There are all kinds of reasons why packing your lunch is a good idea: it’s cheaper than eating out, you can control calories and ingredients, and the menu choices are limited only to your imagination and personal pantry stock—not the same old cafeteria or restaurant menus. Before I owned a restaurant (and made a living off of people eating my food for lunch), I did have a string of office jobs, and had to go through the daily decision of what was for lunch, so I feel your pain.
If you take lunch every day to work—or even if you are eating at home or packing lunches for the younger set in your house—there’s a good chance you’re in a rut. Lunch often gets the brush-off, playing second fiddle to that power-up breakfast or the carefully planned supper that brings everyone together and wraps up a busy day. And just like supper, it’s important to plan ahead for a satisfying lunch. Face it: your hurried self is not going to come up with a plan at 7 a.m. – especially if your coffee hasn’t kicked in yet!
Lunch is a great time to use leftovers, and you can avoid the same- meal-all-over-again drudgery by reusing the food in a different way. Try leftover pork roast in the Bahn Mi Sandwich (recipe follows). Use lentils from one night, roasted squash from another, add fresh spinach and goat cheese, and you’ve got a delicious salad. Don’t forget that leftover cheese and salami from the weekend get-together: serve it with a little French bread and some pickles for a Ploughman’s lunch. And for those times when the leftovers cannot be reworked, skip a day so you don’t get palate fatigue.
There are many ways to make lunch at your desk or in the
lunchroom seem more enjoyable. Bring a plate and a real fork from home; you may have to wash it later, but it will feel more like a meal and less like a hurried snack. Vary textures and flavors of your meal; be sure to add something crunchy to your salad or something spicy to your sandwich. Make it special by putting in a little more effort, like making your own salad dressings and flavored spreads, to punch up your menu. When time allows, don’t forget to leave your desk and get a little fresh air!
And for those eating “al desko,” don’t forget office etiquette: Avoid strong smells like tuna and garlic if your co-workers are sensitive to smells, or your desk is near the reception area. Think about drips—no one wants to spend the afternoon with vinaigrette drizzled on their pants! And of course, clean up after yourself and leave the office microwave and kitchen spotless – unless your Mama really does work with you!
Leftovers Banh Mi (makes two sandwiches)
This recipe can be adapted; substitute lettuce and some cellophane noodles for the bread and it could be a delicious salad, or lettuce wraps. For a packed lunch, assemble sandwich without the carrot and daikon mixture, then add right before serving.
1 carrot, shredded
1 daikon, shredded
1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon fish sauce
pinch of crushed red pepper (optional)
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1 scallion, chopped
1 tablespoon Sriracha sauce (or to taste)
2 6-inch pieces of good baguette
About 8 ounces leftover cooked protein (tofu, pork, chicken or turkey)
1/2 cucumber, made into two 1/3-inch-thick lengthwise slices
2 sprigs cilantro
In a small container with a tight lid, combine the first six ingredients (carrot through red pepper). Shake to combine and set aside, shaking every once in a while until the sugar has dissolved. Set aside for an hour or refrigerate overnight. In a small bowl, combine the mayonnaise, scallion and Sriracha.
Toast bread, then spread with Sriracha mayo. Add protein, cucumber slice and cilantro leaves. Lightly drain pickled vegetables and pile on top before serving.
Salade Nicoise (serves one)
In a dinner plate-sized container, make small groups of each ingredient, then add dressing when you’re ready to eat. Add or substitute other ingredients as available; some ideas include crumbled bacon, diced chicken, avocados, cheese …the sky’s the limit!
3-4 ounces leftover salmon (or tuna packed in olive oil)
1/2 cup blanched green beans
1 hard boiled egg, halved
Cherry tomatoes, halved
1/2 cup leftover roasted new potatoes
Dijon vinaigrette (recipe follows)
Line a plate with lettuce. Arrange the next 6 ingredients in small groups on top of the lettuce. Drizzle with dressing.
2 large tomatoes
½ cup cider vinegar
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon each fresh chopped basil and tarragon
Cut the tomatoes in half and squeeze out most of the seeds. Core and chop tomatoes. Place tomatoes along with the rest of the ingredients in a medium saucepan. Add 1/3 cup of water and bring to a simmer. Cover and simmer until thick and jam-like, about 45 minutes to an hour. Cool, then refrigerate.
Dijon Vinaigrette (makes 1 cup)
It is easy to make your own dressing, and it elevates your salad quite a few steps. This is a very basic dressing that can be enhanced by adding chopped tarragon or other herbs.
In a small container with a tight-fitting lid, shake all ingredients together. Refrigerate until needed.
Parmesan Mayo (makes 1 cup)
This is a great addition to a sandwich (think chicken, bacon and tomato), or can be the sauce for a potato salad with lots of fresh arugula. Put a dollop on top of your asparagus, or thin with lemon juice for a bright Caesar-type dressing.
1 small clove garlic, minced
¾ cup mayonnaise
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons minced parsley
Combine all ingredients and refrigerate until needed.
Pickled Red Onions (makes 1 cup)
Use these onions to add a kick to a sandwich made with leftover steak, sharp cheddar cheese, lettuce and tomato. Top leftover barbecue with pickled onions, or add them to tacos made with leftover roasted chicken, avocado and shredded cheese. The pickling takes the smell out of the onion, which makes them acceptable for work!
One red onion sliced thin
¼ cup red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
Combine all ingredients and let sit for at least an hour at room temperature. Refrigerate until needed.