I'm tired of plain sandwiches and pasta salad
December 5, 2006 9:09 AM   Subscribe

What good packed lunches have you made? I only know sandwiches and pasta salad, but I can cook. And what kind of containers/bags are cheapest/convenient?

I want to bring a packed lunch instead of buying from the cafeteria. I'll be bringing it in the morning, and leave it around for 3-4 hours before consuming it. I like all sorts of foods.

Out of {cheap, fast, good}, I pick cheap and good.

They should not smell or be embarassing

Bonus if they don't need to be kept in the fridge or microwaved
posted by tasty to Food & Drink (24 answers total) 92 users marked this as a favorite
To last me for a week's lunches, I bring in a package of Wasa sourdough rye crispbread crackers, a plastic tub of seasoned mixed olives from my local deli, a chunk of goat cheese, and bottles of juice, and then I usually step out for a banana an hour later (though I could easily bring them from home.

This lunch routine allows for a little variety, with different kinds of olives, cheeses, juices, and crackers in rotation. It's filling enough, stimulating enough, and cheap enough to sustain me. The olives and cheese do need to be refrigerated though.
posted by hermitosis at 9:14 AM on December 5, 2006 [1 favorite]

I would recommend rice and anything (salmon, eel, kim chee, chicken, etc.---with a little teriyaki sauce) packed into the zojirushi Mr. Bento lunch jar.
posted by mattbucher at 9:16 AM on December 5, 2006

Eponysterical. I think you'd love to read through the archives of Vegan Lunch Box. The packed lunches are amazing and creative and delicious. You can alter recipes to suit your liking, of course. But you'll be inspired. This is where she gets her "laptop lunch systems". Love that name. They're like plastic bento boxes.
posted by iconomy at 9:21 AM on December 5, 2006

Every day for a month when I was interning I would bring a chunk (torn off the loaf) of fresh French/Italian bread, a chunk of Fontella/Fontina cheese, a roma tomato, and a couple slices of prosciutto. If the weather was nice and I could eat outside I would also bring an opaque water bottle with cabernet saugvignon (can't drink at work, but can drink during lunch, although it always amounted to about one and a half glasses). I called it "eating European". Each meal cost ~$5, but I never got tired of it and it made me feel cultured and mellow (probably the wine).

At the very least it was delicious and a good conversation starter.
posted by JeremiahBritt at 9:26 AM on December 5, 2006

I'm a big fan of tuna, but I know some people are adverse to the smell. The packets are cheap and easy to put on a sandwich. Add a little hot sauce and you've got a tasty and healthy meal.
posted by Loto at 9:28 AM on December 5, 2006

I am love packing lunches. I have a snack drawer at work for non perishables. For me this includes high protein oatmeal, individual canned fruits, nuts, fiber one snack squares and occasionally pretzels.

Then for lunch I have a divided serving container and dump some greens or other vegetables in one container and usually some beans in the other. Very satisfying. I also often have low fat string cheese, cut up vegetable sticks, apples, or low sodium lunch meat, to add some variety.

The plastic "lunch packs" at the grocery store are now microwaveable and dishwasher safe, so you can reuse them almost indefinetly.
posted by stormygrey at 9:37 AM on December 5, 2006

All I can say is apples. The best packed lunch always has an apple (or two). I was raised on meatloaf sandwiches and the occasional cream cheese and jelly sandwich thrown in for good measure by my mom. When I lived in England, I ate so many sandwiches crammed with mayo that I can no longer stomach it. Now, I try to make a cassarole a week and then cut it up to take to work with me.
posted by parmanparman at 9:45 AM on December 5, 2006 [1 favorite]

One or more soup thermos bottles can go a long way to making leftovers into interesting lunches, while keeping foods at a safe temperature. Soups, chili, meat & rice dishes, and even mashed potatoes can be part of your lunches, with very little effort. A few minutes of morning microwave action on your previous evening's dinner leftovers, and you've often got a hearty low cost lunch, with very little effort.
posted by paulsc at 10:00 AM on December 5, 2006

Quiche is delicious, easy to make, travels well, is tasty cold, and provides nearly limitless options for customization.
posted by saladin at 10:01 AM on December 5, 2006 [1 favorite]

For me nothing beats homemade dinner leftovers. They're slightly embarrassing in a hobo kind of way, but #1 fuck that and #2 mostly people are jealous of my boyfriend's cooking. It also makes your dinner cooking more efficient, both in money and time, as you can make bigger portions. Those "disposable" Glad containers are perfect for the job and anything but disposable. (But I guess I don't get the bonus points for refrigeration and microwaving, as I do both of those in my office every day.)

Everything I've tried to buy specifically for lunch ends up seeming boring or gross after a while. At one point I decided that all cold lunch meats are both disgusting and expensive, and haven't eaten them since.
posted by Doctor Barnett at 10:19 AM on December 5, 2006

Being diabetic I have to bring lunch 99% of the time (I teach in a middle school and the cafeteria food is pretty much deadly carbohydrate wise).

I pack lunches a week at a time

Here are some ideas I use -
Blocks or tubs of cheese (lots of variety here)
'Meat salads' (chicken, tuna, pork barbecue w/ coleslaw, etc)
Traditional Salads (this can get old fast)
Nuts/Seeds (cocktail peanuts are my favorite but i've brought many different kids)
Granola Bars (or South Beach Diet Bars - which are a bit more diabetic friendly)

When I have access to a microwave, I premake a batch of burritos or fajita burritos (I can get flour tortillas with surprisingly low counts) and put them in regular tupperware (just take all of them home on friday to wash). I take them to work and re-heat, add sour cream and ready to go.

When I didn't have to worry about sugar so much - I would bring pierogies or pre-frozen or pre-made mexican or italian food. A good take-out dinner from a family italian restaurant is normally worth 4-5 lunches, a little less for mexican places but you're still talking about 2-3 bucks per lunch.

I go to warehouse stores and buy diet soda and bottled water by the case and store it at work (this might not be an option but its actually not very space-intensive) and only chill what I need in the refrigerator.
posted by Fuka at 10:40 AM on December 5, 2006

I mainly go for sandwiches or a cheese/cracker/fruit lunch, but I alternate it with things like:

soup- gazpacho would work well for you, it will probably be room temp by the time you eat it, but that won't be a problem
3 bean salad- I make mine with red, black, and pinto, and I add corn, red pepper, onion, and cilantro (avocado too if you feel fancy)
and today I am eating hummus and ajvar (red pepper dip) with carrots and pita bread.
posted by rmless at 11:09 AM on December 5, 2006

Some that I use:

1. cottage cheese with berries and almonds
2. turkey on whole wheat with an apple and carrots
3. grilled chicken (or tuna salad) over salad with a homemade vinegarette, maybe some parmesan cheese if using chicken
4. stir fried chicken and vegetables with or without rice
5. chili (healthy version here, wet meals tend to reheat better in the microwave)

snacks might include an apple and peanut butter, an ounce of nuts, a 'protein' bar
posted by objdoc at 11:39 AM on December 5, 2006

posted by Faint of Butt at 11:43 AM on December 5, 2006

I tend to plan out my lunches on Sundays, when I have the grocery adds from the Sunday paper in front of me. That way I can come up with a money-saving shopping list, and prepare at least Monday and Tuesday's (often Wednesday's) food before bed on Sunday.

Generally I want every lunch to have at least four items, with one centerpiece that I actually eat during my lunch hour and three smaller things to much on through the day. The centerpiece is what takes the most preparation. The smaller items always include at least one piece of fruit, and at least one veggie if my main food is not already veggie rich. Also good: a chunk of cheese, a couple rice cakes, whatever.

Burritos/wraps offer lots of possibilities:
* Burrito: beans, corn, rice, salsa/tomatoes, avocado, spices, shredded cheddar, meat if that's your thing
* Greek wrap: dark leafy greens, olives, tomatoes, red onions, feta cheese, oil & vinegar
* California wrap: spread the tortilla with hummous, fill with leafy greens, carrots, broccoli, avocado, chicken if that's your thing
* Pizza wrap: spaghetti sauce, mozzarella cheese, roasted garlic, your favorite pizza toppings
* Thai wrap: chopped peanuts, shredded carrots, mushrooms, lettuce, peanut sauce.

You can pretty much pick and choose among veggies, proteins (tofu, beans, meats), cheeses and sauces/spices to get the wrap of your choice.

If you can't put them in the fridge, avoid chicken and stick to heavily processed meats like salami, and you should be OK for a few hours

I usually wrap my wraps in aluminum foil, and if they contain cheese that melts well I remove them from the foil and microwave on a napkin before eating.

The most cheap and convenient ways to transport food:
* Buy those cheap fake Tupperwares that every grocery store sells now (Rubbermaid, Ziploc, Glad, the brand doesn't matter). They're good for salads or stuff you might want to munch on.
* Aluminum foil for wraps
* zippered baggies for sandwishes or loose veggies
* Put it all in a used grocery bag.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 11:55 AM on December 5, 2006 [2 favorites]

Here are some tips I've found in making my own lunch for work for years. No fridge, and this list will skip the toaster/microwave stuff:

- Yogurt is really fine only a few hours out of the fridge. So is most cheese; I haven't run into any problems with either.

- Think about lunches as something you assemble, rather than make. A little soft cheese wedge spread on some crackers, with an apple, yogurt, granola bar or bag of chips can actually be a pretty decent meal.

- Bulk stores like Costco are good places for getting multi-packs of snack-type food for an assembled lunch.

- The cheap ziploc tupperware stuff is GREAT for lunch-packing. I use the tiny round bowls for almonds, the big, flat containers for sandwiches or leftovers, and the medium-size snack containers for mini-carrots. With the carrots, first I put a generous dollop of hummus in the bottom of the container, then I put the carrots in vertically, so each carrot is dipped in the hummus.

- Lightly toasting slices of bread at home before making a sandwich will help keep the sandwich from getting soggy. Also, as mentioned above, I keep them in a container instead of a baggie.

- I also LOVE sliced apples with slices of cheddar. They can share a flat sandwich-type container, as long as they are stacked separately in the container.

- When I bring a can of soda, I put a chiller around it when I pack it (chillers live in your home freezer), and it's still reasonably cold by lunchtime.

- If you don't want to buy bulk packs of individually wrapped snacks, buy bulk and pack your own in ziploc baggies. You can experiment with creative mixes - On Beyond GORP.
posted by Sprout the Vulgarian at 11:57 AM on December 5, 2006 [1 favorite]

More Bento oriented but maybe useful :

My Lunch Can Beat Up Your Lunch

Bento TV
posted by philad at 12:33 PM on December 5, 2006

I've always been a fan of Thai peanut noodle salad. The recipe I linked is a more "heavy duty" version but it gives you the gist. At a very basic level, you can just boil some spaghetti, throw the sauce into it, maybe garnish with a few peanut crumbs and chopped green onions, and you're good to go.

That it can be eaten cold or at room temperature helps.
posted by mjbraun at 1:10 PM on December 5, 2006 [1 favorite]

For a while I was really enjoying room temperature lasagne at the office. Cheese and fruit are almost infinitely combineable and awesome.

If you skim the grease off the sauce, a good pot roast is nice to bring to work. Especially if you have microwave access or can bring it in a thermos to eat warm.

Soups in a thermos. Bring a few crackers or a piece of nice bread (you can bake bread for cheap cheap cheap) and it will warm your soul.

Hummous and Pita with cucumers and carrot sticks.

I really like the Publix brand madarin orange wedges in a syrup that come in single serve plastic cups.

I make cranberry sauce which freezes very well. You can use it to sauce a piece of leftover chicken or turkey or other meat. It's also good as a fruit, or to bake into coffee cake.

Muffins and oatmeal cookies can add lots of fruits and fiber to your lunch while also being very tasty. Some muffins and cookies also freeze well. So making 60 oatmeal cookies at a time will last for weeks or longer.
posted by bilabial at 1:23 PM on December 5, 2006

I have access to a sandwich press toaster at work, and in another kitchen there is a jaffle maker (not sure if USians call them that, but a toaster press that seals around the edges).
If you have these, you can make some great lunches, and if you don't, perhaps find a workmate and go halves in one, they are cheap? Be aware they can be a nuisance to clean, which can be a black mark against sharing.
My current price buster gourmet lunch is to get a loaf of unsliced bread (either seeded from the bakery or the marked down to 50c ones left at the end of the day at the supermarket) and cut thick slices, butter with real butter and add a slice of mature tasty cheese.
Wrap each in a freezer bag and freeze till the morning needed.
On the way to work, purchase a few ripe tomatoes. I find if bought on Monday, a few days later they are super-ripe and tasty.
Make up a cheese and tomato sandwich, add salt and plenty of cracked pepper, then toast for about 5mins in the sandwich press. You have a yummy lunch for about 40 cents.
posted by bystander at 6:44 PM on December 5, 2006

Don't sue me for saying this, but you can almost always keep just about anything at room temp from the time you leave for work until the time you eat lunch. I've been doing it for years with leftover sushi from the night before(in the fridge overnight, of course), with dinner from the night before, and with salads we've made specifically for lunch purposes. Practice good food handling practices when preparing food, and you can be considerably more liberal about refrigeration. Hell, I once left 20# of cooked crawfish in the trunk of the car, in a garbage bag, in South Mississippi, in summer, overnight, and they were still good the next afternoon when I remembered where I left them. That might have something to do with the level of spices on the crawfish, though.

Anyways, one easy and cheap thing we do is bake or otherwise prepare chicken breasts, dice them into chunks, and add them to chopped vegetables, dressing, and other salad ingredients. As a salad, it lasts a couple days in the fridge, amd I've never had a problem, making it the way we do, with not refrigerating it until lunchtime.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 11:45 PM on December 5, 2006

Leftovers, obviously.

I'm also a big fan of what I call bits with stuff in:
  • Rice salad: I've linked to this rice salad before and I'll ink to it again, it's delicious. A batch in the fridge does 3 days.
  • Quinoa salad (cook the quinoa, add loads of chopped vegetables, dress with a mixture of olive oil and lemon juice)
  • Couscous (like the quinoa, but less healthy and you can cook it quicker).
  • Bulgar wheat tabouleh is an obvious choice but it's easy to experiment
  • Pasta salad (red kidney beans, sweetcorn, green pepper, dressed with a teaspoon of olive oil, a teaspoon of soy sauce and a healthy shake of tabasco)

posted by handee at 4:33 AM on December 6, 2006

This will make you lunch for two days, and it will taste better on the second. If you eat it with bread, you can eat it three times.

Saute a diced red onion until translucsent, dump in a double-sized can of white beans and allow them to heat up, but not to become mushy. While they're heating add salt, pepper, and garlic powder to taste. Turn off the heat and add two large diced tomatos and a handful of minced parsley, then toss. This is great hot or at room temperature. I haven't tried it cold.
posted by textilephile at 5:42 AM on December 6, 2006

I second that you can keep almost anything out of the fridge for a few hours. But some food tastes pretty bad at room temperature.

Another suggestion is to keep granola or cereal in the office and bringing yogurt and fruits daily.

As for packing sandwiches - I prefer aluminum foil. It keeps the sandwich a wee bit cooler [or so I'd like to believe] and if your sandwiches resemble mine - thick with lettuce, tomatoes and other veggies - it keeps them from falling apart and loose vegetables sliding out of the sandwich.

As for other sorts of foods, make sure you get some tupperware like containers. Test them at home to make sure they are water tight by filling them up with water and putting them upside down on your counter - you don't want paste sauce or salad dressing leaking all over your bag or your office.
posted by ye#ara at 1:19 PM on December 7, 2006

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