I’d like to propose we re-brand the brown bag lunch. For one thing, grown up foods don’t fit in those little paper sacks. For another, how are you supposed to carry a bag with no handles, anyway?! The brown bag, with no insulation and no pockets, is far from an ideal carrier. Let’s let go of the notion of a brown bag lunch and move on to more sophisticated approaches.
That’s not to suggest, though, that we need to buy into the Pinterest bento box craze. Sure, they may be cute to look at, but who among us has the time to cut our carrots into flowers, to give our sandwiches googly eyes, or to skewer fruit in perfect rainbow arrays? A Bento box may be a fun novelty every once in awhile, but for your average 9-to-5 it’s not going to get the job done.
There have been countless articles devoted to pinpointing exactly how much you can save by bringing your lunch instead of buying it, so I won’t try to quote them all here. If we’re honest with ourselves, we all know it by common sense without needing to be told! Not to mention the health benefits and the time in your day that you can save or re-purpose by cutting out the restaurant wait.
So how does a working millennial create a healthy and sustainable way to feed herself throughout the week? I have eight tips for you:
1.First, Know Thyself. Be true to yourself. That may sound a little philosophical for a blog post about lunch, but it applies. I know that a salad at lunch does not fill me up. I know that I like a little something sweet for dessert. I also have access to a refrigerator and microwave at work, and a nice kitchen to eat in, so I like to take a break and read a book while I eat. Others of you may not have that space, and still others may choose to work straight through and eat at your desks. My husband will often get so engrossed in his work that he forgets to eat, so I make his foods as easy as possible to get to. I’ve heard of people that know this about themselves and take a tub of non-perishable, approachable foods to leave at their office just for that reason! If you can make sure to pack items that suit your taste and your hunger level, fit your work environment, and your patience level for lunchtime preparation, you’ll be more likely to keep the habit up.
3. Gather a stash of containers. I recently stepped up my game and got some glass food storage containers that are oven and microwave safe, but this was after years of using good old plastic containers that I bought at the grocery store. The plastic bins that your lunch meat comes in, high quality takeout containers that you’ve washed out, all of these are perfectly acceptable candidates to transport your lunch. We’re equal-opportunity container users around these parts. I take a weird amount of pleasure in having the perfect-size container for whatever I’m trying to pack.
4. Embrace leftovers. I know, I know, a lot of you out there can’t stomach the thought of eating the same meal a second time. I’ve never really been able to relate to that, but I know it’s a pretty common opinion. Let’s see if we can’t move on from it. Certain foods are better leftover than others, so you can start by preparing dinners that you know will re-heat well. Soups and chilis are good, and sometimes even better, after the fact. Casseroles and rice-based dishes save well. If something isn’t tasty, no one is forcing you to eat it for lunch the next day! But the more you can adopt a COST (Cook Once Serve Twice) approach, the better.
5. Keep a stash of easy foods on hand. We’re all going to encounter busy weeks where we barely cook at all, and there are no leftovers to embrace. I try to plan ahead for these weeks and keep some easy lunch foods on hand. In the winter, there’s a sale and a coupon for canned soups practically every week. Stock up! Add a side of cheese and crackers and an apple for a full-blown meal. Buy a couple of high-quality frozen meals if you see a good deal. Keep a loaf of bread in the freezer at all times, and a jar of peanut butter or some deli meat to go with it. If you make your sandwich on frozen bread, it will be thawed by lunch time! Buy and shred a rotisserie chicken and grab a package of salad mix to add it to.
6. Plan food for the day, not just for your lunch hour. Coworkers often look at the food I’ve packed and comment on how much of it there is. That’s because I think of my eating holistically. I know that I tend to need to eat every three hours or so (which, depending on which expert you refer to, is the recommended approach anyway). So, I think not just about lunch but about my 10:00am snack and my 3:00pm snack. I make sure that I have a healthy option to grab at each of those times in addition to my actual lunch: an apple, a bag of baby carrots, a yogurt. One of my favorite go-to options is the Simply Almonds, Cashews, and Chocolate Trek Mix from Trader Joe’s. I buy it in the bag that includes 10 individual pouches of the mix, which is the perfect little serving. A little healthy fat and a little chocolate for my sweet tooth = snack time perfection! I try every weekend to portion out fruits and veggies into portable form for the whole week ahead of time. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does I appreciate that I spent the little bit of extra time to have them ready for me to grab.
7. Pack it the night before. It’s hard enough to get out the door in the mornings without having to also think about your lunch. It seems like no matter how early I get up I find myself rushing at the last minute before I need to leave, and if my lunch isn’t ready to go, it’s not going to happen. If you’ve cooked dinner, go ahead and portion some out into containers as you’re serving your plates. Throw together a sandwich after you’ve washed the dishes. Put everything you want to carry for lunch in one certain section of the fridge. However works best for you, it’s truly worth it. It seems like something that takes only a few minutes expands to take infinitely more time in the morning, so have it done ahead of time!
8. Indulge once in a while! No one is saying you have to bring your lunch Every. Single. Day. In fact, it makes it more enjoyable to grab lunch out when it’s the exception rather than the rule. Co-workers have birthdays, clients need to be met with, and errands need to be run, and sometimes you’re just not at the office when hunger strikes. Don’t beat yourself up if you still eat out even a couple of times a week. Personally, I am a sucker for breakfast, I grab a latte and a breakfast sandwich on my way into the office because I know I’ll be eating in for lunch. It’s all okay! By leaving room for flexibility, you make the practice of bringing your lunch more sustainable. My lunches aren’t Pinterest-perfect, and I’m no Betty Crocker, but I keep my belly full of reasonably healthy foods at reasonably inexpensive prices. I’m not striving for perfection, but rather for balance.
If you’re a lunch-bringer, what works for you to keep the habit up? If not, what are some of the stumbling blocks keeping you from embracing the lunchbox?
Laura Lindeman is a voracious reader and lover of words who lives in Atlanta, Georgia. She is a firm proponent of the Oxford comma and loves hunting for a good bargain. When she’s not working as the Assistant Campus Director of The Iron Yard you can find her enjoying food and wine with her book club, trying out new recipes, or backpacking with her husband. Laura blogs at Unpunctuated Life and can’t help but organize magazines that are out of place in the grocery store checkout line.