The world is hard, lunch doesn't have to be...
things I eat for lunch + my thoughts on making lunch easier
My parents both worked full-time when I was a kid. The first question I would ask them every single night when they came through the door was “what did you have for lunch today?” I always wanted to know. I always want to know what everyone had for lunch (am I a food blogger’s dream reader??). Knowing what someone ate for lunch tells you so much about their day, which tells you a lot about them. Knowing what my parents ate when I wasn’t with them made me feel more connected to them. I love lunch. I love thinking about it.
So why do so many of us have such a hard time figuring out what to have for lunch? Why do we end up buying unsatisfying lunches that cost more than we wish they did? Because time! Because work + responsibilities + school! Because…just life + the relentlessness of cooking and eating and figuring it all out every single day.
In early July I wrote a bit about dinner + how I actually figure out what to make on a normal night.*
*Very much inspired by that dinner newsletter, my first Sunday class of the fall season is this weekend and it will consist of my three easiest go-to dinners [Coconut Curry / Quick Fish Tacos / Brothy Soup with Lots of Stuff in It + Garlic Toast— all with tons of variations!!] More info + sign-up right here!
That dinner newsletter led to a lot of emails + DMs about lunch. Lunch came up again a couple of times last week in my ‘Ask Me Anything’ thread for paid subscribers (another reason to become a paid subscriber— there are occasional AMA threads with a wonderful community!!)
So I thought I’d go ahead and do a whole newsletter on LUNCH. Things I eat for lunch. My thoughts on making lunch easier. Etc. Here goes nothing.
FIRST SOME HELPFUL REMINDERS [THE SAME LIST I GAVE FOR THE DINNER NEWSLETTER— I THINK THEY’RE JUST WORTH REMEMBERING!]:
Not every meal you eat has to be the best meal you’ve ever had
Not every meal you eat has to go on social media
Normalize eating when you’re hungry, even if it’s not a ‘normal’ meal time
Sometimes a PB+J on a paper towel is just the thing
LUNCHES I REGULARLY EAT AT HOME + NOTES ON HOW I MAKE THEM PORTABLE WHEN I NEED TO [WHEN I WORKED AT THE FARM, WHEN I GO HIKING, OR WHEN I’M GOING ON A ROAD TRIP]:
Pretty much any leftover can be turned into a quesadilla (any meat, chicken, cooked vegetable, cooked bean…). I make quesadillas for lunch all of the time, sometimes with a crunchy salad alongside (this time of year I like a pico de gallo-inspired cucumber salad with chopped cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, cilantro + peppers with lots of lime juice). I don't mind a quesadilla at room temperature so they’re one of my favorite to-go lunches because it’s never not exciting to unwrap a lunch that consists mostly of a toasted flour tortilla + melted cheese.
A room temperature wedge of a frittata or quiche! This can be eaten on a plate at home or out of a container anywhere.
A stash of hardboiled eggs in the fridge makes lunch very quick and easy. One of my go-to snacks is a hardboiled egg cut in half + slathered with mayo + topped with hot sauce and/or everything bagel seasoning. This can easily turn into lunch by smashing this concoction on toast and maybe stretching things out with some vegetables, fruit, chips, or whatever other lunch sides you like that require little work. To take this with you, I recommend packing the hardboiled egg situation separately from the bread (or crackers or whatever you want to put it on) so things don’t get too soggy.
Speaking of things on toast, can I just put in a shoutout to cottage cheese? (I’ve been buying this brand lately and think it’s great…not sponsored!!!). Super grainy toast with a thick layer of cottage cheese, a drizzle of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon (or not), and a generous sprinkle of salt and/or everything bagel seasoning is incredibly fast, easy, cheap + filling. You can top it with sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, radishes, whatever. I also love this for breakfast but instead of olive oil and salt/savory stuff, I’ll do a spoonful of jam or a drizzle of honey or maple syrup and maybe some sliced fruit, too (this is also FANTASTIC on top of a toaster waffle and this can also be lunch because LUNCH CAN BE WHATEVER YOU WANT IT TO BE!). If you’re not eating at home, pack the cottage cheese with its toppings in a container and bring your toast alongside so things don’t get soggy. You can also swap cottage cheese for ricotta.
I somehow find tuna salad + crackers + some cut-up vegetables more exciting than a tuna sandwich. And it’s very portable. Canned tuna + mayo + salt + pepper needs little improvement, but adding finely chopped pickles is something I almost never skip. Unless I do kimchi instead of pickles plus a splash of juice from the kimchi jar (HIGHLY RECOMMEND) and you can add some thinly sliced scallions to that, too. Another favorite addition to the mayo/salt/pepper route is mustard + lemon juice + dill.
One of my favorite sandwiches to have at home or while hiking is toast with hummus, sharp cheddar cheese + sliced cucumbers + grated carrots that I’ve tossed with a tiny bit of oil, vinegar + salt. The carrots are almost like a slaw and a fun thing to add to any sandwich.
Another favorite sandwich to have at home or on the go is classic ham, cheese, mayo + crunchy lettuce and the only thing I do to make it special is to coat the crunchy lettuce with a little salad dressing before putting it on the sandwich. A tiny bit of dressing goes a long way!!
I do big chopped salads for lunch all of the time and they're very portable if you pack the dressing separately so you dress the salad last minute and you don’t risk a soggy salad. Chopped salads are the best way to use up all the random things in your fridge/cupboards.
My chopped salads usually start with a big handful of baby arugula and a heart of romaine lettuce as my ‘base’ and I chop those together on a cutting board before putting in the mixing bowl because otherwise I always find arugula annoying to eat!
Mix-ins can include other vegetables such as thinly sliced cabbage, thinly sliced fennel, grated or chopped carrots, chopped bell peppers, cucumbers, cooked beets, halved cherry tomatoes, etc.
I almost always add some cheese of some kind, most typically crumbled feta.
I almost always add something briny…most typically some chopped jarred peperoncini peppers or olives.
Something crunchy is fun for texture! Toasted sliced almonds are a favorite (any nut, really) or toasted seeds like sunflower or pumpkin seeds. Or crispy fried onions or shallots (store-bought like these). Or croutons or a handful of crushed tortilla chips.
Sometimes something a little sweet: golden raisins, any dried fruit really, a chopped apple, orange segments, a chopped peach or nectarine…
Then something to make it all a bit more substantial: leftover cooked beans, canned chickpeas, chopped leftover grilled chicken or something like that, a can of tuna, chopped hardboiled eggs, a spoonful of cottage cheese or hummus after I toss everything together….
Dressing can be whatever you want. When I take these chopped salads with me, I usually use an old mustard jar or any other small jar I happen to have and just fill it about 2 tablespoons of vinegar (any kind), 1/4 cup-ish of olive oil, sometimes a spoonful of mustard, always salt, pepper, a pinch of dried oregano, and a crushed garlic clove. Shake before dressing (I usually don’t eat the garlic clove but sometimes when I get home and am cleaning up my containers, I’ll throw the garlic clove into whatever I’m making for dinner).
For a more specific lunch salad situation, I love a quick Greek salad (big chunks of cucumber, peppers, onion, tomatoes + feta with lots of red wine vinegar, olive oil, dried oregano + salt), plus some hummus and warm pita bread. This also travels well!
A thermos of soup, chili, or stew with bread or crackers or cornbread on the side. This was my farm go-to on colder days!!!
A FEW HELPFUL THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND WHEN TAKING LUNCH WITH YOU:
Do you have the utensils you need? Can that utensil simply be a toothpick that you tape to the lid of whatever you need it for + then you don’t have to worry about it making its way home?
If you’re putting sliced tomatoes on your sandwich, please make sure there’s something between them + the bread (lettuce, cheese, a layer of mayo or butter).
If you’re bringing soup or something in a thermos, fill the thermos with boiling water first, empty it, and then add your hot soup or whatever you’re bringing. This will help keep the temperature hot!
A drink (a juice box, coconut water box, or bottle of water) is a great thing to put next to a cold lunch to keep it cold + then you have a nice cold drink waiting for you, too (this was my go-to on hot days at the farm).
TWO THOUGHTS ABOUT PEOPLE WHO TAKE CARE OF CHILDREN AND NEED TO FIGURE OUT LUNCH FOR THEM:
One of my best friends grew up with a very efficient mom who did a ‘lunch carpool’ with some other parents/caretakers. This meant that once a week she made lunch for her kid and a few others kids, and the rest of the days she didn’t have to think about making lunch for her kid. I think this is so smart and a great example of community. I could see this working for any group of people, whether it’s children, coworkers, whatever.
If your kids’ school offers free lunch, sign them up! There are a myriad of reasons why this is great + important— please see this excellent newsletter ‘Please Stop Romanticizing Your Child’s Lunchbox’ from Burnt Toast by Virginia Sole-Smith for more on this.
Paid subscribers with the ability to comment, please please please feel free to tell me what you had for lunch today!!! I had two toaster waffles topped with cottage cheese, a little maple syrup + a sliced nectarine, plus a smoothie and a bite of Grace’s ham + cheese sandwich. It was great.
I had a ham sandwich in a great gluten free pita bread with red leaf lettuce and that Japanese Mayo ! Then I had the tomato sauce thinned with a small amount of heavy cream. This was your tomato sauce that you posted recently and it was the most heavenly soup!😍🍅
Thank you for these wonderful ideas, and for reminding us how great cottage cheese is -- I always forget. And a "lunch carpool" for kids is such a brilliant idea! One day I will make mom friends... My current way of doing school lunches is to make mac and cheese, roasted sweet potato, steamed broccoli, and hard-boiled eggs every weekend, and then use those to pack my son's lunch every morning, along with some cut-up fruit and a container of granola. I worry it's boring for him to eat the same things every day, but the idea of packing a different lunch every day of the week is so overwhelming! Today for lunch I had toasted pita with leftover Greek takeout dips and I felt like Martin Short's character in Only Murders in the Building, so that was great 😊