It has been said, time and time again, that cooking for yourself is one of the healthiest and financially savviest ways to improve your life. It’s basically impossible to not know by now that it’s a good thing. But of course, the problem lies not in knowing whether or not cooking is good for you, but in the actual cooking itself. After a long day of toiling away at a desk, most of us can barely put together dinner, much less cook ahead for lunch the next day. Soggy bread and watery lettuce are lackluster, Seamless is an easy trap, and the food trucks outside beckon with menus written in adorable chalk script. Lunch slowly becomes the cause of depleted budgets and over-enthusiastic sodium intake. Brown paper bags seem noble and lofty, an ascetic aspiration unachievable in its frugality.
But this simply isn’t so. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be so hard. And while I cannot say I have beaten buying lunch completely (more on this later), I do have three specific tricks that have wholeheartedly converted me to Team Lunch-Bringer.
Cook Ahead (specifically, on Sunday evenings)
Not ground breaking, not revolutionary, not even a new tip — yeah yeah, I know. But in the same vein of “clichés are clichés for a reason,” this insight earns its repetition. To add complexity and excitement to an otherwise potentially boring desk lunch, having slightly leveled up staples ready to go is a game changer. It allows for meals that are less “third day of left overs” and more “something new that I am looking forward to eating.”
My cook ahead strategy is divided into three steps: roast, simmer, and chop.
Roasting: involves turning your oven to 350 F, lining a tray with foil and plunking down some vegetables that have been thrown around with some olive oil, salt, and pepper (and whatever seasonings/herbs you happen to love). Good vegetables include beets, sweet/regular potatoes, yellow onions, brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, onions, even whole cloves of garlic.
Simmering: involves making some variation on stock. I generally simmer a dashi-pack (basically a tea bag that is filled with bonito and other fishy goodness) in a pot full of water and leave it to bubble away until the stock has become good and golden, about an hour of hands-free simmering. Once you’re done, ladle the broth into a couple glass jars and stick in the fridge for quick soups during the week. If you’re not a fan of dashi, another great way to do this is throw a couple of browned chicken thighs and some onion into a pot of salted water — again, with any seasonings/flavorings you might want to add — and boil for an hour. At the end of the hour, you’ll have a pot of chicken broth, as well as easily-shredded chicken thighs for whatever you want. Two birds one stone, indeed!
Finally, there’s chop: While this one does actually require you to pay minimal attention, chopping in my view is as Zen as knitting or running. You can let your head empty, or drag your trusty laptop into the kitchen and catch up on some Netflix if you so choose. Chopping just requires that you do some of the rote prep work that would take too long during the week. For me, this usually involves tearing kale leaves off the stem and stuffing it into readily-accessible zip lock bags, chopping scallions and storing in Tupperware containers, or quartering a couple lemons to squeeze over lunches to brighten their flavor.
In a simple hour on Sunday evening, you’ve upped your lunch game from sad bologna on white bread, to easily compiled soups and salads. Huzzah!
Bring a Plate
The hallmark of a sad desk lunch is the sad desk lunch Tupperware. When eating out of Tupperware, it is altogether too easy to find yourself scraping an unseemly groove in the bottom of a plastic container with a flimsy spork you fished out of the office kitchen drawer. Eating lunch out of Tupperwares can feel immaterial and rushed, leading to zoned-out noshing that leaves little recollection of having eaten, encouraging the 3 PM vending machine snack scrounge. I know this, because I’ve been there, and I am more than happy to report that this is a laughably easy fix.
On Monday morning, when you put your delicious, exciting, prepped lunch in your bag, find an extra dinner plate and a fork from your kitchen and throw it into your bag, too. When the lunch bell tolls, all you have to do is tip the contents of your lunch container onto your plate, and voila! A real meal! When the meal is over, rinse said plate off and store it in the office pantry, or even in your desk and reuse again tomorrow.
By eating off of a real plate, your brought-from-home lunch looks like something to linger over and enjoy. It adds an element of pause to your otherwise harried 15-minute break, and not to mention looks fancy as hell.
This is a weird note to end a guide on how NOT to buy lunch on, but here’s my reasoning: whenever I am told not to do something, I immediately only want to do that. To the effect of bringing lunch, if I box myself into thinking that I am only allowed to bring what I make, I suddenly find myself gripped by an insane urge to sprint outside and buy a limp $15 salad ASAP. I curb my inner food rebel by allowing myself a bought lunch every two weeks. This budgeted treat becomes something to look forward to, an opportunity to go out with the office lunch go-ers or work on my extensive ramen shop list. Indulgence in moderation, folks. It’s how you have your cake and eat it too. Or in this case, how you bring your lunch, and eat it too.
Nina Li Coomes was born in Nagoya, bred in Chicago, now living in New York. She is a writer and producer, interested in smart ways to think about modern food culture. You can find her other work here.
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