Lisa of 100 Days of Real Food on Her Favorite $3 Lunch Ideas

(Image credit: The Beautiful Mess)

Sometimes it feels impossible to navigate the tangled web of choosing healthy food, planning meals for a family, and not spending a fortune. Luckily, Lisa Leake has already paved the way. Her new book, 100 Days of Real Food: On a Budget, is here to help busy families make a commitment to real food without draining their bank accounts.

In 2010, Lisa and her family cut out all processed food for 100 days, an experiment she chronicled in her cookbook 100 Days of Real Food. “I got lots of great feedback, but ‘sounds great, but too expensive for me’ is one thing I heard over and over again,” says Lisa.

For her new book, she committed to eating only real food, while sticking to a budget of $125 a week. I chatted with Lisa about the secret power of frozen food, grocery shopping templates, and why it’s time to think outside the sandwich.

You have this really rich personal experience with having a food budget. What are your top three tips for someone just starting out on their budgeting journey?

  • Make substitutions in recipes: Let’s say you’re going to make something for dinner and it calls for sweet potatoes, but you already have regular potatoes on hand. Don’t be afraid to try that instead! If something calls for a fresh herb and you don’t grow your own herbs, try substituting a dry herb or maybe a different fresh herb. Making substitutions can really help with the amount of things you need to buy.
  • Cut back on the nice-to-haves: There are some nice-to-haves, not need-to-haves, that you can easily cut back on. There are plenty of vegetarian dinners that are hearty enough to incorporate once or twice a week. Meat is a very big-ticket item, so if you just make that once change that can really help. And then flavored beverages and sweet treats are two other items that are the nice-to-haves, so having those more in moderation can definitely help.
  • Plan ahead: One tip that I have for lunches that helps us so much is that I will make foods in advance and freeze them. When you’re already making a recipe, it’s not that much more work to double it and it’s not that much more expensive. I freeze my kids’ favorite soups, homemade breakfast burritos, panini sandwiches, and muffins, so I have a lot of stock in the freezer of homemade food that I can pull out for their lunches. So if it is getting to the end of the week and we’re getting low on some fresh stuff, we always have that to dig into — and trust me, they are digging into it!

You mentioned having the homemade items in the freezer, like soups and burritos. What are a couple of recipes from your book that you recommend as a starter for things to make and freeze?

Slow cooker carrot curry soup, chicken nuggets, and my two “the best waffles” recipes (those freeze so well — you can just put them between sheets of wax paper in a freezer-safe bag or container). I’ll cut the waffles up into strips and make a little yogurt dipping sauce, and send those with a hard-boiled egg or deviled eggs and fruit and for a breakfast-themed lunch.

What’s your strategy for grocery shopping on a budget?

Shop around for staples. I actually have a grocery store comparison chart in my book. I went to a variety of grocery stores (Aldi, Walmart, Costco, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods) and compared real food staples, like whole-wheat flour, rolled oats, eggs, and organic milk, and there’s quite a price difference between these different stores. I think it’s very worthwhile to not buy everything at one store — even if you just go once a month to Costco or somewhere more budget-friendly.

Also, I stick to routines. I like to get groceries on Fridays, so I will sit down on Thursday and make out my dinner plan for the upcoming weeks (so the first day of the dinner plan will be on Friday). I keep a running list and I have a template that I print out that’s organized by store department and I’ll take the things off of the little list that we’re marking every week and transfer it in the right spot on my template. You can download it for free on my website.

We’re a couple of months into the school year and everyone is facing that challenge of trying to pack wholesome and affordable lunches. What would be your top tips for busy parents who are facing the lunch grind?

  • Think outside of the sandwich: A lot of people think they have to send a sandwich every day, but there are so many other options. I love to send leftover tacos with a make-your-own setup, wraps, grain salads, and even homemade waffles that I turn into a sandwich with cream cheese and cinnamon and raisins.
  • Embrace cold foods: I send a lot of foods cold in the lunch box that you might normally eat warm, like homemade chicken nuggets or pizza, and my kids will eat that any day over yet another sandwich. A lot of people are like “Oh my kid wouldn’t eat that cold!” but I bet they probably would if you just give it a chance. Kids are flexible … most of the time.
  • Try affordable frozen produce: We like to take frozen peas and just put them right in the lunch box. They’re cold at lunch time, but my kids are fine with that. Also we use plain yogurt, because it doesn’t have any added refined sugar, and I’ll add frozen raspberries or blueberries, and put a little bit of maple syrup in there. [Frozen berries] change the color of the yogurt to make it more interesting.

What are a couple of your favorite affordable ingredient swaps?

Cream cheese is actually a great substitute for goat cheese, whether you’re putting it on crackers or a warm grilled sandwich. Boneless, skinless chicken thighs, (instead of breasts) are cheaper per pound, and I honestly think they have more flavor. If you’re making spaghetti or taco meat, something I love to do is stretch the meat by adding a can of beans. My tacos will last two whole nights if I add two pounds of black beans or pinto beans to a pound of ground pork or beef; lentils and mushrooms are another good thing to add to spaghetti meat.

What are your three favorite lunches for under three dollars from your new book?

  • Mediterranean Chickpea Salad: I have an easy chickpea salad that comes out to 81 cents per serving. You just have to buy chickpeas and a few vegetables and toss in pantry items that you already have like olive oil and red wine vinegar. You can add some little pickles and crackers, or tomatoes and mozzarella.
  • Creamy Kale Caesar Salad: That comes out to $2.90 (just add something on the side to round it out).
  • Chinese Chicken: I’ve made it so many times for guests and friends, and I even brought it when someone had a baby. I love it with the coconut rice, also in the book, and the maple roasted sweet potatoes and carrots. You can barely make it to the table with the chicken because my kids are eating it like popcorn off the stove.

Any last words of wisdom?

If you are thinking about cutting out processed food, don’t get so overwhelmed that you give it up all together. Any small change is better than none. Start with breakfast, and then you move on to lunch or snacks. Don’t feel like you have to change everything all at once.

Interview has been edited for clarity.

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