Cheap Lunch Ideas Under $2 That Taste Even Better Than Takeout

Bacon-Cheddar Chipotle Chicken Panini
Photo: Karla Conrad

With ideas for pasta, soups, and sandwiches, these remarkably cheap lunch ideas are perfect for packing to-go and will keep you satisfied until dinnertime. Even better news about these less-than-$2 lunches? You'll save big money by packing one of these lunches on a budget each workday instead of snagging a $10 takeout sandwich or salad.

01 of 17

Roasted Butternut Squash Burrito Bowls

overhead view Roasted Butternut Squash Burrito Bowls in bowls
Blaine Moats

Budget lunch price: $1.16 per serving

Grain bowls are one of our go-to cheap lunches for work. Not only can they use up any extra grains and roasted vegetables leftover from dinner earlier in the week, but they're also a cinch to pack. To do so, consider a bento box to store the brown rice, citrus-scented beans, butternut squash, and toppings in separate wells. Then pack it with a big bowl to assemble and enjoy at lunch o' clock.

02 of 17

Bacon-Cheddar Chipotle Chicken Panini

Bacon-Cheddar Chipotle Chicken Panini
Karla Conrad

Budget lunch price: $1.98 per serving

You deserve better than a plain ol' cold cut sandwich. Your coworkers or classmates will melt with jealousy when they see you unwrap this upgraded BLT. Leftover or rotisserie chicken, spicy ranch, and plenty of gooey cheddar cheese make this panini taste way richer than its less-than-two-buck lunch on a budget price tag.

03 of 17

Mac and Cheese Spaghetti

Mac and Cheese Spaghetti
Andy Lyons

Budget lunch price: $1.40 per serving

Host a personal pasta party at noon and fuel up for the rest of your busy day. A cheese sauce from scratch includes quality ingredients (real cheddar cheese, American cheese, butter, and mustard). Still, it stays within the cheap homemade lunch budget.

Test Kitchen Tip: Pack the toasted Parmesan bread crumbs in a separate small container or zip-top bag. Sprinkle them on top after reheating the spaghetti.

04 of 17

Apple and Almond Butter Panini

Apple and Almond Butter Paninis on white plates
Jason Donnelly

Budget lunch price: $1.53 per serving

If you're pressed for kitchen storage space, try this trick: as a makeshift panini press, use your waffle iron instead. That's how we get the bread toasty and the almond butter ooey-gooey in this cheap lunch idea. Once you've mastered the original, try this with any nut butter or sturdy fruit (pears, in particular, would be fantastic!).

Test Kitchen Tip: Pack the sandwich wrapped in a layer of paper towels, so it doesn't get soggy. Then enjoy it chilled or reheat in the microwave until warm if desired.

05 of 17

Buffalo Chicken Quesadillas

Buffalo Chicken Quesadillas
Kritsada Panichgul

Budget lunch price: $1.57 per serving

Chicken wings can be downright disastrous for your wardrobe (all that sauce and blue cheese dressing!). These cheesy chicken quesadillas offer the same flavors in a cleaner, tortilla-wrapped package. Simply toast at home and pack each wedge between a layer of plastic wrap. Enjoy this budget lunch idea by reheating it in the microwave when your stomach starts to growl.

06 of 17

Savory Tomato Mozzarella Tart

Savory Tomato-Mozzarella Tart
Andy Lyons

Budget lunch price: $0.66 per serving

Egg recipes aren't just for breakfast anymore. Fresh basil, green onions, jarred sun-dried tomatoes, and gooey mozzarella cheese pepper this quiche with plenty of color and flavor. Go ahead, pack two slices—you'll still fall well under our $2 lunch budget and still have enough spare change and calories to add a side of fruit.

07 of 17

Sweet and Sour Tofu

Sweet and Sour Tofu
Adam Albright

Budget lunch price: $1.88 per serving

This lunch on a budget shows off one of our favorite vegan recipe hacks. To make tofu meatier in texture (and stand up to transport to your lunch venue of choice), drain, rinse, dry, then freeze the firm tofu for at least 4 hours. Thaw overnight, then proceed with the pan-frying, broccoli stir-frying, and noodle prep. Even with the zesty homemade sauce, we're only asking for 35 minutes of prep for this flavor-packed midday meal.

08 of 17

Chickpea and Freekeh Salad

Chickpea and Freekah Salad
Andy Lyons

Budget lunch price: $1.88 per serving

Freekeh, an ancient Middle Eastern whole grain that's an abundant source of fiber, iron, and magnesium, pairs with canned beans as the low-cost stars of this lettuce-free, make-ahead salad. Fresh herbs, spicy salami, and salty cubes of feta cheese pack each spoonful with Mediterranean flavors. No need to worry about reheating this cheap brown bag lunch—it's best served chilled.

09 of 17

Ham and Egg Sandwiches

Ham and Egg Sandwich
Andy Lyons

Budget lunch price: $1.72 per serving

Try this ham, Havarti, and hard-boiled egg baguette when you're craving something a bit more exciting (and filling) than ham and Swiss. Make the most of your extra 28 cents and stir together a double batch of the dill yogurt sauce. Tote alongside your sub so you can have a slam dunk sandwich lunch on a budget.

10 of 17

Jerk Pork Wraps with Lime Mayo

Jerk Pork Wraps with Lime Mayo
Blaine Moats

Budget lunch price: $1.75 per serving

Before you tuck in for bed, pop a pork shoulder and some seasonings in your slow cooker. In the morning, you'll wake up to an intoxicating aroma and remarkably tender fajita filling that tastes like it came from a pricey build-your-own-burrito restaurant.

Test Kitchen Tip: Pack the tortilla, mango salsa, veggies, and pork in individual containers, then reheat the pork and assemble your cheap lunch box wrap when you're ready to dig in.

11 of 17

Ginger-Sesame Oats with Mushrooms and Charred Green Onions

Ginger-Sesame Oats with Mushrooms and Charred Green Onions in white bowl with spoon
Andy Lyons

Budget lunch price: $1.89 per serving

Give them a savory spin to transform low-cost breakfast oats into lunch-worthy territory. Cook steel-cut oats in chicken broth, then top with Asian ingredients like sesame-scented mushrooms, green onions, ginger, and soy. (Psst...if you have a little wiggle room with the price of your lunch, a jammy soft-boiled egg would be an excellent addition.)

12 of 17

Crunchy PB and A Wrap

Crunchy PB and A Wrap
Jacob Fox

Budget lunch price: $0.65 per serving

In a hurry? Turn to this four-ingredient, five-minute brown bag lunch idea (no refrigeration required!) that will please kids and adults alike. With crunch from granola and creamy, salty peanut butter holding everything together, this ridiculously affordable lunch allows for a lot of wallet wiggle room to add sides like a banana and a cheese stick.

13 of 17

Make-Ahead Smoked Turkey and Grilled Onion Panini

smoked turkey and grilled onion panini on cutting board
Jason Donnelly

Budget lunch price: $1.58 per serving

Build these spiffed-up turkey and cheese sandwiches up to three months in advance, then freeze the less-than-$2-lunch until you're ready to press and pack for a mid-day meal. From there, it takes just four minutes of cooking time to reach gooey provolone perfection inside these economical eats.

Test Kitchen Tip: Make this your own with your favorite meat, cheese, and dressing. Try the same ratios with different building blocks for a new flavor experience each time.

14 of 17

Teriyaki Chicken Noodle Soup

Teriyaki Chicken Noodle Soup
Andy Lyons

Budget lunch price: $1.92 per serving

Do you like ramen but aren't so fond of all the preservatives in those little seasoning packets? Then try this jar of goodness made with ingredients you can pronounce (beef stock, teriyaki sauce, fresh ginger, garlic), plus satisfying shredded chicken for a protein boost. All of that can be yours in this budget lunch for work—for less than two bucks per serving.

15 of 17

Ham and Sweet Potato Mini Flatbreads

Ham and Sweet Potato Mini Flatbreads
Andy Lyons

Budget lunch price: $1.54 per serving

Enjoy the flavors of an epic holiday dinner any day of the year with these flatbreads topped with smashed sweet potatoes, sliced ham, melty mozzarella, and cranberry sauce. All of this can be yours just 25 minutes from now!

Test Kitchen Tip: We call for starting with whole sweet potatoes, microwaving, and mashing with orange juice. If you're too busy to invest the full 25 into prepping for this cheap lunch idea, snag a package of mashed sweet potatoes from the refrigerated produce section during your next grocery run.

16 of 17

Black Bean Chipotle Burgers

Black Bean Chipotle Burgers
Blaine Moats

Budget lunch price: $0.82 per serving

Say "see ya!" to the hockey puck-like frozen veggie burgers. Instead, mash up your own homemade meatless patties. You can absolutely afford to make it a double with pantry staples like canned beans, corn, salsa, and rice.

17 of 17

Sweet Potato Hash

Sweet Potato Hash
Andy Lyons

Budget lunch price: $1.12 per serving

Potatoes never break the bank, but they can get soggy if cooked and stored in specific ways. When you sauté up a hash made with potato cubes (rather than shreds), spuds are perfect for packing and reheating. Try it out with this 25-minute Mexican meal—and add some grilled chicken or steak for extra hunger-fighting protein.

Test Kitchen Tip: Bring the whole avocado with you to slice and add to the cheap lunch for work immediately before serving. Alternatively, grab a single-serving cup of premade guacamole from the supermarket instead.

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