Economic woes and the desire for healthier eating habits are motivating more Americans to home cooking, according to surveys done by the Food Management Institute. Seventy-one percent of Americans say they are cutting back on restaurant meals, and 58 percent say they are eating more leftovers. More than half of those surveyed say they cook dinner from scratch every day.

Does brown bagging actually save money? You bet! A study done by the market research firm NPD found that the average takeout meal costs $6, while brown-bagging it only costs $2 per day. Over a year, you could save $2000 if you simply brought a homemade lunch every day instead of eating out.

This is good news for the environment. The food industry makes up 25% of total greenhouse gas emissions, much of which come from packaging and transporting food to restaurants and diners. Eighteen percent of emissions worldwide come from cattle alone, the main ingredient in the good old American hamburger, with that number expected to double by 2050. Cooking at home and bringing your own lunch to work every day in a reusable container instead of getting takeout in a disposable container is a cheap and easy way to be eco-friendly and stretch your food budget.

There’s no need to literally brown bag. Since home lunch is going to become a habit, invest in a good green set of utensils and containers (girls, accessory alert!). The Canadian company Bilt has stainless steel, BPA-free water bottles and vacuum bottles for storing hot soup, With their sleek design and bright color choices, what’s not to love?

In a previous blog, we discussed non-plastic and BPA-free lunch boxes. Greenfeet has a good selection of green bento boxes, and Reusable Bags has you covered on soft, insulated food carriers. Keep your sandwiches fresh in new soy-wax paper (no petrochemical paraffin) from Greenfeet. You can also get traditional Japanese lacquerware and Asian style stainless steel lunch boxes at Life Without Plastics. Classicists can stock up on 500 recycled paper bags (minimum 40% post-consumer) for $24 at Green Earth Office Supply.

But what to put in your fancy new lunch box? Many people start out brown bagging with good intentions but quickly pick up a case of the blahs. Peanut butter and jelly again? Mix it up a little with these recipe tips from the Cool Foods Campaign.

Dying for a deli sandwich? Make your own with organic meat and cheese, or go veggie with a hummus and roasted veggie sandwich. For a healthier option, instead of mayonnaise, mash an avocado and spread it on the bread.

Pining for pizza? You can buy premade dough at the grocery store and add your own organic and healthy toppings. Try quirky combinations, like goat cheese and sundried tomatoes, or artichoke hearts and mushrooms.

Craving Chinese? Nothing is easier than making your own stir fry. Start with vegetables in olive oil and experiment with familiar Asian flavors, like sesame oil, soy sauce, and fish sauce. Make extra for dinner one night and lunch the day after: two meals with half the effort!

Still dreaming of the cheeseburger? Veggie burgers and turkey burgers are just as good—honest!—and create far less greenhouse gas emissions. If you desperately crave the beef, at least buy certified grass-fed or organic, which comes from happier cows.

Story by Rachel Brown. This article originally appeared in Plenty in October 2008. The story was moved to

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Eco-nomize with a homemade lunch
You'll save a lot of waste, money and excessive calories by packing your own.