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Spend & Save

In The Red: Packed lunches might even buy me a new pair of shoes

two weeks ago I made a promise that I would soon regret: I wrote – in this very column, for all my friends, colleagues and readers to see – that I would start packing my own lunch rather than forking out at a café.

At the time it seemed like a good idea. After all, it doesn't take a genius to see that home-made fare will always be cheaper than eating out.

But by Monday I was kicking myself. What had I been thinking, committing like that in a national newspaper? Now people would check up on me. Before I left for work my mother called. "Have you got your lunch?" she sang down the phone. Well, at least she reads my column.

I don't, admittedly, have the best record as far as packed lunches are concerned. Many a home-made snack has been left abandoned in favour of a trip to the local café – or even, on occasion, the work canteen (yes, abandoned for the canteen).

Even as a schoolgirl I struggled. Unpacking my own (perfectly respectable) meal, I'd be overcome with jealousy looking at what others had. We often swapped, much to the annoyance of our parents. Particularly rebellious days would mean a trip to the tuck shop, and the covert dumping of an uneaten sandwich.

The problem, really, is that packed lunches seem so very joyless – too much tinfoil, soggy bread and bruised fruit. Making one requires time, patience and, most troubling of all for someone like me, organisation. And when you work in an office where most people eat out, they can be horribly antisocial.

But this time I had no choice. After committing in print, I could hardly back out. So, reservations or not, I did it: I made a packed lunch. Every day. For two weeks. Well, almost – I forgot on day nine.

And you know what? It was fine. In fact, it was more than fine: it was terrific. I'm a complete convert. All those associations that packed lunches had held for me – the tinfoil, the time-consumption, the boring food, all of them – were dispelled. Every single one.

Firstly, they tasted good. In fact, they were much tastier than anything bought from the supermarket – and at least as good as anything from the nearby cafés (not to mention the canteen).

Each day I could have precisely what I wanted – be that roasted vegetables, cous-cous, or a spinach and feta salad – without having to pick out anything I didn't (or shouldn't) want.

I'm sure they were healthier, too. We're always being warned about the salt and sugar content of restaurant food – making my own meal meant I could avoid that, as well as allowing a degree of portion control.

I didn't even have to spend much time preparing. So long as I made them straight after work, they simply became part of my routine: home, change, supper, lunch, relax. At any rate, my lunches so often entailed bits of leftover dinner that, really, packing them was just part of clearing up.

Perhaps the best part, though, came when I managed to rope in my friend Rachel to make the whole thing less lonely – something I would definitely recommend doing.

Rachel rapidly re-branded our meals "eco-lunches" (she meant it as in "economy", but I thought she meant "eco-friendly" in that vague, trendy kind of way – which was fine by me). By day two, the concept had assumed a life of its own. "We're eco-lunching," we'd say smugly. "Have you got your eco?" We sounded ridiculous, but at least there were two of us.

Finally – and crucially – they were cheap. Very cheap. I knew that would happen – but it was thrilling nonetheless. The ingredients for a whole week cost what I would usually spend in two days, and I started bringing in my own water instead of buying a bottle in the canteen.

By day 14, I had saved £35 – more than enough for the following week's lunch. And almost enough for a new pair of shoes...