how to pack healthy lunches for work

by Stacy

Do you eat the same thing for breakfast every day?

breakfast

Unless I talk my husband into having “fancy breakfast” (pancakes or waffles, or egg-and-veggie dishes) my normal breakfast options are variations on poached eggs with toast or oatmeal. Or leftover cake when possible.

How about for lunch?

When my husband started taking a lunch to work he ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches almost every day. Occasionally I would refuse to make him one because I was tired of the same PB&J — not that he was — and gave him some options to grudgingly choose between. His request the next day? Back to the sandwich.

PB&J is not how I roll. When I went back to work I needed to take meals that could sustain me through a day of high physical activity. For me that meant protein, healthy fats, fiber, and not a lot of refined carbohydrates (sorry, no time for sugar crashes!). Cold food doesn’t feel like a real meal to me, so I prefer warm (or at least room-temperature) food.

This is what worked for me:

  • Preparing large batches of basic or staple ingredients, cooked and uncooked
  • Combining them in different ways using different flavor profiles
  • Supplementing with fresh produce and herbs
  • Embracing meals with “some assembly required”
  • Taking leftovers

red quinoa

Prep ingredients

Instead of making a lot of meals in advance, I would prep piece-by-piece. Before bed I would start soaking beans, then I would drain, rinse, and cook them in the morning while I got ready for work. Another day I would cook several servings of brown rice or quinoa while I made my breakfast. With a stash of beans (usually black beans and chickpeas) and grains in the refrigerator I had several ready options for meal bases. For other ingredients, I would rinse and spin-dry lettuce from the CSA, dice an onion, chop some scallions, and slice a cucumber or radish to keep in the fridge.

sesame peanut noodles

Combine

There are many permutations available using a few basic ingredients depending on what spices and flavors you add. Black beans can become veggie burgers, filling for enchiladas, masa pockets, or burritos, or mixed into brown rice or quinoa salad. Chickpeas can also go into the brown rice salad, get mashed for sandwich filling or homemade hummus, or stirred with tahini and lemon juice for a tasty pita filling.

The simple standby of pasta with sauce can get a makeover by using spaghetti to make Asian-inspired sesame peanut noodles instead which can also be served cold. Sandwiches aren’t limited to PB&J or deli meat and cheese. My coworkers were all jealous of my homemade banh mi, and though I don’t take sandwiches often, I love whole wheat bread spread with pesto, plus lettuce, tomato slices, colby or cheddar cheese, and sprouts.

reed avocado

Supplement

Because our CSA provides the majority of our produce, I try to use what we have instead of running to the store all the time. Most vegetables can go into stir-fry served over some of that pre-cooked brown rice. Buy some tortillas or flatbread and make a hearty wrap based on what’s in the fridge. Some of my favorite additions are fresh herbs like cilantro, parsley, and mint, various sprouts from the CSA, sliced or diced avocado, and nuts or seeds.

vegetarian banh mi

Assemble at work

You don’t have to take complete dishes to work. Some days my lunch starts as a bag of tortillas and a half-dozen assorted containers of various ingredients because I hate soggy food. Instead, I would add rice and beans, veggies, and cheese to my tortilla, warm it up, then add avocado, scallions, and salsa before eating. Often I would just pack “warm” and “cold” ingredients together. Pack bread and sandwich fillings separately and bring two lunches at once!

I am lucky enough to have access to a toaster oven at work which is helpful — if your workplace doesn’t have one, it may be worth asking about. I also bring a paring knife for last-minute assembly (not possible all places, I know) or ease of eating. Reheating leftover veggie burgers is much better in the toaster oven than in a microwave.

For an emergency stash I will sometimes bring a sweet potato (or a regular one) and toppings. The potato microwaves in just a few minutes, add salt and pepper, and enjoy.

curried chickpea and potato stew

Take leftovers

It doesn’t take twice as long to double a recipe, so make extra for dinner and package it up before you eat to ensure that you have enough food left. Sometimes with pasta I will make a separate batch of noodles and deliberately under-cook them to prevent mushiness the next day, but pasta, stir-fry, and soups are all great options for leftovers. Make your own microwave meals at home — visit the freezer case at the grocery store and check out the options for ideas of what to make at home with less salt and no preservatives.

Those are my basic tricks! I usually add a salad or piece of fruit on the side, and I’ll talk about snacks in an upcoming post.

What do you take for lunch?


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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

olivia October 11, 2010 at 3:33 pm

ok, i’d be happy for you to pack me lunches for work :) i do leftovers, but i mostly pack microwave meals that i’ve identified to be good. although, this last 3 weeks, i’ve been so busy that i haven’t grocery shopped and i’ve been eating the same crap out of my office cafeteria…

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Stacy October 13, 2010 at 11:32 am

My rates are reasonable and I’m not kidding!

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Kate October 11, 2010 at 5:11 pm

ahhhhh, love this post! :) I’ve gotten much better about packing lunches, but love these tips. Right now I do a lot of the assembly style lunches. I am such a texture-eater that I can’t stand eating foods that get soggy by the time you are ready to eat them. I started packing up a lunch portion of my dinners before serving them, which helps me keep my dinner portions in check. Still can’t stand the microwave though, so it’s gotta be something good cold. My office needs a toaster oven!

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Stacy October 13, 2010 at 11:37 am

You did ask (as I mentioned on Facebook) about a bazillion years ago. I may be slow (see also: Kimberly’s afghan photos) but I did it!

That’s why I love the whole grain salads — I leave them out of the fridge for a bit and eat them room temperature so it’s not cold but it’s not mushy. Once my show closes I will try to measure and photograph some of the dishes I slapped together for more specific ideas.

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Jenn October 11, 2010 at 7:24 pm

Great post! Can you believe we actually just started bringing our lunch to work? Ha, I got told it was a “very American” thing to do, and not many colleagues I know do it…But factoring cost of groceries, we’ve saved 50 bucks each week so far which will add up over a year for us to take an extra trip traveling!

Love the stir-fry sandwich idea! I usually just bring leftovers…

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Stacy October 13, 2010 at 11:40 am

Thank you!

My husband’s old job was downtown and going to the food court was his only excuse to take a break during the day. When we moved, his new job wasn’t near anything, so he had to eat cafeteria food or bring a lunch. Not only is it cheaper, he also lost 20 pounds!

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Birch October 12, 2010 at 4:50 pm

I dunno, I don’t like leftovers for lunches much. Even if I’ll eat them for dinner or snacks at home. This has caused Lee no end of frustration. I eat sandwiches. PB&J until I’m sick of it, then deli meat until I’m sick of that. When tomatoes are in season, I’ll bring one with a knife, because soggy sandwiches are icky.

I’ve discovered that my favorite non-cake way to eat zucchini is raw sticks, and those are great for desk-job snacking that will get out of control if it’s candy.

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Stacy October 14, 2010 at 10:47 am

It depends on the leftovers, I suppose. The hubby only eats leftover pizza and pad Thai. And yes, soggy sandwiches are the worst (my pet peeve about most vegetarian sandwiches).

Snacks are my next topic!

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Naomi October 12, 2010 at 7:40 pm

Good tips. I should get in the routine of soaking and cooking beans. Do you use a pressure cooker that you can cook them while getting ready for work?

When we cook we do it in large batches, dividing the pot of curry, chili, spaghetti sauce, or general “hot dish” into 8, 12 or 16 ounce jars to cool in the fridge and then freeze. We end up with a deli in our freezer. We have thawed and thawing jars of one recipe or another in the fridge most days. We try to keep whole wheat pita bread, already baked yukon gold potatoes, brown rice, quinoa or slightly undercooked pasta in the fridge to round it out. Great for lunches, reheated or not. If using them for supper we might tweak them with some extra sauteed onion, garlic, mushroom, zucchini or add some spinach as seems creatively fit.

I’ve given some to my younger daughter. She said her coworkers call them “food jars” and think she’s lucky when they smell the aroma of home-cooked food. My older daughter cooks this way also. I only wish we’d done it this way when we were first married.

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Stacy October 14, 2010 at 11:03 am

It took me a while to start the habit, but now I cook beans every week or two. I don’t have a pressure cooker, but I go through them fast enough that if I soak them they only take about 45 minutes on the stove (older beans take longer to cook). If I throw them on before I make breakfast I have plenty of time before I head out the door.

I love the “food jars!”

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Amy Dawson October 13, 2010 at 7:45 am

I love your ideas – if you are looking for others (or to share yours – we link from each item you submit back to your blog – right now we’re running a contest for a free set of easylunchboxes that are great for adults as well as kids. I love them! All you have to do is submit an item to share or comment on items on the site and the deadline isn’t until Oct 31). Check out my site for ideas and thanks for all your thoughts! I really need to start doing brown rice ahead of time – we’re always doing it right at dinner time!
http://www.lunchtaker.com

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Colleen October 13, 2010 at 2:02 pm

Of course I’m not reading this post while eating Rubio’s. Don’t be silly.

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Stacy October 14, 2010 at 11:04 am

Do I need to start packing you lunches, Colleen?
Full disclosure: we totally had Rubio’s for lunch last week even though I had lunch in the fridge.

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Bridget October 14, 2010 at 9:40 pm

Well, I posted recently about what I bring for lunch. I am booooring. :) But this was a great post regardless!

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