Sandwich rage: what the 3@$!! do I pack for my lunch???
July 9, 2010 5:59 AM   Subscribe

Can anyone point me to a source of packed/brown-bag lunch recipes that genuinely take no more than 5 minutes to prepare, and aren't overreliant on peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches? Bonus points if it isn't all mimsy about low-fat mayonnaise and such. Also I only have an English freezer, so batch pre-prep is out.

In an effort to stay on budget, I have consulted innumerable packed-lunch recipe sources over the years.

The first was a book called "The Brown Bag Lunch" which proclaimed that its recipes would "save you time and money!" I would eat the same lunch every day for efficiency, and every Sunday I would spend four hours poaching chicken breasts and making biscotti. Then I would slack off and berate myself for my lack of moral fibre.

Then I looked on various websites, and was able to find a variety of scattered, incoherent suggestions like: "try banana and peanut butter! And for a change of pace, why not try peanut butter and banana instead!"

Or else it would be: salad! gazpacho! stay up all night chopping vegetation!!! Faff around getting the blender out. I know you're tired from a realllly long day at work, but don't forget to put the lid - oops. That'll keep you up cleaning all night!

Or: batch prepare this chili and reheat it in the microwave! Well, I don't have a separate room just for my deep freeze, so unless I can pour the chili into my freezer directly so as to make clever and efficient use of the amorphous spaces between the abandoned chicken breasts and the ice cubes, I won't have anywhere to put it. Plus, when I get to work I realize we don't have a microwave.

I don't have time for all this. I have the same lunch every day: four different kinds of fruit, plus a frozen juice box to keep it all cold. A little hunk of cheese. A sandwich of some kind. Well, of peanut butter because I can't think of anything else. A pudding which is usually custard because I also can't think of anything else.

Where can I find ideas for what could go in the place of the peanut butter sandwich and the custard, but won't take more than 5 minutes to fix, as in 5 actual minutes rather than 5 Martha Stewartesque minutes? And which doesn't rely on processed/industrial food? Ideally it also won't get mimsy about "low-fat mayonnaise on coconut matting bread" or "half an egg white sandwich with eight baked potato chips".
posted by tel3path to Food & Drink (33 answers total) 107 users marked this as a favorite
You literally cannot think of a sandwich filling other than peanut butter?

I rotate between (adding salad when available):
cheese & pickle
cheese & ham
cheese & ham & pickle
cheese & ham & mustard
tuna mayo (with or without sweetcorn)
tuna mayo with some kind of spicy sauce added (tabasco if my favourite)

Mini pork pies are a good packed lunch addition too.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 6:12 AM on July 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

I often have breakfast for lunch. I'm assuming you have access to a fridge at work. I take in a Lock & Lock containing a decent portion of Dorset Cereals muesli, onto which I have poured enough fruit juice to make it moist, but not wet (I don't like milk with muesli). I eat it with some fresh berries on top, or banana, chopped up apple/pear and with a small probiotic yoghurt to top it off.

If you don't like your muesli as moist as I do, pour the juice over it about 10 minutes before you intend to eat it.
posted by essexjan at 6:18 AM on July 9, 2010

On Sunday, I buy a loaf of artisan bread and a four-ounce package of goat cheese. I take the cheese to work on Monday along with four slices of the bread. Every day, I bring four more slices of bread, and use another ounce of goat cheese. (we order in lunch on Wednesdays.) At the end of the week, I've eaten the whole loaf of bread and teh whole thing of cheese. You can mix it up - different breads, rosemary bread, with plain cheese, plain ciabatta with a flavored cheese...A accompany these with a couple pieces of fruit and a yogurt cup.
posted by notsnot at 6:21 AM on July 9, 2010 [3 favorites]

Unless you're a vegetarian or on a non-dairy diet, the range of sliced cold meats, cheeses and other sandwich fillings would seem pretty huge.

Find a deli somewhere. About half of the stuff they sell will either go in or around a sandwich.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 6:23 AM on July 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

I like to take a pita or lavash, lay out a few slices of Tofurkey (or real cold cuts, if that's what you're into!), throw on some spinach or other salad greens, maybe some goat cheese crumbles, maybe some sliced plum tomatoes, and then add mustard. Takes maybe a minute or two, contains lots of protein and veggies, and is delicious.

Other easy options are oatmeal, or yogurt with granola or fruit thrown in. Or, if you're willing to cook once a week, make a big batch of rice and beans and then divvy up a tupperware portion each morning.
posted by tetralix at 6:26 AM on July 9, 2010

On Sunday, I buy a loaf of artisan bread and a four-ounce package of goat cheese. I take the cheese to work on Monday along with four slices of the bread. Every day, I bring four more slices of bread, and use another ounce of goat cheese.

Ah yes, I do the same but with paté instead of cheese.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 6:28 AM on July 9, 2010

Avocado and tomato
posted by astapasta24 at 6:34 AM on July 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

On a side point, what' s an "English freezer"? What's special about them that you can't put lunch in them?

(spoken as a puzzled english person whose freezer seems capable of freezing all sorts of foodstuffs)
posted by curious_yellow at 6:36 AM on July 9, 2010 [3 favorites]

posted by Jaltcoh at 6:46 AM on July 9, 2010

curious_yellow, many English fridges are 'under-counter' fridges with a small freezer. Here's a picture of my fridge, the freezer being the small compartment at the top.
posted by essexjan at 6:47 AM on July 9, 2010

Here's a brown bag hack - when putting condiments on your sandwich, spread them between the meat / cheese layer. If you spread them on the bread it will make your sandwich soggy by lunch time. Use the cheese as a protective barrier! -I hope that made sense.

Also, I usually buy a half pound of 2-3 kinds of meat and rotate between them for sandwiches during the week. Hummus sandwich with cucumber can also be fast and delicious. I also keep a Tupperware bowl in my desk, and bring a can of soup daily.

Happy eating!
posted by Hellafiles at 6:48 AM on July 9, 2010 [4 favorites]

I usually take a variety of fresh fruits and veg in Tupperware, some kind of whole grain bread thing and then a protein (typically string cheese or hummus.)

Leftovers from dinner make an exciting addition: today there's going to be salmon on the whole wheat pita. Snacks and side dishes include cherries, string cheese, a small Fuji apple and some Trader Joe's crackers.

I don't do lunch meat or mayo, but I do like lots of lettuce, onions, pickles and tomatoes on a kaiser roll with some kind of cheese and some mustard.

Also, Morningstar Farms Chik-patties are full of fake-chicken goodness and can be microwaved before adding to a sandwich like the above.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 6:48 AM on July 9, 2010

Bake a couple chicken breasts. Douse them with some sort of seasoning (maybe a couple different ones). If you're good with a knife, slice them at an angle (imagine you're a sushi chef) as thin as you can, and you've got sliced chicken for sandwiches. If you're not up to the knife thing, just roughly chop it in chunks, and you've got stuffing for pita. If you add a bell pepper to the pan, you've got roasted bell pepper slices to put in your sandwich/pita. Same with slices of onion.

As for time, when you get home, turn on the oven. Drop you're stuff off, check your mail, then pull out a couple boneless/skinless breasts, season them, toss them in the oven, they'll be done in about 20 minutes. Pull them out, let them cool. The actual cutting of the breasts is the only thing that will take any time.

For fun, add some apple-smoked bacon to the sandwich.

Also, the secret to a happy sandwich is liberal sprinkles of oregano. It's bliiiiissssssss.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:51 AM on July 9, 2010

- Bagel or rye bread w/cream cheese and smoked salmon
- Tuna salad (use tuna packed in oil, skimp on mayo, add lots of crunchy pickles and celery and shallots)
- Egg salad (use paprika, add capers or olives, trust me it's not a gross cafeteria food).
- old cheddar, green apple, avocado on raisin bread. Deli meat (turkey, ham) can go in there too unless that's too processed.
- Tomato, cucumber, avocado, tofu if you need some proteins (sautee it in a pan w/garlic the night before, it will take two minutes).
- Peameal bacon and grainy mustard
- Get a little sectioned tupperware, make a little kitchen plate in there: hardboiled eggs, olives, pickles, crackers, salami, cut veggies, cheeses.
- Make rice and beans the night before (not a huge investment in time). Put in tupperware with chipotle peppers and fresh tomato and avocado.
- Couscous (takes 3 minutes to cook) with yogurt dill sauce, sultanas, scallions, feta, tofu bits or whatever else you like.
- Brie and a baguette. Drizzle with honey and walnuts.
posted by SassHat at 6:55 AM on July 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

Your Britishisms amuse me. I'm not sure if this is what you're going for, but I'm making the assumption that in addition to "less than five minutes to prep," you also want something that will last until lunch with only the frozen juice box for cooling, won't smash in the sack with all the fruit, and will give you some nutrition.

For your protien, try:

A hunk of salami or hard meat. Just slice!
Hard-boiled eggs, sprinkled with paprika.
Canadian (round) bacon, on a english muffin. (Do they call them english muffins in England?)
Turkey bacon rolled around pickles, asparagus, whatever is around. This usually comes precooked, too.
Deli-cuts rolled up in a tortilla.
Deli-cuts smooshed inside a pita.
An avocado, and a spoon.
posted by juniperesque at 7:20 AM on July 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yes, the deli is your friend. Lots of different meats, cheeses, pickles, salads and relishes. Your sandwiches don't have to be boring at all, and a small plastic takeaway box filled with yummy cold-cuts can be tucked handily away in even the smallest freezer.
posted by h00py at 7:21 AM on July 9, 2010

But in answer to your question, here's a link.
posted by h00py at 7:25 AM on July 9, 2010

To be annoying, I'll follow myself up by saying that okay, so none of those can be prepared in 5 minutes, but if you enjoy yourself by cooking them say the night before than it will only take 5 minutes for you to extract them from the fridge or freezer (if you've been clever youv'e cooked enough for a few days and the tedious part is over) and then leave the house, lunch in hand.
posted by h00py at 7:29 AM on July 9, 2010

My go-to brown bag lunch is a thin sliced bell pepper, chunked avocado, cherry tomatoes and shredded lettuce tossed into a tortilla. It doesn't take me more than 5 minutes to make it and I pretty much always have the ingredients on hand.
posted by julie_of_the_jungle at 7:29 AM on July 9, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks, peeps, keep the suggestions coming. I'm hanging on your every word.

h00py, the link you showed me is very close to what I want. I would love to "enjoy myself" cooking things the night before but I have a four-hour commute every day. I often work long hours and have no time for recreation at all, and I struggle to find time to take care of myself. I usually have to choose between eating dinner and getting enough sleep, for example.

I understand why people think that things can be crammed into a very small freezer, but my very small freezer is already crammed and it's not my own. I often have difficulty even fitting the juice box into it.

It's also the case that my kitchen isn't my own and very often I come home to find it occupied and usually it looks as though it's been burgled and vandalized too. So in order to do any cooking at all, I have to hunt for a clean pan, put back all the things that cascaded off the crammed shelf while I was looking, throw out the cat's food and clean out her dish, get the vacuum cleaner out to clean up the broken glass, put new cat food and water out, hunt for a dirty pan, clean out the sink, empty the overflowing trash that I discovered while cleaning out the sink; and at that point there's often a chain reaction. So a "five-minute" job tends to escalate into at least half an hour. A twenty-minute job doesn't bear thinking about :-P
posted by tel3path at 7:42 AM on July 9, 2010

I feel your pain. Enjoy was a bad choice of word. But perhaps if you can clear a space and just one night a week whip up a batch of fritters (which can last for at least three days in the regular fridge and are pretty simple - one cup of flour, one cup of milk, one egg, salt and pepper, anything else you want) or something like that then lunch is covered for a while.
posted by h00py at 8:14 AM on July 9, 2010

Response by poster: Great, now. Having compiled all your suggestions into a list I have the following (leaving out red meats - I apologize that I didn't mention I try not to eat red meat more than once every two weeks)

cheese & pickle
tuna mayo
tuna mayo with corn
tuna mayo with tabasco
dorset cereals muesli
artisan bread and goat cheese
artisan bread with plain cheese
artisan bread with flavoured cheese
sliced cold (white) meats
sliced cheeses
pita with Tofurkey, spinach and/or salad greens, goat cheese crumbles, sliced plum tomatoes, and mustard
lavash with Tofurkey pinach and/or salad greens, goat cheese crumbles, sliced plum tomatoes, and mustard
artisan bread with pate
avocado and tomato
half-pound of 2 or 3 kinds of white meat, rotated for the week
Hummus sandwich with cucumber
salmon on whole wheat pita
lettuce, onions, pickles and tomatoes on a Kaiser roll with some kind of cheese and some mustard
precooked chicken breasts and bell pepper slices, also onion, seasoned with oregano
bagel or rye bread with cream cheese and smoked salmon
tuna salad of tuna with a little mayo, lots of pickles, celery and shallots
egg salad of paprika, capers or olives
mature cheddar, green apple, and avocado on raisin bread
turkey with mature cheddar, green apple, and avocado on raisin bread
hardboiled eggs, olives, pickles, crackers, cut vegetables, cheeses
brie on a baguette with honey and walnuts
hardboiled eggs with paprika
an avocado
thin sliced bell pepper, chunked avocado, cherry tomatoes, and shredded lettuce in a tortilla
fritters where not prohibited by law

And akshully the gourmet mayonnaises suggested in the Brown-Bag lunch book are good too. They really do make a difference to a sandwich and they genuinely don't take very long to prepare, while lasting for ages. (Dijon mayonnaise, dill mayonnaise etc. I don't have the details in front of me but you get the idea.)

And all mayonnaise will henceforth go inside the sandwich filling and will contaminate not the bread thereupon.

Anybody got desserty ideas now, or is that just pushing the envelope? ;-)
posted by tel3path at 8:20 AM on July 9, 2010 [4 favorites]

My lunch for the last year or two has consisted mainly of a variety of fruits and a PB&J sandwich on some awesome, hearty, multigrain bread.

The fruits give me something to snack on throughout the day to keep my blood-sugar up and the super thick bread with the protein of the peanut butter gives me that "full" sensation when I'm starting to feel the hunger (which is why I generally eat the sandwich in halves an hour or so apart).

In the fall, since apples were in season, I would take ~5 medium-to-large apples to munch on. Now, since it seems to be berry-and-drupe season, I find myself eating a lot of strawberries, blueberries, peaches, plums, etc. And, since it's always banana season, I usually eat a banana a day.

Very quick, easy, delicious, fulfilling lunches results. However, being an engineer, I'm cool with eating the same thing for a long span of time ;-)
posted by StarmanDXE at 8:26 AM on July 9, 2010

Some of these have already been suggested I think, but:

Change spreads: mustard, hummus, pesto (you can buy it prepared in a huge variety of types), cream cheese, guacamole, cranberry sauce/jelly, even mashed potatoes! (After American Thanksgiving I love me a turkey sandwich with some kind of cheese and cranberry sauce as the spread!) Lots of "smooth" side dishes can be sandwich spreads; think what kind of meat you'd eat them with at dinner, then spread it on a sandwich featuring that kind of deli meat.

Change breads: pitas, bagels, flatbread sandwich rounds, fancy breads, normal breads, etc.

Change fillings: You can get prepared salad meats (cooked, in small chunks, in a "ziploc" type bag) that stuff nicely in a pita; try different veggies -- tomato, lettuce, sprouts, avocado slices, etc.; try different cheeses/fancy cheeses; even try things like couscous or a cold bean salad. Some of these are easier to stuff in a pita, but some work on a sandwich too.

For dessert -- cookies? I don't really like puddings/custards, but cookies and coffee cakes you could make a weekend small batch of on weeks you feel motivated and eat throughout the week, both keep pretty well. I don't have good dessert ideas, I'm not a dessert person. Maybe you could also make an "ambrosia" dressing to eat with the fruit? That seems like dessert to me. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:31 AM on July 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

My latest takes ten minutes to prepare item:
smashed chickpea salad
take two cans of chickpeas (regular soup can sized cans), drain and put in a bowl
take a lemon, zest it.
juice it.
dump juice and zest on chickpeas.
using your clean hands, grab handfuls of chickpeas and squeeze until about 2/3 are no longer intact.
chop up a cucumber, chop up some scallions or onions
put them in to the bowl with the chickpeas
add a couple of glugs of olive oil.
grind on some pepper.

this can be used as a salad or as a sandwich filling. it tastes better the second day, but is still pretty good the first day.

also, omelet sandwiches are good.
posted by sciencegeek at 8:33 AM on July 9, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Sandwiches that require very little preparations:
- Chicken salad sandwich (pre-made from deli)
- Egg salad sandwich
- Tuna salad sandwich
- Meat sandwich: roast beef, turkey, ham, salami, bologna
- Brie and sliced apple sandwich
- Greek pita (sliced ham, feta cheese, and veggies of your choice-- in a pita)
- Hot dog or sausage dog
- Meatball sub (buy the meatballs pre-made and frozen)
- Avocado with sliced meat

Things that you can buy at the grocery store that require no preparations:
- yogurt
- cottage cheese (if you're a cheese lover like me, you'll appreciate this)
- celery/cucumber/carrots and dressing for dip
- Rice pudding
- pita and hummus
- apple sauce
- fruit cups and fruit jello cups
- seasoned crackers

Other things you can make that require very little preparations:
- Seasoned rice (the "instant" kind)
- Beans and some meat (use canned beans)
- Easy Mac & cheese
- Soup(canned): chicken noodle, clam chowder, Italian wedding, beef chili, vegetable, tomato
- Edamame & soy sauce
- Hard boiled eggs
- Frozen breaded and/or seasoned chicken breasts

To spice up sandwiches:
- Mix and match cheeses: Pepper jack, cheddar, Colby jack, provolone, mozzarella, Swiss
- Add mustard
- Use different veggies: cucumber, sweet peppers, spinach, hot peppers, pickles
- Mix some garlic with the mayo (surprisingly delicious)
- salt and pepper!
- use tortilla rolls or pita pockets instead of bread
- use different types of bread: white, wheat, rye, Italian, croissant, herbed
- use spices: garlic, paprika, onion powder, celery salt, cumin

Desserts to replace custard pudding:
- Oreos or some other cookies
- cinnamon graham crackers
- strawberries/blueberries with powdered sugar
- donuts
- cake
- muffins
- custard pudding....layered with fruit and whip cream!
posted by nikkorizz at 8:36 AM on July 9, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Here in the US we have a brand of packaged lunch called Lunchables. They're basically small slices of meat (usually turkey or ham) with small slices of cheese (usually cheddar or swiss) with crackers. They are usually too expensive for what you get, so I've taken to making my own.

I go to the deli and get ham, turkey and cheese sliced about 1/4 inch thick (about 1/2 cm I think) then I take the slices home and cut them down to pieces about 2 inches square (4 cm if I'm doing the metric thing right.) I slice the whole pile of meat at once, so it really only takes me a minute. Then I separate the piles into daily portions and put them in zip top bags in the fridge. Then I can just grab a bag of meat and a bag of cheese and go. Using the buttery crackers (they're called Ritz here) I can make little sandwiches with different kinds of mustards to dip the whole thing in, or I can just munch on the pieces separately. I usually add in fresh fruit to round out the meal.

It literally takes 5 minutes to prepare for the whole week. This kind of thing might be a good thing for you to have in the fridge for the days that you don't have time to make a full sandwich.
posted by TooFewShoes at 8:50 AM on July 9, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: This doesn't exactly count as "batch cooking", but once a week make a salady-thing in a storage container. Buy a bag of pitas. Scoop some salad stuff onto a pita each day. Pre-washed salad greens, tortilla chips, and fruit can round it out.

So salady-things:
Tuna Salad (I like apples and green onion + mayo)
Texas Caviar
Hummus (premade)
Chickpea and Feta Salad
Chicken Salad
Egg Salad
Cottage Cheese + Herbs
Great thread about this earlier

These are all prepared, more or less, by chopping a few veg, and opening a few cans. These will all keep in the fridge for a week.
posted by fontophilic at 11:08 AM on July 9, 2010

I bring stuff to work at the start of the week and assemble my sandwich each lunchtime.

Favourites are houmous or falafel in pitta with salad and yogurt/mint dressing, or avocado and deli chicken (those wee chicken bits) in a bagel. Brie and cranberry on a bagel would be nice, I reckon.
posted by mippy at 12:00 PM on July 9, 2010

Best answer: When I have a week during the summer when I'm with the kids during the day, I avoid the drive thru by having lunch at the ready that we just pull out each day. Takes 2 minutes to assemble both the kdis and I love it.

Basic approach is finger food. On Sunday night I make gallon bags of lunchy foods that can be eaten with fingers and without cooking:

Carrot sticks, or thin carrot slices on the bias that can be dipped like chips
Grapes, Cherries, Berries, or other non-chop bite-sized fruits
"Mini-trees" of blanched and shocked broccoli cut to bite size.
Yummy Crackers infused with EVOO and ranch dip mix -- basically this recipe without the red pepper
Cubes of luncheon meat. I ask at the deli counter not for slices but 1/2lb chunks which I cut into 1/2in cubes at home.
You can add bite sized baby spinach or iceberg lettuce "wrappers" for the meat and cheese
Pretzel Sticks, sesame sticks, and other non-fried crunchy carb snacks. My kids love croutons, FWIW.
Nuts like Honey roasted peanuts or glazed walnuts.
And, as a treat/incentive, malted milk balls, goobers, or other bite-sized candies.
All served with a variety of dips

Assemble this once and then set all the items in a box/tray in the fridge and viola!, quick lunch that will not make you feel deprived for not eating out. They key is to throw in one or two "look forward to" items, luxuries that you don't get to eat often like fresh cherries in season or chunks of Valrhona dark chocolate.
posted by cross_impact at 1:51 PM on July 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm going to encourage you to step outside the box a bit, and ask one question --

Who said that your lunch has to be a sandwich?

The thing that changed my life when it came to packing lunches was: salads. Now that it's summer, I tend to have a lot of chilled noodles/salads in the refrigerator anyway -- typically a mix of some hearty grain-based things and some single-vegetable things, usually things leftover from dinner (I am incapable of making a single-serving size of anything). Sometimes I even spend a couple hours on the weekends making up a couple things (usually the "cooking" in this case takes no more than chopping vegetables and mixing them in a container, then sticking them in the fridge).

Then, lunch is nothing more for me than simply picking a couple of them, dishing some into smaller containers, and taking them to work. I do have to take the containers back home, but this is a small matter.

there are SCORES of salads you could go with - grain- or bean-based ones (black bean salad, tabbouleh, etc.), or you could get some egg or chicken salad together and just eat it on a bed of greens; there are even chilled soups like vichysouisse or gazpacho. You could mix and match a whole assortment for different menus every day. Two small containers of salad and/or soup, and add a cookie or an apple, and you're good.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:51 PM on July 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, hive mind. My luncheon woes are over!!! From now on, lunch will be the center of my temporal day, and I will be leading a blissfully organized life!
posted by tel3path at 5:10 AM on July 13, 2010

If you find yourself hurting for variety down the line, don't forget that chicken or tuna or egg salads can be made more than one way. If you're making chicken or egg salad at home, add some curry powder to the dressing and some fruit (grapes/raisins, apples) and slivered almonds to the salad. I love tuna salad with finely chopped sweet pickles (or relish) and apples, or with dill and onions.

If you don't need dessert to be seriously sweet, and you can get greek yoghurt in single-serve containers, it's lovely with honey and nuts or fresh fruit like berries or melon chunks, and the fruit can sometimes be purchased prepared if you can't store or prep it at home.
posted by EvaDestruction at 1:31 PM on July 15, 2010

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