Pack it up

    About mid-term, you might find yourself in a lunch rut. Every day the same old choices: burrito, falafel or bagel because they are easy, convenient and somewhat affordable.

    Making your lunch yourself can save your health and budget, but takes a bit of forward thinking and prep time both in your kitchen and at the store. The Vanguard has done some of that thinking here for you.

    Try these suggestions: low prep time at home, little or no refrigeration needed, and easy on the wallet. Not too heavy or filling, these ideas won’t send you into that after-lunch tailspin. Most importantly, these ideas are full of fresh flavors and endless combinations.


Try a spread for vegetables and bread

    Be creative with spreads. Trader Joe’s has a huge variety of hummus, tzatziki and goat cheese at bargain prices. Goat cheese is sometimes called chevre, and has a taste similar to cream cheese, but with a bit of tang without being as rich. Some store-bought ingredients for your lunch can be almost as good as homemade and remarkably inexpensive.

    Make your own spreads (see recipe below) in just a few minutes. Don’t bring the whole container with you to school, because it won’t keep the whole day with out diminishing its shelf life dramatically. Just bring what you know you’ll eat – a few hours without refrigeration are just fine.

    Cut up vegetables like carrots, celery and cucumbers for dipping, and leave other more fragile ones whole, like tomatoes and avocados, and cut at the last minute to top an open-faced sandwich.

    Pick up a baguette at a good bakery, and bring about half with you, wrapping the remainder for another day or for another purpose. Pita or whole grain crackers are great, too.

    Shopping note: When buying these items, keep in mind that you are buying for many meals to come. Check the expiration date and consider whether it is a reasonable amount of time to eat all of it and whether it is cost effective.


Try a new cheese and pair with nuts and fruit

    Spend a little on a small wedge of cheese with a lot of flavor. Pair with apples and pears that are at their peak this time of year. The concentrated sweetness of dried fruit like cranberries and apricots offset the extreme flavors of some cheeses. Toasted nuts like walnuts, almonds, pecans and hazelnuts will bring your mouth down to earth with smokiness. Combinations like this scream for a killer bottle of wine, but save that for at home.

    Go to a store like New Seasons or Whole Foods where they are happy to let you sample a few different kinds of cheese and learn what you like. Then go somewhere less expensive, like Trader Joe’s, where you can get enough of a similar cheese for more than one meal without breaking the bank. Cheese, too, is definitely OK at room temperature, and many benefit from a gentle visit with the outside world.


Make a starch at home and spice it up

    A batch of rice or pasta, or a grain like quinoa, couscous or bulgur can be made the night before and chilled, something that can be done easily with a few minutes to spare while doing homework. Make a dressing (see quick recipe below), or you could even buy one, throw in a handful of chopped fresh herbs like parsley, basil or cilantro or vegetables and combine the night before. Make sure the grain is cool before adding the other ingredients.

    As long as there’s no meat or seafood, these can last a few hours at room temperature, too, and will likely taste better than the night before. Important here is to taste for salt and pepper before eating, as flavors will blend and mellow with time.

    Adding canned, drained beans to a salad is a smart and quick way to add protein and fiber to your lunch. Marinating beans in a vinaigrette the night before produces wonderful results. One hint: Be sure to drain canned beans and rinse away the thick bean liquor with water before using.

    Major grocery stores carry a single-serving tuna pouch that would make an easy addition of protein right before eating without worrying about spoilage. Tuna with balsamic vinegar and olive oil has long been a classic Italian sandwich.

    Trader Joe’s offers a tuna in curry and many prepared Indian foods that make a solid lunch, especially when accompanied with rice. Try mixing chopped cilantro and a squeeze of lime into the rice.


Lunchtime paraphernalia

    It is silly, but an old, metal school lunchbox really works great here. Food will not get squashed and there is enough room for a few packing containers. Re-using plastic tubs used to hold margarine is a great way to pack individual sizes.

    Try packing a few cloth napkins and you may not need a plate. Just line the box and you have a surface to put your lunch together on. Add a few extra to prevent accidents.

    Invest in a small folding knife if packing lunch will be a habit. Kitchen stores carry an inexpensive (around $10) one called Opinel that safely tucks the blade into the handle.


Some great combinations
Sliced baguette
Goat cheese
Sliced avocadoSprinkle with sea salt Pita bread
Gorgonzola cheese spread (see recipe)
Fresh tomato slice Whole grain cracker
Trader Joe’s artichoke antipasto spread
Roasted red peppers
Recipes Basic vinaigrette
2 T balsamic or other wine vinegar
1 t Dijon mustard
1/2 t sea salt
1/4 t pepper, fresh ground
1 small clove minced garlic
1 drop honey
1/3 cup olive oil

Mix all ingredients together except oil. Slowly add oil with whisk. Keeps for one week.

Basmati rice with sun-dried tomatoes and herbs

Juice from 1 lemon
1 t salt
1/2 t pepper, fresh ground
1 clove garlic, minced
1 T balsamic or other wine vinegar
1/2 cup fresh herb leaves – Italian parsley, basil, chives, oregano
1/3 cup olive oil3 cups cooked basmati or other rice, cooked and cooled
1/3 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

Combine all ingredients together in a medium-sized bowl. Mix in the rice and cheese. Seal in airtight container in fridge overnight.

Gorgonzola cheese spread

4 oz. cream cheese (1/2 of the silver box), room temperature
1/2 cup crumbled Gorgonzola
1/2 juiced lemon
1/2 t salt
1/4 t pepper, fresh ground
Tiny bunch fresh parsley leaves, chopped Mix all ingredients together and keep in airtight container in fridge.