once-a-week cooking ideas, vegetarian, low cal version, no freezer.
March 18, 2014 2:14 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for lunch and dinner ideas i can prepare on Sunday to eat throughout the week. Needs to be vegetarian and low calories (max 350 cal lunch and 450 cal dinner), and be ok to eat at room temperature, after spending half the day without refrigeration. Snowflake context below.

I'm working three jobs and commuting 3.5 hours a day, so if i'm going to be eating healthy, I need to shop/prep/cook all my food for the week on my one day off, Sunday.
Breakfasts are taken care off ( i do overnight oatmeal ), but i'm looking for new ideas for lunch and dinner. I'm also struggling to keep food fresh for at least 5 days, i don't have a freezer.
I commute by public transport, and when i get to work there is no fridge available. I've tried icepacks in the past, but found them way too heavy in my backpack, and ultimately not worth the trouble.

I'm getting tired of my usual quinoa salads or sweet potatoes or squash dishes. I'm also struggling with keeping foods like lettuce or bell peppers or cucumbers spoiling if i prepare them 5 or 6 days before i actually get to eat them, even if kept in the fridge. Same with crustless mini-quiches.

I like all foods within the vegetarian range, but the least processed the better. I'm in the NL so most US food brands are not available here ( for ex light dressings, special low cal version of foods like tortillas or bread etc). I live in a large city so have access to a broad range of (ethnic) foods.

My definition of what qualifies as a lunch or dinner food is quite broad, so i'm open to non-traditional ideas here too as long as it's tasty.

Looking forward to your suggestions!
posted by PardonMyFrench to Food & Drink (25 answers total) 79 users marked this as a favorite
"Mexican" salad!

Black beans
Pico de gallo
Quinoa or rice
Avocado (added fresh)
posted by rabbitrabbit at 2:20 PM on March 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Re: rabbitrabbit's suggestion:
Wonderfully tasty, but I've gotten the impression from European friends that Mexican foods are not really widely available in Europe. I suppose if you made your pico yourself? Also, aren't avocados incredibly expensive if available at all?

What about fried rice with vegetables? (Light/absent on the oil, made in a nonstick pan, mostly vegetables instead of rice.) Or, if rice is too high-calorie, a cauliflower version? (Like this, but just with vegetables and soy sauce instead of the paleo version of soy or something like that.) Roasted vegetables taste fine at room temperature and last OK in the fridge at home, and anything tastes good roasted (including some veggies that would otherwise be too limp to eat fresh). Actually, most cooked vegetables seem to last longer (in "appetizing to eat" terms, anyway) than raw ones. So if you're not super picky about things being a bit limp, I would think a vegetable stir-fry or saute would probably last a week.

Soup? Curry? I eat curry by itself like a stew or with cooked tofu crumbled into it instead of rice, which is pretty low-calorie; the flavorful curry goes a long way so you don't need much of it. Lots of stuff lasts longer than you think it will without refrigeration. I wouldn't worry about most things that are not raw meat (therefore, not a problem for you) over the course of only half a workday.

Back to keeping things good over the course of the week, sandwiches don't really last well, but they're quick and easy enough to make that you might be able to make them daily. Do you eat cheese? What about a vegetarian pizza that is light on the cheese, heavy on the flavorful veggies and sauce?

More ideas later, I hope.
posted by spelunkingplato at 2:52 PM on March 18, 2014

Can you get "baby bel" cheeses? Those mini cheeses that have a wax coating? Those will keep without refrigeration. Pair with crackers and whatever else you want.

Also, nut butters. Not just peanut butter but also things like almond butter or nutella (hazelnut and chocolate, basically).

Bagels seem to keep better than a lot of other breads. Flat breads also tend to keep better than most yeast leavened bread.

I think I would go with nuts, crackers or flat bread, nut butters, dried fruits, and waxed "baby bel" cheeses. None of them require any refrigeration.

Also, prepping foods properly extends their shelf life. For example, if you buy grapes, get them home and immediately take them all off the stem and rinse. This will extend their shelf life in the fridge considerably. Celery does better if you stick it in a glass of water in the fridge, as if it were fresh flowers. Change the water daily.
posted by Michele in California at 2:52 PM on March 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Jumping off of the baby bell/nuts and crackers/dried fruits idea, there are these Go Picnic things; there are veggie suggestions, and most are relatively low cal. Even if you can't get them where you are, you could look through it for ideas, and make your own versions.
posted by damayanti at 3:34 PM on March 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

A couple things I like:

Fresh spring rolls - I make them on Sunday, and take them for lunch Monday, Tuesday & Wednesday. They keep fine, and can be filled with any veggies you like. I usually do carrots, cabbage, radicchio, bean sprouts, basil and lettuce. I also make a peanut sauce to dip them in, but you could also do a sweet-spicy sauce for even fewer calories.

Hummus & veggies - I just buy hummus, but you could easily make it. I like to eat it with carrots or celery, but pretzel thins are also yummy. Very filling and very good for you.
posted by dotgirl at 3:39 PM on March 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

Any way you can do second, smaller prep session mid-week?

One thing I've been doing since I turned veggie is roasting veggies at high heat twice a week, once on Sunday and once on Wednesday. I do one baking sheet each of broccoli, cauliflower and sweet potato. I use this recipe from Smitten Kitchen pretty much, except I roast at 450C for 10 min per side. Cool and then portion out into 2 cup Ziplock squares. Takes about an hour from start to finish.
posted by sillymama at 4:14 PM on March 18, 2014 [6 favorites]

If you bring a whole cucumber, bell pepper, tomato, whatever [and some salt] and a knife, you can quickly cut your salad. It will be fresh! I like to eat salads that have [no lettuce] watery veggies with just salt and [sometimes] pepper. The salt +tomato/cucmber juice makes a delightful "dressing". While I do have a fridge at work, I usually bring all my veggies in for the week. You could also add some canned beans of your choice [brought in a little tupperware or ziploc bag].
posted by atomicstone at 4:20 PM on March 18, 2014

Lentil anything. My favorite is this Budget Bytes recipe for "dal nirvana." Very easy and CHEAP to make, I double or triple (have even quadrupled!) the recipe to feed a crowd or get leftovers, and I eat it at room temperature at work all the time. I'm pretty sure there is nothing in there that would go bad even for 10-12 hours. Eat with rice, nan, or plain. Tasty, tasty.

Surf around that Budget Bytes site... she has a ton of vegetarian options.

I would also recommend what I call a "snack dinner" - cheese (might get oily when warm but will still taste good and definitely won't go bad), whole fruit (remains appetizing longer than cut fruit without refrigeration), nuts, crackers, sturdy raw veggies (carrots will be fine without refrigeration) and hummus, etc.

Also some might think this is gross but I used to take yogurt to school, forget to eat it at lunch, and eat it at dinner or even put it back in the fridge for the next day (after 8-10 hours at school). Yogurt is pretty much spoiled milk so as long as it is still factory-sealed I don't think it will go bad very quickly. It gets thinner when warm and kind of drinkable... in a good way!
posted by raspberrE at 4:29 PM on March 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

I am a vegetarian that eats eggs (nothing died for it definition). If you are as well, what about quiche? Chard, curry, cheddar, with or without a crust, will keep well in the fridge for the week, and can be eaten at room temperature. Spinach is another good quiche additive, too. Or, frittata, which is essentially a crust-less quiche, with peppers, potatoes, and onions. Watch out for tomatoes, they get horribly runny, I've never been able to do that well.
posted by kellyblah at 5:12 PM on March 18, 2014

Baked Brussels sprouts and onions and mushrooms might meet your criteria.
posted by gemutlichkeit at 5:13 PM on March 18, 2014

Rather than packing a separate ice pack, can you freeze a juice box or similar shelf-stable drink or snack (fruit tub?) and add that into your lunch menu? They don't take up much space and if you prep your lunch at night, you can freeze one overnight as required. It'll keep things cool and be defrosted enough to drink by lunch or as an afternoon snack break. Edit: When you say you don't have a freezer, do you mean none at all or just the tiny one you find in fridges? I assumed the latter, given your ice-pack comment - apologies if that's wrong.
posted by ninazer0 at 5:17 PM on March 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Make a big, big pot of ratatouille and another large container of rice. Enjoy a bit hot, then have it for lunches all week. (The recipe is basically how I make it, add some mushrooms -- I use oregano instead of basil and a big can of diced tomatoes in winter.)
posted by Janissa11 at 6:14 PM on March 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm under the impression that US freezers are bigger than those in other countries, so ignore this if you don't have the freezer space. That said, I often freeze individual portions of stews, thick soups, curries, etc. If you pull it out frozen in the morning it should be OK to eat by dinner time. And you can freeze it with the desired rice or pasta or whatever in the same container so you can just grab one in the morning. (I don't mind eating this kind of thing at room temperature, but YMMV). And this lets you rotate what you're eating a bit over the course of a month or so.

For ideas as what to put in there, I've lately been making a lot of simple veggie curries with chickpeas or kidney beans, a TON of curry powder, canned tomatoes, coconut milk, and whatever veg is around. Or, do you like veggie chili (beans, onion, hot peppers, bell peppers/capsicum, garlic, corn, cumin, chili in adobo if you can get it)? My kind of weird family thing is to eat it with macaroni, but rice or cornbread is more common....
posted by chocotaco at 6:31 PM on March 18, 2014

D'oh! I just saw the part about no freezer. Sorry, never mind....
posted by chocotaco at 6:32 PM on March 18, 2014

How about brown or white or basmati rice as a base starch, with some Asian pickles for flavor. If you have access to Asian groceries, there should be things like tsukemono (Japanese pickles), kimchi, or Indian pickles. I don't know the exact calorie counts, but pickles tend to be pretty low calorie foods.

A tupperware container with rice mixed with sesame oil, soy sauce and black pepper is my go-to inflight meal, keeps well for hours and tastes good at room temperature. I usually eat it with roasted seaweed sheets, for extra fun.
posted by spamandkimchi at 6:43 PM on March 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

My mom's lentil recipe:

1/2 lb lentils
1 can diced or crushed tomatoes
1/2 onion, diced
3-4 carrots, chopped
Salt, pepper, garlic, oregano to taste

Simmer in a pot with some water (I liked to add it little by little to keep the stew from thinning too much) for an hour or so. Serve over toast, rice, pasta, etc. This makes about 6-8 servings and the leftovers keep in the fridge well. The above is just the bones of the recipe -- you can easily add celery, bell peppers, roasted peppers, greens, etc.

It's better heated up but I have eaten and enjoyed it at room temperature.
posted by telegraph at 7:35 PM on March 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

I just made this recipe for dinner and it was both easy and delicious. No doubt this will keep well and be a good lunch tomorrow. I modified this by adding some dark leafy greens and briefly cooked them with the peas and shallot, then put some sliced leftover cooked beets on top. Might be too similar to your quinoa salads but can be customized easily... not sure if you can find fresh peas where you live (substitute tomatoes?).

1 cup farro, cooked
1 cup peas
3-4 tbsp lemon juice
extra-virgin olive oil
1 small shallot, thinly sliced
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
ΒΌ cup fresh mint leaves, torn
posted by belau at 8:29 PM on March 18, 2014

My situation is almost exactly like yours, only I'm in France. My daily lunch experience:
- lots of "Mexican" salads as mentioned above, but I add feta. Sometimes instead of the "Mexican" spice mix I use a dill mix.
- cucumber and hummus. I actually like making the hummus, and researched it on AskMe when I was just starting. Some users suggested peeling the canned chickpeas, and it totally makes a difference. Takes a short time, is easy, and improves the final product.
- curry! I like this red bean curry.
- carrot-ginger-soy salad a lot like this one. Instead of onions I use shallot, and I add cilantro. Miso is not necessary but is a nice addition to the flavor.
- Onigiri: Japanese rice triangles wrapped in nori and stuffed with anything you like. Conventionally they are made with fish, but there are a lot of non-fish possibilities, and really, it's something you can customize: umeboshi (pickled plum), kimchi, konbu (more seaweed) are all traditional veggie possibilities, but do what you like!

I used to count calories and these should all fit within your range or be adaptable (e.g. no cheese) depending on your particular plan. (Your recipes sound interesting to me, as I never make those foods but love them. If you have them typed and would be up to posting or memailing them, I would love it!)
posted by whatzit at 12:53 AM on March 19, 2014

I love my dehydrator for this. I can totally imagine not wanting to buy a whole new appliance, but if you happened to consider one anyway, I can confirm that it works really well. You can make your own healthy instant soup with it, for example. I like dehydrated hummus too. Bring it in a plastic container, add a little water, and 5 minutes later you have hummus. It's perfect for me because it doesn't need so much advance planning and I can make sure to always have some dehydrated hummus and soup on hand.

You could also look at a FoodSaver-like system to vacuum seal your food (I know that Braun sells a hand blender with a vacuum system, but I have no experience with it). That should help keep your food fresh for longer.
posted by blub at 1:39 AM on March 19, 2014

Tasty Bite. It's even vegan and as close to bachelor chow as you can actually get. Of course, this will only work if you have a microwave for your lunch.
posted by mibo at 3:23 AM on March 19, 2014

Indian cooking might just be your answer - if you don't mind cold curry (I love it!). I've just started making stuff from the Prashad cookbook and it's easy to follow and all of it has been delicious. Gets tastier with leaving it in the fridge too!
posted by london explorer girl at 4:07 AM on March 19, 2014

I make a yummy rice salad and it keeps really well. It can be a base for your meal, or your whole meal if you like.

Brown and wild rice
Chopped fresh spinach
Grape tomatoes
Black olives
Pine Nuts/Walnuts/Slivered almonds
Olive Oil
Vinegar of your choice (balsamic, red wine, white wine)

I like it because it tastes best at room temperature. Add some tofu if you like or whatever other protein. You can also add other fresh, crunchy veggies to it, peppers, cucumber, carrots, celery. Other marinated veggies are good too, artichoke hearts, mushrooms, asperagus.

Bon Appetit!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:43 AM on March 19, 2014

Your exceptions (no freezer, no fridge at work) have stumped me for main recipes, but since you mentioned fresh produce, I have an idea to share! When my husband and I were both working with long-ish commutes, we had good luck keeping salad and other greens fresh for a week by carefully prepping them. Wash in cold water, dry thoroughly (salad spinner plus laying out on a towel while we did other things), tear into salad-bite-size pieces (no cutting, which damages the cells) being careful to remove any limp or black pieces, and store in an airtight plastic container in the fridge with a paper towel inside to capture any residual moisture. We got a week's worth of salads all at once.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 10:27 AM on March 19, 2014

Piggybacking on peanut_mcgillicuty's idea, have you seen this method of making salads in mason jars? The general idea is to layer dressing on the bottom, then sturdy vegetables (carrots, radish, broccoli), then protein, then leaf greens on top; the layers keep everything crisp, and you just mix it up when you're ready to eat it. The Kitchn says that making five on Sunday will keep the week; I usually just wing it but you can find lots of recipes online.
posted by stellaluna at 11:59 AM on March 19, 2014

Do you have a microwave at work?

If you do, just make a large serving of dinner, freeze it in containers, it'll defrost over the morning and you can microwave it at work.
E.g. tofu stirfry, beans on rice etc.

Oh. Room temperature.

Ok, a lot of roast vege salads are nice cold. Roast veges, a bit of marinated firm tofu or feta for protein, maybe a few nuts.
Also, I often add frozen baby peas to my lunch box, and by lunchtime they are defrosted and fine to eat as-is. So, you may want to experiment with what things defrost enough by lunchtime. E.g. making a whole dish of quiche, and cutting into daily servings.

Most lunches in a sealed container won't actually spoil over the 6 or so hours til lunchtime.
posted by Elysum at 8:48 PM on March 20, 2014

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