What should I put in my lunchbox?
May 16, 2009 3:43 PM   Subscribe

Help me brainstorm easy packed lunches.

For more than a decade, I've eaten turkey & cheese or peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, with a yogurt and crackers. Sometimes with fruit, sometimes carrots and hummus. Sometimes couscous and garbanzos. It's fine, but it's boring.

I'm stuck in a rut, and I need to get out. Unfortunately, I'm feeling fairly uncreative around lunch foods. Please give me your best recipes and packable-food blogs. I'm looking to be less carb-intensive but mostly I'm just looking for tastiness, variety, portability, and ease of preparation.
posted by anotherpanacea to Food & Drink (19 answers total) 103 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I often make two servings of a meal for dinner and then pack the leftovers for lunch the next day. I might switch it up by making a wrap or summer rolls out of the leftovers for variety.

I've also started to play with some of the recipes at Just Bento and Lunch in a Box. I don't have a real bento, but tupperware or the like gets the job done.
posted by wiskunde at 3:53 PM on May 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Do you have access to a microwave? The only thing I've taken for lunch for years is leftovers or a frozen pocket sandwich or burrito, like Amy's. I have some of those divided plates with lids and good quality (leakproof) plastic containers for soup and salad dressing.
posted by zinfandel at 4:03 PM on May 16, 2009

I pack lunches for my son and my wife every night, so I'm right there with you. Making a huge heap of pasta with a sauce you like and then packing lunch-sized portions is a great, ultra-fast choice. To get away from carbocentrism you might also consider roasting up a ton of vegetables at the beginning of the week and then parceling those out day by day; if you rotate the vegetables you won't get bored.

The same old sandwiches can be dressed up a lot with some strongly flavored condiments -- put some cilantro on your peanut butter sandwich (not sure whether this would work with jelly) or some sriracha hot sauce on your turkey and cheese. Other super-easy instant sandwiches: goat cheese and tomato, or just plain goat cheese. Swiss cheese and a good mustard. Hummus with some preshredded cabbage from the store for crunch.
posted by escabeche at 4:08 PM on May 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

I pick up mini pizzas made on flattened dough from the bagel place near me. Two of those, with some fruit, is pretty good.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 4:20 PM on May 16, 2009

Crockpot + Pyrex = Instant (For 8hr increments of "instant") Lunches for the Week.
posted by Loto at 4:32 PM on May 16, 2009

Just last week, I bought a tiffin in an effort to stop buying my lunch at school. It's great because, having three compartments, it forces you to vary things up- you really want to fill up those compartments!

The slow cooker comment is TRUTH. I made stew in mine last weekend and froze half. It made about 5 servings. If you can microwave it, great, but it's not bad cold. I also made a quick curry- just spinach, canned chickpeas, and curry paste, with yogurt added last minute. I have been alternating curry and stew as my main dish. When I run out I'll probably make a big thing of pasta with chicken, and a different curry. Or maybe potato salad.

I have also brought fruit every day- usually one banana for a snack, plus something like kiwi, grapes or plum to have with lunch.

Other side-dishy things have included: plain yogurt with jam, chips, sliced bell peppers, bread or crackers with cheese. You could try nuts, or edamame. You could also do a salad- make a big one and take a bit every day.

For fun ideas, google 'bento box'. I got several ideas by doing that.
posted by showbiz_liz at 4:53 PM on May 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Stuff like chicken salad, pasta salad, grain salads are good because you can make a bunch in advance and tote it in one container.
posted by stefnet at 5:00 PM on May 16, 2009

Brisling sardines are wonderful (if more than twice the price of larger sardines) and very portable. I especially enjoy the King Oscar brand.
posted by orthogonality at 5:16 PM on May 16, 2009

If you haven't looked already, you can find varying expressions of this question previously asked.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 5:25 PM on May 16, 2009

My #1 best lunch is dinner leftovers. It's just my husband and me at home, so I'll usually make the full (4-6 serving) version of a recipe for dinner, and we'll eat half that night and each take half to work the next day.

wiskunde already mentioned Lunch in a Box - I got into packing bento lunches after stumbling upon the Bento Boxes group on Flickr. Tons of great ideas there, with lots of "regular" foods adapted for tiny Japanese boxes. (Packing your food in actual bento boxes or similar might inspire you, too - it did me, but after a while I got burned out on figuring out tiny things that would fit in the right spots, and went back to regular Rubbermaid containers.)
posted by LolaGeek at 5:54 PM on May 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've been having "grilled" chicken salads lately. I cook a batch of chicken breasts (usually butterflied and marinated) on a George Foreman grill a few times a week. Then in the morning, I dump salad greens in a plastic container. I have another container for salad dressing and put slices of the chicken breast in a baggie. When it's time for lunch I assemble my salad and it's fresh and not soggy. This would be excellent use of a bento box because you could pack all of the salad ingredients into each little box and that lets you have a wide variety of add ins like nuts, fruit, etc. I've also done this with pork chops, salmon, and shrimp.

I know it seems like having to do the extra work isn't worth it, but I found I am actually happier about eating a packed lunch when I spent a little time putting it together. I was never happy taking leftovers.

You could add soup to your existing lunches, too. I like Amy's Kitchen soups, personally. Some of them are low-sodium, if that's an issue for you.
posted by cabingirl at 7:40 PM on May 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Short grain brown rice over sturdy greens (e.g., spinach, kale, arugula), with maybe some grated pecorino romano or tuna or part of a rotisserie chicken shredded on top. I don't microwave it, and having it room temperature is very tasty. The rice is already done in my rice cooker, and is ready to go in the morning.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 8:29 PM on May 16, 2009

I've gotten out of the habit recently, but for a while I was packing lots of great sandwiches made with Flatout flatbread (warning, annoying bright Flash interface). I've topped it with cream cheese, salsa, guacamole and chicken for a Mexican dip sandwich - that one doesn't roll well, it works better folded in half. Hummus, spinach leaves, feta and craisins (goat cheese would also work). Almond butter and banana slices is tasty, especially with some honey. Ham, cheddar, apple, honey mustard. The bread itself is low-carb and high in grains and proteins; I've been eating those sandwiches as part of doing Weight Watchers.

Lately I've been doing more grab and go, and my staple has been Morningstar Farms Spicy Black Bean burgers on hamburger rolls with salsa. Spreading some spreadable cheese on the bun works well in place of salsa. I'm also a fan of Kashi's rice packets - they heat easily in a microwave, and you can throw other stuff in, though they work fine on their own.
posted by booksherpa at 8:35 PM on May 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Variety is key! I can't stand to eat the same meal three days in a row, so I freeze extras to space out the leftovers. I just started making large batches of things like burritos to freeze that will last us a long time. Proper packaging is vital. There was a recent article about freezing meals in the NY Times, which instigated my current zeal.

I've got a fairly rote style of cooking that is based on tofu and rice with veggies, which will vary according to how I make it. Making a biryani or curry with peas and raisins is excellent with plain yogurt. Trader Joe's makes great sauces that I've come to rely on, especially their red thai curry. If you're more of a meat-eater you can use chicken instead of tofu, with satisfying results.

When I get tired of my usual fare, I look at food blogs, which are a great source for ideas. This recipe for chicken with cardamom and honey is really simple and very delicious! Great next day, hot or cold, or diced up in a chopped salad.

If cooking doesn't work for you, I recommend pretty much anything Trader Joe's has for pre-made meals in the frozen aisle (burritos, rice bowls...). Fairly cheap and does not taste like cardboard.
posted by wowbobwow at 10:10 PM on May 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Some people seem to balk at the idea of eating the same thing every day, some people (myself included) don't mind. I made a large saucepan of vegetable chili last night which will be next week's lunches - I have a large plastic box of it in the fridge, and take a small tub to work with me every day. Last night's recipe: onion, pepper, carrot, chilli chopped and sweated, add cumin, mushrooms, beans (kidney and borlotti), passata, dried herbs, boil gently until veg cooked, add parsley and a little cocoa powder, leave to cool. Took about half an hour to prepare, a little longer to finish the cooking. One chopping board, one knife, one spoon, one pan. It's slightly sloppier than I usually like - maybe add some lentils next time to soak up some of the water.

I heard an interview with Oliver Sacks, I think on Radiolab, where he said he eats exactly the same thing every day. I don't go quite that far, but I don't have a problem with making a different batch of something-or-other every week for my lunches. Potato salad with green beans and/or asparagus, cabbage-based salads, bulghur wheat, etc. I'm trying to be low-fat so I tend to use a small amount of olive oil and vinegar if I use dressing, rather than mayonnaise-style dressings.
posted by nja at 12:02 AM on May 17, 2009

You could try "thermos cooking." Get a wide-mouth Stanley thermos, add some partially cooked brown rice, lentils, spices, etc. Pour in boiling water and seal the thermos. Everything will be cooked and ready inside the thermos when lunch time comes around. It takes a little experimentation to get it right.
posted by buzzbash at 1:42 AM on May 17, 2009

Best answer: My favorite lunch is a big salad.

2 cups of baby spinach or Earthbound's Fresh Herb Mix - you have to have a strong base. No iceberg unless that's your thing. Personally I like the greens that are a little darker and more nutrient rich (esp the spinach).

Then you must have a good dressing. I use extra virgin olive oil and good balsamic vinegar or I buy the pre-made stuff at the fancy local upscale grocery (Central Market or Whole Foods where I am). I have a tiny plastic container for the dressing - a recycled ramekin for salsa from this place we get breakfast tacos from - that I pack with my salad. Dressing goes on a few minutes before you eat it - I like to shake everything together so the dressing coats all and just slightly wilts the lettuce.

Then I vary it by the following: fruit, cheese, nuts, protein.

For example:
- I love fresh blueberries with walnuts, blue cheese and a chopped up hard boiled egg.

- Or Craisins with parmesan, almonds and Morning Star fake chicken. I don't eat real chicken, but you could bake, grill some beforehand and keep it in your freezer.

- Another favorite - grilled ahi tuna with strawberries or thinly sliced fresh pear, pecans and goat cheese. This one is a truly decadent lunch.

If I put a hard boiled egg, avocado or tomatoes on it I bring them whole to work and cut them up just before I eat them. Otherwise the egg gets gooey, tomato water leaks out all over everything and the avocado turns brown.

Heating up the fake chicken, baked tofu or fish in the company microwave also makes the salad feels like a full meal. I'll bring it in it's own container and add it to the dry salad ingredients just before I eat it.

I'm generous with the good stuff (like avocados, nuts, and the fruits) so the salad works as a meal (the fats in these are healthier then other fats and satiate better and longer) that will carry me through the afternoon but not make me sleepy.

When I eat out and have a good salad - I'll copy it and make my own at home to take to work.


If I get tired of the salads - which doesn't happen a lot - I like these two lunches:

In one container:
1 can of tuna packed in water drained
1 roma tomato chunky diced
feta cheese
extra virgin olive oil and a little balsamic or red wine vinegar drizzled over it.
This marinates all morning until I eat it for lunch with some favorite crackers (baked triscuits are good).

Or -
In one container:
1/2 can of Tuscan white beans
thinly sliced red onions
1 roma tomato cut across into thin disks
1 can of tuna
extra virgin olive oil drizzled on top
This also marinates all morning until lunch. Eat on good crackers.

Co-workers always comment on how good my lunches look. And they are amazing. My job is super hard sometimes and I need lunch to be tasty, restful and reviving. An apple or orange make a nice dessert afterwards or late afternoon snack.

Lately I've also started to bring real flatware and a cloth napkin. This was started because of cutbacks in my department wanting to save money on plastic forks and napkins - but I really like eating my lunch with them.
posted by dog food sugar at 7:11 AM on May 17, 2009 [11 favorites]

Response by poster: This is great! Keep the ideas coming!
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:50 AM on May 17, 2009

This has got to be the simplest and one of the quickest lunches to make; and it's gorgeous.
Basically chickpeas, parmesan, olive oil, lemon juice and salt. That's it.
posted by razzman at 2:39 PM on June 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

« Older The real world approaches!   |   What are some great online financial tools? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.