How to make three days’ worth of packed lunches in an hour

Packing your own lunches saves money and can provide healthier fare than eating out. But how do you get organized and actually do it? Here’s the perfect time-saving method I’ve devised after lots of trial and error. This method can be adapted for all dietary needs!

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Note: This post was originally published in the Vancouver Observer, where I advocated using mason jars to pack your lunches. I’ve since discovered that many mason jar lids contain BPA, a controversial synthetic estrogen. I’m now switching to stainless steel leakproof containers (affiliate link), and researching glass jars with BPA-free or glass lids, like Weck and Parfait jars. These options are all a lot more expensive than good old mason jars, so here’s hoping that more affordable, safe options come on the market! I’ve also increased the size of the recipe to offer a more filling option.

When I’m not in the garden pulling weeds and harvesting greens, you’ll usually find me in a very different place: the office. I’ve held 9-5 jobs for almost all of my adult life, and I bring a healthy packed lunch to work nearly every day. It’s a well-worn habit that really keeps me going throughout the busyness of life.

Making homemade lunches can support many of our New Year’s resolutions for 2016. The reasons are fairly obvious: while it’s wonderful to go to restaurants and explore the flavours created by local chefs, making our own food saves money and empowers us to truly feel healthy and satisfied. It can can even save time, considering the long lineups at many lunch spots. That said, packing lunches is a skill that takes some getting used to, and one that I’ve spent years perfecting.

Let’s face it. Cooking takes a lot of time. Until fairly recently, my evenings were often swallowed up by making a fresh dinner plus enough leftovers for the next day’s lunch. One day, I had a revelation: if I made a few days’ worth of lunches at once and put them into separate jars, I could save tons of time. Why? Because most of the work of cooking has to do with the staging, chopping and, especially, cleaning. After experimenting with a few different approaches, I’ve come up with the following formula:

Basic packed lunches for three days

  • Three BPA-free food storage containers: I use these stainless steel containers from Life Without Plastic (affiliate link), which last forever, don’t leak, and are well worth the cost.
  • 3 cups of a protein source, such as cooked lentils, chickpeas, tempeh or mindfully sourced animal protein.
  • 3 cups of a healthy starch, such as cooked quinoa, brown rice or sweet potato.
  • 3 cups of lightly sauteed or steamed greens, such as kale or broccoli. Add some olive oil, spices and onion for flavour.
  • A sprinkling of flavourful healthy fat sources, such as sunflower seeds, nuts, guacamole or olives.

Simply divide the ingredients between the three jars and layer them in. If you’re making lunches for more than one person, multiply the amount as needed.

This combination of ingredients is hearty enough to keep me full for hours. It never ceases to amaze me how much food I need to sustain myself throughout a full work day of, well, sitting at my computer. When my lunch isn’t satisfying enough, I really feel it. That’s when I start reaching for the not-always-healthy snack bars I keep in my drawer for “emergencies”.

Salads with uncooked greens are a popular and similar approach that I sometimes use, but at the end of the day I find that the formula above, with its focus on healthy protein and denser cooked greens, keeps me more full and is easier to eat at the desk (no one likes to have lettuce leaves flying out of the jar). This formula can be adapted for any dietary need. Although a lot of people try to limit their carb intake, I personally get very sick when I cut them out of my diet, so they are present in all of my meals. Keep in mind that everyone is different, and this formula might not be enough food for you. Experiment and find your bliss.

Recommendations

  • Do your food prep twice per week. Schedule permitting, Sunday and Wednesday evenings are my lunch prep times.
  • Keep in mind that most food only stays fresh for a few days in the fridge, and highly perishable foods, like avocado and some types of meat, can have even shorter shelf lives. That’s why I make only a few days’ worth of lunches at a time. If using raw greens, chop and add them the night before, as they can get soggy and lose nutrients if left for too long.
  • Include something beautiful and delicious to excite your senses: roasted beets, olives and chopped green onions are some of my favourites.
  • Vary your lunch ingredients week-to-week to keep things interesting and nutritionally complete.
  • If you’re worried about the jar leaking, stretch a small piece of plastic wrap over the top of the jar and secure it with an elastic band.

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