It’s the season of “la rentree”- a French term for the time in late August and early September when we collectively go back to school or back to work (or in my case, as a grad student who works full time and took very little vacation this summer, both!) after long, lazy summer days (of course you can see how this applies more to the French who actually have enough time off from work to take a real vacation). Perhaps you have noticed the chill in the air, the shorter days, the pick up of the wind, and the increase in focus- these are all signs of la rentree. As someone who works with educators, I’ve always thought about September as the start of the year. It’s the time when I set goals, reevaluate my life’s direction and decide to start fresh. Many of my friends think the same way and I know a common goal (especially in New York City) is to eat healthier and to spend less money. Bringing lunch to work or school is a great way to do this.
I’ve been a dedicated lunch bringer since I began going to school and found that the milk was warm and all the “hot lunch” meals were processed beyond recognition of anything I would call food. My Mom packed my lunch until 3rd grade, when I announced that I would like to pack my own lunch and I’ve been preparing my lunch since. I never thought this was weird until I moved to New York City and noticed the abundance of take out and people who looked at me in envy and awe for my Tupperware and sandwiches. Ever the frugal Yankee, I never gave up my commitment to bringing my lunch and actually take pride in the fact that I’d never bought a sandwich or coffee from establishments right around school or work (though now I have to downgrade that to rarely).
I soon found a few kindred spirits, including my good friend and co-worker of several years Stephanie Hagan who is starting her first season as an art history Pd.D. student this rentree. Her lunches even outdid mine, with steamed salmon and salads with custom dressing, fruit and nuts. In the spirit of la rentree I interviewed her about how her lunch bringing habits developed and tips for those who aspire to bring their lunch, or pack lunch for a little one who is headed to school, and here’s what she had to share.
How and why did you get started bringing your lunch to work? Have you always done so?
I have always packed my own lunch, ever since I rejected the school lunch offering in kindergarten. I continue to pack my lunch not just to save money, but because then I know what I’m eating in advance of the time when hunger hits. I can make better choices if I’m not making them standing in a line starving.
Whatever I will eat in preference to snack-y junk food or a food cart! My packed food has to be enticing enough for me to prefer it to buying something that is glistening beneath those eerie food-warming lights.
I always buy some form of salad greens or lettuce when I make my weekly (or semi-weekly) run to the grocery store. If I start with the idea of a salad, I am making sure I get a certain number of fruits and veggies in for the day. Then I treat that as the bed for whatever combos I can think up. Salad’s also a good go-to because you won’t be so stuffed from lunch that you fall asleep at your desk in the afternoon.
When I’m cooking dinners, I try to make extra of a protein or main dish. If I roast salmon, I put a serving aside to make sure we don’t gobble it up at dinner, and then that goes on a salad later in the week. If I make a chicken, I turn it into chicken salad to throw on a salad greens or maybe a sandwich later. If I have a small quantity of leftovers of something, like roasted sweet potatoes or cauliflower, I make a whole grain like quinoa and throw those things into the grain to make a sort of pilaf-salad. Put it on top of baby spinach (or don’t, if you are tired of my salad speechifying), throw on some nuts, and you’re set for the next day! That way leftovers are transformed, so they don’t become the same boring boring. Your cooking efforts go farther and the leftovers don’t go to waste.
If you make a big batch of something, it’s easy to get sick of it. So freeze half of it, and then think of a few different ways to incorporate it. On day one, your pesto goes on pasta. Day two, it’s a sandwich spread. Day three, you throw a gob of it on top of a soup with little crunchy toasts. Day four, it’s a dressing for a spinach-and-tomato salad. Day five, you don’t mind circulating back to pasta again.
I addition to what I said above, I do not function well in the morning, and can’t get up earlier than I absolutely must. Because I know this about myself, I pack my lunch when I’m cleaning up dishes and leftovers from dinner the night before. If I know I’m not going to be making dinner at home one night I’ll pack a few days ahead so that it’s done and all I have to do in the morning is grab it and walk out the door.
I’ll also invest a little more time Sunday afternoon or one day during the week to do things like chop up my romaine for a salad or to make a dressing or whatever I can do in advance to set myself up for the week.
If you can, leave some of the things you’ll need at work or school, so that you don’t always have to pack them back and forth. At work, I kept a bottle of olive oil and vinegar (you could keep a prepared dressing), salt and pepper (freshly ground pepper classes things up, but if this is going overboard for you, ignore it), and proper utensils and ceramic ware. There’s nothing wrong with eating out of tupperware, but sometimes it’s nice to have a plate or bowl. If your workspace allows for it, leaving your bag of salad greens or your sandwich bread or your goat cheese spread there for the workweek can save you time and packaging. You can also leave a little dessert at work: a chocolate bar to break squares off of, or a package of yogurt-covered raisins. That will make you feel you’ve had a many-coursed meal of your own making, and might even keep you away from the vending machine.
At the risk of sounding like gadgets fix everything, I do think good tupperware (the kind that doesn’t leak or spill) makes a difference. My food-packing horizons have also been broadened by the following product, a banana-shaped plastic container:
There are also plastic containers that have dressing dispensers built in, like this one:
If you can’t leave dressing at work, it’s a good way to pack a salad without resigning yourself to sogginess.
It’s also nice to use the compartment for something like a crunchy topping (goldfish crackers?) or a little flourish (grated parmesan). Of course, you could just put your dressing in a smaller container and throw it into your larger salad box.
I have a few go-tos. I like this walnut-miso dressing a lot:
You can use it to top anything but I usually make a salad with some combination of romaine, shredded carrots, shredded purple cabbage, bean sprouts, and/or cucumbers. Making some soba noodles with the dressing (as the recipe calls for) is also a good way to round out the salad into a satisfying meal. If I’m really good I’ll throw some edamame or baked tofu on so that there’s some protein.
I also really like a carrot-ginger dressing I discovered on Gwyneth Paltrow’s blog (ignore the bit about detox and scroll to the bottom of the page):
Similar toppings to the above, with peanuts tossed on for crunch.
This red pepper walnut dip can be a dip for pitas and veggies, a spread for sandwiches or toast, or perhaps even a soup topping:
Another thing you can do is make something that feels like a treat, like caramelized onions or candied pecans/walnuts. Those become an enticing topping to throw on a healthy base, and kick up the class factor of your homemade lunch.
When the weather turns really crisp and I know for sure fall is here, I’ll be roasting a big pan of fall veggies (red onions, butternut squash, carrots, parsnips, potatoes or sweet potatoes, maybe some turnips) with thyme or herbes de provence, and throwing that on top of salad greens or into a pot of cooked quinoa. Add some goat cheese and bring on the feast! Turkey chili and tomato soup will also be making appearances at lunch time, if it turns out I can get to a microwave at school.
While the weather’s still warm enough to remind me of summer picnics, I’m going to be using leftovers from a roasted chicken to adapt this curried chicken salad recipe:
Meanwhile, Sam’s making up a batch of these kale-spinach turnovers to take back to New York with him so he’ll have lunches for school as well:
I stumbled across this article it looking for ideas and it reminded me of Mark Bittman’s long lists of easy meals:
So, readers, bon courage for la rentree et pour vos dejeuners!