Although few people do it and despite its reputation of difficulty, packing one’s lunch boasts a host of benefits. On the one hand, it saves money, as always going out for lunch can really rack up the week’s expenses. On the other hand, it’s a healthier and quicker alternative to going out or merely snacking. Instead of driving or walking to an often over-crowded restaurant and spending all your hard-earned money on cheap take-out, all it takes is a few minutes at the company microwave and you’ve got a delicious home-cooked meal ready to enjoy.
Regardless of these positives, most people avoid packing their lunch because of the planning and prep work involved. If you’re a procrastinator and don’t cook meals ahead of time, then the daunting challenge of fixing lunch the morning of awaits, and no one – myself included – wants to attempt that, especially during the workweek.
Moreover, if you don’t plan a weekly menu, then you’re liable to wind up opting for the easily prepared canned soup alternative to packing a dish that has multiple sides – like meat and two veg – or has items that need to be served at different temperatures – like having a warm hamburger with cool bread, toppings and condiments.
Though there are many reasons why someone might spurn brown-bagging it, I believe that with a little planning and a desire to cook, anyone can start preparing easy and tasty packed lunches. And, once you get in the habit of packing your lunch, the process only becomes easier, making the planning and prep work less and less of a challenge over time.
The most important step towards preparing and packing your lunch is to plan ahead. Just like it’s necessary to make a weekly grocery list so you can budget meals wisely in order to save money, planning your week’s lunches before you visit the grocery store is a must. It allows you to plan dishes that can easily be transported, packed and reheated, and it gives you the opportunity to cook them on the weekend or the night before, making your morning routine infinitely smoother.
In order to plan well, you need to take stock of the containers you have for transporting your lunch, as well as the heat source(s) you have available at work. For instance, my wife and I use Pyrex containers – which are great for microwaving food – but they lack dividers or compartments for storing individual items. As a result, we mainly pack one-dish meals – like pasta, tagine, stir-fry or soup – or sandwiches with a cold side. This makes packing and heating our meals simple and efficient, but it limits our options. Also, because both of our offices only have microwaves, we avoid meats with bones, dishes with bread and fish of any kind, as these items aren’t very microwave-friendly.
Once you know these important parameters, you can begin planning and prepping your weekly lunches. I recommend packing leftover dinners or preparing specific lunch-only dishes on the weekend. Usually, my wife and I do some combination of the two. We typically make one cold lunch dish – like sandwiches or pasta salad – on Sunday afternoon, and then plan at least one dish for the week that can easily be taken for lunch. This way, we don’t have to eat on the same dish or the same type of dish all week long, and it saves time and money because we make large portions of every meal.
The final step in the brown-bagging process is to pack everything up. If a lunch takes some time to put together, we pack it the night before and leave the containers in the fridge until the next morning. On most days, though, we simply fill our containers with the meal du jour and put it in our lunch boxes until we’re ready to leave.
It’s important to keep in mind, however, that packing one’s lunch is about more than simply putting a single container of food into a lunch box. For instance, if your lunch needs condiments, you’ll need to pack these separately and in an easy-to-access container or packet. Do you need flatware and a napkin with your meal? If you don’t have utensils and paper towels readily available at your office, then you’ll need to include your own. Does your lunch need any special handling? If you have soup, you might want to put your container in a plastic bag to ensure it doesn’t spill inside your lunchbox, or if you have to keep an item at a certain temperature, a hot/cold pack is in order, especially if you have a long commute.
While these details may seem mundane, when you have to address them early in the morning, you’re likely to overlook them and wind-up making lunch more difficult than it should be. By taking just a few minutes to plan things ahead of time or preparing items the night before, you can ensure that when you open up your lunch box at work, you’ll have everything you need, making your meal more enjoyable and the whole process less stressful.
I hope this simple guide has inspired you to ditch the typical routine of always going out for lunch, and I hope it prompts you to begin packing your own meals for a delicious, healthy and quick alternative. And, after a week or two of brown-bagging it, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the savings as well!