Planning a Packed Lunch
Do you need to make a packed lunch, for yourself or a family member? Here is a collection of ideas, and links to a few useful recipes, to make the process easier!
It’s that time of year. Back to School. In much of the US, school has started already, or will in the next week – here in New York, it starts in September, after Labor Day. My friends with school aged children or grandchildren are elbow deep in school supplies, and school clothes, and school schedules…
And school lunches.
Now of course, I have never packed school lunches – I never had children. But I worked in daycare for a while, and saw the range of lunches that our parents packed for their children, and I’ve packed lunch for both Rich and myself, under different circumstances. More and more of my friends seem to carry lunch these days, instead of eating out (partly a result of shorter lunch breaks, in some cases, or offices located far from reasonable options, as well as concern about finances and health.) And while much of the conversation about school lunches seems to center around primary school children, a school lunch can go with a two year old in daycare or an 18 year old in high school, and anything in between.
Though Rich and I both now work mostly at home, I have packed lunch for him when he worked in an office (with lunchroom, fridge, and microwave) and for myself (with few or even none of those amenities.) For years I worked in sales support, going to different retail stores around the city for a variety of products. Many stores either did not have a lunchroom, or had one so small that only one or two people at a time could eat. Others were so large that people would not know me, and would challenge me without a store badge. For years, I ate in parks around the city from April through October, and needed a lunch I could just pull out of my bag and eat.
As far as I’m concerned, the easiest way to handle lunch is to send leftovers from dinner, which, fortunately, is what Rich preferred. When he carried lunch, I just made extra for dinner, then he actually packed it when he washed up. I did make sure I always had a fallback position – there are dinners that don’t lend themselves to being reheated. So I would bake a whole tray of chicken thighs, or meatloaf muffins, and freeze some of them. Then he could pull some out and pack them at night, and they’d thaw in the refrigerator and be ready to eat by lunch. I always had frozen vegetables, just in case, and some bread or crackers, if nothing else…
But for many of us that approach doesn’t work, and certainly not for most school lunches. We need food that will stay fresh without refrigeration, and can be eaten without heating. And we need food that is fast and easy to pack in the morning (or even the night before!) So I return here to the concept of Planning For Meals.
The basic idea is to always have food on hand that is ready to go. I started to make this personal salad bar when I regularly carried salad for lunch, with prepped vegetables, but it grew from there. I find that, for me, at least, the easiest way to avoid getting bored is to eat different combinations each day. Again, I bake a tray of chicken thighs, but one day I eat a little chicken and some bean salad, the next day that bean salad with some cheese, the next day that cheese with a bit of chicken, the next day… The vegetables vary week to week, I’ll eat crackers a few days and potato salad a few others… and my lunch is never exactly the same.
This approach works for more than salad. I don’t think bentos are as hot a trend as they were a few years ago – but without all the fuss (and expensive accessories!) I think the basic idea gives us much to work with. Again, they traditionally hold small amounts of several kinds of food, instead of one big chunk of something. I packed two to use as examples.
I made tabbouli earlier in the week (I used quinoa , of course, since I can no longer eat the bulgur wheat. If you can, by all means use the traditional recipe – I do prefer that texture!) I used it as a base for both lunches – you could easily use potato salad or rice salad or crackers on the side, or… I had just a scrap of ham leftover, so finished it, and added some grilled tofu. (I don’t eat tofu much any more, but I really need to write up my recipes! Basically, slice tofu and grill it – marinate it first if you like…) And I threw in a hard cooked egg – I cook a dozen at a time. That’s just a silicone cupcake liner it’s in, partly so it won’t roll around, and partly so I’ll have a place to put the shell when I peel it… Then cucumber spears (I forgot the cherry tomatoes I’d planned – cherry tomatoes pack beautifully!- and some blueberries. I usually have more vegetables, but an occasional meal like this, alternating with salads, is fine.
I learned from people making bentos to use a smaller container than you think you need, and pack it tight, so the food stays in place when you carry it. And without buying a ton of cool accessories, it is handy to have a few small containers for salad dressing or foods that may crumble or go mushy.
The next lunch (packed and photographed later – see how the light has changed!) still has the tabbouli, over at the side, and the grilled tofu. But I also grilled some pork chops, we ate some for dinner, and I kept some for lunch, and there are strips of pork next to the tabbouli. We regularly eat cold chicken, but I find that we forget that other cold meat is just as good – and not only in commercial cold cuts. Then I added lettuce and zucchini slices, with a small container of buttermilk dressing to dip the zucchini (and maybe the tofu) in. And some more blueberries.
You can vary this almost infinitely. Meatloaf muffins, or just slices of meatloaf, pack beautifully and are good cold. Cold baked beans sounded odd to me until I tried them – I’ve been told it’s an old New England tradition. Pack hummus in a small container to spread on crackers or dip vegetables. Obviously if you like the classic sandwich (I don’t, personally) you can pack one of them, with the veggies and fruit along side. (And the container means it doesn’t smush, and you don’t throw out a million baggies!) You don’t need to use commercial cold cuts – thinly slice pot roast or roast beef, chicken, or pork, make egg salad, use a bean spread… Though I’ll not turn down an occasional good salami!
I used tabbouli, here, but rice salad, pasta salad, and potato salad all work well. Muffins are always popular – get a mini muffin pan if you have small children and they’ll be charmed. Try bread and butter sandwiches, all kinds of crackers, even occasional tortilla chips for a treat! Make a sandwich with waffles – I’m told that goes over very well in a school lunchroom!
Aside from the tossed salads I eat so often, I have many recipes for winter salads – carrot, kohlrabi, coleslaw – and they pack beautifully, and are a great way to get a vegetable into the meal. Do make sure you use a cold pack for anything with mayonnaise, if it won’t be refrigerated, but that’s a good idea anyway. A classic three bean salad, or pasta salad, hits two food groups. And none of these take much effort to make a batch for the week.
Two notes about variety, if you are packing for kids. First, most young children like at least some predictability. I don’t think it is wise to fall into the trap of a cheese sandwich or a chicken leg every single day, but it may be wise to always have some sort of sandwich on Monday, some sort of salad Tuesday, and so on… at least for a few years. A routine, so the child can happily look forward to the expected meal. Also, don’t send anything for lunch that the child has never eaten. The school lunchroom is not the place to try to figure out what pimento cheese is, if you’ve never seen it before. (My mother did that to me… and I still remember it! I’d never seen a pimento except in olives.) Even if you’re packing for another adult, that’s probably a good idea.
I haven’t touched on equipment – there are many good discussions of that, and what you want will vary dramatically by the age of the person eating. A thermal bag and a cold pack is a good idea for everyone, though. I also didn’t go into the possibilities of a thermal container. There are some really great ones these days, with several tiers for different foods, as well as the classic wide mouthed bottle Mom sent soup in for me. One container for soup, and another for a fruit and yogurt smoothie increase your options exponentially. They do take a little more work in the morning – do remember that.
Packing an appealing lunch is particularly important for those of us who need to eat a certain way – food intolerance, special nutritional need. Your child is less likely to eat something they shouldn’t if they think your good packed lunch tastes good – as are you! So this is important.
I hope you come away from this with some good ideas. And I, eating at home, am reminded how much easier a good lunch was when I planned carefully, instead of assuming I could figure lunch out at lunchtime – so I will go back to implementing these ideas, and I hope that thought helps some of you, too!