When I started my full-time job last year, I wanted to be sure I didn’t develop the habit of eating out often for lunch. Eating out is typically more expensive than bringing your own lunch from home, it is typically less healthy, and it is typically worse for the environment. Restaurants put much larger amounts of salt, sugar, butter, oil, etc. into their meals than you would put into meals you’d prepare for yourself, and their portion sizes are often much bigger than you would serve yourself. Restaurants also use more packaging and create more trash than you would alone (think the to-go bag, the cardboard or styrofoam food container, the drink cup and straw, the handful of napkins, the little ketchup packets – the list can go on). Also, if you have any special dietary preferences, eating out can become a challenge. I try to avoid meat, dairy products and overly processed foods, and it’s hard to find restaurants and dishes near my office that have what I want.
So, I started packing my lunch from day one and have developed a little system that works really well. The process varies week to week depending on my schedule, but I’ll outline below what I did last weekend.
Saturday morning I went to the farmers market and picked up a bunch of produce. As seen below, I got eggplant, cherries, tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers. I also got some purple beans, blueberries, and blackberries.
Later that day I ran by the Healthy Home Market to get the rest of my groceries, including oats, chia seeds, nuts, beans, tempeh, frozen peas, bananas, apples, Larabars, nut butters, avocados, cauliflower, hummus, leafy greens, and tea.
The whole shopping process on Saturday took about an hour. I didn’t tally how much I spent, but I would estimate that it was all less than $80. Since I buy a lot of seasonal produce from the farmers market, don’t buy meat or alcohol at the grocery store, and keep a lot of bulk bin staples on hand, I can usually keep my food bill low.
The next step happened on Sunday morning. I woke up and did about an hour of food prep while I ate my breakfast. As shown below, this involved washing and cutting some of the vegetables, cooking a big batch of quinoa, steaming some cauliflower, sautéing a pepper, boiling some of the purple beans, rinsing a can of black beans, roasting some sweet potato wedges, and washing a lot of my fruit.
Here are some of the prepped lunch ingredients.
Once the prep was complete, I left everything out to cool and went about my day. Later Sunday evening, I came home and combined some of the ingredients into a quinoa salad. This was as simple as mixing a few cups of quinoa with the cauliflower, purple beans, and peppers. I kept the tomatoes and avocados aside to add later.
I washed some baby kale and baby spinach, and made a leafy green bed in the four Tupperware containers below. (I only made four this week because I knew I was going to be working from home on Monday and wouldn’t need a fifth packed lunch.)
And this was my stopping point on Sunday. I had four basic salads prepared for lunches and a lot of washed and cooked vegetables for snacks or dinners later in the week.
*Note: I don’t make this same quinoa salad every week. I switch all of the ingredients up based on what I’m in the mood for or what looked good at the farmers market or grocery. You can always change any of the elements or leave them out completely! Sometimes I don’t do a bed of greens, sometimes I do brown rice instead of quinoa, sometimes I just roast a ton of vegetables and put those over beans or spinach, sometimes I prep my ingredients and wrap them in a tortilla instead of making a salad, etc. You can get creative!
The rest of the prep work I save until the night before or morning of the work day I need my lunch. At that point, I’ll pull a salad out of the fridge and decide what additional protein, if any, I want to add. (I say additional here because this salad already had quinoa and black beans.) Some of my typical options are veggie burgers, tempeh, another type of beans or, on occasion, hard boiled eggs. I don’t eat eggs often, as I try to avoid dairy, but sometimes I do buy a dozen of organic, local eggs from the farmers market. There are several local farms from which I feel comfortable buying eggs, and I will bring them home every now and then.
This is also the point when I will add any of the fresher ingredients like avocado or tomato slices.
I’ll throw my protein and fresh elements on top of the salad, and then I’ll decide on a sauce/dressing. I like to make my own, and I usually go with a homemade balsamic vinaigrette. Other times I’ll do a homemade honey mustard or will just go with olive oil or marinara sauce. If I do ever use a bottled dressing, I like Annie’s. Annie’s has several vegan and organic options with no scary ingredients – my current favorite is Lite Goddess.
Once the salad is done, I’ll pack a few snacks. I usually do one fruit snack (berries, sliced apple, grapefruit, cherries, banana with peanut butter) and one vegetable snack (sweet potato wedges, carrot sticks, raw green beans, sliced bell peppers, snap peas and hummus). I try to wash and prep anything I will need for a fruit or vegetable snack on Sunday, as well.
If I still think I’ll need more, I’ll pack some nuts or a Larabar.
And that is it! After a couple of weeks practicing this little routine, I have come to really enjoy it. As I’ve said many times before, I love supporting local farmers, I love getting to vote with my dollars when shopping for food, and I love preparing my own meals and controlling exactly what goes into them.
This process can be adjusted to any budget, any dietary need, and almost any schedule. With a little planning and a little extra time in the kitchen getting down and dirty with your food, you can so easily make healthy lunches and snacks for a full work or school week.
Now you tell me: what do you usually eat at work? If you pack your lunch, what are some of your go-to meals?