you can fund their college education, people!” The press release for the study cited by Lopate quotes an expert saying, “Going into debt for a tuna sandwich isn’t worth it,” which is helpful advice if you’re an insane straw man. (The study, by the way, found that the average American spends a total of $936 eating lunch out each year, which doesn’t strike me as an outrageous sum.) A Time article on lunch begins with what may be the most condescending lead of all time:

For years—no, decades—I’ve marveled at the lunch habits of my friends and colleagues. Where did they get the money to eat out every day? And even if they earned decent incomes, why did they choose to spend them this way?

The brown-bag crowd ignores not only the evidence that homemade lunches are not necessarily cheaper and healthier than the alternative, but also the fact that preferences vary from person to person. Not everyone values saving money more than they value the pleasure and convenience of a takeout meal. This doesn’t make people who buy lunch reckless ignoramuses; it makes them human beings. (Also: If you find that you can’t save money, it probably has more to do with flat wages and rising housing, education, and health care costs than with your profligate lunchtime spending—but that’s a topic for my colleague Helaine Olen.)

As I write this, I’m eating a lunch I brought from home: leftovers from last night’s brown rice–tomato pilaf. As much as I hate the moral smugness of brown-bag evangelists, I confess that I like bringing lunch from home. It’s not about cost or health so much as it’s about feeling like a competent adult—or engaging in “self-care,” if you prefer. I also feel less wasteful when I’m not throwing away tons of packaging from takeout meals. This pilaf tastes fine, and it’s relatively cheap and healthy, but I wouldn’t want to eat it every day. Which is why I’ll be going out for lunch tomorrow, and refusing to feel guilty about it.