No More Number 4 Combos…

Fabulous Friday!!  What better time to continue our thrifty examination of nutritious lunch options?  To get us ready for next week, I’d like to outline some basic strategies that I’ve used to prevent fast food infractions.  Take a look and, if you are a lunch eater outer (my daughter’s nomenclature), maybe it’s time to take a baby step and choose one strategy to try next week.  If you already bring lunch, but find that your mid-day meal is a little yawnsville, maybe one of these strategies can add a little skip to your step.

Option 1: Big Sis made some awesome suggestions for Straight-Up and Mix It Up Leftovers  Remember… the remains of last night’s dinner will not stay edible; they will begin the inevitable transformation that occurs in the back corner of your refrigerator that ends with a mysterious noxious odor.  (Ever thrown a food storage container away JUST TO AVOID OPENING IT?  Yes, you have.  I have too.)  To add to the grocery list?  Slightly more for each dinner you prepare and a container to put it in if you don’t have a plastic yogurt tub you can use.  Done.

Here’s one of our favorite (super cheap) family dinners that makes plenty of leftovers, freezes beautifully, and is very flexible, so you can add other elements to it as you see fit.  We always make a double batch and lately I’ve been adding sauteed mushrooms and celery.  This recipe came from a fun old book on my shelf, The Tightwad Gazette.  If you come across a copy at a yard sale or second hand book store, grab it.  There are a lot of thrifty treasures in there.

Leftoverlicious Lentil Casserole - I always double this.

  • 3c veggie or chicken broth
  • 3/4c lentils
  • 1/2c brown rice
  • 3/4c chopped fresh onion
  • 1/2t sweet Basil
  • 1/4t oregano
  • 1/4t thyme
  • 1 clove garlic, mashed
  • 1/2c shredded cheese (Completely Optional)

I have found the Crock Pot to be the best method for this casserole.  Place all ingredients in crock.  Cook on low for 2 hours, high for 2 hours.  If you are using cheese, spread it on the top of the casserole for the last 25 minutes of cooking.  I assume you could simply leave it on low for longer, but I usually need it to be done sooner rather than later.  So there you are, a hands-off Sunday dinner that will make lunch too!

Option 2: Burritos/Wraps/Sandwiches  Big Sis mentioned using your leftovers in many clever ways and one of the smartest disguises is plopping that stuff in a tortilla and adding whatever salsa or veggie dip floats your boat.  Or throw a bunch of veggies you don’t usually eat on a sandwich into a wrap with some kind of sauce or spread.  That takes about 30 seconds.  Wrap it up and put it in bag with a piece of fruit and a carrot, another 30.  1 minute express lunch.  To add to your grocery list?  A package of whole grain tortillas or flatbread, salsa, and wax paper to wrap.  Done.

Option 3: Weekend Prep.  Weekend prep may mean making a casserole or whipping up a large batch of beans and rice or something else that is sort of flexible – remember that riffing on a theme idea?  Beans and rice with cheese and salsa; beans and rice with tomatoes and lemon juice; beans and rice with soy sauce, peas and spring onions;  beans and rice with mango and cilantro; beans and rice with sour cream, chili powder and lime juice.  You get the idea.  Not a bean fan?  Quinoa is another heavy hitter in this department as it has protein built right in.  Just make a ginormous pot of quinoa and then riff on it all week, using various bits or adding small portions of leftovers that you would normally throw away because they’re “too small to keep.”  To add to your grocery list?  Beans and rice or quinoa, some bits to go with if you don’t have any of those listed above.  Container if you don’t have one.  Done.

Option 4: The Random Grab One of my all-time favorite bagged lunches included whole grain bread, an avocado, and an apple.  Grab all three, throw in bag (with knife carefully wrapped) – 40 seconds.  At work spread avocado on bread (and sprinkle with a little salt if you’re me).  Eat until almost satisfied.  Eat the apple.  Done.  Delish.  I’ve also been know to random grab handfuls of things and snack throughout the day rather than having a specific lunch.  This would look more like grabbing the bag of almonds, a piece of fruit, a cucumber (or some other hand holdable vegetable), some cheese.  Done.  Munch.  To buy at the store?  The beauty of the random grab, is that you don’t technically have to buy anything extra at the store.  I must confess that the random grab approach assumes some level of pantry proficiency.  If you are not at least scoring an average in pantry proficiency, I would suggest one of the other options. ;-)

Option 5: The Backup Plan If you are fortunate enough to have a refrigerator where you work, it may be in your best interest to keep a backup plan there.  For me this was good bread and peanut butter.  While I love both, it is not something I would choose to eat on a daily basis; however, if I was unable to get lunch together or needed a snack, or when I was pregnant with twins and it was time for third breakfast, there was my friend the bread with peanut butter.  Add a few raisins and you’ve got yourself a party.  How about trying some hummus instead?  Prepare it on Sunday and take it in to work in a container on Monday with your nice bread or whole grain crackers.  To buy at the store?  Whole grain bread, peanut butter, hummus ingredients if that’s the way you want to roll.  Container if you need one.  Done.

You never need order from the Dollar Menu again, or refer to your lunch as a Number 4 Combo.  Now start researching vacation possibilities and thinking about how nice it will be to not feel completely tired and little sicky-full for an hour and a half after lunch every day.

Compulsion to Mix It Up = Lunch

This morning I mixed leftover quinoa, leftover cheese sauce from Instant Mac n’ Cheese Without the Box and some frozen peas for my son’s lunch.  He said, “Yay!”

I love it when he says that.

Where would I be without leftovers?  I can answer that.  I’d be standing in line at the hospital cafeteria waiting to pay too much for food that is not very good or very healthy.  So I bring leftovers to work.  Now I know some of you are thinking, “What leftovers?  My family eats almost all of whatever I cook!  There are no leftovers!”  Clearly you are not plagued by an inadequacy complex that compels you to prepare enough food for the hordes that might drop in without warning.  And I’m glad if you are not saddled with that particular compulsion.  This leaves you able to use your own free will and choose to make more food.  More food = more leftovers.

Now, I am not relegating you to eating dry meatloaf every night for 3 days because you made extra.  Honest!  Make extra of the components of a meal and you can mix and match to create new and exciting (for lunch) meals jiffy quick.

I always make too much of the following:
brown rice
quinoa
sauteed vegetables
cous cous
sauteed greens
noodles or pasta
sauces or dressings
roasted vegetables
meat (when we have it – getting rare lately!)
and even nut butter sandwiches

Like having wonderful things in your fridge with which to make Grand-wiches and Expand-wiches, having all of these leftovers around provides you with the building blocks you need to make meals that do not ‘feel’ like eating boring old leftovers.  (They also provide you with the luxury of some dinners that have half the work done already.)

Whenever you saute vegetables; whenever you BUY vegetables, especially when they are on sale, don’t think about one meal.  Think about several meals.

Take the following sautes all prepared in the oil of your choice:

Zucchini, eggplant and spinach with garlic, onion and Italian spices en masse.
Allocate some for making pasta sauce by adding diced or crushed tomatoes,
Allocate some to the freezer for another night’s pasta sauce and,
Allocate some to the refrigerator all by it’s lonesome to add to rice, quinoa, pita bread or over salad for lunch.

Peppers (any color or all colors), green beans and onions with salt and pepper.
Allocate some to serve with tempeh or meat that night,
Allocate some to the frig for making an omelette and,
Allocate some to the refrigerator for the same punitive treatment received by the poor zucchini… leftovers for lunchtime (when mixed with grain, wrap, pita or salad).

Leeks, cabbage, salt, pepper and marjoram (go light on the marjoram – a little goes a long way).
Allocate some to serve as a side dish for dinner,
Put some in the freezer to use in a casserole or bean dish, and
Of course, relegate some to the lunchtime penal colony on the bottom shelf of the fridge.

Peppers, tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes and onions with cumin and chili pepper.
Allocate some as the basis for your chili – be it with veggies, meat or a soy product
Freeze some for chili or enchiladas another night and,
Place some in the lunchtime section awaiting mixage with frozen corn or rice or tortilla chips.

Spring onions, broccoli, snap peas, sliced carrots, and peanuts with garlic, soy sauce (or Bragg’s) and white pepper.
Some for the stir-fry,
some for leftover stir-fry – make a bunch and as you clean up, plop some straight into lunch sized containers, and if there’s any more left,
Squeeze it onto that luscious layer of lunch fixin’ containers on the bottom shelf.

The list goes on and on for mixes and of course you can change, substitute, and mangle these ideas to your heart’s content!  One of my son’s favorite lunches is leftover peas, leftover noodles and leftover chicken cut into pieces.  It really does not take any longer to prepare than a sandwich and there’s something green in it : )

So whether I am making Grand-wiches and Expand-wiches, or a Bountiful Bowl  from the Bottom Shelf(I know – this is getting out of hand…) I have a variety of items in my fridge that can be cross bred into brand new dishes which will nourish me and my family for a reasonable price.

There were some gorgeous beets at the store today so I sauteed up the beets with garlic and lemon juice, along with some carrots.  Towards the end I added some chopped apple and the beet greens.  My son loved it.  Served it with rice and hemp seed and some raw red pepper.   The leftovers will be delicious mixed in with some salad and or whatever grain is hanging out in the luscious layer!

Dollar Menu or Vacation – You Do the Math

While I could continue to talk about breakfast until, well, probably for a very long time, Big Sis and I thought it might be more helpful to take a more rounded approach, and thusly we’ve moved on to lunch.  I admit that as a work at home parent, my perspective on lunch is probably a bit warped, but I did, in my former life (and by that I mean before children, don’t get weirded out), work in the outside world.  My feelings about lunch are probably most influenced by 1) my desire to eat something healthful and 2) my limitless capacity to be a cheapskate.

There was a time in our pre-kid two salaried life where my husband and I faced that “where does it all go?” money question.  We sat down with our bills and bank statements and it became very clear that the dinner time restaurant extravaganza we were enjoying was problematic.  We devised rules and our monthly finances eased considerably.  Not long after this exercise, we looked for the less obvious money drains in those same bills, and not so surprisingly given our predilections, it became clear that lunchtime had its own challenges to our new frugality.  The office lunch, the lunch date with a friend, the quick lunch on the corner, that awesome lunch truck that’s only in that part of town, the birthday lunch, the sad colleague lunch, the happy colleague lunch, the I hate my job lunch, the sunny day lunch….

Let’s do some quick math.  Most years have 260 work days (thanks, Google).  If you get two weeks off, that’s 250.  If you get federal holidays, that’s 240.  Let’s go with 240, even though I realize it doesn’t necessarily reflect everyone’s working reality.  How much do people spend at lunch?  There are a number of estimates out there, so let’s use some logic. I’m going to say the cheapest you can pull off is about $3, and that assumes ordering off the dollar menu at somewhere oogie, I mean at a fast food place.  I’m pretty sure a granola bar and a drink at a convenience store would get you pretty close to the same amount, so I’m going to go with $3 as the bottom.  On the other hand, if you go sit down somewhere, it seems to me you are likely to spend at least $10 (and that would be something relatively inexpensive like Pho or pizza).  So let’s slice it down the middle and call it an average of $6.50.  This is on the conservative side of the average estimates I found online.

Employing my meager but serviceable math skills, 240 x 6.50, that’s $1560 per year on lunch.  We will be taking two vacations this year for about that much money.  Do you like those lunches THAT much?  And if you do, are you closer to the $6.50 estimate here or are you straying into the $10-12 territory I saw mentioned many times.  Let’s run with $12 as well…  240 x $12, that’s $2880.  Almost three thousand dollars friends; and pardon me for saying so, but much of it is for food that is NOT doing anything for you; I’m quite confident you could benefit from a vacation at that price tag.  I’m also confident that we can give you some solid strategies and some more delicious and healthful options to get you through the gauntlet of work lunch.  Our course is charted – homemade lunches that feed our hungry cells and vacations that restore our spirits. Beach sand or bust!!