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Make Better Food for School or Office Lunch
Real-world assemble-and-conquer strategies
You are about to look at five things from my fridge on Thursday, September 8, 2022. I'll spin them into a week of lunch ideas at the bottom of this piece. But before we get to the instructional photos and wee chit-chat, let's get through my usual somewhat bossy home-economics directives. The idea is to inspire a new way to prepare and pack food for the school or office.
If you cook with some regularity, interesting lunches are a snap. By interesting, I mean beyond reheating leftovers or making deli-counter-style sandwiches. And though no one is asking you to cook all day Sunday for the week, you do need to project your attention toward future meals. Making a big salad? Instead of taking what you need and letting the rest hide in the produce drawer, prep the entire kit and kaboodle.
Consider these similar efficiencies: Whenever you fire up the grill or oven, use all available real estate to cook extra meat, tofu, or vegetables. It takes just as long to cook three cups of rice or grains as it does one cup. Or as long as you've got stew simmering on the stove and you're messing around in the kitchen anyway, why not simmer a pot of beans? In other words, cook for leftovers.
In the name of truth: I work at home, but I spent many years toting lunch to offices. I boned up for this assignment by exploring the hottest containers and satchels for carrying cold food. So, everything here can go from lunchbox to mouth, with an optional detour through the microwave (more on that in a sec) in case you happen to have access to one.
Bento-style boxes — several compartments or containers within a container —are perfect for packing lunch for kids or adults who think more of less is more. Whether you go for sandwiches, grain bowls, or salads, there are lots of options for everyone looking to avoid plastic. Lightweight stainless steel with tight-fitting silicone lids are nifty, as are silicone pouches and collapsible covered trays. I also love the idea of layering salad or hot bowl components in reverse order —sauce, garnishes, protein, vegetables, base — in a vertical container or big glass jar. Then all you do is invert it over a big bowl and dig in or queue up in front of the microwave oven.
Because you'll need to sauce, dress, season, and smear your way through lunchtime, condiments are a given. Ideally, you've got some stashed in your desk, though with a couple of teeny containers toting them each day—or sending something tasty and interactive for kids—is easy. Also included in the lunch larder: bread, crackers, grated or crumbled cheese, and/or yogurt if that's your thing; ditto chopped nuts or nut butters. I consider fruit in some form a given.
And now for my five real-life components and some alternates you might use the same way, followed by a week of possible lunch menus.
Pot of Beans
Beans, beans, and more beans. Mark says here and in the books to cook a batch a week and I am a happy convert. Without crossing over into nagging, let me just say once again that simply cooked legumes — out of the fridge or freezer — are the most versatile plant-based protein source there is. Whether you use a slow or pressure cooker, set them to simmer on a back burner or in the oven doesn't matter. Just make them, please.
Alternates: Cans of beans; nuts and seeds, especially cashews, peanuts, or pumpkin seeds.
Cut Raw Vegetables
Building on the seed planted above: Extra carrot and celery sticks will keep in jars of water for a week; ditto sliced radishes, jicama, or kohlrabi. (Just change the water once or twice.) Store sliced cucumbers and bell peppers in airtight containers. Once perfectly ripe, cherry tomatoes last for days in the fridge. It’s always true that when they're handy you can and will include more fresh vegetables in every lunch, whether you pack them raw, chop them to add to composed salads or spreads or cook them quickly to soften them a bit first.
Alternate: Simply cooked vegetables.
Like beans, simply cooked whole grains instantly make lunch more satisfying and nutritious. I had a big batch of millet this week; other favorites are farro, oat groats, sorghum, and hominy. I also like short-grain brown rice since even cold, it's pleasantly chewy without being too starchy and gritty like ice-cold pasta or long-grain rice.
Alternates: Croutons or breadcrumbs; cooked pasta or couscous.
Fish, Poultry, or Meat
I used to say "simply cooked" is the most versatile for repurposing. But sauced, marinated, and even braised animal proteins slipped into bowls, wraps, or salads can be absolutely delicious. (Provided they're skimmed of coagulated fat.) These grilled boneless chicken thighs got a miso-citrus marinade before grilling and then a brushing of hoisin barbecue sauce. Their repeat performance was diced and eaten with a toothpick. A little of something like this goes a long way, especially with the other components in play. And if you steer clear of animal proteins—as I usually do for lunch—you can treat any of the alternatives the same way. For example, this week I had a brick of microwave-steamed firm tofu in the menu mix.
Alternates: Tofu, tempeh, tinned fish; hard-boiled or cold scrambled eggs (you must try them in egg salad!).
Lettuce takes up a lot of real estate for something that's mostly water. Instead try a salad spinner full of chopped kale or Swiss chard, spinach or arugula leaves, shredded Napa cabbage, or sprouts. All stay crisp longer than typical salad greens (these microgreens have been in the fridge for a week) and they're much more useful.
Alternate: Any cooked greens, like leftover stir-fried or steamed greens.
A Week of Lunches
Monday: Layered chopped salad with assorted cold raw and cooked vegetables, whole drained beans, and tahini vinaigrette.
Tuesday: Whole wheat flour tortilla wraps, filled with tofu salad—cold steamed tofu crumbled and dressed with sesame oil, soy sauce, and rice vinegar—and a fist full of microgreens. (Sliced crosswise they become pinwheels.)
Wednesday: Bento box with cold cubed chicken; raw vegetables with miso-mayonnaise dip; millet salad spiked with salsa roja and olive oil.
Thursday: Open-face sandwich topped with smashed bean salad—loaded with raw carrots, cucumbers, and bell peppers and dressed with olive oil and red wine vinegar—finished with sliced cherry tomatoes.
Friday: Microwaved millet bowl with leftover steamed greens, olive-oil-packed tuna, balsamic drizzle, and a pinch of ground Aleppo peppers.