Delectable desk drawer dining
January 16, 2012 7:28 AM   Subscribe

What tasty, healthy, cheap food can I prepare from ingredients kept in a desk drawer?

I'm doing rather a lot of extra-curricular activities at the moment, and it frequently isn't possible for me to take two or even one meal in with me. I've also worked out I can't afford to buy my lunch (or dinner) from a sandwich shop or similar anything more than very occasionally. What I'm currently doing is keeping a lot of ingredients in my desk drawer and assembling a meal. At the moment, however, the meals are a bit rudimentary (basically flavoured, microwaved rice* + tinned tuna or tinned cannellini; houmous and oatcakes; ramen). I'm sure there are much better things I could be making myself.

-I have access to a shared fridge but would prefer not to keep too many things in there.
-I have access to a microwave but competition for its time is hot so I can't do anything too elaborate with it.
-I need to be flexible about how many of these meals I make in a week, and not waste ingredients.
-I can bring in ingredients insofar as I can take something out of a fridge and stick it in my bag. Not more than one or two items in a day, as I'm often too sleepy in the morning to remember complex series of instructions. I've been doing this with tubs of houmous, as they are very cheap, and with some oatcakes from the drawer they make a very good meal.
-No very expensive ingredients, unless they last a very long time once opened. I'm doing this to save money.

* I've been eating a lot of these
posted by Acheman to Food & Drink (33 answers total) 56 users marked this as a favorite
is it too easy to say cereal, with that boxed type milk that doesn't need a fridge? also, oatmeal with stir ins like peanut butter and honey and maybe even chocolate, dried fruits.
posted by saraindc at 7:42 AM on January 16, 2012


Buy some quick oats, pour into circular container, use hot water (if you have a keurig or other coffee system with a hot water spout for tea, that is GREAT! for preparing it), mix it up with one of those coffee creamers to thicken it if you like, add a sugar packet if you like, keep cinnamon at your desk. VOILA! A quick, healthy, and WARM lunch.

I have oatmeal every day at work (I am also a nursing mother, so that is in part why, but even so, I look forward to my hot oatmeal! It's so easy and good and good for you and flling!)

Best part is, you don't even need to keep the oats in the fridge since they are dry!
posted by zizzle at 7:42 AM on January 16, 2012

You can keep fruit at your desk (apple/pear + cheese from the fridge, apple/raisins + peanut butter + oatcake) and veggies in the fridge (baby carrots + hummus, baby carrots + peanut butter)
posted by i_am_a_fiesta at 7:43 AM on January 16, 2012

I can usually find those 8-pak cracker sandwiches (peanut butter, cheese, etc) at the grocery store for about $2.50 a box and they have saved my life many times. Double up when they're BOGO. They keep for about three months - very fresh tasting - at room temperature.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 7:53 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yes, oatmeal ... even the pre-packaged oatmeal packages aren't very expensive if you don't want to make it "from scratch." You can get dried fruit to use as mix-ins at a restaurant supply store for cheap ... raisins, cherries, pineapples, whatever. I used an old spice jar to make a "cinnamon sugar" shaker for my husband's desk oatmeal stash.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:55 AM on January 16, 2012

Almonds are cheap when one considers how much nutrition each nut contains. I would section them off in baggies of 10-20 so you don't overeat them. I can eat a tin of Blue Diamond salt & vinegar almonds in one sitting if I'm not careful.
posted by zoomorphic at 7:56 AM on January 16, 2012

OK, oatmeal (or, as I would call it, porridge) is a pretty good idea, but at the moment my daily Magic Breakfast is Oats + Nuts + Milk + Riccotta + Banana, so I'm not sure I could stomach a bowl of breakfast-type porridge on top of that. Though maybe I can work on some savoury, protein-rich porridge variants. (I have eaten and enjoyed sausages and porridge, and porridge with cheese, so there may be some mileage in that)
Cereal is basically carbohydrate + sugar, so I wouldn't really consider that a nutritious meal.
posted by Acheman at 8:05 AM on January 16, 2012

1. make a batch of thick bean soup on the weekend.
2. Scoop out 1.5 cup servings into ziplock sandwich bags, lay them flat and stack in your freezer (or the freezer at work if there's less competition for freezer space than for shared fridge space.)
3. Keep a bowl at work, that you microwave the soup in, eat from, and wash up afterward.
4. In your desk drawer, keep accoutrements - crackers, hot sauce, etc.
5. Special bonus happy days: beans and rice (bring in some rice), melted cheese over the top (for chili-type stews), sliced avocado or a spoonful of yogurt (for spicy stews)

Apples or oranges are perfectly happy for a week out of the fridge, edible but getting tired after two.
Pretty much anything you bring from the home fridge you could, eat for lunch without ever putting things in the work fridge - nothing goes from chilled to spoiled in a half-day at normal room temps. (or I'd be very sick by now)
posted by aimedwander at 8:08 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Greek strained yogurt with avocado and salted nuts.

Organic almonds soaked in water for 4-5 hours.

Make lentil soup or just lentils in the morning and put into a thermos cup.
posted by rainy at 8:11 AM on January 16, 2012

Hard boiled eggs, if they're still in their shell, will be OK in the drawer (Keep some small hot sauce bottles or packets in your drawer. Also good with salt and pepper.)
By the way, steaming your eggs is much easier than hard boiling them.

Sardines canned in water or olive oil. Very cheap. Add some hot sauce too if you like. Lots of salt is good too :P
Good quality sausages like salami, hard cheeses.
Buy large sugar free coconut flakes, mix with nuts and seeds of your choice.

Can you eat a big breakfast (3 fried eggs in bacon grease, or steak, for example), and a large dinner, so you won't be as hungry during the day?

Can you buy a small cooler, keep it in the fridge with your "ingredients" over night, and bring it with you to work, leave it under the desk if you don't want to use the fridge?

Can you buy a soup thermos? It will be ok under the desk. Soups are really cheap and filling. My boyfriend hates cooking breakfast, so I keep curries and soups for him to eat on the way to work. Maybe this would work for your lunches? Or who knows, your breakfasts?
You can make a big batch of curry in a lazy saturday afternoon if you're too sleepy in the morning. (full fat coconut milk, chopped or shredded chicken, chopped onions, chopped white and/or sweet potatoes, peas?)
posted by midnightmoonlight at 8:11 AM on January 16, 2012

The indian boil in a bag meals can be tasty. Trader Joe's has them but if you can find an indian grocery these are better. $2 for a good meal. Tough to beat.
posted by mearls at 8:18 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

How about a hot cup of miso soup?
posted by LN at 8:23 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Here are two questions I had about about feeding myself in similar circumstances.

What I took away was:

emergency canned soup, or soup packets
my confidence in cheese is reasonable
boiled eggs will not kill you
nuts are great energy prociders
bananas and navel oranges are pretty forgiving

Stocking up the work freezer is a popular option. Veggies, homemade frozen dinners, my go to of sliced peaches, will usually go unbothered up there.

I really like room temperatura lasagne type things. Make a huge batch at the weekend, freeze in individual containers, take out of freezer and into fridge the night before I need them. But you can nuke them at work too.

And drink plenty of water. More than you think you need. Have another glass. (At that office job I kept a 2 liter bottle of water under my desk and refilled my coffee mug with it. Better if you have a water cooler and can take a stroll once an hour or so. But really, the water helps you feel full and process your food better.)
posted by bilabial at 8:33 AM on January 16, 2012

once a week bring in a loaf of bread, cheese, and sand meat. Then you can make lunches all week and it will be gone by the time your office does their fri afternoon fridge clean out- if they do that.

You can also bring in tomatoes, avocados, mangoes, banannas on Mon and have them in your cube (don't need to be kept cold) all week for use. mango avocado salad is amazing- particularly if you can sneak in some shrimp from home. tomato avocado sandwiches are good.

Things I always keep in my cube:
peanut butter
mini jam jars
mini mayo and mustard jars (the kind with just 1 or 2 servings)
assorted tea, cocoa packets
salt and pepper
assorted nuts
canned chicken
air popped popcorn
canned or packaged soup
a few of those microwaveable pasta creations
posted by TestamentToGrace at 8:38 AM on January 16, 2012

I was going to suggest hard cheeses (like cheddar). Hard cheeses made from pasteurized milk can be safely stored at temperatures below 80F. Take a small block, eat it with apples, or nuts, or crackers, all of which will be fine in a drawer or on your desk for a week or so.

There's lots of other tinned fish (salmon, sardines, oysters) as well as deviled ham and deviled chicken which some in one or two serving cans. If you grab a small crusty loaf of bread, a wedge of hard cheese, a couple apples, a bag of nuts and some sort of canned meat/fish, you can have 3 or 4 meals from it.

Couscous is good with olives. Grab a box of couscous (which cooks easily. Pour boiling water over it, let it sit five minutes, drain) and a can of chopped olives and some almonds. Add a packet of sundried tomatoes if you're feeling fancy. Parmesan cheese (the real kind, but also the stuff in the green shaker) is fine at room temperature for a couple days) is nice with this too. Couscous is also good with fruit. Maybe too carb-heavy for you, but I like it for breakfast, myself.
posted by crush-onastick at 8:50 AM on January 16, 2012

Healthy snacks can help me a boring lunch more palatable. My go-tos: dried apricots, trail mix (I either buy it from TJs or if I have a lot of nuts sitting around from a recipe, make my own) and the already mentioned packets of instant oatmeal. Maria cookies/Ulker tea biscuits are great when I want something a tiny bit sweet and good with coffee.

This requires a tiny bit of preparation, but if you buy the cooked rice with oriental vegetables from the freezer section, you can make a quick fried rice the evening before (just warm up the rice, use a little oil crack an egg or two in the middle and it's done when the egg looks cooked). It goes in one tupperware to the fridge.

When I was in Spain I had a lot of baguettes with cheese or salami and pieces of fruit for lunch (it was a sack lunch).
posted by ejaned8 at 8:55 AM on January 16, 2012

Sweet potato, microwaved in late morning when there aren't people lined up, stir-fry or other sauce of your choice, side of trail mix.
posted by lakeroon at 8:58 AM on January 16, 2012

Cans of tomato juice, you can drink them cold or warm them up like a soup.

If you're up for some different Japanese food, furikake is great for making a tasty meal out of plain steamed rice. Miso paste can be found in little packets to squeeze into a cup of hot water for a quick low-cal soup.

I bring a loaf of bread to work each week and keep it in a drawer, for toast or sandwiches with pb&j, cheese, or tuna.

And I brought my immersible blender to work, so I can make smoothies for myself. I use frozen fruit, yogurt, an egg and a banana. I'm contemplating using a protein powder instead of the eggs, and frozen fruit isn't entirely necessary, fresh is fine. In theory I could make savory smoothies for myself too, out of tomato juice, spinach, herbs, and maybe ricotta cheese or something.
posted by lizbunny at 9:06 AM on January 16, 2012

I highly recommend yogurt. Chobani Greek Yogurt has 14-18 grams of protein per small container... that's 30% of the recommended daily value! Contrary to popular belief, yogurt will do fine without a refrigerator for a day. Pair with a fresh banana and perhaps a starch like crackers or a piece of bread.
posted by danceswithlight at 9:15 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Another idea: cans of rice-stuffed grape leaves. My manager used to keep a stash of these in her drawer for lunch.
posted by LN at 9:24 AM on January 16, 2012

I stay really low carb/sugar but miss peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I just ordered "jok n Al" no sugar added/low carb jam/jellies (AMAZING). I use Damascus flax roll-ups (yummmm) , pure almond butter and one of 4 jok n' al jams and I am in low glycemic HEAVEN. I just put all ingredients in my cabinet. This will be a great week for the carb starved.
posted by Studiogeek at 10:09 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Like Indian food? My husband keeps several of these in his desk drawer at all times. They keep practically forever, and they're pretty good. Check the international aisle in your supermarket or even order them in bulk.
posted by tully_monster at 10:14 AM on January 16, 2012

I have been eating this nearly every day lately:

8 ounce cup of V8/tomato juice heated in the microwave like soup
Ounce of gouda cheese

This is surprisingly satisfying, but I often get hungry again later in the afternoon so I have a snack of an apple & peanut butter. Cut the apple in half, scoop out the seeds to form a hollow in the center of each half, fill each hollow with a tablespoon of peanut butter.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 10:48 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

They sell sets of individual packets of little toasted seaweed sheets (nori) at ethnic grocery stores and they make awesome if salty snacks on their own, but can also dress up veggies, rice, whatever.
posted by ifjuly at 11:14 AM on January 16, 2012

This thread is worth a look.

Keep whole wheat crackers, rice cakes, oatcakes, peanut butter, canned tuna, mayo packets, or a jar in the fridge, nuts, dried apricots, maybe a can of mandarin oranges, and some vinaigrette on hand. Try to make a salad the night before, even just some spinach, mushrooms and a few walnuts. Try to bring an apple, orange or banana if you don't have time for the salad. Even when it's busy, a little break to peel an orange, enjoy the scent, and get vitamins and fiber will energize you.
posted by theora55 at 12:36 PM on January 16, 2012

- make bunch of burritos in advance
- freeze them
- defrost in the microwave
posted by leigh1 at 3:15 PM on January 16, 2012

OK, some good suggestions here and others that have got me thinking. I'm getting together a list of recipes:

Make porridge with water, add a spoonful of miso paste from a jar, serve with boiled egg (or an egg added to the porridge half way through microwaving?) or cannellini beans, and cherry tomatoes.

Add sliced vegetables (bring eg a courgette in on the day) and fresh coriander to ramen-style noodles. (Tesco value chicken flavour)

Mix a tin of chopped tomatoes with olive oil and that minced garlic stuff that comes in jars. Microwave. Add fresh basil. (Might need to eat this with a piece of cheese and oatcakes to make a full meal)

Serve a tub of greek yoghurt with olive oil and black pepper. Add nuts, olives, cherry tomatoes.

Big tin of spaghetti hoops with two avocados sliced into it (technically this is four servings of fruit and veg, though I am a bit dubious about that)

I'm going to bring in a basil plant, a coriander plant and a jar of miso paste. There is a stall near me that does five avocados for a pound, so I should make use of that. Cherry tomatoes would probably keep for a few days and are easy to snack on if I don't incorporate them into a meal. I have brought in a small bowl for fruit.

The real risk nutritionally is that I don't get enough fruit and vegetables, hence the fruit bowl. I've also downloaded a nice 5-a-day tracker app, because I know that my fruit/vegetable consumption responds well to that kind of reinforcement.

I am going to Tesco's this evening with an open mind. More recipes to follow!
posted by Acheman at 9:36 AM on January 17, 2012

Also, I bought an egg boiler, because they are on sale at Amazon UK. That makes the hardboiled egg thing plausible. I definitely want to avoid more advance prep than that - it just isn't possible for me right now.
posted by Acheman at 9:41 AM on January 17, 2012

Some more ideas I had in Tesco:

A can of macaroni cheese with either dried mushrooms or cherry tomatoes added, to make it nicer and provide a vegetable serving.

Lovely scottish dish this one! Salted porridge with a tin of mackerel on top.

Mixed beans with olive oil, salt, black pepper, herbs, maybe some tomato.

These were on special offer so I'm going to have a play around with them. I'm also going to look into those frozen boil-in-the-bag vegetables - our fridge has a (teeny, tiny) freezer section that's mostly empty. They are on the expensive side, though

I'm starting to have fun with this now.
posted by Acheman at 2:34 PM on January 17, 2012

Look in the bulk section of a supermarket if you can... around these parts I can get bulk dried split pea soup, black bean soup, spicy lentil soup and corn chowder. All it takes is a hot cup of water and you get a healthy hearty cup of soup!
posted by k8oglyph at 4:11 PM on January 17, 2012

This is more of a snack than a meal, but I've definitely had this as a meal when I've been too busy to sit down and eat.

Steps to making the perfect trail mix:

1. Find a suitable container. I like peanut butter jars with plastic lids like this. You can get those for other types of foods if you don't eat peanut butter, but that's the best type to get, in my opinion. My favorite are the small, hand held kind that are clear. I eat the contents, peel off the label, rinse it out, then run it through the dishwasher.

2. Go to a place that has bulk foods and purchase trail mix and/or additives. I normally start with a high protein/fat trail mix base, then add onto that. Nuts, seeds, and dried unsweetened fruit are the obvious choices, but I also love oats, dried vegetables (zucchini is my favorite), and flax seeds (for the omega 3). I buy trail mix ingredients in separate containers and store them apart from each other.

3. When it come time to make your trail mix, mix a bit of everything in a large bowl and pour it into your jars. Taste your recipe and add and subtract as necessary depending on what you want to eat that day. I love using the jars for containers because it's easy to add, close, and shake ingredients in them. If one morning you feel like you need M&Ms, you just pour a few in the top, shake it up, and you're good to go.

4. Disperse the jars! I keep one by my desk, one in the car (fits right in the cup holder), and when I'm going hiking, each party member takes one. You can pour the ingredients into your hand or straight into your mouth.
posted by PrimateFan at 7:41 AM on January 18, 2012

You should look into camping recipes and dehydrated food - most of them just require hot water to be added to the mix.
posted by leigh1 at 9:29 PM on January 18, 2012

Things I've discovered since asking this question:

Frozen fish. Oh my god, frozen fish. It fits in the tiny freezer compartment, is cheaper and arguably better than 'fresh' defrosted supermarket fish, and microwaves in a couple of minutes. I have a bunch of great salmon recipes and some for coley, which is a sustainable cod-substitute.

Those 50p vacuum packets of cooked beetroot are great and keep for ages

Couscous costs pennies, even the flavoured kind, and makes a good substitute for rice. For example, a good recipe I've made is

Empty a small tin of coconut cream over a piece of frozen coley and poach it in the microwave (Optionally, put ginger or dried galangal in with them). Add some couscous while it's still hot. Add some lime juice from a bottle, and fresh coriander if you have it. Eat with a spoon.

Also there's

As above, but use milk instead of coconut milk and put a sliced boiled egg in at the end of it. Optionally, add some green beans and substitute new potatoes for the couscous.
posted by Acheman at 3:41 AM on May 8, 2012

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