Conquering brown bag boredom

Brown-bag lunches are a great way to save money.

I am a veteran brown bagger. At least since the late 70s, I’ve
taken my lunch with me to school or work, most days of the
week.
Part of the reason is economic: a lunch made of things you
already have on hand is way cheaper than the five bucks that a fast
food meal can cost.
I am a veteran brown bagger. At least since the late 70s, I’ve taken my lunch with me to school or work, most days of the week.

Part of the reason is economic: a lunch made of things you already have on hand is way cheaper than the five bucks that a fast food meal can cost.

The other reasons are choice, flavor and freshness. While every once in a while a burger and fries (especially the fries) or nachos really hits the spot, most of the time I’m happier eating fresh food I made myself.

Plus, for me, after a couple of days all the fast food offerings start to sound and smell alike.

When my workplace had a microwave oven, often I would take the remains of the previous night’s dinner in a plastic container and reheat it on the spot.

Leftover pasta, stew or other casseroles all reheat well and in fact are often better the next day.

Of course you can always cut up cold steak, ham or chicken and incorporate it into a sandwich or salad.

Then there are the standby sandwiches from my childhood: tuna or egg salad on whole wheat, with lettuce and mayonnaise; peanut butter and jelly, peanut butter and pickles, or peanut butter and banana; or ham and swiss on caraway rye with mustard and dill pickles.

One tip I’ve learned is to put any spread such as mayonnaise or mustard inside the sandwich, between the meat and lettuce, for example. This helps keep the sandwich from getting soggy.

In the case of fillings such as tuna or egg salad, I usually pack the filling separately from the bread and veggies, again to avoid sogginess.

I also wrap sandwiches tightly in plastic wrap rather than use sandwich bags, since the wrap holds everything together better.

Lately, however, I haven’t had a microwave to reheat foods, and my old favorites had been repeated so often I was becoming cross-eyed with boredom. I fell back on the fast food route a couple of times, and then set out to concoct some new brown bag specialities.

I have avoided raw onion or garlic in these recipes, since they can leave an indelible trace on the breath which can be hard on one’s co-workers.

Note on food safety: even if you have a refrigerator at work, if your commute is longer than 10 minutes it’s a good idea to keep chilled foods chilled. You can accomplish this by using an insulated bag or mini-cooler and adding either an artificial-ice pack or a frozen juice box to your lunch to keep everything cold.

Crunchy Romaine Pitas

per serving

1 cup romaine lettuce, torn in bite-size pieces

1/4 avocado

2 oz. sharp cheddar cheese

1 tsp. chopped jalapeno

1 T. chopped green pepper

1 T. chopped walnuts

1 pita round (I like whole wheat. If only one or two people in your family will eat these, keep them in the freezer and remove one when packing your lunch. Wrap it in plastic wrap and it will help keep other items cold.)

Step 1: Mix romaine and all other ingredients and put in a plastic container. At lunch time, halve the pita round and fill each half with this mixture.

Alfredo-style

broccoli pitas

(1 serving)

1 cup broccoli, cooked al dente

1 T. chopped green pepper

1 tsp. jalapeno

2 T. ricotta cheese

1 T. grated parmesan

1/8 tsp. oregano

1/8 tsp. basil

salt and pepper to taste

1 pita round as above

Step 1: Mix broccoli with remaining ingredients and stuff the pita as above.

Egg salad ranchero

(1 serving)

1 hard-cooked egg

2 T. salsa

1 tsp. mayonnaise

2 T. chopped cilantro

1 tsp. chopped jalapeno pepper

2 T. grated sharp cheddar

salt and pepper to taste

1 or 2 flour tortillas

Step 1: Chop the egg into a bowl and mash further with a fork.

Step 2: Mix in the remaining ingredients and pack in a plastic container.

Step 3: At lunchtime, spread down the center of the tortilla and roll burrito-style.

Pressed Cuban Sandwich

(as I remember from living in Tampa, Fla. If you can find Cuban bitter-orange sauce, use it in place of the vinaigrette.)

(1 serving)

1 French roll

1 tsp. softened butter

1 tsp. mayonnaise

1 tsp. brown mustard, or to taste

2 slices ham

2 slices Swiss or Muenster cheese

2 thin slices roast pork

sliced sour pickles

lettuce

1 T. vinaigrette dressing in a small plastic container

Step 1: Split the roll in half and spread on one side with the butter and on the other with the mayonnaise and mustard.

Step 2: Layer on the meats and cheese.

Step 3: Add the lettuce and pickle slices.

Step 4: Wrap the sandwich in plastic wrap or foil and weight it with a brick or cast-iron skillet for at least an hour or the night before. The pressing melds all the flavors and really does make a difference.

Step 5: When ready to serve, add vinaigrette to taste.

Suit Yourself Pasta Salad

(1 serving)

1 cup leftover “short” pasta such as penne, fusilli, or elbows

2 T. chopped parsley or cilantro

1/4 jalapeno, chopped

1-2 tsp. capers, drained

3-4 pitted Kalamata olives, chopped

2 T. olive oil

1-2 tsp. lemon juice

salt and pepper to taste.

1 or more of:

1-2 oz. feta cheese, crumbled

grilled chicken breast

1 ripe tomato, chopped

1/4 ripe avocado, cubed

Step 1: Toss together the pasta, parsley or cilantro, jalapeno, capers, olives, olive oil and lemon juice.

Step 2: Taste before adding salt as the capers and olives are salty.

Step 3: Mix in whichever you are using of the cheese, chicken, tomato and/or avocado.

Step 4: Pack in a plastic container and chill until serving.

Accessories

I like to include a few sides to go with my main course, as well as a snack to keep me going during the afternoon.

Sides

• baby carrots or carrot strips

• green, red and yellow pepper strips

• cucumber slices or strips

• parboiled “al dente” broccoli (I don’t enjoy it raw.)

• hummus for dipping the veggies

• individual applesauce

• canned fruit

• whole fruit: apples, oranges and grapes travel best

• chips or pretzels

Desserts

• a couple of cookies

• a couple of squares of really good dark chocolate

• a couple of minis of your favorite candy bar

Snacks

• string cheese or other individually packaged cheeses such as Laughing Cow or Bonbel

• flat bread such as Ak-Mak, Wasa or Ry Krisp, or saltines

• graham crackers and peanut butter

• trail mix

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