Brown bagging for non-morning people
September 16, 2010 12:02 PM   Subscribe

After several failed attempts to pack sandwiches and the like for lunch, I've at last accepted that there is no way I'm doing even a little cooking in the morning. But I'm sick of blowing all my money on lunch out. What should I do instead?

I don't eat breakfast because I would have to get up even earlier, plus it makes me sick. So early lunch is my main meal of the day. I work in an office that has a refrigerator, freezer, microwave, plates/bowls/cups/utensils, AND ample cupboard space.

Of course I'm considering lunches I can make the night before. But the wondrous amenities of the office kitchen offer another option: bringing components to work (perhaps even STORING some at work) and assembling them come lunch time.

Here's an example: oatmeal with sliced banana and this absolutely transcendent brown sugar crumble (which, by the way, I only bake for 11 minutes because otherwise it burns). I'm going to bring a huge bowl (to prevent microwave messes), a big canister of rolled oats, a bag of the delicious crumble, keep those at work, and bring a banana (or other fruit) daily. Then I'll just put it all together at lunch time. I already have this for a frequent after-work snack and it's just heavenly. I suspect it won't be enough for a whole lunch, though.

More details:
-I'm not a great cook, but I'm competent.
-I don't have any food allergies.
-I'm not a vegetarian, but vegetarian suggestions are also welcome.
-I don't really "watch" what I eat beyond trying to avoid trans fat. I don't turn up my nose at healthy food, but taste and convenience are paramount.
-I hate dried fruit, curry, cauliflower, and day-old sandwiches. Everything else is fair game.
-Suggestions for things I can make ahead of time are good. Suggestions for make-at-work things are SUPER, because I haven't seen any questions on those.

posted by randomname25 to Food & Drink (31 answers total) 84 users marked this as a favorite
One make-at-work thing that I never really managed to parlay into a bunch of make-at-work things: couscous. Put 1/2-3/4 cup of dry (quick-cooking, which is all I can ever find) couscous in a tupperware with a pinch of salt and a dollop of olive oil; maybe grate some cheese into it. Bring that to work. At mealtime, put an equal amount (1/2-3/4 cup) of hot water from the kettle/coffee-maker spigot into the tupperware, stir and put the lid on it. Let it sit for 5 minutes or so, then enjoy.

Bring in a portion of legumes that you've made ahead of time and you've got an actual meal.
posted by xueexueg at 12:09 PM on September 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm with you on the not eating breakfast thing.....just can't do it.

We make dinners with leftovers/lunch the next day in mind. For example: a dinner of burritos and refried beans and guacamole becomes a 7 layer salad the next lunch. Or chicken cutlets at dinner becomes a chicken salad wrap the next lunch. So we make too much of everything at dinner, and use the extras to make a variation of the ingredients for lunch. Everyone loves it and it's a big savings of money and time, since we make lunch as we clean up after dinner.
posted by iconomy at 12:09 PM on September 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

-Once a week bring in a tub of greens and whatever sturdy salad fixings you like in separate tupperware containers - chopped chicken or ham or turkey or whatever, shredded or cubed cheese, grape tomatoes, carrot sticks, plain pasta or grains cooked, drained, and tossed in a litle oil, croutons, whatevs. Bring in a couple salad dressings. Assemble and eat as desired.

-Tortillas, cheese, rinsed and drained canned beans, meat, salsa. Assemble into a burrito and nuke.

-Plain pasta cooked and rinsed and then tossed in a little oil to keep it from sticking. Again, add fixings, fresh veggies, and vinaigrette as you like for yummy pasta salad.
posted by peachfuzz at 12:10 PM on September 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Leftovers, definitely. Make dinner for one more person than you need. It's so cheap to do it that way.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 12:11 PM on September 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seconding leftovers. Or, similarly, on Sunday night make a batch of baked pasta (spagetti sauce + cooked penne or rotini + mozerella), stick it in a tupperware, and bring it in Monday morning. It's not exciting, but there's a really easy lunch for the week. The other thing I do is buy the single serving Campbells/Progresso soups at the supermarket.

You can also bring sandwich makings to work and leave them in the fridge. Then you don't have to make the sandwich ahead of time.
posted by maryr at 12:16 PM on September 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

spaghetti sauce and chili are two things you can make once a week, freeze, and bring to work daily.
posted by nadawi at 12:18 PM on September 16, 2010

I usually bring left overs from the night before, but I also have a stash of soup and peanut butter and jelly fixings for when there are no dinner left overs. Snacks at work are always nice too, my go-to snack is pretzels (with pb or hummus).
posted by radioaction at 12:22 PM on September 16, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers so far. I should make clear that I don't often cook dinner for the family--by the time I get home from work, they've already eaten. (I'm at home for the semester, living with my dad, his girlfriend, and my younger siblings.) So while bringing leftovers is a great suggestion, and one I'll implement whenever I can, it's not really a general solution.
posted by randomname25 at 12:23 PM on September 16, 2010

Best answer: Pasta / Legume salads. Virtually no cooking, stores well, can be made with pretty much whatever you have on hand. Endlessly customizable.

Legume Salad Formula
Pasta Salad Formula
posted by Brent Parker at 12:24 PM on September 16, 2010 [7 favorites]

How about some Prosciutto-wrapped pieces of parmesan and apple? You can make them the night before. Also, there are some fairly healthy TV meal (read: microwave preprep) choices nowadays that are appropriate for office lunch.
posted by arimathea at 12:31 PM on September 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is not exactly an answer to your question, but I had the same problem as you, generally, in that I just failed to pack my lunch and I'm a bit picky and never wanted to make anything in the morning. Then I bought a Mr. Bento and started packing my lunch constantly.

I don't know what it was about having the little bowls all separated out like that, but it made it easier to decide on what to pack. Which was usually a combination of things like leftovers, pickles, nuts, fruit, and random frozen things (like the bean and cheese taquitos) from Trader Joe's.

But really, it was all about the Mr. Bento for me. After years of not consistently packing lunch, I started to. It might have been the act of spending $40 on a lunch box that caused the change or maybe the fetishization of bento lunches, but it really did work.
posted by hought20 at 12:44 PM on September 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is totally boring but on Sunday evening I make about 5 pounds of salad all at once, then just bring a container of it with me each day (actually, I often bring it all in on Monday and just eat over the week). I also might cook up some chicken breasts and bring those, too, just cut them up at lunch time and dump on the salad. It's not exciting, but it works.

The only thing not to put in are cukes or chickpeas - they get too smushy over the 5 days.
posted by tristeza at 12:45 PM on September 16, 2010

I find that my chow "recipe" (it's really flexible, as you use only ingredients you really like, so feel free to riff off my list) is great for both home lunches and office day lunches. It takes maybe half an hour of prep at the most to make on a Sunday night, requires no cooking and no reheating. Try making a small amount the first couple of times as you work out what you like, but once you have a recipe you like, it's easy to scale up. It keeps well in the fridge for several days, too.

If you like eggs, hard cook several once or twice a week and add one or two to your lunch bag. If not, bring a serving of cooked meat. Add hand fruit or a bowl of frozen berries (they'll thaw in the fridge) and you have a tasty, filling lunch.
posted by maudlin at 12:47 PM on September 16, 2010

(On post: I have found that black beans, navy beans, as well as chickpeas, seem to hold up well over several days, but YMMV.)
posted by maudlin at 12:48 PM on September 16, 2010

Nthing cook in batches and freeze in small containers. Then microwave at work. Works for rice, wholegrain pastas, stews, curries, soups, mixed veges. Once you've got enough options you like, you can start mixing and matching. And as others have said, rolls, premix salads, couscous can be made on the spot for even more mixin it up fun!
posted by Ahab at 12:52 PM on September 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm lazy but love food & have the same issue you do.

About once a week, on my lunch break i get a few things from the local store and keep it at work. I have PB&J, veggies n hummus, soups, bread, milk & cereal.
i'll eat any of that for lunch. i cook a few things on sunday & take it daily if needed. Also...what about a crock pot so that you can make cooking easier.
posted by UltraD at 1:15 PM on September 16, 2010

Lazy omelet?

Easy to make quickly before you leave or at work. Throw 3 cracked eggs and a handful of frozen spinach/broccoli in a tupperware. throw it in the fridge when you get to work.

When hungry, nuke to perfection. Hot sauce and ketchup preferable but not necessary.
posted by Vhanudux at 1:27 PM on September 16, 2010

Response by poster: I don't have a crock pot and would feel a little silly buying one considering that I have access to pots and pans. In that same vein, while Bento boxes look super awesome, I wouldn't want to buy one considering that there's a microwave at work.
posted by randomname25 at 1:28 PM on September 16, 2010

Okay, the website it down for maintenance at the moment, but - bento. And this site is one of the best (and most realistic): Just Bento.
posted by Megami at 1:37 PM on September 16, 2010

Best answer: If things aren't simple, I usually won't do it. I find that I make terrible food choices when hungry so even if these things don't compose a balanced meal, at least they're moderately sensible food choices and are easy to coordinate for a late breakfast or small lunch. I'm facing the same challenges as you and some of the things that work for me is to do as much prep work in advance.

I'll make a dozen hard boiled eggs on Sunday and take two a day to work, buy a container of wild salad greens from Costco (a 5 lb container, organic and cost less than a salad at a restaurant) which I'll toss a serving of into a container the night before. You can store salad dressing at work so you don't have to worry about one more thing. I buy string cheese and an assortment of nuts from Trader Joe's that I'll divide into snack size portions for the week. Yogurt's good so you might want to take some with you to eat at your desk if possible (for a late breakfast).

There are lots of recipe sites where you can make and freeze. If you have the inclination to cook meals ahead, I think that's what most people at my work place do and their lunches look pretty good to me!
posted by loquat at 1:49 PM on September 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you trust your cow-orkers not to eat your ingredients, take the makings for a ploughman's lunch and leave them in the fridge. A typical ploughman's lunch for me is a few slices of salami (or turkey or whatever), some cheese, a few olives, maybe an okra pickle, some hardboiled eggs (boil & peel 'em at home, store in the fridge in tupperware with a paper towel), an apple and some bread or Triscuits. Note: this lunch is not for the hypertensive.
posted by workerant at 2:08 PM on September 16, 2010 [4 favorites]

My food drawer at work from which I derive most of my afternoon and evening meals contains a supply of green tea, regular bread, crispbread, peanut butter, dehydrated potato flakes, various bags of dehydrated soup mixes and bean mixes from the local co-op (including hummus), instant rice packets, a bag of granola, canned cooked chicken, canned tuna, low-sodium canned soups, prunes in a canister, boxed raisins, a few boxes of low-fat pudding mix, a mix of chili/cumin/paprika etc powders, a grinder of curry spices (sorry), and a shaker of garlic salt with pepper. In the communal fridge, I keep skim milk and a tub of plain yogurt, and in the freezer, a bag or two of microwave-steamable frozen vegetables as well as an emergency pint of butter pecan hidden way in the back. On my way out the door in the morning, I usually take along a few pieces of fresh fruit, as well as any leftovers from the night before, or a fresh ingredient to add to the stuff I keep on hand for some variety.

Favorite combinations are black beans (soup mix made thick), (canned) chicken, and (frozen) corn over (instant) rice, and mixed (frozen) vegetables in raisin-curry-peanut (butter) sauce over rice.
posted by notquitemaryann at 3:20 PM on September 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I used to take various sandwich makings to work, and keep them there. It did help that I could buy a fresh roll every day from a corner store, but that isn't that hard to get around (I am just super lazy, and also picky about roll freshness). Usually I'd buy some cheese and lunch meat at the beginning of the week, sometimes some apples or avocados or whatever to throw is. We also kept mustard and pepper spread and things at work.
posted by sepviva at 3:38 PM on September 16, 2010

Best answer: Last winter I got into the habit of buying a loaf of bread, a packet of sliced turkey, a jar of cranberry jam, and a block of cheese on the way to work on Monday mornings. Then once I got to work I'd assemble the whole loaf into sandwiches, with the turkey, jam, and cheese in between every second slice, put it back in the bread bag, and put the whole thing in the freezer. Every lunch time I'd take out the next sandwich in the bag, drop it in the toaster oven, and ten minutes later had a great grilled cheese/turkey sandwich. It worked fine even straight from the freezer, and keeping it in the freezer meant it didn't matter how quickly I used it up, so if I ate something different or bought lunch for a few days one week, nothing went rancid in the fridge!

If your workplace doesn't have a toaster oven, that's not such a great option, I guess.
posted by lollusc at 4:38 PM on September 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

I don't have a crock pot and would feel a little silly buying one considering that I have access to pots and pans.

The big value of a crockpot is that it's a slow cooker- you can cook stuff and it's hard to burn things. Toss in your soup/stew/whatever ingredients the night before, wake, put into traveling container of your choice, and eat. They're like $15-20 bucks these days, so it's really a worthwhile thing if you want food ready in the morning to eat/take.
posted by yeloson at 4:41 PM on September 16, 2010

I don't have a crock pot and would feel a little silly buying one considering that I have access to pots and pans.

You shouldn't feel silly. Plenty of people (myself included!) manage to own a crockpot in addition to a set of pots and pans.
posted by QuarterlyProphet at 4:46 PM on September 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I keep a big jar of peanut butter at my desk. And a jar of Nutella. When I don't have time to make lunch in the morning, I grab 2 or 3 slices of bread and bring them with me. Toast em up, spread, and voila, lunch.

Also, I keep a large glass bowl and a spoon at my desk. On exceptionally rushed or lazy days, I'll bring a pack of Ramen noodles to work. Dump the noodles and seasoning packet into the bowl, fill with hot water from the coffee machine, and microwave for 2 minutes.
posted by yawper at 6:05 PM on September 16, 2010

Think of what you like, and if it freezes, make a ton. I make lasagna for twelve, eat for it three days, then portion, and freeze it. I'll make at least a dozen burritos, and freeze them. They nuke very well, even better if thawed and heated in a dry pan.
Workerant already addressed pilfering, so if that's not a problem, keep bread, condiments, etc at work. A rotisserie chicken can keep you going for days (bagged salad, TACOS!...). Chili freezes, soup, stew. Seconding the Foreman Grill; burgers, grilled cheese...steak, and nuke a spud. Bacon is great cooked in a microwave.
posted by JABof72 at 9:30 PM on September 16, 2010

Microwave potatoes with any of
- cheese
- tuna or other tinned fish
- baked beans
- pre-cooked bacon
- pre-made chili

If you can bring cooked meat (lamb is best but anything will do), reheat it in the microwave and have it with cous cous, spices and lemon juice (best from real lemons but bottled will do).

Do you have a toaster? You can poach eggs in the microwave in a mug or bowl and have poached eggs on toast.

Tins of soup.

Get a pork pie, some deli meat and cheese, a jar of pickled onions and a jar of olives. Nibble.
posted by emilyw at 12:59 AM on September 17, 2010

Eat as much bananas as you can stomach for lunch.
posted by okokok at 10:18 PM on September 17, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone!
posted by randomname25 at 9:05 PM on September 19, 2010

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