The dog days of summer are behind us, and whether you’re back to school or back to work, away-from-home lunches are back. Love it or hate it, there’s no question that brown bagging it is one sure-fire way to keep you nutritionally and financially at the top of your game. And if you put a little bit of effort in each week, sad desk lunches will become a thing of the past!
Plan and pack
It goes without saying that the best way to ensure you’ve got a healthy and delicious lunch at the ready is to put a little effort into planning and packing each week. My dirty little secret--as someone who champions planning and prepping--is that I don’t enjoy packing my lunches. But each week I do it anyway, because I know it’s worth the effort. Think of it as being kind to your future self. Maybe your Sunday afternoon self would rather kick back and binge watch The Real Housewives of somewhere-or-other, but your tired, hurried Monday morning self will sure be happy you packed those lunches. So find a day that works for you, and make it into a weekly ritual. I assure you, you won’t regret it.
Mason jar salads
More than just a pretty Pinterest trend, mason jar salads are perfect for packed lunches. The concept is simple: get your hands on a clean mason jar (or any empty wide-mouthed jar) and layer a salad from sturdiest to most delicate ingredients. The dressing goes on the bottom of the jar, and when it’s time to eat everything gets shaken up.
To pack a mason jar salad that’ll stave off the mid-afternoon munchies, aim for a combination of protein, produce, and healthy grains. This combination is satiating and keeps blood sugar levels stable. Try a base of quinoa or wheat berries, a handful of chickpeas or cubed tofu, and some leafy greens like baby kale or spinach. Add whatever else you like, keeping the delicate greens up top with any other ingredients you don’t want to get soggy, like chopped nuts.
The sandwich system
My husband is a master sandwich packer. Each weekend he bulk-packs sandwiches for his lunches. And those sandwiches have (among other things) lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers in them. Sounds crazy, right? Let me introduce you to the sandwich system.
Step 1: You have to toast your bread. If you bulk-prep sandwiches with un-toasted bread, you’ll end up with a soggy mess by the end of the week. But toasting the bread makes it sturdy enough to stand the test of time. Once toasted you can smear it with mustard or whatever your sandwich smear of choice is, and then begin layering in your sandwich ingredients.
Step 2: You have to have an effective lettuce barrier. This is important, folks. You’ve got to have pieces of lettuce that are approximately the same size as your bread. Too big, and you’ll have spillover into your sandwich container. Too small, and those tomatoes are going to make your bread soggy. But if you get the lettuce barrier juuuust right, it’ll do a stand-up job of protecting the bread from any moist ingredients.
Step 3: You’ve got to have a good sandwich container. This is no place for plastic wrap. If you love eating sandwiches at lunch, invest in some dedicated sandwich containers that not only protect the sandwich from getting smooshed, but also allow for decent airflow around the sandwich.
And that’s it! Bulk-prepped sandwiches are at your fingertips!
Pack and freeze
If you want to bulk-prep beyond just the 3-5 days ahead of you, then freezer meals are key. I love to make a big batch of burritos or other freezer-friendly wraps and stash them away for a busy week. Generally these are just as tasty eaten at room temperature as they are heated up, so if your office or school doesn’t have a microwave you can simply remove from the freezer the night before (or morning of) and let them thaw to room temperature by lunch time.
If you do have access to a microwave, most soups and stews freeze and re-heat brilliantly and are easy to bulk prep. I’m also fond of making up big casseroles such as lasagna or strata, and freezing individual portions for grab-and-go lunches.
A colleague of mine who always has enviable lunches does a pack and freeze thing where he makes up lunch boxes that always have some sort of grain and protein in them, and then, since he’s going to be freezing the boxes anyways, he throws in handfuls of already-frozen vegetables. Then the whole thing gets zapped in the office microwave and dressed up with some fresh sprouts and a dressing to serve.
Leftovers are the unsung heroes of the brown bag club. Cook once; eat twice. Or three times. Maybe more. In my house Thursday night dinner is almost always some sort of frittata, and since frittata packs well, Friday lunch is more often than not leftovers. If you plan for leftovers once or twice a week in your lunch packing plan it takes a little pressure off of an intense lunch packing day on the weekend, which can be a good thing. Some weeks it’s nice to lean a bit more heavily on leftovers and other weeks maybe you’ll be more organized with pointedly packed lunches or freezer meals. Either way, you know you’ll be well-fed.