How to Pack Lunch and Actually Enjoy It

Lunch arrives in the middle of every workday and presents a parade of options: to go out, to order in, to eat something healthy or not so healthy, to eat with a coworker or to use the time to scroll through dating apps... run errands. The best decision, however, is packing lunch, which among other benefits, saves a ton of money.

It’s daunting to get started so let’s break it down.

Why should I pack my lunch?

  • Save money. This is major: packing lunch, especially if you start with a stocked pantry, can cost a few dollars a day. These savings can fund weekend activities, build a travel fund or help with major purchases, especially if your salary is low for the city you live in.

  • Eat what you want. Most commercial areas don’t have the best choices. I’d personally rather cook something I know I like than wait in line for a $13 salad.

  • Try new things. Cook a new recipe, buy some fancy condiment and perk up your workday.

  • Stay healthier. Eating home cooked food is good for you and lunch is a great time to sneak in some vegetables.

  • Always have food on hand. How many of us have looked up from work to realize it’s past 2 p.m.? When you bring your own lunch, you can eat it whenever you want, which can be at 10:47 a.m. or 1:52 p.m.

The Nitty Gritty

  • Start with baby steps. Do you always buy a snack? Try to bring some fruit and nuts or a bag of baby carrots and hummus from home and keep it in your desk or work fridge. Do you get home really late? Try packing lunch in the morning or making something big on Sundays. Even packing lunch once a week is better than nothing and it will become more of a habit each week.

  • Never eat the same thing for lunch and dinner. I'd rather eat scrambled eggs for dinner than any version of my lunch.

  • Give yourself at least one day a week to buy lunch and find something you actually like to make that day special. I like to get sushi or Indian food, something I know I won’t make at home.

  • If you have a busy weekend, all is not lost. You can prep something while you make dinner one night (throw in a bunch of vegetables to roast or make a pot of rice) and can get back on track.

  • Texture is everything. A mushy or soupy lunch gets old fast. Think about packing toppings or sauces to perk things up. Try: pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, mustard, kimchi or pickles, a wedge or sprinkle of cheese, a soft boiled egg on top of whatever you were planning to bring or even a lemon wedge for some brightness.

  • Pack enough food. If you're used to packing pasta or buying something heavier for lunch, use a bigger container to pack your salad or vegetable based lunch. It's less dense and you want room to mix things in. Above all, you want to actually be full.

  • When in doubt, add avocado. I buy an avocado and bring 1/3 each day (cut with the skin on) in a Ziploc bag or separate container. It won't get that brown and then you can reheat your lunch without warming the avocado because warm avocado is gross. Avocado ripening rules: Leave it out of the refrigerator to ripen, in a warm place if possible, and then keep in the fridge once it’s ripe.

  • Be generous with your definition of salad, keeping this in mind.

  • Keep some helpers at work. I take free Sir Kensington's mustard packets whenever I'm walking out of Whole Foods and keep red pepper flakes in the office fridge. A mini Tabasco or Sriracha Sauce helps too.

  • Stock your pantry. If you see canned chickpeas, frozen peas, brown rice, or any other staples on sale, buy whatever you have room to store. It makes last-minute cooking way easier. Buy spices, hot sauces, olives, etc. They keep forever.

  • Small containers are your friend. Order a few on Amazon so you can pack dressings, toppings and herbs without a mess. I also transport my lunch in a mini Baggu as a leak insurance policy.

Photo by Abigail Koffler

Photo by Abigail Koffler

Now what do I make?

  • Sweet potato miso broccoli bowls (I made a very loose adaptation of this, usually combining quinoa, kale, broccoli, sweet potato and the addictive dressing. Kimchi and avocado are perfect toppings).

  • Thai Quinoa Crunch Salad with the addition of kale (add the lime juice, peanuts, scallions and cilantro each morning when you pack the lunch so it stays crunchy).

  • Not a salad: Spaghetti squash tacos via the Smitten Kitchen cookbook. Pack the filling in a container and wrap tortillas in foil to warm up at your office. Bring a small container of salsa or buy one for the office fridge.

  • Broccoli fritters are perfect on top of a salad or in a pita.

  • This one pot farro is so simple and good hot or cold.

  • A mostly vegetable frittata (works for breakfast or lunch). Pack it with some greens or as the filling for a sandwich. I LOVE feta cheese in frittatas and you can use frozen vegetables or anything that’s starting to wilt. I use this method with eight eggs and tons of vegetables.

Leftovers: If you have any leftovers from a meal out, I bet they can become lunch with the addition of some greens (kale and cabbage keep the longest in the fridge) and a soft boiled egg. Fried rice and noodles work really well with this.

Soups: I love this sweet potato black bean chili (add avocado, scallions, and lime) and this coconut tomato lentil soup (top with peanuts and a little extra coconut cream).

Sweet potatoes: From one sweet potato, you can create so many lunches. If you’re really tired on a Sunday, roast a few sweet potatoes or a squash at 425 for about 40 minutes and then go crazy. Add black beans, broccoli or snap peas, kimchi, avocado, seeds, an egg, any leftover grains, spinach, pretty much the entire contents of your fridge could work. Having a sweet potato under a salad dramatically reduces the chances of being hungry again at 3 p.m.

Talk to friends. I love swapping lunch recipes with friends (the She Spends group always has good ideas) and keep a running list for when I need new ideas.

Photo by Abigail Koffler

Photo by Abigail Koffler

When in doubt, I often bring kale, roasted vegetables, and chickpeas and add toasted pumpkin seeds for crunch, avocado and a tahini dressing (lemon juice, garlic, tahini, salt and pepper, and a little bit of water to make it less thick). The best part of lunch is how flexible it is. #NotSadDeskLunch club for life.

While I freely admit that a packed lunch won't always blow your mind, neither will most office lunch options. I try to embrace lunch as a way to try new things, buy seasonal produce and save lots of money to eat at fun places on nights and weekends. Any tips or recipes you swear by? Comment below or head to the She Spends Facebook group to discuss.

Abigail Koffler works in fundraising at a nonprofit and writes This Needs Hot Sauce, a weekly food newsletter.