Hot meals for the night shift worker
December 5, 2013 9:03 PM   Subscribe

I work nights in a facility that does not have refrigerators available for employees. I have a 7-cup electric tea kettle at my desk, and there are microwaves available in the break area next to my office. What simple meals can I prepare at my desk or in the microwaves with a minimum of hassle? I'm getting a little tired of ramen.

Bonus points if it satisfies the following conditions:
  1. It uses a minimum of dishes. The nearest clean, non-bathroom sink for washing dishes is a quarter mile from my desk and I have to put on a bunch of safety gear to get there. Carrying more than two dishes is a non-starter.
  2. Uses non-perishable items. I like to keep a stock of food in my desk if possible.
  3. If perishable, the ingredients can safely be at room temperature for a few hours before I eat. I have enough to carry with a heavy company laptop that goes home with me every day, and it's a long walk from the parking lot to my desk. Thus, I prefer to not lug a cooler around with me.
posted by TrialByMedia to Food & Drink (40 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
My standby are TastyBite packages:

They microwave in one minute in the bag! You can put it in a dish after that for easier eating but if you really wanted could probably eat it straight out of the bag. They are shelf stable and need no refrigeration! There is a variety. You can order them in bulk. I've gotten my Madras Lentils ones from CostCo for about 6 for $10.

They are not as cheap as Ramen, but they fulfill your other conditions. I also have a fondness for cans of Amy's soup.
posted by foxfirefey at 9:24 PM on December 5, 2013 [7 favorites]

Tasty Bites Indian food, microwaved, plus instant rice made with water from your kettle.

Edit: Jinx!
posted by charmedimsure at 9:24 PM on December 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

I've found the microwavable soups from Campbells to be very nice for convenient lunches. The container is its own bowl, so cleanup is very easy. I would often supplement the soup with other things, like fruits and vegetables, and it felt very well rounded and satisfying with minimum effort.

If you want even more variety, there are a number of other microwavable type meals available that don't require refrigeration (like mac and cheese).

Peanut butter sandwiches aren't something I'd eat every day, but I would occasionally, and it was easy to keep a jar of PB and loaf of bread on hand. Also, I'd have crackers which would make a nice snack with the PB.

If you won't mind cheese getting warm, string cheese can come in self-contained packages that would keep it at least edible during the day that you'd bring it.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:25 PM on December 5, 2013

I'm a big fan of instant miso soup. All you need is hot water. You can get a bunch of packets cheap at Sam's Club or Costco.
posted by roll truck roll at 9:25 PM on December 5, 2013

I think TatsyBite is the brand name for the awesome Indian food I get at Trader Joe's. I am obsessed with Madras Lentil! It's really easy to make, and shelf-stable until you open it!
posted by radioamy at 9:26 PM on December 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

Could you get one of those mini mini fridges (something under 1.7 cubic feet) that you could just keep permanently at your desk? That would open up a whole world of possibilities.
posted by katyggls at 9:27 PM on December 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Any store that sells camping gear is likely to have dehydrated meals that you can cook in the bag using water from your kettle.

Stuff like this. (They sell bulk ingredients too)
posted by mkb at 9:28 PM on December 5, 2013

Microwave rice and a can of soup/chili/beans makes for a decent hot meal (rice cooks in the package, soup/chili/beans can be cooked in a bowl). There's also microwave meals that don't require refrigeration. If you get tired of ramen, there's Yakisoba.
posted by plokent at 9:28 PM on December 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

This isn't a meal in itself, but there are a lot of great quick-cook single serving oatmeals that you just put hot water in, no bowl needed. Quaker makes one, I was pretty into these in college! Also I love Annie's mac & cheese, and it's not as awful for you as the Kraft stuff, and they apparently make single-serve cups too.
posted by radioamy at 9:30 PM on December 5, 2013

Response by poster: katyggls: Unfortunately, no, I cannot get a mini-fridge. Company is very strict about personal appliances larger than my tea kettle.
posted by TrialByMedia at 9:31 PM on December 5, 2013

A few hours is not that long. What about an ice pack without the cooler? Or what about freezing your meal in advance? Then you can have pasta or pizza or fried chicken or anything else.
posted by J. Wilson at 9:37 PM on December 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you have a microwave available, I'd bring in frozen dinners. They won't fully thaw in a few hours - just microwave them for less time than the package says. I'm partial to Amy's (if you don't mind vegetarian). Of course, if you're not as lazy as I am, follow J.Wilson's advice and freeze your own.
posted by Metasyntactic at 9:40 PM on December 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

Potatoes are pretty amenable to microwaves and to being stored in room temperature, dark spaces. You can nuke one along with a Tasty Bite package or, uh, some Dinty Moore beef stew or even a can of chunky soup, and use the potato as a base for it.
posted by joan_holloway at 9:46 PM on December 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

I keep single-serve Justin's nut butter packets and crackers, rice cakes, etc. in my stash at work.
posted by invisible ink at 9:54 PM on December 5, 2013

Trader Joe's Indian food. Comes in a vacuum-sealed pouch. You can either heat it in a pot/kettle or empty into a bowl and microwave.

Trader Joe's frozen pork bao. Put em in your fridge, microwave and eat em.

Pre-cooked rice from your local Asian grocery. You microwave it and have near-perfect sticky jasmine rice.
posted by zippy at 9:56 PM on December 5, 2013

S&B Golden Curry ready-made sauce with vegetables is incredibly good over rice (even without the beef or chicken).
posted by plokent at 10:03 PM on December 5, 2013

Why don't you just get a good thermos? Your food will stay warm a very long time and you can take whatever you want. All these foods listed are pretty bad for you. You can bring real food.
posted by Blitz at 10:06 PM on December 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

I don't think OP needs to rely on store-bought foods. While I prefer to store things in the fridge if possible, most foods are okay in a sealed container at room temperature in my experience. I'd stay away from mayo or dairy, maybe, but I've had everything from curry to dumplings to pasta sit at room temp for 4-5 hours before eating, and i don't have an iron stomach or anything. Just nuke it really well before eating and I think you'll be fine, as long as it's been in your fridge prior to going to work. An ice pack will help too.

If you don't have regular mealtimes though, that might be a problem. And I know this isn't the foodsafe perspective,, I don't find it a big deal.
posted by Zelos at 10:18 PM on December 5, 2013 [5 favorites]

Now that I think about it, I used to bring a lot of microwaveable meals for lunch and I often didn't put them in the fridge and they were fine. You just have to cook for a little less time. There are some decently healthy microwaveable meals out there, I like Amy's and Evol.

On the same note, if you make stuff ahead of time and freeze portions and bring that, same deal.
posted by radioamy at 10:22 PM on December 5, 2013

Cook up your own microwaveable meals in bulk in advance. Prepared meals, no matter how 'healthy', contain way too much salt, cost too much and don't taste that great.
Buy what you like to eat in bulk then dedicate four hours once every two weeks to prepare your lunches and dinners. When I was in your position, I bought all the marked-down
chicken my budget, fridge and freezer could hold. I ate a lot of chicken/fish meals with rice and beans augmented with fresh and frozen vegetables.
Prepare your marked down chicken thighs with your own spices while you simmer two cups of rice. When that's done lay out 14 sheets of foil topped with a sheet of waxed paper.
Drop the portion of meat and rice and some frozen veg onto each sheet, form a bowl then pour a ladle of sauce/broth over it. Close it up and freeze.
Drop your portions into a covered, sealed container when you take them to work. Remove the wrapper & microwave inside the sealed container.

Add whichever fresh foods you wish + treats and you have a meal that tastes a lot better than anything already prepared & won't leave you feeling like you just swallowed a car battery.
posted by Pudhoho at 12:30 AM on December 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

You don't need a fridge or a cooler, and you certainly don't need to restrict yourself to vacuum packed foods. What you need is a lunch box with an integrated ice pack. Freeze the ice pack the day before and it will keep your food cold for hours. I use these boxes to carry my lunch to work and also during long bike rides. If they can keep high-risk foods like, say, smoked salmon quiche cold and safe to eat after six hours of cycling in the Australian sun, they certainly keep your dinner cold during a night shift. They are no bigger than an ordinary lunch box.
posted by embrangled at 1:11 AM on December 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

Cheese and refried beans in tortillas, 2 mins in a pierced clingfilm in the microwave.
Jacket spuds - though you will hog the microwave and they won't be crunchy
Fish - cooks quickly (ok now I can't remember if you said there's a fridge.. so maybe not) - everyone will whinge about the smell but it stays moist in a microwave for a couple of minutes if you can hack the grief and weirdness about food.
posted by tanktop at 1:28 AM on December 6, 2013

If you can manage the aforementioned ice pack, bring in an egg and an American cheese single slice along with some kind of bun to make a breakfast sandwich. Also needed is a can of spray olive oil.

Spray the olive oil on a microwave-safe plate, crack the egg onto it, and scramble it.

If you microwave the egg for just the right length of time - try 90 seconds, but you'll probably have to experiment - it will perfectly solidify into a circular pancake-like sheet that can be peeled off of the plate. Fold it into quarters, put it on the bun, slap the cheese on it, and after putting the whole thing into the microwave for a few more seconds, voilà. If you're able to toast the bun, even better.

Be careful with the raw egg, of course - if your ice pack melts the USDA says it should be out of refrigeration for no more than two hours, otherwise discard it.

Flour tortilla, can of refried beans, shredded cheese, can opener. Use a knife to spread the beans on one side of the tortilla like you'd spread peanut butter on a slice of bread, in a thin and even layer. (It helps if you can find the brands of beans, like Ducal, which don't include whole beans mixed in.) Sprinkle the cheese like you would over a pizza.

Heat the whole thing up until the cheese melts and the tortilla is soft: under a broiler is best but you can get by with a microwave. Fold in half, cut into triangles, and enjoy with sour cream and/or salsa.

Indian or Middle Eastern markets often have packets of pre-made vegetarian Indian food you can just dump into a bowl and heat. One of them plus a bit of good rice on the side, cooked ahead of time and brought in, makes for a heavenly meal for someone like me who adores Indian food. Try Matar Paneer if you haven't before.

"Ploughman's lunch", basically a hunk of bread and a hunk of cheese and anything else among your leftovers you can eat with your hands, is quite nice if you buy bakery bread and fancy cheese.
posted by XMLicious at 1:30 AM on December 6, 2013

Instant oatmeal.
Also, I use a freezable lunch bag and it keeps my food cold for about 5-6 hours. More if I add an additional ice pack.
posted by KogeLiz at 1:47 AM on December 6, 2013

In your desk at work, keep the following: couscous, oil or butter, chickpeas, some sort of herb that you like, garlic powder, and then some assortment of the following: capers, olives, good vinegar, preserved lemons, parmesan cheese, roasted red peppers (in a jar--they sell very small ones), marinated mushrooms (also in a jar). Caponata, tomatoes, and roasted veg will also do well in this, though obviously they'd have to be brought daily.

Emergency lunch is now couscous and chickpeas with some delicious, salty thing and probably a veg. You don't even need the kettle. Put about a half cup of couscous into a dish, then add slightly more water than couscous. You can use boiling water (leave sit for about ten minutes) or room temp (leave sit an hour), or you can add the water and other stuff, then bung the whole thing into the microwave for a few minutes. Pour over some (drained) chickpeas, some sort of fat, and at least one of the delicious additional things. If you were especially on top of this, you might also have some spinach or kale (both of which will last a few days at room temp)--if you do, add them before pouring over the (hot) water, which will cook them a bit. This is also good if you happen to have leftover chicken, say, or maybe some seafood. (Dunno for sure on the last bit; I'm allergic.)

I ate some variation of this probably four days a week for three or four years, and there's just enough variation in the additives and optional veg, etc, that it didn't get boring.
posted by MeghanC at 1:57 AM on December 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Everyone's mentioning Tasty Bites and all the related packaged Indian foods. There are tons of options with those. Just plain in a bowl is frankly boring and too strongly flavored to have without a side--rice is good, as is just some good bread or naan for scooping.

But my favorite is potato. Bake a potato in a bowl in the microwave, then chunk it up and dump the Tasty Bites over it and heat through. That's one bowl, and you can keep both potatoes and Tasty Bites at your desk. However, if you really want to do it up right, add three more ingredients, which will be just fine for a few hours without refrigeration: spinach (pile it on top of steaming potatoes, then the hot Tasty Bites over the spinach will wilt the leaves), crumbled feta on top, and naan or another bready thing. This makes a really hearty and fairly balanced meal.
posted by AnOrigamiLife at 2:16 AM on December 6, 2013

If you invest in a vacuum sealer, then you can have almost anything you want.

Prepare a meal and seal it within the vacuum bag. Then at work, boil water and place your vacuum bag into the boiling water.
Re-heat your food, and you are done.
posted by Flood at 4:51 AM on December 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

I like the low-sodium canned soups from Progresso. Lots of nice, big, chunks. If for any reason I find I can't wash the bowl thoroughly after lunch, I figure it won't hurt anything to just give it a quick swish-and-rinse (or a good rubdown with a wet wipe), tie it off tightly in a plastic grocery bag, leave it in my tote bag for a couple of hours, and add it to my nightly load of dishes at home.

It can be a pain to lug five cans in on Monday, but then you're set for the week. I once thought I was incredibly clever to have a case shipped to work from Amazon, but half the cans arrived dented.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:48 AM on December 6, 2013

I also like Amy's frozen burritos. I stock up when they're on sale at Target. If I take them out of the freezer in the morning and put them in an insulated bag, they're just right for heating up at lunchtime. Delicious, lots of variety, and plenty of natural fiber and protein.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:52 AM on December 6, 2013

There are some lightweight portable options for homemade food: a soft lunch carrier (put a small ice pack in) with a shoulder strap for foods that need to stay cold, and a wide-mouthed thermos for hot foods (such as soups or stews) that you cook at home. The thermos can be tucked into whatever bag you normally carry, and you can throw in a hunk of bread in a Ziplock bag as well. I've transported dinners this way many times when working in locations without either refrigerators OR microwaves. There are widemouth thermoses that have a tiny spoon tucked into a compartment under the lid, but I myself prefer a regular spoon.
posted by RRgal at 6:34 AM on December 6, 2013

Almost any fully cooked food is safe to eat after several hours at room temperature. Anything from spaghetti with meat sauce to falafel will be fine, as long as it was cooked to a high enough temperature initially. (Unless you're pregnant, elderly, or sick -- then, follow all the rules.) Even mayo is ok! It turns a funky color and will go rancid in hot weather, but the oil it contains acts as a preservative. The imperative thing is that the food was properly cooked to begin with. Undercooked food left to sit out is a recipe for regret.

Most days, I take a tupperware of soup or leftovers to work and don't refrigerate it, but microwave it thoroughly before eating. This may be disgusting/naughty, but most of the time I just reseal the container afterward and wash it at home. My office sink is a cesspool of filth that contaminates by line of sight alone.
posted by Sullenbode at 11:16 AM on December 6, 2013

OP has mentioned no love for Indian food and Indian food is very much an acquired taste.

Order some high quality meals from any of the healthier online Google-able, food prep companies - the food has a lot of variety (comfort and modern American) , is delicious and can be microwaved.
posted by Kruger5 at 11:32 AM on December 6, 2013

You may also want to consider a nifty lunchbox. I used to own one like this one, and it ended up being pretty great. I would grill some chicken the night before, stick some bits of cut-up pita in one, some homemade tzatziki in another, some lettuce and onion in a third, and chicken in the main, and boom, instant chicken mini-gyros. The temperature control was really great, too, and I never had a leak, even on the day I brought some clam chowder in the soup bowl.
posted by mephron at 12:12 PM on December 6, 2013

You could get a mini crock pot to leave on your desk, and then just transport your food daily in a tupperware container. You'd just have to wash out the liner but they sell extra liners for $5 each so you could conceivably take your liner home every night and just wash it out then. I do that with all my lunch dishes.
posted by jabes at 1:46 PM on December 6, 2013

I had this black bean soup inna cup for breakfast yesterday--just add boiling water and wait for the beans to soften. Tastes like actual food (no canned/boxed flavor), has 18g protein, and could be dressed up with tomato, corn, or avocado. $10 for 6 on Amazon. If some of the cups crack during shipping, they'll send you more.
posted by esoterrica at 2:32 PM on December 6, 2013

I have this meal a couple of times a week -

Instant mashed potato - 2 cups hot water and 1 package

Frozen veggies - corn. broccoli or whatever you like - they will defrost in baggie but it won't matter

Shredded cheese of your choice - I like really sharp cheddar or gouda.

While potato's are coming together in a bowl on the counter, microwave the veggies. Put veggies on potato's, top with cheese. Yummy.

Sometimes I put in brown rice instead (microwaveable bowls from Costco) or leftover cooked pasta.
posted by cairnoflore at 4:08 PM on December 6, 2013

One staple you might add is nuts. I'm especially fond of almonds and try to always have them around. (Protein's often hard to come by in the kinds of things discussed above, though canned chickpeas that someone mentioned, or other beans, are a good idea for it.)

You can make an ear of corn in the microwave. (wet the peel and then just nuke a while, it'll steam.)
When you nuke a potato, it works great, but cut small pieces because it's easy to burn the roof of your mouth.
A head of broccoli is fine for a day w/o the fridge. You could break up and eat raw, or put in a bowl, couple tbsps of water, plate on top, and steam it in the microwave. (wait, use a tupperware you can take home to wash, so you don't have to put on your space-suit to get to the sink.)
peanut or almond butter, by the spoonful or on bread.
hearty crackers like ryvita last and stay crunchy forever in my desk drawer
If nobody'll mind if you run the microwave a half an hour, you could make a simplified version of this (you'd certainly skip the last non-micro steps; you can skip the indian spices if they don't suit you.)
canned chili or other soups
posted by spbmp at 8:58 PM on December 6, 2013

Hormel Compleats would fit your requirements. No refrigeration, self contained, just bring a napkin and a fork. Big plus is 90 seconds in microwave and the taste is pretty good.
posted by KneeDeep at 12:11 PM on December 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

freeze a container of yogurt and it will thaw enough to eat by lunchtime while also keeping any foods kept with it cool.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 9:24 AM on December 8, 2013

You can cook meals in a rice cooker. Roger Ebert (yes, that Roger Ebert) wrote a cookbook, The Pot and How To Use It, based on this blog post. (Previously.)
posted by editorgrrl at 9:10 AM on December 9, 2013

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