Done With Sammiches
February 8, 2024 2:24 PM   Subscribe

Twice a week I have a very fast lunch, which I've been packing sandwiches for but they are losing their luster (not that they were that great to begin with). I'm looking for alternatives, with limitations.

So, here's my limitations, basically due to eating while sitting in my car in a parking lot with about 10 minutes to eat:
  • It'll be in a lunchbox with an ice pack all morning
  • Zero prep time -- open and eat, no heating or reheating, no assembly if possible
  • There's no table so no utensils or fancy dishes or spillable things
  • Trying to do low-carbs/gluten-free although not a dealbreaker
  • I don't really like fruit in general, in particular I think bananas are gross
  • No food allergies though
  • I currently bring a single serving bag of chips which can continue, those are good
I did try a pack of Lunchables once, but was starving by mid-afternoon, so I need something a little more substantial.

Hopefully this isn't too limiting -- let me know what you think might make me look forward to my fast lunch a little more. Thanks!
posted by AzraelBrown to Food & Drink (22 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
What about not lettuce-y salads? Like a lentil or bean based salad. I used to eat them with a spoon right out the container I packed them in.

Also polly-o cheese sticks don’t need to be refrigerated for a morning and I like having those as a lunch food
posted by raccoon409 at 2:34 PM on February 8

One of the top 5 "mundane joys" of my life is my little museum lunch. Basically: it's what I pack with me to eat when I'm going to be spending all day in a museum, where I'll sit down on a bench and have a nice little meal while people watching.

The night before I make instant ramen noodles with the following mods: cook the noodles but discard the water (I don't use the broth packet, but you can), then add a big glob of peanut butter, sesame oil, soy sauce, hot sauce (more like sriracha than tabasco), and sesame seeds. I put this in a ziplock freezer bag and then stick that in the fridge.

In the morning I wrap the ziplock of noodles around a cold canned drink, then wrap that up in a cloth napkin with some chopsticks. That's enough cool and insulation to get to lunch for the circumstances I'm in. Add to that a piece of handheld fruit (banana, orange) and a piece of candy, and I'm all set.

I sit and eat my little spicy noods out of my little bag with my little chopsticks like the little weirdo I am, and have an absolutely lovely little time. 10/10 Extremely minimal mess (napkin out on my lap for easy cleanup, fruit peel + squashed can into the ziplock back into my bag if there's no trash can), packs easy in a very small bag, filling enough for my purposes.
posted by phunniemee at 2:38 PM on February 8 [35 favorites]

For years, my kids' favorite lunch was a pasta salad. I made it in the morning, if you can do that, it will taste better and the texture will be optimal. But actually the nutritional value will be better if you make it the night before so the pasta develops resistent starches. You could also make the salad with bulgur or other healthy grains instead of pasta.

Anyway, the point is to keep it simple: pasta + chickpeas + tomatoes + olives + cucumber + chopped herbs + olive oil, lemon juice, and seasoning of your choice.

This is fork food. But once you get the dressing right, you can literally eat it every day for years, ask my kids. Over the course of the year, I'd vary the balance between the elements. Tomatoes are really sad during winter, so there would be more olives and the main herb would be parsley. In spring we get ramps, and they would take up a lot of space in the salad. Come summer, the tomato and cucumber come to life, and can dominate, with just a little fresh oregano and salt. But you do you. Just keep it simple and buy some good olive oil.
posted by mumimor at 2:43 PM on February 8 [5 favorites]

I’d probably go the wrap route. You can toss pretty much anything in a wrap. Meats, cheeses, salads, pb&j, hummus, it’s all good. And, there are gluten-free wraps.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:12 PM on February 8 [4 favorites]

I have to pack a cold lunch for my kid every school day so know these limitations well. Please see below:

1. Onigiri - You can buy them ready made at the nearest Asian grocery store. I like ones with spicy cod roe or fried chicken or salted plum. Triangle shaped rice balls covered with seaweed. Very on the go.
2. Kimbap - Also at your Asian grocery if they are available. They are like sushi but have beef, egg and veggies inside instead of raw fish.
3. Homemade Quesadillas - Take a tortilla and sprinkle cheese or cheese and chopped chicken and veggies. Put another tortilla on top. Heat in pan or toaster oven. Cut into triangles with dips of salsa and sour cream or yogurt. This can be made the night before and put into lunchbox.
4. Home made pizza roll-ups - take a tortilla and put in tomato sauce and cheese on top with some basil and maybe chicken, cook in toaster oven, cut into thick strips and roll them up. This can be made the night before and put into lunchbox.
posted by ichimunki at 3:16 PM on February 8 [4 favorites]

I like lettuce wraps - you can prep some romaine or leaf lettuce and bring it in a baggie with a paper towel. To wrap in it (when you’re ready to eat): lunchmeat and cheese with a pickle, tuna salad, baked tofu with some nuts and sriracha, chickpea salad, any kind of protein-y thing you like would work.

Also you might like a little charcuterie plate - olives, cubed cheese, meat or sardines, some nuts, a hard boiled egg, carrot sticks.
posted by rocketing at 3:37 PM on February 8

What about a hot soup or stew or chili that you can carry in a good thermos? Especially now when the weather is cold and rainy where I live, this sounds good to me. Just open the lid and eat with a spoon.
posted by metahawk at 3:50 PM on February 8 [6 favorites]

Do you like tuna salad? I used to buy the Starkist tuna salad kits that come with a no-drain serving of tuna, a pouch of mayo and relish, some crackers, and a little wooden utensil. The kit is actually a little mixing vessel for the tuna salad, then you can use the utensil to spread it on crackers. I find that it contained just enough protein to keep me full, and it couldn’t be quicker or easier.
posted by little mouth at 3:52 PM on February 8 [1 favorite]

7 bean salad, quinoa salad, cowboy caviar. These are all really hearty-ish salads you make ahead and scoop into your lunch container, minimal leafy greens so they last a bit longer than salads. (I'm not a lettuce fan). Bean dip and tortilla chips. Hummus and pita. I'm not sure if this is too "sandwhich-y" for you, but I find eating things btwn a bagel to be particularly more satisfying than eating things btwn sandwich bread - cream cheese (w/ a sprinkle of ranch dressing powder) and ham, roast beef, pepperoni, salami, etc..
posted by ellerhodes at 4:23 PM on February 8

This lentil salad is a bit of work on the prep side, but it's delicious and hearty. Don't be put off by "salad" - it's way more lentil. I'd add some crusty bread. I use the "wet" feta cheese that I find in 7 oz packages and I throw the whole thing in. 5 oz is not generous.

I also like cold peanut noodles [easy mode] with whatever protein thing you want. Chicken, tempeh, leftover rotisserie, steak, tofu.

Teriyaki salmon with cucumber and avocado is good the next day, but the salmon skin doesn't stay crispy.

You also might explore:
+ this list (chickpeas? frittata?)
+ the possibilities of tinned fish
+ eating your dinner leftovers cold (I am often happy with cold ravioli, pizza, fried rice, fish)
posted by meemzi at 4:33 PM on February 8 [1 favorite]

Bop over to and see if any of their nut combos appeal. You can even make custom mixes if you want; I do because I have to watch sodium.

This is how I do lunch. I throw dried fruit (including banana chips) into my custom mix, but obviously you don't have to.

The extra-nice thing about this is that I can have a nice little nosh whenever I'm feeling peckish.
posted by humbug at 4:35 PM on February 8 [2 favorites]

Highly suggest assembling a cutlery roll, just roll the utensils you will need in a fabric napkin and use a hair tie or rubber band to keep it secure, then store the dirty utensils in the napkin afterwards, bring home to wash. Of course you can also buy a set, definitely visit any Asian supermarkets or home ware stores that would have less bougie versions in stock. But honestly just use what you have, you know? That will expand your options significantly.

I think a lettuce-free salad with some grains or pasta is a good direction to go in. Cold sesame noodles are mentioned above and those are great, I especially like them bulked out with edamame, corn, and bell peppers. But pasta salads can be a little carb heavy if you are aiming for carb reduction. Couscous salads are basically pasta salads but often the ratio of other ingredients means they are a bit more balanced - try canned tuna, canned white beans, lots of parsley and chopped cucumber, the zest and juice of a lemon, salt and pepper plus enough couscous to make you happy. It will be better after sitting overnight. Add sumac if you have it. Try your favorite protein plus thinly sliced mushrooms and broccoli florets cooked in your favorite curry powder, mixed into brown rice and chilled overnight. Brown rice is better cold than white rice in my opinion, better texture.

Onigiri and gimbap are great ideas and if you become adept at making them they are significantly cheaper and infinitely customizable. But often there is too much rice for me when I’ve eaten enough to feel satisfied, unless I also have something on the side like another protein or some fruit. You can make a cold rice bowl though with all the ingredients you like layered in a container but with a larger proportion of fillings. Eat with a spoon. You can also do the same idea with burrito type ingredients of course, though I prefer those eaten hot. Up to you though.
posted by Mizu at 4:56 PM on February 8

I started making work lunches with a base of low-fat strained Greek yogurt such as Fage, like 3/4 of a cup to a cup. Regular yogurt doesn't work for me; I need something really substantial with protein to get through the day. Then put other ingredients on top or mix them in. Mixed cooked vegetables/grains, oatmeal maybe mixed with some nuts, whatever you have around. I've been known to mash dinner leftovers or a piece of chocolate cake in there. All you need is a spoon.
posted by BibiRose at 6:05 PM on February 8

Prev. Ask: Best formulas for cold burritos meets a lot of your requirements; Mission Foods makes a variety of "low carb" tortillas.
posted by Iris Gambol at 8:41 PM on February 8

Mmmm Sammiches. Get some Potato Buns and improve your boring sammiches.

But, wrap damn near anything in a tortilla, and it will be awesome. Eggs, beans, cheese, salsa, lettuce, whatever. Very good. Better heated, to melt the cheese, but.

Raw veg and hummus or other dips? Some Naan bread to go with that? Some dried fruit? Now I am hungry.
posted by Windopaene at 9:10 PM on February 8

Agree with hot soup or stew in a Thermos, unless it has to be a cold lunch.

My suggestion for a cold lunch is zucchini slice. Can be made with gluten free flour or leave out the flour for it to be more like a frittata. Pretty much all the ingredients other than zucchini and eggs are substitutable.
posted by pianissimo at 9:24 PM on February 8 [1 favorite]

If your sangers use reg'lar sliced bread you haven't rung the wheat changes (pitta, roti) yet.
Others have suggested different wrapping vehicles. Dolmades haven't been mentioned: gluten free.
I make little fried besan = gram-flour pancakes with chopped veggies included (peas, onions, broccoli, peppers, whatevs). Better piping hot but perfectly acceptable cold: with dollop of lime pickle?
posted by BobTheScientist at 12:50 AM on February 9 [1 favorite]

I'm also on TeamThermos. Get a nice short and wide one, heat up some leftovers before your leave home and pop them in there to stay hot until lunch. This gives you a ton of variety options and if you don't mind leftovers, you really don't have to plan/shop for them since they are just a little more of what you had for dinner.
posted by advicepig at 6:42 AM on February 9

Response by poster: Hmm, thank you all for the suggestions: I think I'm on team "cold noodle salad". Although it requires a utensil and isn't super low-carb, it's pretty lunchbox stable and doesn't require any preparation at eating-time and can be prepared in batches earlier. That's usually a 'summer meal' thing when we're busy, my wife will make a big batch of noodle-tuna-mayonnaise-peas salad that lives in the fridge for a couple days and is eaten for lunches. I may have to look at rice-involving 'salads' too, as a lower-gluten option.

More suggestions are still welcome, too!
posted by AzraelBrown at 9:56 AM on February 9 [1 favorite]

Avocado, tomato and a chopped ball of fresh mozzarella makes for a great salad (I would add lemon juice, olive oil and salt).

Coarsely chopped egg with tomato or bacon or both, in mayo, is pretty good. I happily eat this with a fork.

Hummus and oat crackers.
posted by quacks like a duck at 10:44 AM on February 9 [1 favorite]

Social media'er Ashley Loves Condiments, who films herself eating lunch in her car, made herself a lap desk out of a small throw pillow, a thrift store tray, and hot glue, if you want to upgrade your arrangements. Also, she's got some good ideas, so you might peruse for lunch inspiration.

Lunchables are for amateurs, what you want is charcuterie, or a graze plate. I do mine pretty protein heavy, so if I'm doing Shark(uterie) Week I get thicker-sliced pepperoni, salami, sometimes canadian bacon. You can just get deli-slice cheese if you don't want to deal with prepping cheese slices. Handful of grape tomatoes, handful of grapes if you like, persian cucumber, a few salted almonds, a boiled egg if you like, and then a square of dark chocolate to finish. Bring your chips, or some crackers or lavash or even a low carb tortilla if you want.

For a graze plate, I like cubes or slices of meatloaf (or frozen meatballs, which you want to throw in an air fryer/oven/microwave to prep a couple days' worth and store in the fridge to grab and go), pan-seared/roasted/air-fried smoked sausage cut into slices, or slices of cooked chicken breast or even thigh - cook it gently like a low roast or air fry or sous vide, slice fairly thin across the grain. Canned green beans dressed with a dash of oil and vinegar or honey mustard, the grape tomatoes again, maybe some roasted vegetables or raw or slaw, cheese again or avocado/guac. The important part here is to use a protein that when cold is still texturally pleasant, and I originally thought of meatloaf because of the long history of the sliced meatloaf sandwich. Ideally you bring something like a sauce or dip for this, but the nice thing is how much variety you get from that - BBQ, teriyaki, sweet sauce, aioli or mayo or cream-cheese type dip, Greek/Italiany dressing, ranch, peanut sauce etc.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:40 AM on February 9

You can make Mark Bittman's peanut sauce in a batch for 4 or 5 servings, put it in a jar in the fridge and make things even easier.

I love rice with a little oil and a fair bit of chopped kimchi. Hot or cold.

Greek salad. Cut up tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion, feta, greek olives, some nice olive oil, maybe a tiny splash of vinegar. Bring some nice bread. The salad gives off lots of juice to dip the bread.

When I make pasta salad, I put in at least as many vegetables - cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, peas, red pepper, red onion, artichokes - as spiral pasta, dressed with mayo and vinaigrette, with tuna. Keeps well. You can use frozen broccoli, cauliflower and peas; they don't need cooking and are pre-cut.

Potato salad

You can put all sorts of stuff in a spring roll wrapper, but it's usually untidy to eat.
posted by theora55 at 8:40 PM on February 9 [1 favorite]

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