Brown-bag lunch strategies
Contrary to popular opinion, the secret ingredient to good cooking is not sea salt. Nope. Or extra-virgin olive oil. Bacon, though clearly in its renaissance, satisfies many an appetite, but won’t (usually) save you in the kitchen.
The ace in the hole, my friend, is planning. Any seasoned cook who has perfected a stir-fry, jettisoned half of the intended menu for a dinner party, or simply cooked supper day in, day out, for his or her family, knows the genius of having a plan. That’s what it takes to cook and eat well: a strategy that informs what’s bought at the market and when and how it gets to the table.
Turkey roll-ups are an excellent choice for packed lunch.
Filling the daily lunchbox is a year-round enterprise in my house; on most days, everyone eats a homemade lunch, either at home, office, or school. It’s economical, it’s healthy, and mostly, it’s a habit. Occasionally it’s a pain in the ass, but that’s not often the case when we’ve planned well.
During the school year, the kids usually make their own lunches. For one, that’s a bagel and cream cheese, plus fruit and a granola bar, nuts, or chips. For the other, it’s leftovers, a simple sandwich, or some variation on the ploughman's lunch.
My husband takes leftovers, too, packed up the night before. (He also keeps a tub of yogurt and stash of fruit at the office, in case there aren’t enough leftovers to go around.) Since I work at home, my lunch is either a simple sandwich or a frittata, or gussied-up leftovers: bread with cheese toasted under the broiler to top a bowl of soup, or last night’s meat refashioned into a taco, quesadilla, or salad.
Over the years, I’ve picked up a few tricks to streamline the process. Here are eight strategies — and a bumper crop of recipes — for keeping the brown-bag-lunch undertaking delicious and relatively painless.
Containers. Last year, I got rid of all the lunch containers without lids and all the lids without containers, and started afresh. A trip to container nirvana yielded eight new plastic containers (mostly pint-size, but also a couple of bigger ones for salad), all with the same screw-on lids. No more scrambling to find the right lid! No more spills when the seal gets flabby!
Ample containers and lids, jam jars, and reusable sandwich bags.
I also own a bounty of glass jars (repurposed from jam), which make great storage and to-go vessels; they’re heavier than plastic, but indestructible. During soup season, these jars get filled not-quite-to-the-top with soup, then stowed in the freezer for future lunches.
Though those fetching stainless-steel tiffin containers and colorful bento boxes may work for some, they don’t cut it with my family. The stacking containers don’t fit in either briefcase or backpack, while the containers in a bento box are simply too small.
Stock your pantry. In other words: Bagels in the freezer. Fruit in the fruit bowl. Cream cheese, snacking and sandwich cheeses, cured meats, vegetables, pickles, yogurt, vinaigrette, hummus, jam, and chutney in the fridge. And in the pantry? Peanut butter, Nutella (or homemade hazelnut spread), nuts, dried fruit, granola bars, bread, whole-grain crackers, and chips (these sweet-potato chips are my new favorite).
Load the larder with healthy staples.
With these basic ingredients on hand, it’s easy to cobble together a sandwich, salad, or ploughman’s lunch, rounded out with chips, fruit, and/or yogurt. Portion some of these staples — nuts, batches of gorp (trail mix), chips — into smaller containers to grab on the go.
Ploughman’s lunch. The Brits know a thing or two about pub fare, including the ploughman’s lunch. In Jamie Oliver's Great Britain, Oliver brings to light the relative short history of this iconic menu item and uncovers its origin: a ploy to sell more cheese in Britain. No matter; as a concept it translates beautifully to the lunch box.
Let your imagination be your guide when it comes to ploughman’s lunch.
The basic formula is simple: meat + cheese + pickle. Add some bread, a piece of fruit, and/or a small salad or vegetable, for a truly happy meal. Variation number one: Nigel Slater’s Marinated Goat Cheese for a Fig and Cheese Lunch (pictured here). Variation two: a hunk of sharp Cheddar, several slices of smoked ham, whole-grain bread, mustard or chutney, and a tart crunchy apple. Variation three: a little wedge of Asiago or a nice triple-cream, salami, baguette, pickled green beans or beets, and a plum.
Spring Board and Bistro Salad, set out with a cloth napkin and a small butter knife, bring panache and picnic fun to the lunch table. Small vase of flowers optional. (Remember Bread and Jam for Frances, and the lovely lunch spread replete with flowers, hard-cooked eggs, and tiny shakers of salt and pepper?)
Leftovers. Get in the habit of cooking in large quantities; one night’s extra work is a gift of meals for the following day(s). Though anything is fair game, some leftovers fare better than others in both portability and appeal.
Meals-in-a-bowl make good leftovers for lunch.
Noodles travel well, and often taste good at room temperature. Jane’s Pasta with Pesto and Cherry Tomatoes; Israeli Couscous with Fresh Corn, Tomatoes, and Feta; Noodles with Peanut Sauce and Chicken; and Spicy Noodles with Sweet Potatoes, Spinach, and Tofu all deliver a meal-in-a-bowl. Yakisoba and pad Thai easily carry over into another day, especially when reheated. Rice-centric dishes — Rice and Beans, risotto, stir-fry, and curry — all hold up well for a second- or third-day meal. They’re best reheated; these foods don’t stay as hot as I would like in a thermos.
With pizza, always make or buy more than you’ll eat — who doesn’t like cold (or even room temp) pizza? Chili, soup, stew, and hearty salads are all easy to double and make great reruns. Also consider turning, with minimal effort, one night’s dinner into a different meal for lunch. Leftover grilled steak or roasted chicken, paired with salad greens, a handful of cherry tomatoes, and some kind of sauce or dressing — yum.
If packing any of the above for the office, take the time to transfer your lunch to a bowl or plate and reheat it, if heat improves the flavor. You’ve made yourself a nice lunch, so enjoy it; don’t hunch over your computer eating out of plastic unless your life depends on it.
Sandwiches. It’s kid’s stuff to make a PB&J or ham-and-cheese sandwich, and predictable in the best possible way. To liven things up a bit, try Hoagie Sandwiches; Italian Muffuletta; Japanese Egg Salad Sandwiches; Lox Sandwich on Rye Bread; Banh Mi; or Chicken Salad with Fennel, Almonds, and Lemon Mayo.
Hoagie sandwich, an old classic made new.
To minimize early-morning prep, make a batch of chicken or egg salad in the evening to turn into sandwiches for the next few mornings. The trick to avoiding a soggy sandwich is either to layer the wet ingredients in the middle, sandwiched between dry lettuce, meat, or cheese, or to pack the juicy things in a separate container, to add to the sandwich right before eating.
Rolled into a wrapper — lavash bread, tortilla, even lettuce — roll-ups are the most portable of sandwiches. Prepare wraps in large quantities, cut them into individual portions, wrap each in a barely damp paper towel, then store them in an airtight container in the fridge until ready to go; they will hold up for a couple of days. Try Roll-ups with Spinach, Feta, and Olives, Smoked Turkey and Roasted Red Pepper Roll-ups, Hummus Roll-Ups with Carrots and Apples, or Turkish White Bean Wrap Sandwiches — or create your own to taste.
If you’re avoiding gluten, take a large, sturdy, washed-and-dried lettuce leaf or collard green with the rib removed. Smear with cream cheese, then smash bits of avocado into the cream cheese; squirt with a little lemon or lime juice, then top with roasted red peppers, thin slices of cucumber, and/or sliced turkey. Roll your creation into a cigar shape, secure with a toothpick, and repeat, making as many as you like.
Salads. How did we ever live without wheat berries? Wheat-berry salads are a staple of the brown-bag lunch: they’re filling and nutritious, and they actually improve with a little age, the kernels softening and absorbing dressing. In fact, lots of whole grains — spelt, farro, barley, quinoa, millet — make terrific supper and lunch salads. I often make a large bowl of Spelt and Garbanzo Bean Salad or Wheat Berries and Garbanzos with Lemon-Tahini Dressing at the beginning of the week, then parcel it into containers for upcoming lunches. Other good salad-for-lunch candidates: Quinoa Salad with Lemon Dressing; Black Bean Salad with Chipotle-Cumin Dressing; Tuna and White Bean Salad; Country Potato Salad; Roasted Beet and Lentil Salad; Potato Salad with Lemon, Dill, and Smoked Salmon; Chicken Salad with Curry, Mandarin Oranges, Grapes, and Almonds; and Buckwheat and Broccoli Salad with Tangy Miso Dressing.
Grain salads pack well for lunch.
If you’re carting a lettuce or spinach salad to school or work, avoid soggy greens by arranging it in this way: Pour the dressing into the bottom of a tall container, layer with the most durable vegetables (and cheese), then top with the greens, leaving at least an inch of headroom. Come lunchtime, toss your salad with a fork, from the bottom up; the vegetables will have absorbed some of the dressing and the greens will stay spry.
Soup. Any soup — cold or hot — you can pack in a thermos works, but if you’re eating straight from the thermos, consider a wide-mouth, not-too-deep one. Puréed soups can always be poured into a mug, to drink. The trick to avoiding tepid, thermos-stored soup is twofold: First, pour boiling water into the thermos to preheat it, and second, heat the soup to a boil before pouring it into the thermos. Family favorites: Culinate Gazpacho; Carrot Sweet-Potato Soup; Tomato-Orange Soup; Brown Rice and Lentil Soup with Dark Leafy Greens; Soupe au Pistou (Vegetable Soup with Basil and Garlic); and Barley, Beef, and Mushroom Soup. Made on the weekend at a leisurely pace, soup delivers tenfold as a lunch entrée during a busy week. (See also Marisa McClellan’s blog post on taking soup for lunch.)
Soup au Pistou is one of many soups that reheat nicely for lunch.
Outside the box. Let taste be your guide when it comes to planning lunch, and challenge yourself to deviate from the norm. When packing lunch for myself or others, I try always to include some kind of protein (for staying power); a piece of fruit or vegetable; something to snack on either before or after lunch (nuts, a granola bar, trail mix, popped corn); and a little sweetie-treatie (a cookie or square of chocolate). Consider the following: Yogurt with fresh berries in one container, with a side of granola to add at lunch. Hummus or Tzatziki with veggies (carrots, celery, pepper strips) and pita chips. Stuffed grape leaves, olives, tabouli and cherry tomatoes. Any of the following — samosas with dipping sauce, summer rolls, Veggie Sushi, or Ham and Egg Sushi Roll — would make a delightful midday repast.
Veggie sushi, outside the box, makes for an elegant lunch.
Carrie Floyd is a co-founder of Culinate and our longtime recipe editor.