Tuesday, September 3, 2013

What to pack for lunch

You can pack a better lunch than the experts.

It’s back to school time! Looking for something to pack for lunch that is somewhere on the spectrum between the nutritional horror show of a Lunchables and getting up at three to pack the perfect bento box for your child? Here are dozens of foods that are delicious cold. You could make a few of these on the weekend to lunch on all week, or when you shop and cook for dinner, plan to make a couple of these foods that are good hot, as well as to eat cold as leftovers the next day. Before you leave for work or school, pack one food from each category, and you’ve got lunch. Works for all ages!


Just about any lean roasted meat is good cold. They’re good mixed into a salad, can be assembled into a sandwich on the spot, or eaten as finger food.

How to roast beef:

Buy a beef round roast (top, bottom, or eye: it doesn’t matter), season with salt (and garlic powder if you like), roast it at 375 degrees for 20 minutes per pound until a probe thermometer reaches 125 degrees at the center. Allow to rest until it reaches room temperature for ease of handling and even distribution of the juices. Slice thinly.

When I was a kid I thought roast beef was the height of luxury. Now I know that’s what you do with the cheap cuts: roast them for maximum flavor, then slice them as thinly as possible for tenderness.
While the fatty shoulder of pork should always be served hot, loin roast is good cold.

Chicken drums and wings can be good, cold and on the bone, if they were roasted until the skin is really crisp. Chicken, turkey, or duck breast meat can be sliced and enjoyed cold like roast beef or pork. You can buy a frozen turkey breast any time of the year and roast it for lunches. Why not?

Tuna is a versatile staple you can keep on hand in the cupboard for when there are no leftovers. Another kind of tinned fish that you can dress with mayonnaise like tuna, is sardines. Tasty on a cracker, with a shot of hot sauce or spicy mustard.

Ceviche: If you’ve avoided taking fresh fish to work because you don’t want to stink up the communal microwave, find a good recipe for citrus marinated fish. The marinade cooks the fish, so no need to nuke, and because it’s traditionally served as a cold luncheon item, there isn’t that fishy smell.

Sliced boiled eggs, cubed or sliced cheese, and whole milk or yogurt are other good sources of protein and animal fat that are easy to pack for lunch and easy to eat.


When I’m planning a meal, I consider whether it provides what I need. One heuristic is to ask whether the meal provides an even ratio of calories from fats, carbohydrates, and protein. I look for vegetables, too: they don’t have many calories; they don’t weigh much on my first heuristic, so my second one is to look for vegetable food groups. Are there any cultured or raw veggies? Orange or red vegetables? Is one a dark leafy green or pod vegetable?

A quart size plastic yogurt or take out container can become the home base for your whole packed lunch. Fill one up with salad greens and chopped raw vegetables. Pack salad dressing and other ingredients that become mushy (tomatoes, croutons) separately. When it’s time for lunch, add chopped up meat and other toppings, pour in the dressing, close the container and give it a shake to make your own tossed salad.

If you prefer to dip your vegetables, pack crudite and salad dressing. There are so many vegetables that are delicious raw. Try something new. Right now it’s high summer, so I’m eating tomatoes, sweet peppers, summer squash, and cucumbers on my salad.

Another way to enjoy vegetables at lunch is to eat roasted vegetables, cold. These are especially good when they’re seasoned. I use a variety of spices and fresh herbs on roasted vegetables: the Tunisian roasted vegetables I made from a Cooks’ Illustrated recipe is one example of a roasted vegetable mix that’s good, cold. I’ve eaten mixes like this in sandwiches with a bean spread like hummus, and in wraps with meatballs (kofte are also good cold). Aloo gobi, a delicious curry of cauliflower and potatoes, served at room temperature with some pickle and yogurt is a traditional Pakistani schoolchild’s lunch.

There are more kinds of salads than a few raw vegetables on a bed of greens, though that’s not at all a bad place to start. You can add nuts and seeds, dried and fresh fruit, cold cooked meat and vegetables, croutons, and whatever else you like, and try new salad dressings. Then, you can try something entirely different, like a bit of shredded daikon or some cucumber dressed with vinegar and sugar, sprouts with sesame oil, or a carrot and raisin salad. There are lots of different ways you can dress and combine vegetables.


You’ve gotten this far in putting together a lunch: have you included a good source of fat in the salad, dairy, or meat? If not, get some: whole fat dairy, or good oils in the salad dressings you buy or make.

Avocados are a delicious addition to salads and sandwiches, as well as a source of monounsaturated fat.

To make avocados lunch ready: 

Slice an avocado in two the long way, going around the pit. Remove the pit but do not discard it. Slice through the fruit, but not the skin, to make thin slices or cubes. Put the pit back and put the avocado halves back together. Pack a spoon. When it’s lunch time, take the halves apart, remove the pit, then use the spoon to scoop out the avocado. It will come out in slices or cubes, depending on how you sliced it.
Nuts make a good snack, by themselves or in a trail mix, and nut butter is a tasty spread or dip. (Some schools have banned peanuts. Know the restrictions of your school or workplace before you pack.)


There’s bread, of course. You can pack the fixings for a pretty awesome sandwich: sliced meat, cheese, and vegetables (raid your salad for sandwich toppings), as well as condiments. It’s sad that bacon isn’t that good, cold, but there’s always avocado, and meat. Right now, I wouldn’t let a sandwich go by without tomato, but come winter, you can use a little shred of cabbage, maybe even a bit of something cultured, like sauerkraut or kimchi, to give your sandwiches some crunch and flavor.

But you don't need to make a sandwich to get carbs into your meal. You could bake some zucchini muffins. Make (or buy, but carefully---some of these are full of added sugar) granola or trail mix. Make a little roasted beet salad, or a potato salad. Potato salad doesn’t have to be the same old thing. Have you ever had it dressed with vinegar and mustard, or fresh dill?

Also right now, we’re in the height of fresh fruit season, and will be for a little while. Succulent stone fruit can ride in the salad container, cushioned by the lettuce, or you can pack a little bowl of cherries, berries, or fresh fruit slices. Good mixed into yogurt, dipped, or plain. There’s melon right now: that also makes a delicious, refreshing treat as a salad, in melon balls or wedges, with a touch of salt or nothing at all.

Don’t go crazy: this is just one meal. There will be another lunch tomorrow.

What's in your lunch box?

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