This isn’t your first desk lunch rodeo. You know not to dress your salad in advance. You’re not going bring in fish to microwave. And you certainly aren’t going to assemble a juicy tomato sandwich at home only to find that you have sopping-wet tomato bread soup at work.
I make a lot of portable meals these days. Though I work from home, my partner does not. I’m the cook and he does the dishes, and it doesn’t take me long to turn dinner leftovers into a quick lunch for him. (I’d rather pop open a can of tuna and slice up leftover produce for an ad-hoc salad than see him spend $15 on a ho-hum lunch in New York City.) Here are a few little tricks I use to keep things interesting, but remember, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel: The midday meal can be functional so long as it’s tasty enough to feel like a real break from work.
A hodgepodge of ingredients tossed with a simple dressing on the side is fine, but I’ve recently been inspired by parents who assemble stripes or rainbows of ingredients for their children. If you keep stripes in mind, you can fill containers with rows of julienned raw kale, mozzarella, tomatoes, olives, and a tidy portion of tuna dressed with olive oil, sea salt, and capers. Just remember to season everything as necessary. (Kale is the rare green that can hold up—and even improve—after time spent with olive oil and salt.) Use what you’ve got: If you have avocado or cucumber slices, fan them out in a row.
Pack a prettier container
It’s painful to think about spending Real Money on plastic or glass storage containers. I know, because we only own one plastic container at the moment; the rest have somehow vanished to new homes. But today I buckled down and bought a proper, well-designed container. It was expensive. It had “Nordic” in its name. I may well be a sucker. But it came with three compartments that clip together in one tidy little beast. It’ll make it much easier to put dressing in one cup with a lid, bread in another section, snap the whole thing together, and forget about it. And my partner will have a better looking—dare I say, foxily Scandinavian—lunch.
The things that you jump up from the dinner table to grab from the kitchen, like sea salt, a slice of lemon, hot sauce, et cetera? Consider those when you’re building lunch. Sometimes leftover roast veggies need just a wedge of lemon to brighten, or a few chopped herbs, tucked into a corner. If you’d salt the meal at home, salt it before packing it for tomorrow.
Think about work appliances
A techy, 2018 hack: Really look at what’s in your work kitchen. Is there a toaster? A blender? A toaster oven? If you have that last one, you’re golden, because you’re making grilled cheese, toasted veggie sandwiches, and whatever else you want. If there’s a blender, keep frozen fruit in the work freezer, bring in yogurt, and make a big batch of smoothie to dip into every morning.
Really think about your future self’s pleasure when making lunch: Are you going to be OK with lettuce, raw onions, and grocery store tomatoes tomorrow? I bet not; I see a lunch dash to the local sushi place in your future (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I try to stock the fridge and pantry with one or two “fancier” items like fresh mozzarella, good olives, fat caper berries, fried artichoke hearts from the Italian deli, pre-roasted peeled red peppers, and good-quality tuna or anchovies. You can layer any number of these things on a bed of sliced, oiled, salted dark greens—raw or sautéed—and be well on your way to a pretty darn great meal.
Packing delicious, spicy, uniformly beige Indian food? It might not look appealing tomorrow, so tuck a scoop of plain yogurt into your lunch. The full-fat dairy will take the edge off the heat with every bite and add a welcome visual contrast. (More often than not, chopped cilantro would be great in there, too.)
Map out what’s near work
Is there a Chinese or Indian spot nearby where you can grab $1 of rice? Are you dying for an excuse to leave the building anyway? Do it. It’ll almost definitely be tastier than microwaved leftover rice. If it amps up your leftover curries, soups, or stir-fries, it’s a dollar well-spent.
Build quick veggie sides
Bringing in leftover pizza slices? Fine. No judgment. But consider tucking an apple into your bag and adding a side salad of sliced cucumber dressed lightly with lemon juice, sea salt, red pepper flakes, and toasted sesame seeds—or some other easy veggie side.
In addition to thinking about stripes and circles, think in squares. Think architecturally. A slender to-go container containing a bed of rice topped with mirin- and sherry-sautéed mushrooms, plus a few neat squares of miso-shellacked tofu, looks really cool, especially if you sort of space them out like a checkerboard.
Keep salt, olive oil, and hot sauce handy
You’re going to want sea salt, hot sauce—something with acid, such as Sriracha or piri-piri, is best—and olive oil handy at work. It’s tough to know in advance when a meal will need salt, acid, or fat.
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Consider a sweet finish
I like a small bite of something sweet to end a meal. Consider tossing a couple squares of dark chocolate, a small cookie, or fruit into your bag if you likewise have a sweet tooth. Remember, your twin goals are saving money and creating pleasure for yourself. Both matter.
Alex Van Buren—follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen—is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and content strategist who has written for The Washington Post, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and Epicurious.
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