A few weeks ago over Pad Thai and Tofu Curry, my dear friend Ash was complaining about the dire state of her packed lunches. Dr. Ash works long, busy shifts as a Primary Care physician and doesn’t have the luxury of taking a leisurely hour lunch. If she wants to eat lunch (and duh, who skips meals?!), then she has to bring it with her. Day after day, she eats a salad so boring it brings her to tears, and night after night, she stares into her fridge and begrudgingly makes the next day’s boring salad.
Perhaps one of the most dreadful aspects of working a 9-5 (ok, 8-6) job is the packed lunch. Let’s face it: there is nothing more boring than eating the same turkey sandwich and carrots day after day. Even more dreadful is the act of assembling that packed lunch. Ziploc baggies, plastic containers, aluminum foil – it’s enough to turn away even the most passionate of cooks.
But before you say “the hell with it” and pay $10 for an overpriced and lackluster Panera You-Pick-Two lunch or, in the case of Dr. Ash and her non-existent lunch hour, starve, hear me out: there IS life outside of the boring brown bag (BBB) lunch!
For two of the 2.5 years I was in grad school, I packed both my lunch (for work) and dinner (for class) religiously. I didn’t have time to pick up food on my way to class – it was stressful enough just getting there on time. And while I did go out for lunch a day or two a week, it still added up to packing multiple meals a week. I eventually wised up and realized that if I left work a mere ten minutes before five, I’d have time not only to pick up takeout for dinner, but also have a drink with my classmates before class got underway at six (which, while fun at the time, makes for a long lecture). But in those first two years of school, I became an expert on the packed lunch (and dinner). So how did I manage to stay (mostly) out of a food rut? By thinking outside of the BBB!
My #1 suggestion for getting out of the BBB rut? Turn the heat up! Most people have access to a microwave at lunch – use it! Rather than cooking one meal for dinner and another for lunch, keep it simple and make an extra serving or two of dinner. Since I live alone, that’s easy for me – I just make two (or three or four) servings of whatever I’m making. Then I pack up the leftovers and eat them as lunches or quick dinners throughout the week. You might think that sounds boring, but if the meal was good I guarantee you’ll be happy to eat it again.
For example, on Sunday night I used the giant zucchini from this post in spaghetti and meatballs. You’ve seen from this post that I always have homemade frozen meatballs on hand, so I simply heated them up in some jarred sauce, sauteed the zucchini strips with some garlic & onions, and added some spaghetti. The zucchini added some bulk so I didn’t need a ton of pasta to make two big servings. Secret: add some capers and kalamata olives to your sauce, as well as some red pepper flakes – takes it to a whole new level!
I wanted some extra veg, so I served the pasta with a simple salad of greens, pre-shredded carrots (worth the extra $), grape tomatoes, and green onion. One salad and one pasta (and parm cheese!) went into plastic containers for lunch the next day:
So next time you make dinner, make lunch too! Most things reheat well – pasta, enchiladas, stir-fry, even eggs, like this frittata that I made last month and ate for four meals!
Dr. Ash told me that she eats salads for lunch because she feels like it’s the only good way to consume veggies. The key to staying out of a salad rut is to expand your horizons. Who says that the only way to eat a salad is with a lettuce base? I challenge you to think outside the bagged pre-washed greens. Things like beans, lentils, and quiona (although i don’t care for it) all make great bases for veggies, cheese, nuts, and dressing. Or if you want to stay light, try some broccoli slaw instead of lettuce. It’s crunchy and different – I like mine with some canned tuna, corn, tomatoes, blue cheese, and TJ’s cliantro dressing. And in the case you do make a lettuce salad – for goodness sake, make it interesting! The one below is from a school night, and includes some fabulous baked tofu (I heart tofu), homemade croutons, and fancy cheese in addition to lots of veggies. Boring? I think not!
It’s worth noting that I don’t consider all sandwiches to fall in the “BBB” category. On the contrary, I pack a turkey sandwich for work almost every week. The key is to make it “fancy” – I spread avocado and special mustard on mine, add a slice of pepperjack, and make sure the bread it high-quality. None of that bread aisle crap – buy bread from the bakery section of the grocery store, or better yet, a real bakery. Or use a bun or chibatta roll or pita pocket. Serve your un-boring sandwich with a few of your fav crunchy snack (TJ’s roasted veggie chips or Utz pretzels for me) and some of those baby peppers and carrots and you’ve got a meal.
I love making giant pots of soup. It’s the antithesis to baking – you don’t have to measure anything, you can add whatever, omit whatever. As soon as the first cool breeze hits (but not this July one), you can find me over a giant pot on the stove. My favorites are my Great Aunt’s chili and old-fashioned veg soup (think lima beans and barley). When I make soup, I make a giant pot and ladle it into plastic containers that I then freeze and eat throughout the fall and winter – and spring and summer. In fact, tonight I defrosted my very last container of soup: some white bean, pasta, and kale concoction I made this past winter. I could have just as easily taken it to work and served it with some cheese and crackers. The lesson here? Soup = lots of at-the-ready meals.
What is a snack plate, you ask? When I’m really feeling lazy and don’t feel like making a sandwich, I’ll stick the components of one in a plastic container. Think turkey, sliced cheese, avocado, mustard. I’ll bring sides of carrots/cucumbers/peppers for dipping in some hummus and some crackers, too. It’s fun to eat and is much more filling than you’d expect.
So there you have it – five ways to get out of your BBB rut! You’ll make your belly happy and your co-workers jealous at the same time.
What are your favorite un-BBB lunches?