How to Brown Bag it With Style
Finding time to pack your lunch for work each day can feel pretty overwhelming. Trying to be creative about it can be even more frustrating. Following are several categories of suggestion ideas to help you get started, and stay psyched, about joining the brown bag movement.
- Having One or Two Large Batch Items Available Each Week - This can work well if you have several small containers to pack up ahead of time and toss in with your other lunch items. The smaller Gladware containers or a small thermos from the thrift store are helpful items. Some ideas for large batch items to round out your lunch repertoire? Zingy pasta salad, chili, soup, quiche, fried rice, pizza, tabouleh, pancit or lo mein noodle dishes. I think it's fun to bring things occasionally that you need something besides a fork to eat. If you have children to keep happy with their lunch options, this works great for that, too.
- Pre-packaging some "grab and takes" - Grab and takes is the term we use in our house for those little extras that are easily eaten at your desk, on the run or in the car. One item I used quite often during the last few years of my husband's military career was the large packages of restaurant style tortilla chips from the bulk warehouse stores. They were easy to break down into pint or snack size re-sealable containers. They are also much sturdier than regular tortilla chips and hold up to some seriously sturdy dips. Other ideas? Popcorn, roasted almonds, home made trail mix, pretzels (chocolate coated or otherwise), bargain store cheese and cracker combos by the case, dried fruit, raisin and sunflower kernel mixture, dried cereals and the snack mixes you can creat from them, fruit, etc.
- Factor in Some Finger Foods - This strategy really goes a long way towards breaking up the monotony of the traditional bag lunch. Finger food is also great for those who don't have a long break for lunch and need to be nibbling on it in stages throughout the day.Some ideas to get you started? Hard boiled eggs, cold chicken drummies / nuggets, home made versions of the popular "lunchables" combos, pinwheel appetizer style sandwiches (tortillas rolled up with your favorite filling spread and sliced into rounds works great for this), and self-cut string cheese snacks from bulk block mozzarella. Ham and cheese cubes you can snag with a toothpick are also great for those cutting carbs as well as school children who like to try something different. One of my favorite (and affordable) ideas for finger type foods though is using non-dessert mini muffins or scones with the meal items baked right in. A couple of examples of this would be ham and cheese scones, or corn muffins with turkey sausage, cheese and chopped green chiles.
- Celebrate Your Sandwich Ingredients - Let's face it. Tuna salad, while affordable, just really doesn't cut it long term. Neither does PB & J. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with those sandwich selections. In fact, they are both used quite frequently in our home. What I am saying is that most people (including myself) will not stick with the "take my lunch to work" resolution if they get bored too quickly. If you grow your own basil, caprese sandwiches can be quite affordable. Another one my husband and I both like is zatyr with olive oil as a spread, combined with mozzarella and roma tomatos. A little curry powder in with your chicken salad can really help a lot, as can a pinch or two of horseradish. Alternative greens to lettuce (spinach, basil, radicchio, etc.) and home grown sprouts can also help. A break from the traditional mayo for a spread can keep you motivated as well. (Think hummus or mashed avacado.) Bored with your wonder bread? Try a wrap, a roll, or a different grain entirely. Here are some other ideas for sandwiches, to help get you started. Those reducing meat and dairy in their diets should find this list of vegan sandwiches helpful.
- Dunkin' and Dippin' Combos - I'm partial to this, because I'm a dunker from way back. In addition to the age old carrots and peanut butter, here are a few ideas you may not have thought of. Tortilla chips with salsa, guacamole or ranch sauce. Celery with a multi-ingredient cream cheese spread (think smoked salmon or pineapple). Mini cocktail meatballs with sweet and sour dip, or pita bread chips with hummus are also some out of the ordinary ideas, depending upon where you live.
- Romancing the Stone - I guess what I'm saying here is, make it sexy and you'll stick with it. If some of the more elaborate ingredients are out of your budget reach, try keeping picnic supplies packed in your lunch bag (fabric napkin, sarong, good book). You can hit the park if there's one near your work place. You could also try organizing a weekly or monthly pot luck lunch at work, or a brown bag buffet of simple items. Two things that come to mind? First, a "make your own Italian" lunch buffet the PTO used to coordinate for a school I used to work at. You could sign up for lunch meat, green peppers, sliced cheese, whatever. It's just important that everyone gets on board and commits to their assigned item. This worked well, was healthy, and affordable for nearly every budget. Second is a lunch we used to have in the teachers' room on Guam quite often . . . Vietnamese lumpia. If you've never had it, it's sort of like having a spring roll inside a veggie taco. You need the long lumpia, fish sauce, rice noodles, bean sprouts, mint leaves and long pieces of lettuce to use like a soft tortilla.
- Consider Starting a Brown Bag Theater at Work - A teacher of mine in high school started hosting one of these when she was trying to encourage all of us to eat healthier. We had to bring a healthy lunch to get in on each afternoon's installment of the movie or mini-series she was showing. A similar idea I used years ago is how I got to know a co-worker who is to this day one of my closest friends. The murder trial of a famous sports star (you know the one) was on television practically non stop. I was working at a software company at the time and there was no time to step out to grab lunch as well as catch the TV coverage. She and I used this as motivation to start bringing low cal lunches and opted for catching the news. Soon, many of our co-workers started joining us. You don't need a major long-term news item to get one of these started. Check out episodes of a popular TV series no one has time to watch. Without the commercials, they are often around 40-45 minutes long. That's enough time with an hour lunch break for everyone to get there, get settled with their lunch and enjoy the episode. It would also be a great way for bloggers and other reviewers to keep up to date on a show they were posting about online. Or, try it with a book on tape for an alternative form of a book club. There are many ways to make this work. I'd love to hear some of your ideas.
I guess in conclusion, my only additional advice is to cut yourself some slack if you need it. I don't know how many times I made myself be extra frugal when shopping for lunch items for the week, only to blow it by Thursday because I was so bored with what I had selected that I caved and ordered take out food. In retrospect, would those frozen chicken nuggets have been as expensive as I thought they were the Friday before? Ditto for the sliced Swiss or occasional bottle of fruit flavored sparkling water? There's nothing wrong with adding a little spice to the brown bag experience. It's one of the most powerful cash-carving strategies we have available to us, and if shaking it up a little is what will help you stick with the habit, go for it.
Have some fabulous and fun ideas for sticking with the brown bag movement? I'd really love to hear them.
Photo by Art Expressions