Whether you’re a parent packing school lunches, an adult trying to save money, or a cubicle-dweller with limited lunch options beyond your office, brown bag lunches are key.
I have been through many a brown bag phase for my own lunches and those I prepared for my kids. Some lasted months, others barely a few days. Every time I thought I had figured out how to please my kids, their tastes would change. And like many adults, I have outgrown the same-yogurt-every-day-for-lunch phase that got me through high school and the college mid-day “meals” of cookies and coffee.
There is no magical formula for healthy, satisfying lunches. For most of us, including many kids, the only imperative is to switch it up, at least every once in a while. These tips are not rocket-science, and maybe they are not even inspirational. But they are the basics for many days and weeks of great brown bag lunches.
10 Tips for Better Brown Bag Lunches
- Terrific ingredients – You can’t make silk out of a sow’s ear. The better your ingredients, the better your lunch will taste. And unlike dinner, you can’t rely on ambiance to make up for less-than-stellar food.
- Good containers and wrapping – Wrap sandwiches well and use containers that let you “burp” the air out. For food that needs to stay hot or cold, get a good quality thermos, it’s worth the investment.
- Separating ingredients – Don’t mix “wet” and dry ingredients until the last minute. If you adore tomato or cucumber on your sandwiches or in your salad, bring the tomato or slices/pieces, separately wrapped and add just before lunch.
- Condiments – Nothing dresses up a plain roasted turkey sandwich like great chutney or homemade pesto. Salsa is also great on sandwiches or special mustards like those with honey or horseradish.
- Bread that isn’t boring – Choose whole wheat, rye, sour dough, 7-grain, pita, bagels, good quality white bread - whatever floats your boat. The best bread you can find will transform sandwiches from barely notable to star quality.
- Use your freezer – Although bread shouldn’t be frozen for too long (or it gets a “freezer taste”), you can buy a few good loaves at once, freeze them, and rotate which you use. Bagels freeze well, sliced and stored in a tightly closed freezer bag. The freezer is also great for keep hummus or other dips in small, ready-to-go containers.
- Leftovers – With the exception of hamburgers (that don’t taste all that good the next day), there is hardly a dinner I make that isn’t worth its weight in gold as leftovers. Almost every chicken recipe is great, as are pot roast, roasted vegetables, pasta and rice dishes, stir fried meat and vegetables and so much more.
- Variety – If you plan dinners weekly, make a lunch plan at the same time, using dinner leftovers, along with salads and sandwiches. Even without dinner planning, you can still shop for a variety of lunch possibilities. When you get tired of food in 1 form, switch the form instead of the ingredient. For example, instead of salad, pack cut-up vegetables (with a dip such as hummus or baba ganoush) or vegetable soup. If you've had more than enough plain tuna salad, try it with choppped apple and nuts, or switch to salmon salad.
- Combinations – Yogurt is a great lunch “base” because it can go either sweet or savory. Pair it with curry spices as a healthy dip for vegetables or add 1-2 tablespoons of jam or cut-up fruit and it is a delightful sweet main dish for lunch. I packed many racing cars (celery with peanut butter in the crevice, topped with raisins and carrot circles for wheels) for my kids school lunches. Those days are long gone, but my husband frequently still takes peanut butter and carrot and celery sticks in his brown bag lunch.
- Treats – Occasionally I used to pack a sweet in my kids’ lunches. The surprise factor helped, but even if I know what will be in the bag when I open it up (because I put it there), a special treat makes me smile. I try not to snack between meals, but ending a brown bag lunch with a bit of homemade granola, a cookie or another sweet does wonders for me.
What are your favorite brown bag lunches? Do you have brown bag secrets or tips of your own?