Let’s admit it: The pandemic made us forget how to pack a lunch. Now that school and work are in person, we’re digging for container tops and trying to figure out what to put in all those little plastic boxes.
For some guidance, I talked with local food experts seeking tips on how to efficiently put together a delicious lunch every day for office workers and school kids.
Prep, prep, prep
Planning a bit and prepping for the week goes a long way.
“Prep, prep, prep,” said Tara Archer of Boards + Bubbles. In addition to her charcuterie picnic business, Archer is a nutrition coach. She firmly believes that once-a-week food preparation makes it easy to pack healthy, delicious lunches every day.
Prep doesn’t have to be extensive or overly time consuming. Cut up some fruit and vegetables then decide on a protein or several proteins for the week.
“Because I own a chili parlor, I’m a fan of slow cooking,” said chef Derek Saner of Slow Fox Chili Parlor. “Chili, stew and pork shoulder can last for the week. Get that done and then choose the mood you’re in to pack your lunch.”
Archer recommends some other proteins. She likes to make chicken meatballs or pack pre-cooked turkey, chicken or beef sausage. Vegans and vegetarians can make a large pot of beans or chickpeas for the week. She also likes to make big batches of sauces and dressings ahead of time and then put them in small containers for easy packing during the week.
Chef Miguel Sosa, owner of Elements Restaurant, notes that homemade always tastes better than store-bought. Instead of buying pre-made fruit cups with syrup, he recommends putting fresh fruit in mason jars then filling them with simple syrup and a bit of fresh-squeezed lemon juice. Sturdier fruit like stone fruit, apples or pears can be poached in the syrup before placed in jars. Fresh summer berries are best placed in the jar cold and then covered with syrup.
Lunch for kids
Judiaann Woo has worked in the food industry for 20 years. She’s also a mother of two school-aged children. She’s developed an efficient lunch-packing system to get lunch in bags every morning while minimizing waste.
“School lunch is all about what the kids want to eat,” she said.
Kids don’t have a lot of time to eat lunch at school, yet they need a nutrient-rich meal to get them through the day. Woo believes in packing familiar foods that kids enjoy so they will eat enough during their short lunch break.
The first step is to talk to your children and find out what they want to eat. Then go to the grocery store and stock up on lunch items for the week. Cut up fresh vegetables and fruit and put them in small containers. Then pick a type of sandwich or main dish for the week. Place all lunch items in the same part of the refrigerator so they can easily be grabbed and packed in the morning.
“A lot of kids want the same thing every day so just go with it. What is the harm? It’s a win-win for everyone,” Woo said.
Woo also has some advice on how to keep food fresh from the morning until lunch. She places cut fruit like apples cut-side down in a container so air doesn’t turn it brown or cuts an apple into slices then puts it back together with a rubber band. Both methods keep air from getting in and prevent browning. Sandwiches are wrapped in wax paper and placed in sealed containers to stay fresh.
A small treat rounds out the lunches Woo packs for her children. She bakes and freezes zucchini bread, pumpkin bread, cookies and other sweet treats then packs a small piece for lunch every day.
She’s also taught her children not to throw anything out at school. Leftover parts of lunch make a great after-school snack. In addition, Woo likes to survey what gets left in the lunch box to see if her children didn’t like that particular item or if the portions were too big.
Lunch for adults
Woo believes adults should also pack food that they like and not things that they think they should be eating for lunch.
“Think outside of the lunch box,” said Woo. “If you don’t like sandwiches, you don’t have to eat a sandwich. Also, the salads people pack for lunch are never very exciting. They may make a nice salad for dinner, but their lunch salads are sad.”
The easiest way to make lunch is to make extra portions of food for dinner and then pack leftovers for lunch the next day. Saner recommends stews and braises for a filling lunch. These foods can be packed in a microwave-proof container and reheated for lunch or packed hot in a thermos.
Keri Buhman of C’est La Vie offers another easy option.
“Pack an adult Lunchables with crackers, cheese, grapes, nuts and cured meats,” Buhman said. “You can eat fast or slow at your desk over time.”
She likes to add grapes instead of apples because apples tend to get brown. This combination of food provides a nice protein rush without being heavy. A piece of dark chocolate rounds out this on-the-go charcuterie board.
Buhman recently added something new to the refrigerated section of her shop: portable salads in long plastic containers called salad shakers. They’re essentially an upside-down salad with dressing and heartier things on the bottom and lettuce and other tender vegetables on top. This method allows things like chickpeas and bits of cooked chicken to marinate in the dressing. When you’re ready to eat, dump the whole thing in a bowl.
Buhman has offered an Italian stack salad shaker with red wine vinegar, salami and provolone on the bottom, topped with lettuce. She’s also made a Thai salad with dressing and chicken and peppers on the bottom. She recommends making vinaigrette in a blender ahead of time so it won’t separate.
Saner’s wife, Nicole Saner, likes to pack a portable version of noodle soup. To prepare this soup on the go, place pre-cooked noodles, vegetables and protein in a Mason jar. Keep broth in a separate container. The broth can be reheated or kept hot in a thermos. When you’re ready to eat, pour the broth into the jar with the other ingredients. This method works well for a variety of noodle soups like ramen, pho or old fashioned chicken noodle soup with thick egg noodles, bits of carrots and celery, and a sprig of fresh dill.
During his early years in Chicago, Sosa worked at a restaurant that made lunches for nearby businesses. He discovered that a sandwich tastes better if it isn’t assembled until it’s ready to eat. He recommends packing a sandwich kit by separating condiments and vegetables like lettuce and tomatoes from the bread and protein to avoid sogginess. Assembling everything when you’re ready to eat results in a fresher-tasting sandwich.
If all else fails, there’s a place in every office that’s usually empty — the freezer.
“Stockpile things you like to eat,” Woo said.
She noted that frozen meal options have improved over the years. There are a lot of great things you can store in the freezer and reheat for lunch, she said.
The secret to packing a good lunch isn’t really a secret. Do some prep and pack food that you’ll be happy to see when you open your lunch box.
Remember, nobody is handing out awards or promotions at your office for toting around an oversized sad salad and listlessly poking it with a fork at your desk. The best lunch is always the one that you thoroughly enjoyed eating.