Salad Bar Frugal

It's been well documented that I don't eat out for lunch. Once a month.... maybe. I'm quite well known around the office for my PB+Js. The main driver here is frugality, but there are two attractive side-effects:

  1. Health - While a lot of the usual lunch stops taste good, they don't necessarily make you feel good. Now I'm not trying to claim PB+J as health food, but a lot of restaurant food is loaded with salt, or fat, or sugar, or.... who knows what. Bottom line is - I stay healthier when I don't eat out.
  2. When I do go out, it's a treat - I'm not at a loss because all the lunch spots are old-hat. It's actually an enjoyable experience and not just part of the daily grind. I chose the restaurant carefully - my one lunch out per month is not going to be at McDonald's.
All that said, there are times when I forget my left-overs at home, or run out of peanut butter are left with few options:

Option 1> Starve. This is not a good option. This happens enough on the days when meetings get scheduled over lunch, and come 2pm I'm trying to figure out why I'm so hungry. There are no winners here.

Option 2> Go out. This is really only a win in the taste department. Cost, time, health all pretty much go down the tubes.

Option 3> Cafeteria. Conveniently located, reasonably priced, and dubious nutritional value. 2 outta 3 ain't bad. So let's look at this further.

Now as a preface to this, our cafeteria, is the smallest here on campus. It's not that there aren't plenty of people to serve, it just seems that they made the decision to do it poorly. Don't believe me? They had to take up a petition at one point to lobby to keep the second entree option. I didn't sign it.

The entrees in the cafeteria, as maybe you're already envisioning, fall into one of 3 needlessly disgusting categories:
  1. Fried / greasy / soggy - This is a cafeteria staple and guaranteed to give you that brick-in-the-stomach feeling the rest of the day. Notorious members of this category include french fries, fried shrimp, and something called a 'cheddar round'.
  2. Floating in water - I really can't explain this one in culinary terms, but it has become our favorite joke around the office - "What's floating in water today?". For some reason, meat dishes - burgers, hotdogs, brats, even chicken sometimes - have been inexplicably served floating in an assumingly warm, watery fluid. Real appetizing.
  3. Mysterious - Many of the side dishes fit this bill, but the chili also remains a hold-out here. Served daily, I've yet to see anything recognizable in the chili. It always begs the question, "What was this served as yesterday"?
Occasionally, an entree will transcend the aforementioned reputation, but that's rare. For the most part, on days when I'm looking to avoid starvation, all of this forces me to the stalwart salad bar. Now everything here appears fresh - crisp lettuce, nothing floating in water - but the cost can vary greatly. I found this out quickly after paying ~$3 one day and over $5 another. Since they weigh the salads and charge by the ounce, I learned I had to be a bit more selective on what I chose. After some careful consideration and some trial and error, here is what I've come up with (salad greens assumed):

Items I avoid
  • Cherry tomatoes - Flavorful but very heavy, I'll slip one in sometimes.
  • Cucumbers - High on water, low on flavor. I'll pass.
  • Vinegar and Oil dressing - I love it and it loves me, but that will count against me at the weigh in.
  • Hard-boiled eggs - Ok, maybe just a few, but these are very dense.
Bang for the buck items
  • Shredded cheese - as dense as eggs, but you need far less of it for the desired affect.
  • Shredded carrots - Healthy and lightweight, how do you beat that?
  • Sliced red onions and bell peppers - It only takes a few of these to add a big punch.
  • Croutons - The ultra-lightweights of the salad bar add lots of texture no matter what the dressing.
  • Bacon - Seriously, how can you bypass the bacon? Loads of flavor for very little weight.
Now some of this is based on personal opinion on flavor - your mileage may vary. I've gotten pretty good lately at coming up with a flavorful, filling salad that I can easily keep under $3.50. Today, I was quite pleased - I rang up at $2.97! Sub-3 dollars.

Any frugal salad bar tips? Have I gone too far?

For more money saving ideas visit:
Frugal Fridays


Mom2fur said...

Well, I have a salad bar tip, but not for the kind where you eat there. I mean the grocery store kind. If I need a small amount of something--say red onion for a potato salad--it makes more sense to put a few rings into a container and pay about 40 cents for it than to buy a whole red onion that will probably turn greenish white before I use it again. These days, with only 2 kids left at home (who are usually out at work or school anyway), I'm often only cooking for 2, so buying large amounts of anything makes no sense unless I can freeze it or store it long-term. (I know you can freeze onions, but I would only do that for onions I plan to cook. Thawed out onion in salad...yuck.)
You are so right about the heavy ingredients. I think that's how they 'get' you, LOL!

Mr. (not) the Jet Set said...

Salad bar frugal on a whole other level - great tip!

Be sure to come back for our new series: Two Cents Tuesday. You'll fit right in!

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