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

Mason jar lunches. Photo by Rebecca Cuttler.

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 looked at the drawer full of mason jars I had left over from making pickles and 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 mason jar lunches for three days

  • Three 2-cup mason jars - available from many grocery stores.
  • 1.5 cups of a protein source, such as cooked lentils, chickpeas, tempeh or mindfully sourced animal protein.
  • 1.5 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”.

Mason jar 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.

Rebecca Cuttler is an urban gardening teacher, member of the Vancouver Food Policy Council and board member of the Environmental Youth Alliance. Join her on Roundhouse Radio 98.3 FM every Tuesday afternoon at 5:00pm for Fabulous Urban Gardens on “Home” with host Jana Lynne White. She blogs about urban food gardening at http://abundantcity.net.


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