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Packed Lunch Ideas that Work

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I often get asked, how do I become a lunch packer?

Since this is the fourth year of Lunch It Punch It, I thought I would take the time to answer that question by running through the previously published posts of recipes, photos and ideas and try to distill my thoughts on lunch packing in one post.

I hope this information helps you get started. If you’re a veteran lunch packer, please leave a comment on what helps you or a note of encouragement for new packers!

Please note, I’m just a lunch packer. I’m not a dietitian nor have an education in nutrition. The foods I choose to consume, might be the last thing you would eat. I respect others’ choices and hope readers will afford me the same courtesy.

To be successful when embracing any lifestyle change, you need to know yourself, your schedule, routine and the excuses you make for not doing it. What time and financial investment are you willing to make in packing your lunch?

udandi's packed lunch | lunchitpunchit.comI’ve been a lunch packer most of my life. I didn’t go to a school with a cafeteria and by high school; I didn’t want to spend a short lunch period waiting in a line for food. The older I got, the less my mom packed my lunch and it became my responsibility. Since she did the grocery shopping for our family, she needed to know what I would eat. Together we made lists so she knew what to include in her grocery lists.

Make a list of foods or meals you enjoy eating, don’t forget snacks. Be realistic, if you normally eat a burrito with double steak from a fast casual restaurant, you probably won’t be satisfied with a prepared frozen meal of lasagna. But maybe you find a copycat recipe online and create your own burrito bowl. If you only eat greens when a house salad is served at a fancy restaurant, you’re going to be dissatisfied and distract at work or school if you pack a salad as your lunch.

spinach salad by LunchItPunchIt.com

If you like leftovers, you might find making an extra serving at dinner is a fast way to a packed lunch. If you don’t cook or have any desire to learn, you might assemble meals from the frozen food aisle, canned soup or sandwiches.

Fast packed food | lunchitpunchit.com

On your list of meals, note what type of containers you own or need to buy in order to pack these meals. Chances are if you’ve never been a lunch packer, you’re going to need invest in products like sandwich bags (reusable or not), glass or plastic containers, cutlery, and/or a lunch tote.

If you have some containers, pull them out and match lids to the base (I love Pyrex). If possible, store your lunch packing supplies in one area of your kitchen. If your school or workplace lacks a microwave, determine what non-heated meals you can pack or whether insulating containers would work for you.

Your next list is an ingredient and/or grocery list. Inventory your pantry, freezer and fridge while making a grocery list based on your meal wish list. You might go so far as to create a weekly or monthly meal plan for lunches and dinners.

Figure out how many meals you need to pack in your week, however you define it. Maybe you’re not ready for the Lunch It Punch It challenge or maybe you live for Taco Tuesday with your coworkers. Determine when in your personal schedule you’ll shop for groceries, prepare your meals, and pack your lunches.

How Lunch Packing Happens for Me

My choice to pack is a combination of desire and circumstance. I work in a rural area with limited access to eateries and taking lunch meetings with coworkers, clients or friends is not possible.

I only need to pack a lunch for one person, me. At some point in the weekend, I shop for groceries, especially produce and then I make an entrée or soup and portion it out.

corn chowder |lunchitpunchit.com

Click the photo for the Broccoli Chowder with Corn and Bacon recipe

Before I put meats away from a grocery trip, I repack them based on my recipes and meals. If you’re a slow cooker meal lover, consider what ingredients can be prepared after a grocery trip and packed in freezer bags/containers.

What and How I Pack
I prefer plain yogurt without aspartame so I pass over the individual containers in favor of big container, then I make my own yogurt servings in the 1-cup Pyrex. Fruit or honey is added to the container the night before, but if taking granola, I pack it in a small container.

If I make a sandwich, I put my bread /pita pocket/tortilla in a separate reusable bag from my vegetables and protein and then assemble at lunchtime. I also like grilled cheese and quesadillas and don’t mind eating them cold.

For salads, I like the boxed greens because it is the right mix for my eating habits versus buying various greens and chopping them up. I use the 2- or 4- cup Pyrex for each bed of greens because I’ve found they keep a little longer than plastic storage containers. Others really like mason jars.

salad prep glass bowls

If I’m taking a protein for a Thai Chopped Chicken or taco meat, I keep it in a 1-cup Pyrex for reheating at lunchtime. I put salad dressing in a small container, but after seeing coworkers keep their salad dressing in the work fridge, I brought one in, too.

From my container prep work, I fill my lunch bag the night before and leave it in the fridge. I’ve gone so far as to pack two lunches since I have two totes. This is helpful for my schedule because I go to the gym before work and have frequent after-work obligations and errands.

Meal Prep Fridge | Lunchitpunchi.com

Food prepped for packed lunches

I drive to work, so if I want a break in my day that includes sunlight or different air and lighting than my cubicle, I eat in my car (except for when it is really cold). My old workplace discouraged eating lunch at desks (it didn’t matter for those of us who shared desks – don’t ask) and our break room was in the windowless basement, so many of us would go to our cars or eat in the general area of the library.

If you’re committed to lunch packing, you’ll figure out something that works for your situation and routine.

Packed lunch aftermath |lunchitpunchit.com

You can get involved in the community bag tagging your lunch photos or tweets with #LunchItPunchIt
Find my photo of packed lunches on Flickr and recipes on this blog.
Thoughts and product reviews for containers, lunch bags and more can be found in the products category of this blog.

{ 3 comments… add one }

  • Yvonne January 9, 2014, 2:51 pm

    Hi there.
    Great tips. I am a big believer in the leftovers method. I will pack left overs in a lunch container and save it for the day after tomorrow. So I don’t eat the same thing two days in a row. My favorite is pasta.

  • WendP July 17, 2014, 10:11 pm

    -Think about how you travel. My commute involves two buses or my bike, plus I work with little kids, so I don’t like using glass containers for packing lunches. I also don’t like the Laptop Lunch Bento type boxes because there’s nothing to keep the containers from leaking all over each other as they get jostled around in my bag. If you drive, this is less of an issue.

    -Think about what is available to you at work. I don’t have reliable access to a refrigerator or freezer at work, so I have insulated lunch bags/boxes and ice packs, or I bring things that don’t need to be kept really cool. My husband, on the other hand, has access to a bunch of room at the work fridge, so he’ll take in 3-4 days’ worth of food at a time at one go.
    I work in a couple of buildings. I don’t always have reliable access to a microwave in each building, so I have to think ahead about whether to bring things that need re-heating or not.

    -I keep a nice microwavable plate, bowl and mug, and a set of cutlery at each of my two main sites where I work most of the time and also have a bit of space to stash them. I also have a traveling placemat for when I go to a site I frequent less often, and I have a sandwich or similar lunch with me (like this one – http://www.reuseit.com/reusable-sandwich-and-snack-bags/wrap-n-mat-wrap-n-mat-regular.htm).

    -A really good thermos makes my day more pleasant. Right now, our temparatures are in the 80s, 90s, and a bit above. I leave the house with my thermos full of ice cubes and iced tea at 7:00am, and I still have little ice bits clanking about at 2pm, despite 2-3 refills of tap water. Hot tea stays hot (or at least rather warm) just as long.

    – Know your eating style. No matter how much I love a dish, I’m still not going to eat it more than three days in a row. Probably not even three days, more like two. Sometimes I can break it up and make two dishes, alternating them over four days. My husband, on the other hand, if it’s a dish he really likes, he’ll eat it for five days straight.
    Also – know how much it really takes to make you feel full. I still struggle with “wow, that doesn’t look like enough food” vs. “hey, that smaller amount was just the ticket”.

    – Start out small. It’s totally okay to not go from 0 to 60 in 2.5 seconds. Start with a day or two a week. Try to make restaurant meals last for both that night’s dinner and the following day’s lunch. When you cook at home, make at least one serving extra.

  • The Student @ Food for Dissertating August 11, 2014, 12:12 am

    Being a lunch packer changed the way I ate in general. One thing I do is that I seem to have collected a huge assortment of silicone cups in various shapes and sizes, and if I bake a casserole or something, I always make some “mini” version of it, too. But mostly I start out with cooking something packable, rather than things that aren’t. Life is just easier that way, and I can have the not-packable food on the rare occasion that I do eat out (for dinner or whatever).

    And I’ve learned lots of strategies for making “something from nothing.” I keep hard boiled eggs on hand, as well as some canned fruit and ready-to-eat raw veggies like carrot sticks. Once you think beyond the sandwich, a whole host of new ideas will come to you. Now it’s fun: What else can I try? I get excited when I find a new, small thing that can be packed. Recently I discovered Bibigo’s mini wontons, for example.

    I personally tend to stick to one type of container, and try to vary what I put into it every day. I do have others, but I mostly use my old, trusty Laptop Lunchbox. I know its dimensions so well that there isn’t much thinking it through in the morning–I know exactly what will fit into it.

    I also try to plan ahead the night before. “I will pack X with Y,” so I don’t think about it in the morning.

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