What should I stash in my cubicle to make workplace meals awesome?
May 13, 2010 7:05 PM   Subscribe

What are some useful and cool products that I can keep in my cubicle to make eating breakfast and lunch in the office easier and more pleasant? Edible (i.e. food) and non-edible (gadgets, cleaning products, etc) ideas welcome.

I have been terrible at eating breakfast at home and getting out the door on time AND brown bagging lunch. Typically I wind up getting junky fast food, takeout, or frozen meals on the run. However, I need to lose weight and also reduce the refined carbs in my diet, and I also need to stop blowing so much money on nutritionally useless food items.

I have access to a fridge, freezer, and microwave at work, so I can be fairly flexible. My main issue, though, is just forgetting things or neglecting to prepare food to take to work the night before. So, while in a perfect world, I'd take the time to make breakfast at home and then bring some fresh food for lunch, sometimes I run out the door with just my purse in hand and am lucky that I remembered to put shoes on. So, instead of beating myself up about those days and/or using them as excuses to eat trash, I'd like to stock my cube up with stuff to make eating at work not only convenient but also enjoyable.

I've started to stock my drawer at work with things to make it easier for me to have a decent meal at work. So far, I have brought individual salt/pepper shakers, a mug, a bowl, some fruit cups, some plain oatmeal packets, some nuts, and some freeze-dried fruit from Trader Joe's (for a nice nutty-fruity-oatmealy breakfast). I also have some of those shelf stable Healthy Choice meals (not the tastiest, but better than pop tarts from the vending machine) and some microwave popcorn.

However, I want this to be as appealing as possible. I know I've seen nifty gadgets and doodads to make cubicle meals feel more civilized, but I'm just not finding anything in my searches right now. What can/should I keep at my desk to make workplace meals awesome?

Furthermore, I'd like some more ideas on shelf-stable foods I can keep on hand that are appealing and easy to put together at work. What do you keep on hand?
posted by tastybrains to Food & Drink (44 answers total) 70 users marked this as a favorite
I used to make microwave omelets with a few eggs, cottage cheese, shredded cheese, and veggies or whatever else you want mixed up in a bowl and microwaved for a couple minutes. It's pretty filling and healthy, and you can keep all of the ingredients in your fridge.
posted by emilyd22222 at 7:17 PM on May 13, 2010 [3 favorites]

Hot sauce.
posted by box at 7:18 PM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

A kicky salt and pepper shaker set. Full, of course.
posted by Duffington at 7:22 PM on May 13, 2010

Soup! Nile Spice Black Bean Soup is a tasty, cheap, and healthy option. I'm sure they have other good flavors, but this is the only one I've tried.

I've also read many recommendations from others online about this Zojirushi Mr. Bento set, which comes with four containers to keep your food hot/cold/fresh. Seems like a fun and easy alternative to the ol' brown bag.
posted by georgiabloom at 7:24 PM on May 13, 2010

I got a Sea to Summit X-Plate and a set of Lexan cutlery for my desk.

Not everything from Tasty Bite is particularly good for you-- watch the sodium levels-- but it is a change from Healthy Choice stuff. They also have shelf-stable brown rice, if you like rice but are trying to avoid white carbs.

If you eat meat, turkey or buffalo jerky might be an option too-- it's low-fat and low-calorie, and it's got lots of protein.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 7:26 PM on May 13, 2010

When I worked in a cubicle, people thought I was the office samurai for using a Melitta coffee filter. It drains water through coffee grounds straight into your cup. Heat the water in a ceramic mug in the microwave.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 7:28 PM on May 13, 2010

Soak almonds in water for 3-4 hours or overnight. That Nile Spice soup looks nice but it's got tons of salt in it!
posted by rainy at 7:29 PM on May 13, 2010

I usually eat leftovers at work -- I make a double, triple, or quadruple-size dinner and then put portions in tupperware in the fridge, and I take one with me every morning. I have a little thermal lunch-bag I leave on top of my regular bag, and that's my reminder to get my lunch out of the fridge. It works pretty well... I eat out no more than one lunch a week, usually because I was too tired or busy to cook.

If you like spicy food, red savina powder is a great thing to have on hand in your cube -- it makes any meal spicy. Cayenne is a good substitute if you only like a little heat. I would also get some lemon pepper, and, like box said, some good hot sauce.

Don't overlook the classics (ramen, soup, canned chili or stew, instant curry, spaghetti with jarred sauce, etc). All that stuff could be jazzed-up with a little effort. Trader Joe's or Whole Foods has versions of these that aren't bad at all.
posted by vorfeed at 7:29 PM on May 13, 2010

If your main issue is neglecting to prepare food the night before, you need to start preparing enough food for a whole week at once. This way, you only need to cook once the entire week. I try to cook on Sunday or Monday night; if I don't, I find that I end up buying lunch every day (ugh, the moolah, she disappears).

If the secondary issue is simply forgetting to bring the food you've already prepared, it helps to have a nice bag to carry the food in. I'm not really a lunch-bag person, so I just wear a bigger purse to work. However, when my bag is empty, I notice it-- and that reminds me to grab my lunch in the morning.

Finally: as a way of guilting myself into doing the right thing (bringing lunch!), I force myself to think about the consequences of NOT bringing lunch. (Fatty fast food? That's 400 extra calories, $4 extra that's lost, and all because I didn't bring lunch. Sigh.)
posted by samthemander at 7:35 PM on May 13, 2010 [4 favorites]

For between meals: Fresh fruit like bananas, apples, pears. The trail mix from Trader Joe's that has almonds, cashews, pistachios, cherries, cranberries, chocolate chips, etc in it.
posted by buckaroo_benzai at 7:39 PM on May 13, 2010

You'll never regret having good looking chopsticks.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 7:45 PM on May 13, 2010

Thanks all for the great answers so far!

I just wanted to clarify a couple things:
  1. I am working on bringing fresher foods (either leftovers or stuff I have made from scratch and frozen) to work, and I'm using some of the tips already suggested here (like cooking for the week ahead of time). However, what this question is focused on is not what kind of fresh food to bring from home (there are a gazillion threads on that already), but what I can keep at my desk as a backup (or to make eating my fresh food from home even better). You can safely assume that I am working up towards bringing at least most of my lunch from home most days. But I need a fail-safe backup. Also for when I wind up unexpectedly working through dinnertime.
  2. I'm not really concerned much about salt/sodium as much as I am concerned about sugar. I absolutely recognized that most shelf-stable food isn't the epitome of healthiness, but most of the reasonable options are miles better than the crap I'd get from the cafeteria or any of the local takeout places. So, for food items, I really am only working on things I can keep on hand that aren't sugary or super starchy (i.e. fruit leather, most granola bars, etc, are out).

posted by tastybrains at 7:51 PM on May 13, 2010

In the oatmeal-enhancer category, I'm a big fan of raisins. They plump up all warm and yummy!
posted by radioamy at 7:57 PM on May 13, 2010

Canned tuna! Tuna and crackers is great. Keep a little packet of mayo or mustard and salt/pepper and you're golden. I actually really like the pre-seasoned lemon tuna packets but YMMV.

You can also keep a bunch of babybel and La Vache Qui Rit cheese in the fridge. Put them in a ziploc with your name on the outside and they'll be less likely to walk away. They both last for a LONG time, and combined with some crackers, make a decent lunch or snack.

Also: beans. You can microwave baked beans or even black beans for a nice change. Same with garbanzos. If you have some olive oil and some salt n' pepper, even better. You'll need the pop-tops or keep a small can opener.

If you have a freezer at work, stash a bunch of those small-sized broccoli steam bags. You could keep other pizza or foods there too.

Nuts. Different flavors, tamari, sesame, wasabi, etc.

Peanut butter and crackers.

Almond butter and rice cakes. (a bit of honey is good too!)
posted by barnone at 8:00 PM on May 13, 2010 [3 favorites]

I cannot stand cold bread on my sandwiches. Since I have access to a toaster at work, I always start each week with a loaf of wholegrain bread in my work freezer. I also keep a jar of peanut butter in the fridge.

Keeping the loaf in the freezer also helps, because I'm less likely to snack on it (I love carbs) if I know that I'll have to wait several minutes for it to fully thaw out and toast.

Every night, I make sure I have fruits separately ziplocked & ready to grab the following morning. If I want cold cuts, I make sure they're also ziplocked.

For me, the most important thing is associating Monday with that loaf of wholegrain bread. The jar of peanut butter can last a long time, but that loaf is essential.

The rest of the week, all I do every morning is toss the prebagged cheese, turkey slices, fruit, etc. into my lunch bag, and I'm ready to go.
posted by invisible ink at 8:06 PM on May 13, 2010

Solid Breakfast for work with minimal effort:

@ home:
Hardboil 2-4 eggs: As soon as you wake up, or the night before, throw 4 eggs (and water) into a pot and turn the burner on HIGH. Shave/shower, make coffee, whatever item you do that takes ~5 minutes so that you are able to spot the eggs starting to boil. Once the eggs start to boil, turn the water off, lid the pot, and set a timer for 10 minute. If you can't lid it, set it for 12. Pack the eggs as is, or peel the eggs. Generally, I peel the eggs and discard the yolks (well, the dogs get the yolks) before I pack them.

This is low maintenance, easy to multi-task during, and presents a fixed schedule of preparation, with variable additional effort (peeling) which you can do at work if you don't have the time at home.

Also bring a banana from home

Oatmeal, Honey (shelf stable), Greek Yogurt (fage or chobani single serving cups).
-4 Hardboiled Egg whites - 64 calories
-6 oz. Chobani cup - 100 calories
-3/4c (dry) Quick Oatmeal (plain) - 124 calories
-2 Tbsp Honey - 128 calories (split with oatmeal and yogurt)
-1 medium banana - 105 calories
High protien, complex carbs, moderately low fat. You shouldn't be hungry or carb hung-over after you finish.

Also, if you have space, don't go with cheap plastic cutlery - go for a fun plate, a hefty coffee mug, a glass and a silverware place set that you like the feel of (and soap and a sponge). You aren't camping, you are eating in a place where you will spend roughly 1/3 of your life.
posted by Nanukthedog at 8:06 PM on May 13, 2010

Also: dry couscous. Put it in a bowl with some salt and olive oil (if you have it). Pour boiling water over it. Put a plate on top and let it steam for about 4-5 minutes. Fluff.

If you have that frozen broccoli or some beans, add to the top!

Keep a plastic container of grated parmesan cheese in the freezer. It adds oomph to anything: tuna, beans, rice, couscous, burritos, whatever. Keeps forever in the freezer and once you sprinkle it on, it defrosts really quickly.

A good mug of hot tea makes a huge difference in a day.

Microwave mac n' cheese :-P

Keep some nice pyrex bowls and some cutlery at your desk, and you'll be ready!

I'm a big fan of buying a kettle for the office. Yeah, you can microwave water in a mug, but then it spills when you try to pour it, or the mug's not clean, or whatever. For some reason boiled water out of a kettle tastes better for tea too.
posted by barnone at 8:06 PM on May 13, 2010 [4 favorites]

A hot pot.
posted by dilettante at 8:07 PM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

A toaster!

My normal routine is to buy a loaf of wholegrain-type bread on a monday, along with things like low-fat ricotta, ham, tomatoes, tins of tuna, baked beans etc.

Breakfast is typically toast with microwaved baked beans, or oily fish (in the Omega-3 sense): tuna, sardines, herrings or salmon. Either of these go great with a smear of low-fat dairy, eg ricotta, light cream cheese or labni (a salty lebanese yoghurt type thing). It's good to have some things like za'atar and chilli to add a bit of variation.

Other options are toast with vegemite, or else tahini & honey.

Lunch: sandwiches made from ham, tomato & the same cheesey type stuff while the bread is still fresh, adding lettuce, cucumber etc, depending on what I've bought. Later in the week, the less-fresh bread can be toasted, to make tasty toasted open sandwiches.

I also like to stock up on 2-3 pieces of fruit per day, which I leave out on my desk to remind me to eat them - usually along with coffee brewed with my handy aeropress.

My own experience with nuts, dried fruit & trail mix is that they're just far too more-ish to have at my desk, but your mileage may vary.
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:08 PM on May 13, 2010

Q-Tips! Safety pins for clothing tears (they happen!). A big plastic cup for water. A baseball or mini slinky for manipulating in your hands. Flash drive. Linux live CD. Little bottle of generic ibuprofen. Visine. Pens that you love.

I also keep a bunch of toys around the cubicle because I was promised toys being part of office life during the dot-com era before I entered the workforce and by gum I'm gonna have toys even if no one else is fun.
posted by cowbellemoo at 8:14 PM on May 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oatmeal is my late-night snack and would work well in an office with an OK kitchen. A couple minutes in the microwave (enough to check and sort e-mail quickly), a pat of butter, splash of milk, and a handful of raisins.
posted by msittig at 8:18 PM on May 13, 2010

They're a smidge overpriced, but I've found that those tuna/cracker meal packs are perfect in a pinch. In fact, one of those--along with a piece of fruit, a piece or two of prepackaged cheese (string cheese?) and a seltzer is my usual lunch, assuming I was too lazy to make something the night before (which is usually the case).
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:28 PM on May 13, 2010

My supermarket has shelf-stable Asian meals that I can't for the life of me think of the name of -- one is AsianSomething and the other is ThaiSomething. They even come with their own mini-fork. They're pretty tasty for emergency food.

You can keep chicken bouillon in a jar at work ... a little chicken bouillon in water heated in the microwave makes a decent, though not thrilling, broth. You can throw into it dried mushrooms (shelf stable), season it with a dash of cayenne (cure your cold!) or some fines herbes or something, or just drink it as is. Nice for colds and helps me stave off snacking.

My husband really likes Wrap-n-Mat sandwich wrappers, which are reusable (yay environment!) but also make you a nice little placemat to spread your lunch out and feel more civilized. (That's a ridiculous price, I just grabbed the first link I saw with a good pic; I got 2 for $8 somewhere on sale.) I have a Mr. Bento and I LOOOOOOOVE him. (It's not an it! It's a him!)

Minimus has some shelf-stable food in sample sizes that can be hard to find elsewhere ... I sent my brother off to college with a large stock. A lot of it is more snacky, but it may spark some ideas, and they do have breakfast stuff.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:18 PM on May 13, 2010

Are you willing to do anything to the food? I'm a bit confused because you marked the "tuna and cracker" packages as best answer, but tuna upthread isn't. Or opening beans to nuke them. Are you looking for something where you literally only have to open the package? Just so we know what to recommend.
posted by barnone at 9:23 PM on May 13, 2010

Hard boiled eggs, tub of non fat cottage cheese and a head of celery, pre-mixed protein drinks like the Pure Performance ones at Costco. I also really like the pre-cooked lentils at Trader Joes.

Just a thought...while you are stocking your desk with food items, you should put everything in airtight containers (or glass if you are so lucky) that will be there more than a day or so in your cube. There are mice to think about, and those mice will go after everything that you can imagine.

I work in a really nice building that is kept clean and maintained and we always struggle with this. We have had them go for anything from tuna packets, salt and pepper packets, medication... and of course all the dry goods.

You definitely don't want that type of protein sprinkled in your breakfast and lunch choices!
posted by Jenny is Crafty at 9:37 PM on May 13, 2010

Anything shelf-stable from this popcorn thread to spice up your microwave popcorn. Mainly it'll be a variety of spices and spice combinations. Also, the Becel Topping and Cooking Spray is fake butter that doesn't require refrigeration, and works on popcorn and really wherever you need the taste of margarine in a pinch. Also, 0 cals for 5 spays.

Peanut Butter (get the reduced fat Kraft variety, it keeps for months and has a few fewer calories) and crackers.

Cereal! Even without milk, it makes a good snack. But most offices will have milk for coffee, so use that.

Try the other flavors of oatmeal packets. My fav is Quaker reduced-sugar peaches and cream. At only 120 calories (made with water), it's very filling.

If you're ambivalent about the environment, disposable knives, forks and spoons are always handy.
posted by cgg at 9:37 PM on May 13, 2010

I always, always, always have a package of Wasa flatbreads and some Babybell cheese in my desk. It's my breakfast most mornings. (Confession: I don't refrigerate the cheese.)
posted by desuetude at 9:41 PM on May 13, 2010

Nthing couscous (you can buy flavoured ones) and some cans of legumes - lentils, kidney beans, whatever. Canned baked beans, or canned kippers are also a favourite of mine. High grain crackers (dunno if you have vita wheats there) also last for ages.

You can now also buy packets of microwave rice that keep for ages, and actually taste quite delicious. Paired with some tinned fish, that's a good lunch when you have nothing else.

Cheese won't last forever, but if you have a work fridge it can last for a surprisingly long time, and cheese makes everything tasty.

Don't neglect the beverage department. Having a nice cup of whatever can really add some vim to a meal. Roibos tea, genmaicha, etc. The trick is variety, so it does feel like something a little special when you crack it open with your "no-leftovers" lunch.

If you have a freezer at work, keep a high-grain, good quality (i.e from baker not grocery store) bread in the freezer at all times. It will be a god send.

Also, get some spreads. I (being australian) always have vegemite, but in addition peanut butter, honey, and usually jam. They all last for ages and all can be eaten with other things.

Little miso soup packs from an Asian grocer can also be a nice touch to your lunches.

Note: anything that lasts a long time is likely to be salty. If you rely on these things too heavily, expect your blood pressure to rise.
posted by smoke at 9:46 PM on May 13, 2010

Before you bring in anything that plugs in, make sure that it is something you are allowed to do. You'd be amazed how easily those things can overheat, start smoking and cause the evacuation of an entire building. Explaining to your boss why you had contraband electrical goods after the fire department has figured out it was your fault the building had to be evacuated is not fun.

I keep a small, inexpensive pepper grinder in my desk, but I really love fresh pepper. I also love tea, and swear by this tea infuser, although the complaint that it looks dirty after you've had it a bit is true. No one should be gawking at your tea accessories, though.
posted by winna at 10:31 PM on May 13, 2010

Consider some of these.
posted by eritain at 10:36 PM on May 13, 2010

I'm all about both having healthy snacks available, but in portion controlled packages, since otherwise I find I tend to eat out of boredom. These days I'm relying on:

- Single serving hummus packs from Costco
- cans of V8
- various rye crackers
- nonnis individually wrapped biscottis (just 100 cal, so much better than the coffee shop brownie)
- trader joes 'pack o' nuts'
posted by snowymorninblues at 10:46 PM on May 13, 2010

Hmm. A mug warmer? I imagine that if, like me, you like to make your oatmeal in a mug, too, it could work for more than just beverages.
posted by R a c h e l at 10:54 PM on May 13, 2010

Seconding a Mr. Bento. I use mine every day since I actually *cant* eat out due to food intolerances. It holds an enormous amount of food; if you pack it full, more than you can eat in a sitting. I typically use it for two meals a day, or keep the upper two containers empty when I only need it for one meal.

One thing that's particularly neat is that the bottom containers are in the thermos and the upper two are insulated from the bottom two, so you can have a cold salad on top and a hot meal on the bottom, and they will stay that way for a good 4-6 hours.
posted by sdis at 3:26 AM on May 14, 2010

I have a mini fridge in my office and keep it stocked with string cheese, yogurt, nuts, granola bars, juice boxes, and individual apple sauce cups. I rarely actually get a chance to eat lunch (school administrator here) so these are things I can grab on the go and keep myself nourished throughout the day. I'm also fond of the instant miso soup packets, although a bit salty and I tend to diulte them.
posted by archimago at 4:19 AM on May 14, 2010

I'm a fan of frozen edamame. I keep a bag in the freezer at work at all times. Tasty, high protein and fiber, and filling as all get out. Just pour into a dish, zap in the micro, sprinkle with salt, and NOM NOM NOM.
posted by Stewriffic at 4:52 AM on May 14, 2010

Are you willing to do anything to the food? I'm a bit confused because you marked the "tuna and cracker" packages as best answer, but tuna upthread isn't. Or opening beans to nuke them. Are you looking for something where you literally only have to open the package? Just so we know what to recommend.

Well, there's a gray area (for me). For the sake of this thread, I'd rather have more suggestions than less -- the beans and tuna are great suggestions, but on a personal level, I know I would never eat tuna w/o mayo and stuff, so the concept of a meal in a kit is more appealing than having to keep the separate tuna, crackers, mayo, etc. It's probably really stupid of me and hard to defend, but basically this question was inspired by my desiring to work WITH my weird idiosyncrasies instead of against them to change my habits. And, I could just see cans of tuna or beans sitting in my desk for years while I opt for the vending machine instead, whereas a kit or a just-add-water soup would get used. When I am tired/stressed, eating right becomes a much lower priority for me than it should be, so I'm working on finding a good balance of convenience and appeal. This is totally subjective, too, so just because something doesn't strike MY fancy doesn't mean it's not still a fantastic answer.

Also, I was really marking best answers for the things I am likely to actually do ... most of the answers here are really good, but I don't want to mark the whole thread best!
posted by tastybrains at 5:01 AM on May 14, 2010

Also, I personally try not to keep electric appliances in my cube. However, we have good coffee and tea at work already, a toaster, and hot water (for tea/oatmeal/whatever) from the water filter in the cafeteria. (In other words, I am spoiled and have no reason not to eat well.)
posted by tastybrains at 5:04 AM on May 14, 2010

I buy a 5lb box of Clementines (easy-peel seedless tangerines) and keep about half of them at home, about half at work. They are not only delicious, but an excellent tool for thoughtful snacking - if I'm wanting a snack, but don't want a clemmie, then I'm probably just bored or annoyed rather than hungry. The biggest problem I have with keeping my cube stocked with food is that if it's there, I'll eat it. Trail mix is "healthy", but a 10oz bag of it in a single afternoon sure isn't.
posted by aimedwander at 7:12 AM on May 14, 2010

Trail mix can be a healthy breakfast. You can make your own healthy version cheaply by going to a health-food store or high-end grocery and selecting various nuts, sweets, and dried fruits from the bulk bins.
posted by halfguard at 7:22 AM on May 14, 2010

Shelf stable or frozen brown rice bowls. Add some pre cooked chicken, baked tofu (can be shelf stable), or other protein. Frozen veg, and maybe a glug of soy sauce or teriyaki sauce (from a jar in the fridge). Nuke it. Yum.

Maybe more appealing in winter, but shelf stable silken tofu, and miso paste with bonito (refrigerate), makes one of the healthiest and satisfying meals, miso soup. You also don't really want to boil miso paste, so it's perfect with the hot water dispenser you mentioned. Cube the tofu into a mug, spoon full of paste, pour hot water over top (and if you've got it, a sliced green onion). Delicious, and while maybe a bit high sodium, under 200 cal.

I also love annie's black bean soup in a can. I know you said you didn't picture yourself eating it, but why don't you try it at home for dinner one night. It's a bit easier to get over a mental block of something, if you've already done it once.
posted by fontophilic at 8:23 AM on May 14, 2010

Any outdoorsey-store (REI, etc.) will have little plastic containers and bottles for camping and backpacking kitchens. I have a few that I keep in my office, one with hot sauce, some salt and pepper, a little mustard, ketchup, soy sauce. Having condiments around helps a lot, since I'm not afraid to grab whatever leftovers I have at home without worrying about them being properly seasoned.
posted by craven_morhead at 10:43 AM on May 14, 2010

Trader Joe's has some good Indian food (curries, dal, garbanzos, paneer) in boxes in the dry goods section. I like to have some of that with their frozen vegetable fried rice.

Also, their frozen green chile tamales are good—top with some salsa you keep in the fridge.

They also have some decent frozen pastas.
posted by puddleglum at 11:51 PM on May 14, 2010

Chopsticks are far more environmentally friendly than plastic spoons, and soy sauce makes everything better.

For food, hit up Trader Joe's; they own this market.
posted by talldean at 6:20 AM on May 16, 2010

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