Room temperature lunch suggestions
April 1, 2010 1:21 PM   Subscribe

I am looking for food ideas for someone who has to carry an entire days worth of food with them every day to work (for 12 hour shifts) but has no access to a fridge, microwave, etc. (it has to be edible at room temperature and not spoil within that time). About all I have come up with so far is bad sandwiches and snacks but I'm sure some people have some good ideas.

No dietary restrictions. Also can't really carry a thermos-like device due to carrying constraints.
posted by bucksox to Food & Drink (24 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Are your carrying constraints no-metal, low-mass, non-rigidity, or small size? If it is only size, food jars may be useful. They are smaller than thermoses and have a different shape. The basic principle is the same.
posted by adipocere at 1:28 PM on April 1, 2010

What are your carrying constraints? Can you pack a small cooler?

Salads can handle room temperature pretty well, so you have a pretty wide range of options there (as long as they don't get too terribly hot).

Cheese plate sorts of things work well. Crusty bread, lots of cheeses, olives, etc.
posted by craven_morhead at 1:28 PM on April 1, 2010

Granola/energy bars or trail mix? Beef jerky?
posted by illenion at 1:31 PM on April 1, 2010

Cured meats!
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 1:31 PM on April 1, 2010

HMR meals do not need to be heated (though some of them taste better that way). If you have access to water and a cup, their chicken soup mix and shakes are pretty good too.
posted by Melismata at 1:33 PM on April 1, 2010

I rarely use the fridge or microwave at work. I just bring regular food - leftovers, sandwiches, soups, fruit, salad, whatever - leave it under my desk - and eat it when I'm hungry. I've never had a problem with bacteria or what not.
posted by serazin at 1:35 PM on April 1, 2010

Ongiri are good. Depending on the filling they shouldn't need refrigeration, and there is an infinite number of ways to make them.
posted by Think_Long at 1:36 PM on April 1, 2010

Hummus and pita should be ok, likewise tabouleh or a similar bulgur wheat salad.
posted by electroboy at 1:36 PM on April 1, 2010

Perhaps invest in a bento box and fill it with delicious things?
posted by MonkeyToes at 1:39 PM on April 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

For dessert, try some delicious halva. I'm sure it can go bad, but even with some of my rather casual standards for personal food storage and use, I have yet to see that happen.
posted by adipocere at 1:40 PM on April 1, 2010

Egg rolls, teriyaki chicken with rice, spam musubi, basically the kind of stuff that goes in a bento box, like MonkeyToes said. It won't go bad in half a day and still tastes good at room temp. I wouldn't go so far as sushi without a refrigerator, though.
posted by ctmf at 1:44 PM on April 1, 2010

You may want to be slightly more specific about your tastes. You could make a pan bagnat, which is a french sandwich that was designed to sit at room temperature for several hours before eating it. Recipe at:

Don't let the tuna turn you off, the flavors mix and the sandwich becomes something different than the sum of its ingredients.
posted by ayerarcturus at 1:49 PM on April 1, 2010

I freeze things and then let them defrost in my office. This can be anything from pizza to a salmon filet. They're generally still cold at lunch time. If you try this with sandwiches, don't put the condiments on the bread until after it's defrosted. (You can collect all your leftover little ketchup and mustard packets that restaurants use, and bring them.)

Also, rather than a thermos or cooler, I'll sometimes put something in a totebag, along with one of those blocks of blue gel that you can freeze over and over again. This keeps things cold for a long time.
posted by MexicanYenta at 1:51 PM on April 1, 2010

Ditto serazin: I've always taken whatever I feel like taking, keep it at my desk, and eat when hungry. I've never had a problem with feeling ill from food. I generally don't eat meat, though.
posted by needs more cowbell at 1:59 PM on April 1, 2010

Check out the Mr Bento pool on Flickr. Even though you can't carry a thermos-like device, a lot of people use this to pack a day's worth of food and it isn't really efficient for keeping things warm or cold all day, so you should get some good ideas for day-long meals.

Personally, when I need to carry a day's worth of food, I make the food as rich and heavy as possible so just a little will be satisfying. I'd probably bring oatmeal for breakfast (not bad at room temp), maybe a good stew meal like gumbo for lunch, and risotto for dinner. If it's possible for you to keep snacks at your desk, like a chocolate bar or some pretzels, that could help fill the gaps.
posted by beyond_pink at 2:19 PM on April 1, 2010

What are the constraints? Weight? Rigidity? Size?

I ask because you could get a small insulated bag or soft cooler.

I usually carry my lunch on my bicycle commute, although I have a refrigerator at work. If I didn't, I wouldn't want anything hard but I would consider something soft.

Some more info would help. For example, if you have the capability of storing things at work, leave a cooler there. Then you could carry a ice pack with a lightly insulated bag (or none at all), and just chuck the whole lot in your cooler at work that you aren't carrying. Then carry the ice pack back with you to refreeze. My food stays unrefrigerated for about 45 minutes to an hour before it goes back in the fridge without incident.

I do tend toward lighter packaging, preferring sometimes disposable bags over rigid storage containers because they're way easier to carry. But I don't like wasting bags, either.

I also keep a stock of extra food at work, including some staples like oatmeal and trail mix.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 4:04 PM on April 1, 2010

Cheese plate sorts of things work well. Crusty bread, lots of cheeses, olives, etc.

If it were me, this is what I would go with, and some fruit maybe. If you buy a couple of different cheeses and wrap them separately (it sounds like three meals a day?) you can do slightly different permutations of similar meals, so it doesn't get boring throughout the day. You could do really nice meals with different combination of this. There are also interesting marmalade, hot pepper jellies, fig jam (that sounds terrible!), that you could add to construct some pretty luxurious, interesting meals.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 4:12 PM on April 1, 2010

I meant to add, the jams and marmalades-- they're surprisingly wonderful combined with the saltiness of cheese, especially hard, crumbly cheeses like aged cheddar or gouda.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 4:13 PM on April 1, 2010

posted by Gortuk at 4:14 PM on April 1, 2010

Pasta salad/cold pasta.
posted by PMdixon at 4:23 PM on April 1, 2010

Hard boiled eggs. Canned sausages and meats (Vienna sausage, canned chicken, tuna, ham, corned beef hash, roast beef hash, beef stew, chicken & dumplings), canned hearty soups, crackers, wholesome cookies (oatmeal, peanut butter, granola, etc.), nuts. Portion sized foods that are pasteurized, and remain unopened, can remain unrefrigerated for several hours (yogurt, cottage cheese, canned fruits).

You can also keep foods pretty cold, even without a thermos or access to a fridge, by freezing a couple of water bottles the night before, and tossing them in with your food, maybe in their own plastic pouches, to minimize condensation. If you eat the perishable items by lunch, and make late snacks dinner from canned/dried/baked/peel fruit items, you get some daily variety, without risking much spoilage late in the day.

Also, order or swipe (at your favorite fast food restaurants) condiment packs. A little mustard, mayo, ketchup, relish, hot sauce or just salt and pepper go a long way to making snack foods seem more palatable, when that's all you've got to choose.
posted by paulsc at 5:14 PM on April 1, 2010

You can do a lot with an insulated cooler-type lunchbag and two of the little freezer packs. Yeah, all your meals will be cold, and that takes some getting used to, but there are a lot of foods that you don't think about eating cold that are actually not terrible. Well-seasoned roasted vegetables (especially including tomatoes for some moisture) with feta or queso fresco, with or without pasta or quinoa, millet, or beans. Chicken, steak or roast, salmon or another firm fish (I'm learning to eat fancy Brisling sardines, they're good). Hummus (my current every-day pack-along is spicy poached chicken, cheddar, salted almonds, and hummus, and I don't see myself tiring of it any time soon). Eggs: boiled or quiched. Sliced apples and peanut butter. The myriad Asian varieties of cold noodles. Sandwiches - not bad ones, either - or wraps.

I spend a lot of time at various customer sites, some of whom don't have easily-usable refrigeration, and I'm used to doing this all the time. Two freezer packs, with your dairy and meat closest to the ice, will get you a good 6 hours along at least. The trick is to season very well, be willing to think outside the breakfast/lunch/dinner box, plan to eat your cold-stable foods earlier in the day, and variety.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:13 PM on April 1, 2010

A 12 pack of self-heating meals is about $52. I've never had one but if he wants a change every now and then, it might be better than room-temperature food 5 days a week.
posted by exhilaration at 1:39 PM on April 2, 2010

If you put frozen berries (any type) in yogurt in the morning, around lunch or midafternoon you'll have cold yogurt with just-defrosted berries in it. It's good.

Frozen edamame will also thaw around lunch or so, and still be cold around dinner.

There are a lot of bean/lentil dishes that are quite good at room temperature. Pack them cold from the fridge, and eat for dinner. I would feel better, in terms of food safety, eating anything with meat in it for lunch, and sticking with vegetarian foods for dinner. I don't have any evidence to back that up, though.
posted by insectosaurus at 12:00 PM on April 3, 2010

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