Packing Healthy Lunches

When I was growing up, lunch was ALWAYS a sandwich (usually PB & J), a piece of fruit, and a cookie, with a quarter thrown in so I could buy milk in the cafeteria. There’s nothing wrong with a lunch like that, but it can get a little repetitive, and there are definitely healthier options out there.

When I was home on summer break and maternity leave, I got in the habit of making really healthy lunches because I had plenty of time to prep them while Ellie napped. Now that I’m back at work, I’m trying to stick to those produce-filled lunches full of healthy grains and proteins, but I have WAY less time during the week to make it happen.

My new strategy is to devote an hour or two of meal prep on Sunday night so that it’s easy to assemble healthy meals to go all week long. Here’s my general strategy:

The photo above shows what I prepped for this week:
a big container of red cabbage, diced cucumber, and diced red bell pepper
1 head of kale, chopped and sauteed with garlic and red pepper flakes
carrots and celery, cut into sticks (and soaking in cold water so they don’t get soft).
Last week, I roasted some sweet potatoes and cubes of butternut squash (just tossed with olive oil and a little salt.)
I keep tomatoes and avocados on hand most of the time, but I don’t cut those until the night before I’m planning on packing them.
I also LOVE my salad spinner. This week it’s full of arugula but I also love butter lettuce, baby spinach or red leaf lettuce

In addition to cutting up a ton of vegetables, I cook some grains and protein. My favorite sources of protein are beans (which I cook in the slow cooker), lentils, which cook pretty quickly on the stove top, and tofu or tempeh, cut into cubes and sauteed.

For grains, my current favorites are quinoa and farro, which both cook relatively quickly on the stove. I also like to make a big batch of brown rice in the rice cooker.

I keep these in Snapware containers in the fridge so it’s easy to assemble salads the night before work.

This is probably the most important part. I don’t follow recipes when I’m throwing lunch together, but I do have a couple go-to combinations that I love.
rice vinegar + soy sauce + sesame seeds (this is especially good with avocado!
tahini + Bragg’s liquid aminos + sriracha
plain yogurt
olive oil + lemon juice
pumpkin or sunflower seeds

By having all this on hand, it’s really easy to make lunches at night, while I’m cleaning up from dinner. I usually start with a layer of greens, top with grain + protein, then add some extra vegetables on top. Sometimes I’ll mix up the dressing in a separate container, but most of the time I drizzle it over the top when I pack, then mix it all up when it’s time to eat.

Hopefully these ideas will save you from expensive takeout or a boring sandwich rut!


14 Responses to “Packing Healthy Lunches”

  1. 1 Naomi December 14, 2011 at 6:06 am

    I cook a bigger dish twice a week so that I have lunch for the rest of week but I tend to not include as much produce as I like because I never know how to keep it fresh. I’ve also never tried to cook beans in the slow cooker – what a great idea! Thanks for these tips – I will definitely try them!

  2. 2 Laura December 14, 2011 at 8:26 am

    Bookmarking this one! Tired of the same old salads and sandwiches for lunch. This is much needed, thanks!

  3. 3 Alyssa December 14, 2011 at 8:54 am

    Thank you for this… I really need to get in this habit, rather than throwing it together the morning of work!

  4. 4 Krysten December 14, 2011 at 9:03 am

    GREAT post Cate! Much needed…thank you for sharing, big time! 🙂

  5. 5 Kelsey December 14, 2011 at 9:36 am

    Great suggestions, Cate. One nice thing about having a super short teacher lunch is no going out. If I pack something healthy, I’ll eat healthy! I do lots of salads for days when I don’t have leftovers from dinner.

  6. 6 anna December 14, 2011 at 9:42 am

    Love the condiment combos!

  7. 7 Kristen @ The Concrete Runner December 14, 2011 at 10:49 am

    So helpful! You lettuce doesn’t get soggy with the dressing on top overnight?

    • 8 Cate December 14, 2011 at 7:09 pm

      Kristen – If it’s a thick dressing with tahini, I put it on top of the grains and beans, so it doesn’t soak down onto the lettuce until I mix it up. If it’s more of a vinaigrette, I put it in a separate container.

  8. 9 Kate December 15, 2011 at 9:38 am

    These are great ideas for salads. I make lunches after dinner too, but we only do salads once every few weeks.

  9. 10 Michael December 15, 2011 at 10:19 am

    I love our healthy and tasty lunches…the chili garlic sauce or Sriracha is key for me!

  10. 11 Anita December 16, 2011 at 5:03 am

    Cate can you tell me your slow cooker method of cooking the beans. I’ve heard of a pressure cooker but not a slow cooker. How much water to beans? Do you soak them first? How long do you cook them? Thanks for everything, great blog.

    • 12 Cate December 16, 2011 at 5:58 am

      Anita – I don’t soak the beans, I just cover them with a few inches of water and cook on low for about 8 hours or on high for 2-3 hours. I stir in about a teaspoon of salt during the last hour.

  11. 13 The Student @ Food for Dissertating December 17, 2011 at 7:46 pm

    I do leftovers a lot, but never a meal that is entirely leftovers for lunch–I like reimagining them. I have a lot of fun packing my lunch. Once you get into the habit, creativity just seems to flow. I do a lot of non-salad salad like things, because I’m not that crazy about most leafy saalads (think cut veggies and hummus as a salad). I’ve also done cold soba noodles with veggies, and non-leafy salads like carrot slaw or cucumber-red onion salad.

  12. 14 Minky December 18, 2011 at 10:07 pm

    Try putting the dressing in FIRST, in the bottom of the container. Then layer in veggies, with greens and grains on top. The veggies kind of marinate and the greens and grains don’t get soggy. Before you eat, you can just shake the container around to distribute the dressing.

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