We all know the reasons we should bring our meals and snacks to work or school. Packing a lunch (or dinner, for the night-shifters among us) is easier on the wallet and the waistline. But in my daily contest between sleeping an extra 10 minutes or packing something to eat at work, sleep wins every time.
There are ways to ease the angst of packing a lunch. With back-to-school season in full swing, it feels like the right time to share a few tips — whether you’re packing food for your kids or yourself.
1. Take time to plan.
I know, I know. If you had time to plan in the mornings, you wouldn’t be reading this. But I’m talking about some really advanced planning: the weekend.
Think about what you want to pack for lunch for the week. In addition to making sure you have the ingredients for whatever main courses you want to pack, make sure you’re picking up stuff for snacks. I jot down ideas on a pad that hangs on my fridge — recipes I’d like to try, ingredients I need, even food that needs to get used up in my fridge. I sit down for a few minutes Saturday morning and plan out the week’s work food. Then, I hit the grocery store and get what I need to make it happen. In addition to the ingredients to make an entree and veggies to chop up and eat in a salad, my shopping list usually includes apples, bananas, single-serve yogurts, string-cheese and other easily packable (but relatively healthy) items.
2. Set aside some prep time.
You don’t need to slave away all day Sunday to make a week’s worth of delicious work meals. As old-fashioned as it may sound, I’ve begun collecting healthy slow-cooker recipes that I can assemble Sunday morning. After I turn the machine on, I’ll hit the gym, meet friends for coffee, take my dog for a long walk and come home to dinner ready to go. My favorite chili recipe, for instance, takes very little prep time and can hang out on low for up to eight hours in the slow-cooker pot. I get home, shred the chicken and voila — meals for work dinners every night of the week. Slow cookers are the next best thing to having a personal chef, and some models are just $20. Don’t have a slow cooker? No problem. Pick a recipe, and tackle it whenever you have some downtime on the weekend.
One tip: Take the time to package any main meal into single-serve portions so you can just grab them from the fridge without much fuss in the morning. Bonus points for finding a recipe that freezes well. Then, you’ll always have a few meals stashed in the freezer for those weekends when you don’t have time to cook for the week.
While you’re waiting for your main to simmer, bake or what have you, use the downtime to prep snacks. Chop up carrots and celery sticks and throw them in a mason jar with some dip in the bottom. Portion out smoked almonds, trail mix or other snacks you love in containers so you can just grab and go in the morning. I replenish a “snack drawer” every Sunday so I have a variety of pre-measured options just waiting to be tucked into my purse to banish the “hangry.” Right now, the drawer has snack-sized baggies of pizza-flavored Goldfish crackers, wasabi-ginger almonds, homemade trail mix and in-shell pistachios. Depending on my mood, I’ll grab two or three bags each morning and leave what I don’t eat in my desk drawer for another day. This idea works really well for kids, too. Have them pre-pack a week’s worth of snack baggies on Sunday for their lunches during the week.
4. Be prepared.
Speaking of my desk, I always make sure I have several items on-hand at work to make sure eating lunch in stays easy. I have paper plates, forks, spoons, knives, napkins stashed in my desk and some mustard and salad dressing (labeled with my name!) in the office fridge. That way, if I happen to forget to pack cutlery or condiments in my going-to-be-late-to-work haze, all is not lost. When all else fails, pick up a set or two of these pen cap utensils. A friend ordered one for me as a joke, but the joke’s on her. I’ve used them when I ran out of clean forks and spoons.
Like packing sandwiches but hate how the bread gets soggy in the four hours between when you make it and when you eat it? This tip is for you. Let’s say you’re going to pack classic ham and Swiss for lunches in the coming week, with lettuce, tomato, mayo and mustard. Use wax paper to create a barrier between the meat and cheese, the veggies and the bread. Wrap the whole thing in a plastic (or reusable) sandwich baggie. At work, spread the mayo and mustard you already have stashed in the fridge on the bread, pull out the wax paper separators and boom — you have a fresh, perfect sandwich.
5. Buy a lunchbox that works for you.
Not all lunchboxes are created equal. It may seem cute to buy a little bento box number, but if it doesn’t allow you to cram in enough food to fill you up, it’s not the right box. Think about what kinds of items you want to pack for your work fuel, and then choose a box that’s right for you. Like soup? Buy a thermos. Want to try out those trendy Mason-jar salads? Find something that will protect those glass jars from potential breakage. Like lots of snacks so you can munch all day? Scope out boxes that have lots of compartments to keep items separated.
Erin L. Nissley is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.