Tasty Tufts Guide to the Ultimate Packed Lunch
At some point in their college careers, many students make the choice to live in a fully-stocked house. Yet many still keep up the same meal plans, or supplement smaller ones with take-out and restaurants. The convenience factor is undeniable, but let me let you into a little secret: home-packed food is quicker, cheaper, and in many cases superior to the take-away variety. Here’s a guide to getting started.
The Box (or Bag, or Jar)
The key to an effective packed lunch is in the container. Forget the cartoon-covered, single-compartment lunch boxes of your youth – adult-sized containers are almost as feature-packed as your smartphone. Some of the best brands come from Korea and Japan, countries with a very strong packed lunch culture. The most hardcore models, like the Zojirushi Classic Bento are multi-compartment insulated towers which keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot, even when they’re next to each other. This kind of lunchbox is specially designed to hold soups and small dishes (like last night’s leftovers). If you’re a Chipotle Burrito Bowl kind of person, this might be the choice for you – it allows you to separate different meal components and recombine them at the point you want to chow down.
If you’re a little less gadget-crazy, you can DIY it as well. Brown bags are still probably the best choice for cold sandwiches, since they have a good ability to compress without squishing the food. For salad people, a mason jar is the ultimate option. Depending on your salad habits, you’ll want to decide on the volume of the jar (I would say a wide-neck quart size is probably the minimum). If you’re not a fan of soggy salad, you probably also want a quarter-pint jar (also called a jelly jar) which can nest inside and hold a dressing. Since mason jars are rarely sold in singles, you should know that quart jars are fantastic for grains, and jam jars for spices and brown sugar (no clumps!), so don’t feel guilty about extras! To pack a salad in a mason jar, you’ll want to put the heavy stuff first (croutons, meat/tofu, cheese, other toppings) and then the salad. If you’ve got the dressing in a jar, you can rest it on top (the jar shouldn’t compress the salad greens too much); otherwise add it with the heavy stuff. To serve, just empty the dressing into the jar if it’s separate, and shake with the lid sealed on to dress the salad. Eat out of the jar, or pour into a bowl.
2. The Food!
What kind of food is good for packing? The best packed foods are heat-resistant. You don’t want a food that spoils with heat. In the summer months, it’s probably best to have a cool pack if you don’t carry an insulated bag, especially if you’re doing a salad. In cold months, you may want to double-bag a sandwich, salad, or piece of fruit to reduce its chance of catching frost-bite.
You’ll want to think about your microwave options. Mason jars are obviously not microwavable with the lid on, unless you purchase a special screw-on plastic top. However, they are a fantastic budget soup and stew carrying vessel.
Given the lack of space, you also probably want dense food. Good examples of dense, heat-resistant foods are things like stews, rich soups, and braised meats. Oddly shaped foods like raw vegetables can be difficult to fit into a lunch bag or box, so some of the best items are compressible (which is why semi-liquids are great).
For sandwiches, I think most people have bad enough memories of soggy sandwiches to know that the best breads for portability are sturdy and crusty. French and Italian breads are great since they typically have an airy, firm structure to sop up condiments. Oil-based condiments like peanut butter or mayonnaise are best applied to the bread before water-based condiments (fair warning: vinaigrettes should be considered water-based, not oil-based).
3. The Ideas
Packed food is a very broad category. I hope by now that I’ve shown that you can set up a packed lunch routine for anything from typical cold sandwiches to a full meal with the proper equipment. Here are some ideas for particularly packed-lunch friendly dishes.
For a hot breakfast, you can also go for homemade instant oatmeal.
If you’re going with a cold lunch, a recipe like this is ideal for a little protein boost. It’s best to choose a lean meat for a cold lunch since it will be more heat-resistant than fattier cuts.
These two sandwich suggestions are light on the watery condiments, which helps retain their integrity without compromising on flavor:
For a little snack, try something like:
Cover photo source.