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How I Made Five Trader Joe's Lunches For Less Than $20

It can be done! Seriously.

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Hi! I'm Hannah from BuzzFeed's food team, and I love lunch.

Seriously, it's my favorite meal of the day. Especially during the work week, lunchtime is something to look forward to. But most days, I pay $15 for the same basic salad — and that can add up. I realized I was spending a lot of unnecessary money every week for food that I wasn't even enjoying.

So I wanted to challenge myself to make lunch all week for just $20.​

To do that, I had to come up with a meal plan. I started by browsing Pinterest for both budget lunch ideas and meals using some of my favorite seasonal ingredients — like asparagus, pesto, and mozzarella. Once I came up with a few key staples, I built a five-day meal plan around them.

To keep my budget under $20, I cut out meat, which is often the most expensive item in my grocery cart. Instead, I stocked up on filling but inexpensive staples like pasta and canned beans.

I also aimed for healthy-ish recipes that I'd feel good about eating. And I tried to minimize cooking time, since I knew I'd be cooking or assembling my meals in the morning before work.


Then I did my food shopping.

Hannah Loewentheil/ BuzzFeed

Here's what I came home with:

1 bunch asparagus: $3.29

1 bag arugula: $1.99

1 avocado: $1.99

1 can cannellini beans: $0.89

1 lemon: $0.49

1 beefsteak Tom: $0.79

1 bag rigatoni pasta: $0.99

1 container mozzarella balls: $3.49

1 bag pita bread: $1.39

1 jar pesto: $2.49

1 red onion: $0.99

Total cost: $18.79

I also used several pantry staples, namely olive oil, red wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes. I didn't factor these items into my grocery list because most people already have them in the kitchen.

Monday: Caprese Stuffed Avocado

Hannah Loewentheil/BuzzFeed

On Monday, I wanted to start easy. So I turned an avocado into a bowl, filled it with tomatoes + mozzarella balls, and drizzled balsamic vinegar over the top. Then I ate it over arugula like like a salad. And let me tell you— this was absolutely delicious and so insanely easy to make. Literally no cooking was required. It took about five minutes altogether, and my Snapchat friends were crazy impressed.


½ avocado

½ beefsteak tomato

Handful of arugula

5 baby mozzarella balls

Olive oil and balsamic vinegar (pantry staples)

To make it: Cut an avocado in half and remove the skin. Scoop out a little avocado flesh to form a bowl. Slice tomato and mozzarella, then stuff them into the avocado bowl, and add balsamic.


Tuesday: Asparagus, Arugula, and Avocado Salad

Hannah Loewentheil/BuzzFeed

On Tuesday, I made a salad with asparagus and arugula at the base. I sautéed the asparagus, but you could also roast it or shave it with a vegetable peeler. I added some feta cheese that was sitting in my fridge because for me, no meal is complete without a little cheese. Then I made a simple homemade dressing with lemon juice, red wine vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper. (I found the avocado filling enough on its own, but you could also add something like frozen shrimp or chicken for extra protein.)



½ bunch asparagus

¼ avocado

¼ red onion

½ lemon

Olive oil, salt, pepper, and red wine vinegar (pantry staples)

To make it: Sauté asparagus and place it over a bed of arugula with sliced avocado and chopped red onion. Dress the salad with homemade dressing.

Wednesday: Pita Pizza With Pesto, Tomato, Mozzarella, and Avocado

Hannah Loewentheil/BuzzFeed

On Wednesday I decided to spoil myself with a cheesy pesto pita pizza. This lunch was one of the highlights of my week. It was a little bit lighter than your typical pizza, because pita is a bit less doughy than pizza crust, but the flavor was amazing. You could assemble this in the morning and then pop it into the microwave at work, or make it entirely and then warm it up when you're ready to eat.

1 slice pita bread


½ tomato

¼ avocado

4-5 baby mozzarella balls

Olive oil and red pepper flakes (pantry staples)

To make it: Coat one side of the pita bread with pesto, then top it with sliced tomatoes, mozzarella, and avocado. Drizzle the pita with olive oil. Heat it in the oven for about 10 minutes, until the cheese is melty and the pita is golden brown. Top with more pesto and red pepper flakes.

Thursday: Arugula and Warm White Bean Salad

On Thursday, I decided to make another healthy salad. At first, I was skeptical that this meal would satiate me, but I used about half a can of white beans, which was actually very filling. I also made homemade croutons by toasting half a pita bread with olive oil, salt, and pepper. If you think you'll need more food, you could top this salad with anything from canned tuna to bacon — or just pile the salad into a pita for a veggie-loaded sandwich.


White beans

¼ red onion

½ lemon

½ pita bread


Olive oil and red wine vinegar (pantry staples)

To make it: Heat the white beans on the stove or in the microwave and then mix them with chopped red onion, lemon, pesto, salt, and pepper. Put the bean mixture over arugula and toss it all with olive oil and red wine vinegar.

Friday: Pesto Pasta Salad With Asparagus and Mozzarella

Hannah Loewentheil/BuzzFeed

On Friday, I was craving some carbs (TGIF!), so I opted for a pesto pasta salad with the rest of the asparagus left over in my fridge. Depending on how much pasta you make, you'll have plenty left over for dinner or for a weekend meal.


½ bunch asparagus

4-5 baby mozzarella balls


Olive oil, red pepper flakes, salt, and pepper (pantry staples)

To make it:
Cook any kinda of pasta according to the directions, and when it has 3 minutes left to boil, add the asparagus. Strain the pasta and asparagus, add mozzarella, and top it with olive oil, pesto, red pepper flakes, salt, and pepper.

The moral of the story: I saved money (a lot of it), I felt great knowing exactly what went into my meals, and I really felt satiated after every lunch.

Here are a few tips I'd give to readers who want to try out a similar budget meal plan:

Make sure to include some wheat and/or grains. Things like rice, quinoa, pasta, and bread are super filling, and they generally don't cost much.

Don't overlook budget proteins. If you feel like you need more protein in your diet, stick to things like canned tuna, ground turkey, and eggs, which are satiating but inexpensive.

• Plan ahead! Make sure that you plan your meals in advance and write a shopping list before you go to the market. This will keep you focused and ensure you stick to your budget.