Ideas for Working Parents' Lunches

Parent Q&A

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  • I find I eat better and save money when I'm able to take my own lunch to work, but with a busy schedule and hectic morning routine I can't always make it happen. I look longingly at those services that deliver prepared foods or ready to go lunches, but I can't afford to go that route. (They are more expensive than if I just bought lunch near my office). We try to make enough dinner to have leftovers to take for lunch, but that doesn't always happen because sometimes we don't have dinner at home, or the leftovers go to the kids school lunches, or there's just not enough leftovers. I've tried to make something in the morning (e.g. sandwich & salad) but with a very hectic morning routine of making breakfast for 4 people, packing 2 school lunches and trying to get everyone out the door, I can't add another task. I need things that are easy to grab and go, or prepare ahead. Any suggestions? I don't like frozen meals from stores. I'm going to try to make soups or chile ahead and freeze lunch portions, but I know its going to be hard to keep up. Any dinner suggestions for meals that lend themselves well to having enough leftover for easy lunches? What do you take for lunch? 

    Thanks in advance

    We also no longer have enough dinner leftovers for me to take for lunch on a regular basis now that I have a 10 year old son who eats a lot! I go to a grocery store near my work on my Monday lunch hour and stock up on just my food for the week at work, fruit/popcorn/deli-prepared food/clamshell salads/frozen entrees (typically Amy's brand) or whatever. Not my favorite but just something to keep me going. I also try to focus less on the food part of lunch and use most of my time to take a 20-30 minute walk. 

    I empathize! You are not alone. I don't have a perfect solution for this (we're in the struggle, too), but our strategy has been to find recipes we can cook on the weekend when we have more time and that will last us several meals & then try to cook something like a veggie-laden pasta dish that comes together faster but will also stretch several meals during the week.

    For example, this go-to recipe doubled has worked well for us: (I think it's just a copy of the America's Test Kitchen version we use).

    Our quick "crap-we-don't-have-leftovers for lunch" fix is to make egg salad sandwiches and use chipotle mayo (which we much prefer to the regular stuff) and prep the egg salad the night before so all you have to do is slap it between bread in the morning and go.

    Good luck & I'll be eager to see how others handle this, too!

    I take those pre-made salads that you can get at Safeway, Costco and trader joe’s. Every. Single. Day. It’s pretty boring and it’s a lot of packaging, but it’s cheap and easy. I also take a piece of fruit and an easy afternoon snack (yogurt, cheese, nuts, dried fruits, etc.) because those salads are not that filling. I can pack a lunch in 5 min or even less as I’m rushing out the door. 

    Some things that work for me... Fresh fruits and vegetables I enjoy eating raw.  This time of year that includes apples, pears, celery and carrots.  Dried fruits and nuts. Crackers with cheese or a small tub of peanut butter.  Humus and chips.  Many foods can be washed and put in single serving container as I unload the groceries. Then they are ready to grab and go.  Eggs can be boiled 6 or a dozen at a time.  They keep well in the fridge. I like the Trader Joe frozen tamales, single serving quiches and lasagnas.  When I make soup I double the amount I need for dinner and put the rest in single serving, microwavable containers in the freezer.  With these things on hand I can put a lunch together in 5 minutes or less in the morning.

    Hope that’s helpful.  I do find I eat better, feel better, save time and money if I resist eating out at work.  Good luck.

    Every time you cook something for dinner that freezes well, double or triple the recipe and freeze the extra servings.

    Prep salads in the evening: Toss all wet ingredients in a container that you can eat it from. Put all dry/crunchy ingredients in (a) small separate container(s). Put the dressing in a container that does not leak. Put everything but dry ingredients in the fridge. If it's a big salad with enough protein in it, you can do without a sandwich. Add some crackers and fresh fruit on the side if you like.

    I find Trader Joe's salads to be a life-saver this year. I would have snubbed them in my previous, non-mother life, but the health-cost-ease-satisfaction ratio is currently unbeatable.

    If you have a bit more time, what I used to do, in said previous life, is keep oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper in the office and pack a box with salad greens and literally whatever there was in the fridge that lent itself to dumping--from leftover meatballs to raw baby carrots--on top off that, and then dress at the office right before consuming.

    I have a couple tactics that have worked well for me. Often I will make a large pot of soup for dinner, to be served with grilled cheese, quesadillas, salad, and/or garlic bread. the rest I either freeze in individual portions or just take a larger container to work. In the morning when I leave, I just have to remember to grab the soup container and anything I want alongside, like crackers or cut up veggies/fruit. I make vegetable soups for the most part--"cream" of tomato (no cream is used, just tomatoes stewed and then pureed with carrots, celery, onion, and a potato!), butternut squash, carrot, broccoli, potato-leek, or lentil. My family likes those soups, fortunately, and they are healthy and filling, and generally cheap as well. Another good lunch for me is to make a grain salad--cook some rice, farro, barley, bulgar, quinoa--whichever you like. Mix with leftover roasted vegetables from dinner, salad dressing, and baby spinach, arugula, cabbage, or radicchio--any sturdy lettuce-type vegetable that will hold up for a couple of days in the fridge once dressed. Add cheese, like feta, mozzarella, or parm, for protein, or use nuts, or both. Lentils or chickpeas are also good here. The flavor combinations are limited only by your imagination/tastes--you can use a straight up vinaigrette, or use sesame oil/soy/vinegar. You can also use noodles, of course--cook an extra portion if you're making a pasta dinner. If you eat fish or chicken, you could make a large portion of tuna or chicken salad, using rotisserie chicken or leftover cooked chicken from making stock, soup, enchiladas, etc., then bring a container with a couple days' servings and some pita bread, so you don't have to try to rush to build yourself a sandwich in the morning. Hummus is also a good lunch, along with pita, crackers, and/or cut up veggies. Using any of these, I will usually eat along these lines 3-4 days out of the week, and then I feel like I've earned the right to treat myself to takeout one day, and will take the opportunity to try a new place near my office if I have the time. Just try to make cooking excess food, whether it is roasted veggies, extra grains/pasta, chicken, etc., a routine part of your dinner prep. You don't have to have leftovers, necessarily, but you can use parts of the meal to create lunch for yourself that will last a couple days. Good luck!

    Trader Joe's has great pre packaged salads and other healthy items. I would also bring fruit and nuts as a snack. You can also bring tomato soup and some grated cheese and just nuke it at work. 

    I find I do better to bring Ingredients to work and take 10 minutes in the kitchen to prepare.  With that in mind—- avocado toast with Tabasco is a winner!  Also tuna!— bring the canned tuna and ingredients to work. I’ll take the time there that I don’t have at home. 

    I try to make enough for leftovers but also try to have some string cheese, nuts, and plain yogurt that are easy to grab along with an apple or pear and a small amount of dark 71-85% chocolate. sometimes some mary's gone crackers. also sometimes i'll take a can of salmon and mash it with a bit of mayo, mustard, garlic flakes, salt, paprika (and if I have time some celery and scallions chopped up and added). I used to take a can of sardines or a tastybite indian meal (usually costs about $3-4 so cheaper than takeout and fairly good quality), but less often feel like it these days. also sometimes a carrot or red pepper (just eat whole like an apple). I try to make a huge thing of steamed broccoli and make little containers of that plus a bit of mayo to dip into.

    What I have done to have leftovers as my children got older and ate more, was to cook more. And as they became even older and ate late night, I had to put my name on my leftovers-for-lunch!  I will bring a can of soup to work. Sometimes I buy a few of the Trader Joe’s salads and bring a can of tuna or sardines. Or hummus and pita bread and carrots. Lunch from home is so worth it!

    I make everyone's lunch (including my own) the night before. There's no way I can get to it in the morning, and even though it often feels like the last thing I want to do before bedtime, I know I'll be glad in the morning. I also boil a dozen eggs at the start of the week so I have these one hand in case it's all I can manage for the adults in the home. You could also get some hummus or salami or whatever you like and keep it on hand at work. Sunday prep. Everything, anything that will help. You're making 21 meals a week and it sucks. But it must be done. 

    You are so on track for wanting to bring a healthy, home-prepared lunch. Not only is it healthier, but it's way cheaper. In our family we cooked twice the recipe for dinner meals that would convert to easy lunches. This was most often pasta dishes, casseroles, bean and grain mains that could sit for several hours and could be eaten at room temp. Leftover pizza big hit.  (Obviously try to keep meat/cheese chill.) You can also save out a portion of undressed salads, and pack a container of dressing and perhaps a hard-boiled egg or some edamame. Always have fruit available. Our kids also liked assemblies of yogurt, hummos, veggies, fruit. Advantage to kids: don't have to take time to stand in line, pay, and gobble. Advantage to parentals: alleviate stress through pre-planning, provide healthy meal, save money. And there's always PB&J - which after casseroles and salads can be a real treat! So our kids left the house ten + years ago, and all of us still adhere to the same habit. Look for us and our tupperware. Good luck to you and your family.

    Keep it simple! How about some nuts or yogurt and a piece of fruit?