Taking The Homestead In For Lunch

I used to pick up lunch at work. You know, a cheapo sandwich from Safeway, a burger from the cool indie burger place across the street, takeout teriyaki from the stand that seemed to have new owners every week.

Back in the day, four years or so ago, I used to budget $6 a day for this. Most of the time it worked out, unless I got in to the market and lost control of myself to the tune of $12 or so worth of sushi.We’ve all seen food prices go up over the past few years and now I find it is hard to get in and out with lunch for much less than $10. And that loss-of-control binge into 2nd rate raw fish would easily set me back $20 now.Ouch.

Yesterday Erica talked about leftovers, maximizing the work you get out of every bit of food you cook. This post is about leftovers’ life partner, the bag lunch.If I can bring in a bag lunch just four days a week (I’ll spot myself one day for not having my shit together or going out with co-workers) for the roughly 48 working weeks in a year, that’s 192 lunches.

At ten bucks each I’m saving myself from shelling out $1,920 to the Safeway, the Starbucks, the drive through. Granted, ingredients are going in to each one of those lunches, but trust me, even if I was paying $20 per meal, the quality wouldn’t be anything like what I can bring in from the garden.Over the past few years I’ve found that there are a few things that make it easier for me – and for Erica – to keep these negabucks flowing.

Homebrew Husband’s Top Seven Bag Lunch Tips.

1. Pack it the night before. At 5:00 AM, packing lunch isn’t a big priority. I’m fidgeting and waiting for the coffee pot to huff and gurgle and indicate that I can pour a cup for Erica (and sneak it up to her night stand) and then pour a cup for myself and run to catch my train. So if the day’s lunch isn’t there, waiting for me in a Tupperware, odds are I’ll succumb to the siren of convenience and throwing money at the problem.So instead of deferring the problem until the morning, pack lunch the night before. Make it part of post-dinner cleanup, while you’ve already got everything out in the kitchen, just set aside a container or two that are already proportioned for the following day. Then it’ll be there waiting when you need it.

2. Bring in a bunch at once.I take public transportation a lot, riding the train and the bus to work. Schlepping a cooler or some food containers isn’t the easiest thing to do, wedged in a bench seat next to a perspiring middle aged man with a too-tight Katy Perry t-shirt. Much like the effort to cook a few meals at once isn’t that much more than the effort to cook one meal, the effort to haul around two or even three meals isn’t that much more than the effort to haul around one.Use a picnic sized cooler or a reusable market bag or some swag bag you got at a trade show. Toss a few containers in there at once, two or even three days worth of lunch, and call it good. I’m on day two of a hotwing feast, with no extra effort today. Tomorrow I’ll bring home a collection of empties to set aside for next week. Works great with chili, soup, anything that comes in bulk.

3. Mix and match.While you are bringing in a couple of days’ worth of food, why not bring in some variety. Instead of two or three containers, each for one day, bring in a container of rice, one with some salmon, one with some veggies. Then you can mix up your lunches to fit the mood of the day. Or if the salmon runs out, bring in some leftover tri tip and a tortilla and you can have a sort of ad-hoc fajita with the rest.

4. Stockpile condimentsAt various times, I’ve kept all of the following at work: kosher salt, pepper, mustard, salad dressing, ketchup, soy sauce, and Frank’s Red Hot. Really this is just another step on the mix-and-match road. With a collection of condiments, I can hot up (sometimes literally) anything I grab out of the fridge. Once I grabbed a large tupperware full of rice. I thought it had rice and salmon and veggies, but I grabbed the wrong container. Well, warm rice isn’t exactly balanced or particularly tasty, but with the additional of some condiments, it got me through the day. Even if you don’t get caught in such straights, being able tweak your food adds fun and variety.

5. Stockpile snacks.The office gig can be fatiguing, in its own odd way. Often I find myself munching just to stay awake. On a long conference call when I just might suddenly need to pay attention, at a team meeting when I don’t want to be caught yawning in front of my manager’s manager. The all-too-easy solution is the vending machine or little deli-mart downstairs for a bag of chips or a power bar.What I strive for, but frankly don’t often achieve, is having a drawer full of my own snacks. Energy bars, granola, apples, raisins, nuts, jerky, etc: it doesn’t matter if they are store bought or home made – having them there for a quick wake-up or boost is far better to giving in to vending machine temptation (or being caught napping).

6. Pre-position breakfast.Everyone agrees that breakfast is the most important meal of the day (or at least that is what I always read). But no one ever eats it. Again, at 5:00 AM I’m inclined to give in to the short term view of coffee and a dash out the door. But starting off right really does help the day go better. So while you are loading up on snacks and putting them away in your desk drawer, load up on some good breakfast food as well. Yogurt, stashed in the office fridge (I hate yogurt, so you feel free to take this advice even if I refuse to) is good. Frozen waffles or pancakes and some nut butter and jam is good. But, best of all:

7. Hardboiled eggs.Two days ago, we had our first five-egg day. Yesterday we got six. Today, five again. So it is safe to say that the hens are finally up to full speed. And that means plentiful eggs and something I’ve long awaited: hardboiled eggs at work. Cooked, peeled and kept cold in water, a hardboiled egg will last for several days. Cook up a batch, take them in, and stash them in a fridge. Two or three will make an excellent breakfast, one or two will help get through an afternoon dry spot or recover from a bad meeting. Season them with your pepper or kosher salt, eat them with some of that bread or yogurt or granola!

I cook my eggs per Alton Brown – this method has never failed to produce a great hardboiled egg:Lay eggs in a single layer at the bottom of a cooking pot.  Fill the pot with cold water to about an inch above the topmost egg. Your pot should be big enough that you have at least an inch of margin.

Heat the water, uncovered, on high until the water is JUST starting to simmer. Then immediately cut the heat off and put a lid on the pot. Let stand for ELEVEN minutes. While you wait, prep an ice bath. After the eleven minutes have passed, fish the eggs out with a slotted spoon and dunk them in the ice bath for a few minutes.Peel. Any that you do not eat immediately should go into a closed container, covered in water. They will keep for several days.The older an egg is the easier it will peel (but the more pungent it will be) so this is a good way to use up the older eggs in your inventory.

Those of you who also work off the homestead – what tips have you got for bringing the bounty and savings in to work?


  1. says

    Nick – you and my husband must be kindred spirits. He does so many similar things for his lunches. I know he'll appreciate this post though because I think you've taken some of his lunch packing skills to the next level. He has also loved using the Mr. Bento that I got him for father's day a couple years back – sometimes he has to drive at work and it's a great container to grab and bring your whole lunch with you.

  2. says

    Been packing lunch since 9th grade when I went to private school with no lunch room…. 40 some years of it now….lol!

    Salad dressing tip… Put it in the bowl first, then put the salad stuff on top of it. At lunch time, stir it all up. No wilted greens this way :)

  3. says

    My husband works from home or is out driving from place to place. It's a shame as it means he cant take hot stuff or stuff that needs reheating. On the plus side, it's easy to carry a small cooler in the car. I often do his lunch for him and I try to keep it varied, lots of little things to tempt him seems to work for him, so we end up with lots of tiny containers that he can dip into at will. For me at home I do what is probably the natural cousin to your system, I make a big pan of something then pull out a bowlful and change up the flavours as I see fit, this week it's potato and cheese chowder, today with a bit of leftover zucchini and some smoked ham.

  4. Anonymous says

    1. Keep a mid size glass bowl at your desk, preferably square. I'm OK with packing leftovers in plastic, but hate using it in the microwave.

    2. A Sam's Club roast chicken in the work fridge along with some mayo, salt, pepper, tortillas, and greens can get you through several days lunches for the price of one lunch.

    3. Keep some Ramen Noodle packs in your desk – I know, roll eyes here. But, they can save the budget on days you're too frazzled to pack lunch. Put the noodle square in your glass bowl above, pour hot water over this from the coffee station, cover with a lid/foil/whatever and a towel to insulate, let sit for about 4 minutes, then mix in the spice pack. Eat a healthy dinner to compensate.

    4. Make up a pot of taco soup over the weekend (without extra liquid) and pack in individual containers and freeze. No fridge required – just keep it at your desk – it will be nearly thawed by lunch time. Put it in your glass bowl, add some hot water from the coffee station, finish heating in microwave.

    5. Here's another money saving tip. Anything like chili, stew, spaghetti kept in the freezer at work is way less likely to be stolen. Thieves don't tend to be the patient sort.

    I'm with you 100% on having a snack drawer – that's huge.

    brenda from arkansas

  5. Katrina says

    I just wanted to pass something along…when you made hardboiled eggs, put in 1/4 to 1/3 cup salt into the water. Even the freshest eggs are easy to peel this way.

  6. says

    The last four months when I was working from home for a few days then spending 2-4 days in the city, meal preparedness was crucial. I rarely eat out, mostly because of $$$ but also because of health. I brought a cooler every week that had staples that I put in separate containers and then mix-and-matched over the days. I had containers of raw veggies for snacking or to add to salads (carrots, peppers, tomatoes, cukes, radishes, etc), a container or hard-boiled eggs (they are really the perfect travel food IMO), fruits (apples, berries, whatever's in season), a couple avocados to cut up for good fats, a container of mixed raw nuts, salad lettuce/spinach, some cubed roasted sweet potatoes/yam (again, good on their own or on a salad), and meats (low-sodium sliced turkey, baked chicken breasts, tuna, leftover beef, etc). I had a bottle of olive oil, pepper, tea packets, a jar of sauerkraut, and some Lara bars I kept at the office on an on-going basis. It was a lot of work on Sunday, a lot of forethought (I had a checklist), but it saved me a hell of a lot of money and calories. Don't get me wrong, I still went out probably once a week with co-workers and still indulged in coffee, but that was more social than anything. Gen gets a nicely packed lunch everyday, and it's totally worth it.

  7. says

    My husband and I both work outside the home 3-4 days a week and are gone 12-14 hours on those days. We usually end up eating 2 if not all of our meals while at work, so planning and packing are crucial to not breaking the piggy bank. I'm not consistent enough with it, but a weekly menu is super helpful – you don't have to think about what to take when you're already running late. While I love to experiment with food, some routine also makes lunch packing easier. I know that pretty much every work day I am going to have a green smoothie and nuts or hard boiled eggs for one meal and yogurt and granola for another. The flavors of the smoothie and yogurt, and dinner, are the only things I vary, and dinner is typically planned leftovers. At work I keep a few types of tea, peanut butter, honey, and a box of grape-nuts (a stand-in if I forget or run out of granola or have to stay late). Planning ahead saves our waists and our wallets.

  8. Laurel says

    I’ve been making my own little oatmeal bags. Too much sugar and questionable things in instant oatmeal packets. Into one snack bag put:
    1/3 c. old-fashioned oatmeal
    1 T rapadura or sucanat
    1 T raisins
    1/8 tsp cinnamon
    pinch salt

    Put the above into a bowl larger than you think you’ll need and add about 1 cup of water. Nuke for 3 minutes. Add a tablespoon of grass-fed butter (kept in fridge at work), and enjoy. Keep the snack bag and reuse it until it falls apart.

    This works great for camping too – except the nuke part.

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