Bowl me over with lunch ideas!
February 11, 2022 3:59 PM   Subscribe

Right now, I often buy lunch at work because I wasn't interested in leftovers. I've noticed that I usually gravitate to some kind of "bowl", with some sort of grains, veggies, some protein and sauce. I love poke bowls, but also a tofu-rice-and-salad bowl that they sell at the cafe near my work. How can I create this type of mean at home, easily? Like, is there a bunch of recipes or "pick one from the following list" type sites? If I precook things, can I store them together? How long to cooked components last? What tastes good together. My snowflake dietary restrictions inside:

  • I'm allergic to tree nuts, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds. I can eat pine nuts and peanuts.
  • I'm low dairy, but will save my daily dairy for cheese - but no sour cream, ect.
  • I cook a lot of meat for my family, so when I'm prepping for just me, I gravitate towards more vegetarian
  • Saying that, I also eat pretty low FODMAP, so very few beans. Basically, I can handle some chickpeas, and edamame (is it really a bean?), but black beans, kidney beans, ect is too much for me. It's unfortunate, because they're delicious.
  • I am a competent cook, but uncreative, and I get no joy out of it. I'd be happy to buy the same two bowls from the cafe downstairs every day, if that wasn't too expensive. The least amount of planning I can do, the better.
  • I'm in BC, which means that the supply chain is ... not in great shape. That means that I can't count on anything actually being available at the grocery store in a given week, so substitutions that I can make are always welcome.
  • Also the Canada thing - the pre-chopped and prepared foods that people get at Trader Joes, and places like that are not necessarily available here.
  • Foods I especially love: any grains (quinoa, rice, farro, pasta), squash, kale, arugula, cucumber, olives, capers, citrus, herbs....
posted by Valancy Rachel to Food & Drink (21 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Kale is great for bowls. I layer my lunch as follows: kale, leftover rice (we always have some), tomatoes, olive oil generously drizzled over it all, maybe some hot sauce, and cheddar cheese. Sometimes I put in tuna or textured vegetable protein (soy) for extra protein, usually before the tomatoes. Microwave for 1-2 minutes to heat up everything up, cooking the kale and melting the cheese. Stir and eat.
posted by jb at 4:13 PM on February 11, 2022

Cheese is not essential in my bowl - but olive oil is. That melds the flavours and spreads the hot sauce nicely. Other flavouring sauces would probably work, but I really like olive oil.
posted by jb at 4:15 PM on February 11, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Can you handle lentils?

I am lazy with recipes, but a few basic ideas that I've done:

1. If you can eat lentils: sometimes I make a large pot of lentils and rice mixed together - about 2 cups (dry) of each. This will last 4-5 days in the fridge. When I'm ready to eat, I fry in a bit of oil some tomato paste or sauce, onions, garlic, hot pepper, and whatever spices I feel like (sometimes I go more Mediterranean, sometimes more in a curry direction). While I'm doing this I microwave a portion of the lentil/rice mixture, then I stir in this sauce.

2. Stir-frying tofu and whatever vegetable you have on hand is easy, pairs with any grain.

3. Pretty much any grain + pasta can be a great base for a cold salad. Add any of the following: cucumbers, olives, citrus, arugula, capers, feta cheese, tomatoes, tuna fish, etc.

4. Peanut butter is great as a soup base - a few scoops of peanut butter mixed in chicken broth + pasta + vegetables + hot sauce, is very tasty and simple.

Edit: I realize these aren't quite all "bowls" but they are pretty easy meals that are flexible with ingredients.
posted by coffeecat at 4:18 PM on February 11, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: General rule of thumb: You can keep most cooked foods in the fridge 3-5 days. Produce kinda has its own schedule depending on what it is - the less you process it the longer it lasts, generally, with some things being really long-lived and others not so much (all this can be looked up in a chart online, for produce, but also you can use eyes and hands to determine). Some things hold longer with special storage (for example I pre-cut all my iceberg lettuce and green cabbage and use a Produce Keeper that vents the gasses that make it wilt and rust faster).

Honestly I say start with the bowls you already like and break them down to their components, which is likely 1-2 proteins, 1-2 vegetables, a grain and/or legume, with seasoning or sauce. There's your formula. You might look at Ethan Chlebowski's "weeknight" videos to see how he preps for various bowls.

Part of your process is identifying what you CAN get your hands on generally, and which things you're willing to pay a little extra more for instead of cooking yourself. As an example, you can cook chicken yourself from scratch, buy cooked/rotisserie from a grocery store/deli or a BBQ or chicken restaurant, or get it frozen cooked. Beans you can cook yourself or get in a can/pouch. Rice and grain blends are also now available in ready-to-eat or instant or cook-yourself options (plus restaurants will sell you some cooked). If you want to keep it super simple and make bowls from frozen cooked hamburger patties you microwave or air-fry, go ahead - that's an option.

Almost anything you can get from a grocery store, even already cooked for you, will be cheaper than buying a bowl from a restaurant. Shortcuts are fine!

The one thing you have to watch for is trying to make five completely different kinds of bowls a week - you'll end up with too much uneaten stuff sitting too long. At first you might be doing pretty much the same bowl with a variation on proteins and seasonings only (since proteins can be frozen in single servings, you can mix that up a little bit more from the start) - so you might be eating a cabbage-chickpea base all week but with ground beef/taco seasoning one day, chicken/greek seasoning or dressing the next, beef + greek, chicken + taco. Over time, you'll figure out how to leverage the varying expirations and stuff you need to use up to drive more novelty.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:19 PM on February 11, 2022

Oh, and I make use of the fact that a "bowl" is just a deconstructed burrito, gyro, sandwich, toast, fritatta, or pizza. Put the bread device near the bowl and you've got more variety, scramble it up in some eggs and you've got brunch.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:21 PM on February 11, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Hello, your ideal lunch is the kind of thing I eat most of the time, especially when I commute into work and don't want to deal with things!

brown rice base -- 540 ml (dry -- works out to approx 450 grams) -- I cook it in a rice cooker
lentils or chickpeaks -- if you want! ~120ml lentils (dry) or ~240ml chickpeaks
pine nuts -- can definitely go in here
veggies -- whatever is fresh and looks good. broccolini or broccoli crowns (oven-roasted to a light-to-medium char), kale, arugula, green onion, avocado
tofu -- I often marinate it in something simple (chili powder & lime juice & salt & brown sugar is a good one), saute or bake
sauces -- I usually go pre-made. Trader Joe's has a green Thai simmer sauce I love. I see that you don't have TJ available so I'd suggest hitting up wherever you'd go for curry/simmer sauces

I tend to bake everything separately, combine it in a big plastic container in the fridge, and portion it out over the week. The great thing is that if you have like, a little bit of leftover something from dinner one night, it goes into the big container and becomes part of the week's lunches.
posted by curious nu at 4:22 PM on February 11, 2022 [1 favorite]

Other veggie staples I use are mushrooms and carrots, and various kinds of peppers. I try and have a mix of soft things and crunchy things. I love going to the farmers' markets and getting stuff that way, but if that is not your jam, just grabbing whatever's seasonal at the grocery store is probably a good bet.
posted by curious nu at 4:25 PM on February 11, 2022

Oh! Soy sausage is another great thing, if you want something tofu-ish but don't want to press and season it yourself. Go for a store brand (stuff like Field Roast is too expensive just to chop it up and toss it in a mix).
posted by curious nu at 4:26 PM on February 11, 2022

And when cooking the rice, experiment with cooking it in broths. Mushroom broth is fantastic. I've commented too many times now, I love talking about this apparently.
posted by curious nu at 4:28 PM on February 11, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I cook this Korean chicken bowl for myself fairly regularly. My guess is you could sub out the chicken for tofu pretty easily.
posted by shesbookish at 4:28 PM on February 11, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Since you say you love cucumber olives herbs and citrus, what about a hearty Greek salad bowl? If you make your rice ahead of time and dress it with either a premade salad dressing or a combination of olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper and oregano, it soaks in all that flavor and doesn’t clump up when it’s cold. You could use pretty much any grain mix you like, I recommend ones with barley because it has such a great texture. Then top with shredded greens (whatever you have, arugula is great, I like a combination of romaine and kale, I can get prewashed combo of lots of things from Organic Girl here, which I love), kalamata olives or even a Greek olive mix, thinly sliced red onions (which you can do ahead of time and keep in the fridge for days), big chunks of tomato, cucumber, and bell pepper, and torn fresh herbs like parsley, dill, mint, or whatever you have - don’t chop, just have big pieces so you get their full flavor in the occasional bite. For protein you could do pretty much anything, if feta works for you that’s great and classic and no-cook, some firm tofu can be pressed and roasted with that dressing and extra salt, the old standby of batch cooked chicken, or my personal favorite of quickly boiled shrimp (from frozen) left to marinate in a salad dressing overnight. You could also do canned tuna or sardines, which are less neutral but delicious all the same. If you have a plain non-dairy yogurt you like, you can mix that with lemon juice and herbs and use that as a dip or dressing, but it would also be great with some high quality olive oil and a wedge of lemon, which you can also prep and store for a week or so in the fridge so you have lemon wedges whenever. Swap in veggies that you can find, skip tomato in the winter or add extra herbs and head toward tabbouleh territory when you have a bunch that needs using up.
posted by Mizu at 4:45 PM on February 11, 2022

Pakages of Udon noodles are cheap. You can prepare them according to instructions adding whatever you want. Udon noodles are pre cooked and wet in their packaging. I like the texture.
This mug makes heat up lunch happen. I have seen them in three packs at Home Depot on occasion. You aren't storing in plastic or heating in plastic. I am sure Udon would work for salad use. They are quick since already cooked.
posted by Oyéah at 4:45 PM on February 11, 2022

Best answer: We make a poke-ish bowl in the middle of winter in rural NS so it is possible. Salmon or chicken or tofu cooked with teriyaki sauce (soy sauce and ginger), edamame (freezer section), mangos (freezer section), cucumbers and rice. Then soy sauce, sriracha mayo (sriracha, mayo, roasted sesame oil), and sesame seeds.

Also a Korean-ish version with rice, cucumbers, sautéed spinach with sesame oil (freezer section), sautéed thinly sliced carrots with sesame oil (or shredded raw) ground beef and mushrooms with soy sauce and garlic, sometimes bean sprouts, sometimes a saucy fried egg, definitely gochujang sauce with sesame oil. The gochujang paste isn’t available in my town but is in the next town over which is still tiny.

I have also made up a Mexican-ish bowl but the premise is rice, meat or tofu in chunks, 2-3 vegetables, 1 sweetish thing (mangos or carrots cooked with a little sugar), 1 fatty thing (mayo, egg, avocado) and a strong, spicy sauce.

I’d probably store things separate until the day I wanted to eat them.
posted by hydrobatidae at 5:04 PM on February 11, 2022

Best answer: Mason jar grain salads might do the trick.
posted by spamandkimchi at 5:08 PM on February 11, 2022 [1 favorite]

I forgot to mention my dirty dirty secret for Big Salads: frozen appetizers. Pizza Rolls, egg rolls, gyoza/dumplings, pierogies, cheap small frozen pizzas, mozarella sticks, jalapeno poppers, popcorn chicken (or my grocery stores all have a couple variations on Orange/Sesame/Kung Pao chicken) or chicken nuggets. Throw a handful into the toaster oven/air fryer/oven and chop them over your salad kinda like croutons. They pack a lot of flavor and texture.

Here's a really good Pro Home Cooks primer on meal prep.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:23 PM on February 11, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I noticed that you wrote you don't mind eating more or less the same every day. My kids rotated between less than a handful of simple lunches for all of their school years, 20 years of my life.
1 (by far most days): a pasta salad made of short pasta (mostly penne), halved cherry tomatoes, olives, soft greek or mozzarella cheese and fresh basil. Dressed with olive oil, lemon juice, a tiny bit of aceto balsamico, salt and pepper. I cooked the pasta and made it in the morning before school, that way the tastes were melded and absorbed into the pasta by lunchtime.
2: soba noodles with cucumber matchsticks, seaweed and sesame seeds, dressed with sesame oil and a few drops of soy sauce and lime or rice vinegar.
3: leftover minestrone. If we had soup for dinner, I'd always make enough to fill a thermos for each of them. If you do this, take a portion of soup out before you add the pasta for dinner. Then in the morning, reheat the pasta-less soup with new pasta. This will continue cooking in the thermos, so it doesn't need more than 4-5 minutes in the reheating soup. Use soup pasta, like orzo or alphabet or tiny hoops.
4 (rarely): Sandwiches with ham and cheese on dark, whole rye with lettuce and cucumbers. I know this doesn't fit your question, I'm just putting it in so you can see the whole palette. The rest of their daily diet (breakfast, snack and dinner) was very varied, so they didn't need to get all food and nutrition groups covered for lunch.

They never wanted any change, and their lunches are remembered to this day by their classmates as the epitome of school lunch luxury. For a couple of years, my youngest even made me cook double portions, so she could share with her friends.
These things are best made the morning of, but the routine makes it very simple and fast. Set the pot over with water to boil and seaweed to soak as you shower. Chop the (very few) vegs while the penne or soba noodles cook. Remember to cook the penne for the salad just al dente, since they too continue to "cook" in the salad. You rinse the soba noodles in cold water, so they stop cooking, see instructions on the package.

If you want to cook something ahead, I'd go with potato salads, since their taste often improves in the fridge, as well as the nutritional value.
One option is: waxy potatoes, not cooked too much, and dressed with finely chopped spring onions or chives and a good strong vinaigrette with mustard. Put in some capers and/or olives, too. Finely shredded kale is good in this, specially if you make it the day before, and you can top with any protein you like, tofu, green lentils if you can eat them, chickpeas, edamame, or an egg if you eat them.
Another great potato salad is Korean style. It works fine with vegan mayo and tofu instead of the egg.

Yesterday I made a salad for lunch out of shredded cabbage and carrots, dressed with goma sauce, a bit of oil, lots of lemon juice, a bit of soy sauce, and sesame seeds. I bet it would keep well and even improve ovrenight in the fridge, but it disappeared almost instantly. I sprinkled dried cranberries on top and had it with some hummus. Tofu would have been good, too.

IMO, pasta and rice are not good eaten cold if previously refrigerated. If you reheat them, that is a different thing. Farro and bulgur are OK the day after, though not as delicious as potatoes and cabbages.

I too had the same lunch for years: one piece of rye bread with potatoes and chives and one with pickled heering and egg. But that is an other story.

TLDR: my opinion is that if in doubt, go for simpler food made fresher, and if making ahead is necessary, go for food that improves with resting time.
posted by mumimor at 4:18 AM on February 12, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Previously on the blue, Food52 has mad-libs like recipes for 5 different scenarios.

And when searching for this, I found their book, that seems like it might be similar.
posted by msbrauer at 7:34 AM on February 12, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'll channel my inner Kenji and say there is basically a template to bowls:

Base + Substance + Sauce + Garnish

Base would be rice, lentils, other grains, pasta (pro tip, the rectangular instant ramen noodle bricks are perfect for 1-2 servings).
Substance is anything...high temperature roasted veg, deli roast chicken, your beans, etc.
Sauce can be something purchased but if you are feeling creative you can make your own vinaigrettes and another pro tip, peanut butter in coconut milk with chilli paste is delicious.
Garnishes are optional but easy ones are chopped nuts or flakey coconut. If you have leftover fresh herbs from dinner, use them here.

As for transport, I would keep the base + substance together and pack the sauce and garnish separately. You can then choose to reheat just the base and substance and use the sauce cold as a contrast or heat it all together.

Once you have a routine in place it makes it easy to swap out things as you have them and as you figure out what sauces you like with your veg/protein.
posted by mmascolino at 8:54 AM on February 12, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I like rice (warm) with lots of baby spinach or other greens, mixed with sesame tofu, little cubes of squash or sweet potato, apples, and red onions, with sesame dressing.
posted by pinochiette at 9:09 AM on February 12, 2022

Best answer: I often make farro cooked in stock, roasted sweet potatoes and mushrooms, protein (leftover chicken, tofu, or egg), caramelized onions, dress with balsamic vinegar and good olive oil

Also good is a "burrito bowl" with rice, protein, roasted veg, and Mexican spices, with a little cheese, salsa, or guacamole.
posted by Red Desk at 9:09 PM on February 12, 2022

Response by poster: These are great! Oddly enough, it didn't occur to me to eat rice I cooked for dinner cold the next day... I mixed some with leftover greek salad, and lunch! You've all given me a lovely amount interesting vegetarian lunches with no dairy, beans, nuts or seeds, which is amazing!
posted by Valancy Rachel at 1:09 PM on February 15, 2022

« Older what's a cheap and easy way to get a temporary...   |   Is it time for my parents to get a 2nd booster? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.