Brown Bag Lunch Idea: Simple Chinese Chicken Salad

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There was some interest how to keep food costs down, so here’s another brown bag lunch idea that I use. Previously I did my Simple Custom Sandwich Edition, which probably could have been cheaper but I tried to price things at retail.

This time it’s Simple Chinese Chicken Salad, a recipe stolen from my sister. Prices are still from retail grocery store, frugal shoppers should be able to beat these prices easily. Salads from lunch joints are really expensive for some reason, at least $6.

Ingredients and Costs

$0.53 for 1/3 head of romaine at $1.60/head
$0.83 for 1/3 lb of frozen chicken breast at $2.50/lb
$0.40 for 1/3 can of mandarin oranges at $1.19/can
$0.10 for handful of crunchy noodles at $1.29/can
$0.35 for sesame ginger salad dressing at $3.50/bottle
$2.11 total for each salad

* Optional: Chopped green onion, or bit of slivered almonds. Minimal additional cost, I chop up an entire green onion and keep it in the freezer to sprinkle on stuff.

** You could probably save more money by making your own salad dressing (sample recipe).

Recipe (if you can even call it that)

  1. Rinse and cut up lettuce. One head usually makes 3 lunches.
  2. Cook the chicken however you like (boil, grill, saute) and season with salt and pepper. Rip or chop chicken into small bite-size pieces.
  3. Drain can or mandarin orange wedges (or unhealthily drink the syrup like I do), separating into 3 portions as well.
  4. Put all these dry ingredients into reusable plastic container. Keep chow mein noodles separate to preserve crunchiness. Keep salad dressing into smaller container, or keep in fridge at work.

In one session, you have made 3 Chinese chicken salads that cost ~$2 each, ready to eat and bring for lunch or eat as any other meal. You can either spread it across Mon-Wed-Fri, or if you live with a spouse/partner, it’ll be gone in no time. I put a lot of chicken in there, it prevents me from getting hungry too soon. If you need more calories, use larger portions or add some carbs with bread or toasted bagel.

I forgot to add my crunchy noodles when taking pictures this time, but here it is:

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  1. Joel Carry says

    Cheap & Tasty

  2. Good stuff. This is a great lunch. The only way to eek a little more out is to buy the things which won’t spoil wholesale. Which is pretty much everything except the lettuce.

    Of course, your time is probably worth more than the time it takes to manage a lot of product sitting in your cupboards and freezer. It depends upon how much that extra $.50 to $1.00 per lunch is worth to you ($15-30/month).

    For me, it means we get to eat out one extra time, so managing wholesale goods is worth it 🙂

  3. I actually just started spending *more* on food…. sort of. I buy better food for cooking at home, and eat out a bit less. It balances out pretty easily, and I think I’m the better for it.

    I’ve recently read a couple really great books by Michael Pollan – The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food. One of the points he brings up is that we spend less of our income on food than any other people in history. 9.9% for the US, 17% for most other industrialized nations. Why is it that we can spend $3500 on a house, but $450 on food is “too much”? The food you eat impacts every part of your life, making you healthy or unhealthy, even happy or sad. If there’s anywhere where we should be paying attention to quality over frugality, it’s in our food… the adage that you are what you eat is true. So why not eat well and be well?

    Now, that being said, the lunch you made is a great example of both eating cheaply, and eating well, but I think too many people these days devalue quality food. We pick up pizza on the way home, eat McDonald’s on the way to Grandma’s, grab a twinkie for a snack, and down a 24 ounce soda to top it off.

    My fiance and I have stared shopping at local farmer’s markets for produce and even meats… they’re both just 100 times better than the crap from the grocery store. Yes, we spend a bit more, but the food tastes better and is better for us, and we’re putting the money we spend in the pockets of people in our community, instead of the board members of Tyson Chicken, not to mention the fact that we know where the food came from, how it was raised, and can look the farmer in the eye when buying our food. That’s a pretty good feeling.

  4. Looks gross!

  5. Great idea! I am always looking for ways to save money on food. Buyng lunch everyday gets to be really expensive. $6 a day * 20 days – $120 for lunch a week, and that isn’t even counting the other things that I buy for breakfast and dinner!

  6. It looks good, but I would only eat this when freshly made. I don’t think I would want to eat in subsequent days during the week. Wendy’s has a similar salad for 4.99, so unless I could distribute the other 2 immediately, I would probably pass, because I would end up spending $6.33, and wasting the other two.

  7. the photo does look a bit drab… no future in shooting photos for cook books for you my friend. its all about presentation.

    good point Nate. i run 20+ miles a week, so i find i have to eat well, or my energy level and overall well-being seem to suffer.

  8. Dave Diller says

    “or unhealthily drink the syrup like I do” You are my new hero. I thought I was one of the only people that did that with mandarin oranges.

    Well, in either case, this recipe sounds delicious – I’ll try it out very soon!

  9. Looks delicious. Packing your own lunch is definately a way to save money. It is too easy to get into the routine of eating out or getting fast food every day. I always thought of it as “I just worked an hour so I could eat lunch.” You could have just stayed home 2 hours (1 hour for lunch, and 1 hour for working to pay for lunch).

  10. I thought I was in the Food Network blog. Well Time is a big factor, I used to cook but it takes a lot of time (shopping, cleaning) and extra money (electricity, cleaning supplies, etc). I could invest that time to improve other skills (investing, IT, etc). If you have a big family might make more sense.

    Anyway, good luck, and just in case get some petobismol.

  11. Dan Isaacs says

    Just finishing up In Defense of Food myself, and damn, is it worth buying. If you care about your health as much as you care about your finances, you gotta give Pollan some of your time. He’s the Dave Ramsey of good eating.

  12. I almost never buy lunch, and when I do, it’s a pizza or something for the guys. I’ve been “brown bagging” it for many years now; what I generally do is take the leftovers from the night before’s dinner; I pack ’em up in containers as soon as I’m finished with dinner, alleviating the problem of having to do it the next morning, when I invariably get up too late. You can plan for this by making a little extra food for dinner, which in my house, is not a problem, since we don’t know how to cook small. I also take low fat yogurt for breakfast at least twice a week. In a pinch, if I don’t have anything left over from the night before, I’ll take some cottage cheese and fruit (cottage cheese and tomatoes is THE BOMB, you HAVE TO TRY IT!) or some tuna fish either in a sandwich or otherwise. I also bring my own soda; I buy it in the 12-pack on sale for $1.99 and it’s far cheaper than the $1.25 a bottle vending machine price. And that includes water as well, although I think most employers supply a good quality of water.

  13. Michael Pollan also happens to be the son of financial consultant Stephen Pollan, who’s probably best known for his book “Die Broke.” So he has a greater connection to personal finance than just being “the Dave Ramsey of good eating.”

  14. My husband and I also spend around $450/month for food. Like Jonathan, I feel like I’m splurging because I think I could do better. Regarding the health issues, my husband and I eat a very healthy diet. We eat almost no processed foods and buy mostly organic (there’s some debate about the benefits of organics but I like to be on the safe side). However, food is one of the great pleasures of life and I certainly don’t begrudge anyone who chooses to spend more money on it.

  15. biturbomunkie says

    either your bowl is very big or the portion is very small. that’s not gonna last me longer than 2 hrs, lol.

    if you like salad, check out trader joe’s pre-washed organic greens, which are often less expensive than the inorganic version sold at other places.

    btw – for a limited time, el pollo loco’s got 12-pc legs + thighs for $10. i have been eating 2-3 pcs of chicken along w/ my homemade TJ’s salad and it’s quite filling!

  16. We make a very similar chicken salad. While we spend more on buying a rotisserie chicken, we have lower costs in a bottle of sesame ginger salad dressing from Aldi’s at $1.60 a bottle, lettuce from Costco at about 60 cents a head and we add a few raisins and sliced almonds.

  17. Independent George says

    Forget the frozen chicken breasts/thighs/etc.

    Buy a whole chicken, typically for less than $2/lb. Roast it for dinner on Saturday; on Sunday, you turn the leftover meat into chicken salad, and the bones into chicken soup. If you’ve got a pet, the giblets bag turns into pet food.

    Roast anything is pretty much the single easiest meal in the world to make. Meat + fire + salt + pepper = yum. As an added bonus, women are often astonished when a man can boil water without setting the house on fire, so you also get major points with the wife/girlfriend.

  18. I make a similar salad but use canned chicken in water. It is similar to canned tuna, but an inexpensive and fast way to have chicken. I also add canned chicken to chicken soups, which typically come with 1 to 3 small cubes of chicken, for a heartier meal.


  19. Chris Boorman says

    Where are you getting chicken breast at $2.50/lb?

    Dave Ramsey rules by the way

  20. Chris Boorman says

    Dave Ramsey rules by the way.

  21. Tom Lutzenberger says

    Try a can of chili or soup for lunch. Fills you up and costs basically a buck a day.

  22. Looks good. I’m gonna try to get my wife to make me some of these to take to work.

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