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RISMEDIA, August 26, 2010—(MCT)—Plastic money makes it easy to spend a fortune on workplace lunches. In addition to credit and debit cards, paperless transactions include payroll deductions in which the cost of meals purchased from the company dining room are automatically deducted from your paycheck.

Brown-bag or zero-waste lunches can provide tasty, but inexpensive, lunches. Unfortunately, the logistics of preparing a daily lunch from home can be daunting during rush-hour mornings.

But office kitchens can offer frugal menu options. Here are a few ways you can take advantage of your office kitchen and save time and money in the process.

Stock up: Purchase groceries from a nearby store. A weekly shopping trip for office menu staples will eliminate the daily grind of lunch preparations. Plan ahead and shop for sales. Dry goods—peanut butter and tuna fish—can be stashed in an empty desk drawer or cabinet. Use the company refrigerator to store perishables. Beware of frozen foods as some frozen entrees are as costly as restaurant meals.

Chill out: Most companies offer a kitchen pantry with a variety of appliances, including microwaves, toasters and refrigerators. Learn about formal and informal office rules for using kitchen appliances. Label and date food products, and ask about the cleaning schedule. Some offices, for example, have a monthly cleaning schedule for the workplace fridge. Items—food and containers—not claimed by the cleaning date are typically thrown out.

Contain it: Safe food handling rules apply at home and at work. What’s more, proper storage of leftovers and other lunch fixings can help stretch your menu dollars. Bagged salad, lunch meat, fruits and other perishables will last longer if properly sealed and stored.

Heat it: Hot water has multiple, money-saving uses. Most office kitchens have a variety of appliances that can be used to heat water, including coffee machines, microwave ovens and the “hot water” option on the fountain or kitchen sink. You can prepare oatmeal, instant soups, pasta dishes and tea with cups of hot water.

(c) 2010, The Miami Herald.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.