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Pack a Lunch Save a Bundle

Bringing lunch to work used to be for the picky eaters and penny pinchers. Now everybody's doing it. So isn't it time to move past turkey on wheat and leftover lasagna and start being creative, fun, and healthy with what you make?

By Sally Sampson
March 15, 2009

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This is how your workweek of lunches looks now: turkey sandwich Monday; buy some soup Tuesday; turkey sandwich Wednesday; leftover pasta Thursday; pizza Friday.

This is how it could look with a little effort and creativity.

It's 7 a.m. Monday, and you're staring into your fridge, wondering what to pack for lunch. You made chili Sunday, and don't have any meetings, so that's appealing. But you also went food shopping and that fresh prosciutto would make a great PLT.

Tuesday is meeting after meeting. That hummus in the fridge will go great with some turkey, pesto, and avocado on a sandwich. Or keep it light: just rice cakes, hummus, and fruit salad.

Wednesday is crazy, and if this were another year, say, without a recession, you'd do takeout. No more. It's a great day for a low-effort, big-payoff lunch: Mesclun with diced pears, feta cheese, raisins, and hazelnuts is perfect (because you keep the dressing in your work fridge), or maybe a fun combo of cheddar, fennel, and apple butter.

Thursday is low-key, but you're meeting friends after work, which could turn into dinner. A light lunch makes sense. Roasted veggies on leftover quinoa or chopped salad does the trick.

TGIF! Friday you're slowing down on lunch ideas, but you smartly froze that leftover turkey chili, and it's been four days since you last had it.

This menu planning might seem daunting, but it's not. It's easy, for the gourmet and the kitchen-phobic. Let me help you. Turn the page.

Let's start light. Buy a big box of mesclun (at a price club) and add any of these combos for great salads:

Diced beets, blue cheese, and walnuts

Avocado cubes, grapefruit sections, and grape tomatoes

Fennel cubes, grapefruit and orange sections, and fresh mint leaves

Asparagus, cooked cubed potatoes, sliced fresh mushrooms, and shaved Parmesan cheese

Sliced cucumbers, grape tomatoes, diced peppers, feta cheese, and fresh mint leaves

Diced pears, feta cheese, raisins or Craisins, and hazelnuts

Last night's grilled chicken or tofu squares, feta cheese, and peaches

Last night's steak, crumbled blue cheese, and thinly sliced red onions

Tuna, fennel cubes, and orange sections

Smoked ham, thinly sliced red onions, and dried or fresh apricots

More of a sandwich person? Fine.

Whether you prefer turkey, roast beef, or just veggies, any of these additions will make a new twist on an old favorite:

Carrot ribbons (cut with a potato peeler)

English cucumbers, thinly sliced

Radishes, thinly sliced

Apples or pears, thinly sliced

Fresh basil leaves

Sliced fresh or jarred jalapenos

Alfalfa or radish sprouts

Avocados

Sliced pickles

Fire-roasted bell peppers

Hot sauce

And try these smart sandwich ideas:

Vary your breads and use whole grains, pita, wraps, and rice and corn cakes for sandwiches.

For a lower-carb version, use romaine lettuce instead of bread. P.F. Chang's may have perfected the lettuce wrap, but it's easy to copy.

Combos for creative carnivores:

Avocado and Roast Beef With Cheddar: horseradish mayo, sliced avocado, roast beef, cheddar cheese, and a few watercress leaves

Blue Cheese and Roast Beef With Red Onion: generous amount of soft blue cheese, roast beef (or leftover flank or sirloin steak), a few thin slices of red onion, and mesclun leaves

Mango Chutney and Roast Beef With Cheddar and Tomato: thin layer of mango chutney, topped with roast beef, sharp cheddar cheese, 2 thin slices tomato, and a few mesclun leaves

PLT: 2 or 3 slices prosciutto, ripe and thinly sliced avocado, 2 slices tomato, and romaine leaves

Smoked Turkey With Avocado and Carrot: 2 teaspoons wasabi mayo, topped with smoked turkey, a third of a ripe avocado (thinly sliced), and 2 tablespoons shredded carrots

Hummus and Smoked Ham With Cucumber: generous layer of hummus, topped with smoked ham and lots of thin cucumber slices

Salami, Provolone, and Roasted Peppers: Dijon mustard or drizzle of olive oil, topped with salami, provolone, roasted peppers, and a handful of mesclun leaves

Pesto, Hummus, Turkey, and Avocado: 1 tablespoon pesto and 1 tablespoon hummus, topped with turkey, a third of a ripe avocado (thinly sliced), and cucumber and tomato slices

Leftover Meatloaf With Barbecue Sauce and Caramelized Onions: barbecue sauce topped with meatloaf, onions, and iceberg lettuce leaves

Sliced Egg, Red Onion, and Sprouts: mayonnaise, 1 sliced egg, red onion, and a thick layer of alfalfa (or radish) sprouts

Avocado With Sliced Egg and Cheddar Cheese: a third of a ripe avocado (thinly sliced), 1 sliced egg, cheddar, and spinach

Very vegetarian (and vegan):

Avocado and Gruyere With Red Onion: a third of a sliced avocado, gruyere, red onion, and arugula

Cucumbers and Greek Yogurt: Fill pita with a thick layer of cucumbers, Greek yogurt, and a few sprigs of fresh mint leaves.

Apple Butter and Cheddar Cheese With Fennel: thick layer apple butter topped with cheddar, fennel slices, and spinach or romaine leaves

Black-Olive Paste With Tomatoes and Fresh Mozzarella: black-olive paste on rustic bread, topped with tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil

Almond Butter and Raspberries: thick layer almond butter topped with ¼ cup smashed fresh or frozen raspberries

Hummus and Roasted Vegetables: generous amount hummus, ½ cup roasted vegetables, and a handful of mesclun or arugula leaves

Almond Butter and Blackberry, Fig, or Apricot Jam or Apple Butter: thick layer almond butter, topped with thick layer jam or apple butter

Have some leftover rice, pasta, or the latest, greatest grain, quinoa? Toss in any of these, and you've got a lunch (or dinner):

Fresh tomatoes, feta cheese, and fresh dill

Shrimp and pesto

Chickpeas, chopped roasted bell peppers, and curry powder

Cubed tofu with basil and tomatoes

Avocado cubes, feta cheese, and slivered red cabbage

Peas (fresh or frozen) and grape tomatoes

Sliced mushrooms, grated Parmesan cheese, and fresh basil leaves

Chopped broccoli, diced bell peppers, and dry-roasted peanuts

Trying to cut down on pasta? No problem. Plain yogurt or cottage cheese is healthy and filling and can be a full lunch with some fun fruit or veggie mix-ins:

Grapefruit, dried cranberries, and pistachios

Fresh or dried apricots and a cinnamon pinch

Fresh (or frozen) berries, crystallized ginger

Dried dates and lightly toasted walnuts

Grated apples, maple syrup, flax seed, wheat germ, and wheat bran

Thinly sliced cucumbers, grated or sliced radishes, and fresh mint

Shaved or grated carrots, grated apples, and chopped watercress

For your regular routine, try these tips:

Buy fruit in season; don't waste money on inadequate, expensive fruit.

Snack on nuts, popcorn, edamame, dried fruit, cheese sticks, baby carrots, apples, melon cubes, instead of chips and pretzels.

Use, don't lose, your perishables.

Experiment with whole grains instead of rice or pasta for salads.

Have 4 or 5 co-workers rotate bringing lunch.

Always include an ice pack or a frozen beverage, which can serve as the ice.

Good containers are worth the investment.

Keep dressing, salt, and pepper at work.

Keep dips and raw veggies handy for a great lunch, and to bring a boring sandwich to life.

Befriend Trader Joe's. They have tons of unusual dips and condiments.

Remember lunch when cooking dinner. Always make more than you need, for leftovers.

Join a price club, but shop smart.

Lastly, to ensure your lunch is never

boring, keep these condiments handy:

Black-olive paste

Fire-roasted peppers

Hummus

Wasabi mayonnaise

Dijon mustard

Chutney (mango is versatile)

Great jam (to pair with nut butters)

Apple butter

Hot sauce

Black-bean dip

Easy Recipes That Never Grow Old

Balsamic Vinaigrette

Makes about 1 cup

Keep a bottle of this all-purpose dressing at your office. It can be drizzled on salads or on breads instead of mayonnaise.

2 garlic cloves, chopped (optional)

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1/3 cup balsamic vinegar

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil

½ teaspoon kosher salt

¼ teaspoon pepper

Place the garlic, if using, mustard, and vinegar in a blender or the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade and process until thoroughly combined. While the machine is running, gradually add the olive oil, salt, and pepper. Transfer to a glass container, cover, and refrigerate up to one month. If the oil separates from the vinegar, shake the container vigorously. If it solidifies, leave out at room temperature and then shake well.

Chopped Salad

Makes 6 cups

Chopped salads are most effectively made with a double-handled mezzaluna.

6 cups mesclun leaves

¼ head red cabbage, cauliflower, or broccoli, chopped or cut into large dice

½ cup green beans, halved

½ English cucumber, quartered lengthwise and cut into hunks

1 cup grape tomatoes

¼ cup feta or blue cheese, crumbled

2 tablespoons Balsamic Vinaigrette (see left)

Place the mesclun, red cabbage (or cauliflower or broccoli), green beans, and cucumber on a cutting surface and, using a knife, mezzaluna, or salad chopper, chop until the pieces are of uniform size, about a third of an inch. Add the tomatoes and cheese and toss well. Dress with the Balsamic Vinaigrette just prior to serving.

Optional Additions

Fennel, toasted walnuts, and Craisins

Pears and toasted pecans

Mushrooms and radishes

Olives

Leftover shrimp, chicken, or steak

Avocado

Express Frittata

Serves 4

Something between a quiche and an omelet, frittatas can be served for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and hot, cold, or at room temperature. While they should not be a repository for leftovers, frittatas can include almost anything that goes with eggs. Simply substitute the fresh vegetables with Roasted Vegetables (see facing page), or smoked ham or turkey, prosciutto, or salami, or dark, leafy greens such as chard or spinach. You can even omit the vegetables and simply double the amount of herbs.

8 large eggs

1 teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon pepper

8 scallions, chopped

2 to 2½ cups finely chopped fresh broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, or mushrooms

½ cup fresh mozzarella, ricotta, cheddar, or feta cheese

½ cup cubed cooked potatoes or cooked rice (optional)

¼ cup chopped fresh basil or Italian flat-leaf parsley or chives

2 teaspoons olive oil or unsalted butter

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Place the eggs, salt, and pepper in a medium-size mixing bowl and whisk to combine. Add the remaining ingredients (except oil or butter) and mix well.

Place a 9- or 10-inch ovenproof skillet over medium heat, and when it is hot, add the oil or butter. Add the egg mixture and transfer to the oven. Bake until the eggs are set and top is golden, about 20 minutes.

Turkey Chili

Makes 14 to 15 cups

This rendition is mild. If you like yours spicy, simply add more spices or, better yet, fresh or dried chilies. For a vegetarian version, substitute an equal weight of eggplant for the turkey. After the chili cools, divide it into portions: You can refrigerate it for up to 5 days or freeze for up to 2 months.

1 teaspoon vegetable oil

1 large Spanish onion, chopped

2 bell peppers (any color is fine), diced

4 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed through garlic press

1¼ pound ground turkey or 1 to 1½-pound eggplant, finely diced

¼ cup chili powder, or more to taste

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1½ teaspoons dried oregano

Cayenne pepper, to taste

2 cans (16 ounces each) dark red kidney beans, drained and well rinsed

1 can (16 ounces) black beans, drained and well rinsed

1 can (28 ounces) diced tomatoes, with juice

1 can (28 ounces) tomato puree

1 bottle beer or ale

½ teaspoon kosher salt

For each serving

2 tablespoons shredded cheddar cheese

1 tablespoon chopped cilantro leaves

¼ lime, for squeezing

Place a large soup pot over medium heat, and when it is hot, add the oil. Add the onion, peppers, and garlic, and cook until soft and almost melted, about 20 minutes. Add the turkey, a little bit at a time, stirring after each addition until it loses its rawness (or the eggplant, if using). Add the chili powder, cumin, red pepper, oregano, and cayenne, and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes. Add the red kidney and black beans, tomatoes, tomato puree, beer, and salt, and cook, partially covered, stirring occasionally, for 1 hour. Set aside to cool. Just before serving, top with cheddar cheese, cilantro, and lime.

Roasted Vegetables

Makes about 6 cups

Roasted vegetables are wonderfully versatile: They can be eaten hot or cold, alone or partnered with pasta, rice, or quinoa, even used in frittatas and sandwiches, where they are especially good with cheeses and hummus.

1 red onion, diced

1 red bell pepper, diced

1 yellow bell pepper, diced

2 yellow squash, diced

2 zucchini, diced

4 garlic cloves, chopped

2 teaspoons olive oil

¼ teaspoon dried thyme

½ teaspoon kosher salt

¼ teaspoon black pepper

2 cups grape tomatoes

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Place the onion, bell peppers, squash, zucchini, garlic, olive oil, thyme, salt, and black pepper in a bowl and mix well. Pour mixture onto a baking sheet, making sure the vegetables are in a single layer. Transfer to the oven and roast for 25 minutes.

Remove the sheet from the oven and stir well. Add the tomatoes, stir again, and return the sheet to the oven. Cook until very lightly browned, an additional 20 minutes.

Fruit Bars

Makes 9 bars

These fruit bars are made with apples, but almost any fruit will work. Good combinations include apple and cranberry (fresh or frozen); pears and fresh ginger root; strawberry (frozen or fresh) and rhubarb; peach and blueberry; and mixed berries. Adjust the nuts and dried fruit as you see fit.

For the filling

4 Granny Smith apples, washed but unpeeled, diced

2 tablespoons sugar

¼ cup Craisins or raisins

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

For the crust

1 cup old-fashioned oats

¾ cup all-purpose flour

½ cup lightly toasted walnuts or pecans, coarsely chopped (optional)

½ cup brown sugar

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon kosher salt

¼ teaspoon baking soda

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly butter an 8-inch-square baking pan.

To make the filling: Place the apples and sugar in a small pan and cook over medium heat until the apples start to give off their juices, about 5 minutes. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until the apples are soft and have reabsorbed the juices, about 15 minutes more. Add the Craisins or raisins and cinnamon, and mix well.

For the crust: Place oats, flour, walnuts or pecans, sugar, cinnamon, salt, and baking soda in a small bowl and toss well. Add butter and toss again, till mixture is crumbly.

Place half of the oat mixture in the prepared pan and pat down to form a crust on the bottom. Top with the apple mixture and then with the remaining oat mixture. Transfer to the oven and bake until lightly browned, about 35 minutes. Cut into 9 pieces.

For 15 years, Sally Sampson owned From the Night Kitchen, a small, mostly lunch-service cafe in Brookline Village. Today, she's a mom and cookbook author. E-mail her at sally@sallysampson.com.