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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