Can we talk about lunch today? Basic, necessary, weekday lunches? I work from home these days, but I learned a thing or two about packed lunches when I was commuting to an office job a few years ago. Even now, I like to keep my lunches really simple, for productivity’s sake.
To state the obvious, lunch is important. Skipping lunch altogether is not a viable option. Coworkers will start giving you funny looks when your head is on the desk and your stomach is growling for help. (I speak from experience.) Also, why skip a perfectly good excuse to eat?
You also can’t completely overdo it at lunch… well, you can, and I totally understand the desire to indulge after a miserable morning. Assuming that your human body functions similarly to my human body, however, choosing fast food with fries or mac and cheese will suck the energy right out of you.
Here’s how it goes: the grease, carbs and all that tasty, tasty salt will probably leave you feeling jazzed for about an hour. Then your eyelids will start to feel verrrrrry heavy. You’ll start fantasizing about crawling under your desk for a little nap. “Will anyone notice?” you’ll wonder. “Just for a few minutes…”
Lunch done right helps us power through the workday. My old office was nowhere near a decent, quick restaurant, so I always scrambled to throw together my lunch in the mornings.
Here are a few of my favorite packed lunch options:
1) Leftovers. Always prime candidates for packed lunches, even better if packed in an air-tight, individual portion container the night before.
The best leftovers for lunches include:
- Casserole-type dishes (lasagna, enchiladas, etc.)
- Hearty chili or soup/stew
- Stir fries
- Bean salads and kale salads
- Pizza, of course!
2) One-bowl, throw-together meals. This is my default option beyond leftovers. I will always choose a bowl meal over a sandwich or wrap, just because those don’t taste as good a few hours after they’ve been packed.
Here’s my general strategy for one-bowl meals: I cook extra whole grains or pasta and store those for later. I try to keep a hearty bean salad in the refrigerator that works with the texture of the leftover grains. Or, I usually have leftover beans and veggies that are good mix-ins. A handful or three of pre-washed greens is a nutritious addition. Finish it off with leftover dressing or salsa or another complementary sauce, and maybe some garnishes (nuts, cheese, dried fruit, hot sauce). Lunch is served!
Here are some ideas for meal-in-a-bowl/mason jar salad ingredients you can keep on hand:
- Canned beans (chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans, white beans)
- Pre-cooked lentils (Trader Joe’s carries them in the refrigerated section)
- Frozen organic edamame
- Jarred artichoke
- Jarred roasted bell peppers, preferably organic
- Pitted olives
- Dried fruit
- Chopped bell pepper
- Chopped raw broccoli
- Chopped celery
- Chopped carrots
- Leftover roasted vegetables (any kind!)
- Leftover cooked grains (farro, wheat/spelt berries, quinoa, rice, pasta, couscous)
3) Last but not least, freezer options. Sometimes there’s no time in the morning to do anything other than grab a meal from the freezer. You can plan ahead for these occasions and store freezer-friendly, individually-sized portions in the freezer.
You can also pick up some quality frozen meals at the grocery store these days (yep, I’m endorsing freezer meals!). I’m partial to Annie’s organic and Trader Joe’s Indian meals. Just check the ingredients list and make sure there aren’t any crazy preservatives that you can’t pronounce. Balanced frozen meals are better than fast food, right? They’re also cheaper than fast food or take-out from the Chinese place around the corner. It’s a win-win.
When I was working at the aforementioned office job, I usually opted to take a 30-minute lunch so I could get a head start on my commute home. That meant that I ate lunch at the office.
Here are a few ways that I made my office lunches a little more tolerable:
1) Salt, spices and hot sauce. Sea salt tastes much better than those little iodized salt packets. Pre-filled pepper grinders cost less than five dollars in the grocery store spice aisle. This might sound crazy, but I kept a mini container of powdered cayenne pepper in my lunch box. You could keep a little bottle of your favorite hot sauce in your desk drawer instead.
2) Cute lunch box. It’s the little things! I’m still unduly attached to my red, neoprene lunch “box” made by Built. We’ve been through some tough times together.
3) Real silverware. Because metal utensils are more functional and make a desk lunch seem a little less sad.
4) Leak-proof storage containers. Opening your lunch box to discover that your precious sauce has spilled all over the inside is a serious bummer. Glasslock containers have never let me down. The lids are BPA-free and the glass containers are microwave safe. You might get lucky and find some at TJ Maxx or Marshall’s.
5) Good salad dressing. I make my own these days. If you have access to an office refrigerator, you could store some in a small jar and keep it in there until you run out. You can also store dressing in a little bitty container in your lunch box, but I have better luck with the refrigerator option or the mason jar salad technique. Another option? Keep small bottles of your favorite vinegar and olive oil in your desk.
To illustrate these tips, I’m sharing a mason jar salad today. I’m betting that you’re already familiar with the concept, but if not, the idea is that you stack ingredients in a quart-sized mason jar (or in this case, 28.7-ounce Weck jars, which are easier to eat out of thanks to the wide top).
Here’s how mason jar salads work: Dressing goes on the bottom so it stays separate from the greens. The next layer up is composed of heartier, heavier ingredients like beans and chopped vegetables. Then comes a layer of grains, which are optional, but I think they make a salad feel more like a full meal. Lastly, greens and garnishes go on top. When you’re ready to eat, just flip the jar over and give it a few gentle shakes to distribute the dressing and the ingredients. Flip it back over, unscrew the lid and stick a fork in it!
This salad is designed to be a relatively seasonless meal made from pantry/refrigerator staples. Each component can be mixed and matched to suit your cravings. Like, maybe you’re starving when you get home, so you want to snack on some chickpea salad. Or, maybe you want to change things up and stuff a tortilla with chickpea salad, greens and hummus for a hearty wrap. Maybe you want a hot meal of pasta with pesto, served with a side of chickpea salad and greens with Greek dressing. Sounds like a good idea to me.
This Greek dressing keeps well for a few weeks. Leftover farro (and other grain “berries” like wheat/spelt berries) freezes particularly well for later. Just let the grains cool, then pour some into a freezer-safe bag (don’t overstuff it). Squeeze the air out, flatten the bag and place it in the freezer. You should be able to pull off a chunk to defrost for future individual portion salads.
What am I forgetting? What are your best lunch tips? I bet you guys are lunch pros!
- 1¼ cup farro
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 medium clove garlic, pressed or minced
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1 cup quality extra-virgin olive oil, such as California Olive Ranch brand
- ½ cup red wine vinegar
- 4 cloves garlic, pressed or minced
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
- 1½ teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon agave nectar, honey or sugar
- 2 cans chickpeas (or 3 cups cooked chickpeas), drained and rinsed
- 4 stalks celery, thinly sliced crosswise and roughly chopped
- ⅔ cup chopped red onion (about one small red onion, chopped)
- 1 cup chopped parsley
- ⅓ cup Greek dressing or olive oil and lemon juice, to taste
- Mixed greens, roughly chopped if you have time (a couple handfuls per salad)
- ¼ cup pepitas (pumpkin seeds) or sunflower seeds
- Handful dried cherries or cranberries, roughly chopped
- Kalamata olives, pitted and thinly sliced (optional)
- Feta cheese, crumbled (optional)
- To cook the farro: In a medium saucepan, combine the rinsed farro with at least three cups water (enough water to cover the farro by a couple of inches). Bring the water to a boil, then reduce heat to a gentle simmer, and cook until the farro is tender to the bite but still pleasantly chewy. (Pearled farro will take around 15 minutes, unprocessed farro will take 25 to 40 minutes.) Drain off the excess water and mix in the olive oil, garlic and salt. Set aside to cool.
- Make the dressing: Whisk together all of the dressing ingredients until emulsified.
- Make the chickpea and celery salad: In a serving bowl, toss together the chickpeas, prepared celery, red onion and parsley. Stir in enough dressing (or olive oil and lemon juice) to lightly coat the salad. Toss and set aside.
- Toast the pepitas: In a skillet over medium-low heat, toast the pepitas for a few minutes, stirring frequently, until they smell fragrant and toasty. Transfer the pepitas to a bowl to cool.
- To assemble your mason jar salads: In a quart-sized mason jar (32 ounce capacity), layer the chickpea salad at the bottom along with an additional tablespoon or two of dressing (enough to lightly coat the salad when you turn the jar upside down). Top with cooled farro, then greens (leave about an inch of room at the top). Finish with a sprinkle of
Why buy organic? Conventionally grown celery and greens are usually high in pesticide exposure.
Make it vegan/dairy free: Just skip the feta. Add extra olives for a salty punch.
Quick farro tip: Trader Joe's sells pre-cooked farro that only takes 10 minutes to cook. Look for it near the rice.
Storage suggestions: Feel free to prepare mason jar salads up to a few days in advance. Just store them upright so the dressing doesn't get to the greens. You can also store the components separately and mix and match as desired. If the olive oil in the dressing solidifies when refrigerated, just let it sit at room temperature for a few minutes or give it a brief zap in the microwave, then whisk the dressing back together.
Disclaimer: This post is sponsored by California Olive Ranch and I received compensation for my participation. Opinions are my own, always. Thank you for supporting the sponsors who support C+K!