I almost hate to admit it, but when it comes to food, I am one of those gals who believes that presentation is everything. I believe whole-heartedly in the importance of eating nutrient-dense, unprocessed, whole foods, as close to nature as you can possibly get. I believe that simple is best. But there is something about the presentation that can make or break a meal for me. I need it to be lovely. I really do. You know that picture perfect picnic kind of set-up? It almost doesn’t matter what the meal is, if it’s beautiful to look at I want to eat it. Superficial, I know, but there is just something about beautiful food.
This little flaw of mine can present a challenge in preparing and packing nutritious and satisfying lunches for a busy workday during a busy workweek. I have found that I am simply not content to throw a bowl of ugly green mush in a tupperware container and call it lunch. Nope. Doesn’t do it. Not for me. For me, a meal is not just about eating, it is an experience. And so I feel compelled to dilly and dally, embellishing and emphasizing the natural beauty of nature’s bounty. Sometimes this causes delays in my schedule…uh, well, hmmm…I’m late because I had to make lunch? It seems so ridiculous, I often skip it all together for the sake of saving time. But that never pays. So, I embarked on a mission to master the art of workday picnics and the packed lunch. And I have discovered that with very little time and effort, even a bowl of green goop can be a lovely and satisfying lunch experience.
Life is hectic, time is scarce and meals are often consumed in conjunction with daily tasks. Breakfast at your desk with a cereal bar in one hand and a keyboard in the other. Lunch meetings at the local steakhouse. Fast food dinner at the wheel during your evening commute. Late night snacks while folding laundry in front of the television. Multi-tasking. We all do it, but I have found (at least for me) this kind of lunching and munching leads to not-so-healthy eating habits that can be somewhat difficult to shake.
It’s a constant struggle, but I am slowly learning that making the time to create yourself a lovely lunch to pack and grab is well worth the effort. Because in the end, a picture perfect picnic is far better for your body and soul than a last minute lunch-n-munch on the go. And, truthfully, it’s not that difficult to do. It’s just a matter of finding a few favorites, creating a system and getting into a groove. So, here are a few helpful tips for making quick, yet picnic-worthy packed lunches.
First off, make good use of the leftovers. I have never been one for leftovers. I don’t know about you, but I am not a same-thing-for-lunch-everyday kind of girl. As far as food is concerned, I just love variety and I am always eager to try something new. So, lately I have been enjoying the task of transforming last night’s leftovers into an altogether new and delicious dish. For example, last night’s roasted vegetable side dish becomes tomorrow’s Mediterranean Collard Wraps. Tuesday’s CSA produce box stir fry becomes Wednesday’s Roasted Root Veggie Buddha Bowl. And Thursday’s pot of red lentil coconut soup becomes…well, Friday’s bowl of Red Lentil Coconut Soup. Because sometimes leftovers are perfect just as they are.
That being said, there are mornings when pausing to fancy up your leftovers is just out of the question. In these moments I like to employ one of those nifty lunch containers to transport individual ingredients that I can assemble at lunchtime.
Those Mediterranean Collard Wraps, for example, started out the day as a handful of ingredients literally tossed in a bag on my way out the door along with a plastic picnic plate, utensils and a blanket. That turned out to be quite an unexpected luxury in the midst of a hectic workday! Lunch breaks are short, but I have discovered that there is usually time to sneak out for a secret little playground picnic.
Next up, don’t underestimate the value of good quality packaged food. If you put a little effort into
exploring the grocery store aisles you will undoubtedly find a few conveniently packaged, yet nutritious staples to keep in the cupboard for your quick and healthy packed lunch creations. Some of my personal favorites include individual hummus packs, pre-washed organic baby kales and greens, small cartons of healthy and preservative-free soup, individual almond butter packs, pre-made superfood power snacks, Larabars and these little chia seed squeeze treats.
With a little forethought and planning, a big bowl of fresh veggies, washed, cut and stored in the fridge, can serve any number of uses during the workweek.
Pull ’em out, quickly chop a few of your favorites and throw them on top of those ready-to-use greens for a colorful layered salad in a jar. These salads are great and easily customized. You can make it as light or substantial as you like. Keep it simply veggies or add protein-rich ingredients, such as beans, nuts, avocado, tofu or even chicken. Pack a little something on the side with which to dress it up when lunchtime comes around. If you’re organized and planning ahead, make a jar of your favorite homemade dressing on the weekend and pour it into individual to-go containers to keep in the fridge. Or simply grab one of those hummus packs or a bit of bottled dressing on your way out the door.
Throw a handful of fresh veggies in a bag with hummus and crackers to ward off that late afternoon snack attack. Again, if you’re feeling ambitious and planning ahead, divide vegetables into ziploc bags and store them in the fridge for an even speedier early a.m. lunch prep.
I also like to have a bag of organic (non-GMO, of course) tortilla chips in the cupboard for those days when that box of black bean soup and an avocado are all you have on hand. If you have a minute or two, whip up some guacamole and throw some chips in a bowl. Grab a box of your nutritious soup and you’re ready to go. Things like this are a cinch to do while you wait for your morning coffee to brew.
Also, I like to have a system for transporting and preparing last minute picnic lunches at work. These nesting glass bowls, for example, are perfect for soup and side lunches. My chips and dip fit perfectly inside a bigger bowl for warming my soup in later. (Keep in mind, this type of lunch assumes a microwave or stovetop is available in your workplace.) Then, just wrap it up and it’s good to go!
Speaking of wrapping it up, it’s important to have a small arsenal of portable containers, utensils, lunch boxes and bags from which you can quickly grab just the right one for packing your perfect lunch. I have a fine little collection of fun lunch boxes and bags, but these bandanas are by far my favorite go-to lunch wraps. They come in every color and pattern imaginable, they cost about a dollar a piece, they double as a napkin and are oh-so-easy to toss in the wash. Not to mention the versatility. You can make just about anything portable using a furoshiki wrap!
I love this bamboo utensil set. I purchased two of them to ensure I always have one clean in the drawer while the other sits in the sink waiting to be washed. And then there are water bottles. Oh, we have quite a collection of those! All sorts of shapes and sizes: plastic, glass, wide mouth, narrow mouth, straws, sippy spouts…you name it. But my favored water container is, and always will be, a mason jar. They are inexpensive, easy to wash, there’s always a lid that fits, they do not leak and they actually fit in the cup holder of my car. Genius.
Last of all, and best of all, make your lunch an enjoyable experience. Pack a lovely lunch and you can create that picture perfect picnic just about anywhere. A park bench, a playground, the front steps. Walk away from your desk, leave the classroom, step outside and claim those few moments for yourself. Because sometimes all it takes is a little something lovely to make your day.