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The Perfect, Easy (and Healthy) Office Lunch

Save money, time, and eat healthier. It tastes pretty darn good too.

 

It’s late in the morning, early in the week, and you’re at your office. You’ve shaken off “the Mundays” without punching anyone (like a gentleman) and it’s nearly lunch time! You’ve had a productive day so far; making phone calls, closing deals, or in any other way making money for your company or yourself. Your stomach grumbles and you realize that you’ve been working like a boss on just a cup of black coffee and some oatmeal. It grumbles again, and it becomes very clear to you that some serious feasting is in order if you want to keep up the pace that you’re working at. There’s a meeting at 4:00 and you’ve got a lot to do before then.

As you make a beeline to the break room, you think back: what did you pack yourself for lunch? Crap. You were in a rush this morning from burning the midnight oil last night. You didn’t have time to put your lunchbox together properly. Making a sandwich takes time, and as it is you barely had time for breakfast. All you brought with you for lunch was a frozen-brick of a Hot Pocket, and some change for the soda machine. This sucks. You’re on fire, but you’re out of fuel.

Your only real options here are A.) Run to the Jack-in-the-crack or Taco Bell down the street and fill up on greasy fast food, B.) Drop fifteen bucks for a lunch special at a nearby sit-down restaurant or C.) Tough it out, wolf down the Hot Pocket, try not to get any boiling-lava-hot filling on your shirt, and push through your day, starving, on sheer force of will.

I know. I’ve been there. In fact, most of us have, as this is not the first time we’ve talked about the hunt for the perfect office lunch.

Since it’s been covered before, I won’t go too deep into the details about why the aforementioned options are disproportionately unappealing to the amount of times you resort to them, but it does merit mentioning.

  1. Fast food like McDonalds or Taco Bell is quick and cheap, but it’s also usually very low in nutrition and very high in fat, calories, and carbs.  A college friend of mine used to consider McDonalds an excellent value because of a ridiculous (hilarious) mathematical formula he thought up (Calories/dollars x minutes), but what is being a true adult if not “knowing better?”
  2. We’ve talked before about how going out to eat for lunch at a sit-down-style restaurant or pub can be a good idea sometimes for networking purposes, or just to get out of the office for a while. “SOMETIMES” is the key word here. I don’t know about you, but dropping $10-20 on lunch is just not something I can do on a daily basis, in clear conscience. Over the course of a year, your lunch bill adds up to THOUSANDS. Also, nutritionally speaking, the food you eat at most restaurants is only a rung or two above fast food.
  3. A Hot Pocket and a soft drink? I don’t think I really need to go into this one at all.

Last year I had an idea that led to me changing the way I prepare my lunch on weekdays. It’s changed the way I eat at work, which in turn changed the way I WORK at work. So, I’m not exaggerating when I say that this technique changed my life, and could change yours, too. Before we get to that though, let’s talk for a bit about what your lunch should do.

The Perfect Lunch Should:

Be Age-Appropriate

This one may come off as a bit of a head-scratcher. I’ll put it simply; Cup Ramen, Chef Boyardee, Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches on White, Cinnamon Toast Crunch Cereal and other things like them should pretty much NEVER be on the menu in your professional life (or at all, really). Aside from the snickers (the laughing kind, not the candy) that you’ll get for eating food geared toward pre-adolescents, it’s simply understood that quality-wise, when you eat these things you’re getting mega-doses of salt and sugar, and little else. As a child you ate this stuff because you didn’t know any better, and in college you ate this stuff because you couldn’t afford any better. Neither is the case now, so scratch them off your shopping list.

Budget-Conscious

A meal doesn’t need to be as cheap as a cup of ramen to be affordable, but with the economy only starting to take itself out of the toilet, it’s definitely a good idea to splurge as little as possible.

NOTE: The difference between being budget-conscious and being CHEAP is simple – A cheapskate is willing to sacrifice quality to save money, a budget-minded individual is not.

Nutritious

You need fuel to get through your day. Sugar and caffeine, while useful for their purposes, are no substitute for proteins, dietary fiber, or vitamin rich vegetables. Your body and brain NEED these things. Once again, we’re older. We know better.

Quick

In the morning before work you’re in a hurry. This is a fact.  If it wasn’t the easiest thing to grab on your way out the door, you likely would have opted out of the Hot Pocket in exchange for something a bit better. Sure you COULD set your alarm for earlier, but if you’re like me that just means you hit the snooze button a few extra times before really getting out of bed. And honestly, other “quick grab” options from the supermarket freezer are not much better. The cheap ones usually contain food that would make high school cafeteria food seem delicious, and the expensive ones are, well, expensive. My father used to tell me there was “no dignified way to eat a TV dinner in public,” and I’m starting to understand what he meant.

office lunch

The Solution

So that leaves, what, sandwiches and salads? True enough, both are viable options (choose dressings and bread type wisely). But what if you want something that meets all the requirements of what a good lunch should be and is also HOT? I have just the thing.

It might get steamy in here, or at least in a bag.

You’ve likely seen some of your favorite veggie options in your grocer’s freezer already coming in steam-in microwave bags. Steaming, as opposed to boiling, which can purportedly reduce the nutritional value of vegetables, locks in the nutritional goodness, and is generally regarded as one of the best ways to prepare food. The steamer bag packaging that many frozen veggie options now offer gives you a means to steam your food that has all the convenience of cooking in the microwave without nearly as much of that gross flavor and texture that’s so commonly associated with microwave cooking.

The problem, though, with the pre-packaged steam-in meals, is that the food inside, like a TV dinner, is portioned for you. You don’t get much of any control over how much of what goes into your meal. If only a major brand or two would sell the steamer bags separately for general use…

There are at least two major brands currently making microwave steamer bags for general use (Ziploc and Glad) and, let me tell you, they have changed the way I cook.

office lunch options

Here’s what I do:

At the Grocery Store

  1. Grab a package of steamer bags. I favor the medium-sized Ziploc Zip N’ Steam bags in a 10-pack because they average out to about $.25 each and the serving size is perfect. (Approximately $2.50)
  2. Select 3-4 small bags of your favorite frozen vegetable options. Veggie combos, like Broccoli Normandy or Asian stir-fry blend are a great place to start if you’re not too clear on what kinds of veggies go with which. (Approximately $5.00)
  3. Select two or three bags of your favorite pre-cooked microwave-ready meat. Chicken fajita strips and turkey meatballs are a favorite of mine. (Approximately $15.00)
  4. Pick up a couple of containers of your favorite sauces. Anything goes here; Marinara, Alfredo, BBQ, Teriyaki, Pesto, the list goes on and on. Go with what you like. (Approximately $5)

And that’s it. When you get home, open up a steamer bag, and throw in a mix/match of:

  • Two handfuls of veggies
  • A handful of meat
  • A shot or two of sauce
  • Repeat ten times
  • Throw the bags in your freezer

You now have a solid two weeks worth of nutritious meals (that YOU put together) that you can easily grab on the way out the door and cook up quickly during your lunch break, for UNDER $30. Quick, budget conscious, age appropriate, and nutritious? Check, check, check and check! It’s as close to the perfect lunch as I’ve found.

Here’s a couple of my favorite combinations, but don’t be afraid to get creative, the combinations you can put together are near-endless.

Tangy BBQ – Beef fajitas strips, pineapple, onion, bell peppers (red, green, yellow), BBQ sauce.
Stir (not) Fried – Chicken fajita strips, Asian Stir-Fry veggies, teriyaki sauce.
Italian Marinara – Turkey Meatballs, Broccoli Normandy, chunky marinara sauce
Cheesy Chicken and Broccoli – Chicken, broccoli, minced onion, cheese sauce.

You’ll notice how there’s no pasta/rice/bread part to that meal. That’s intentional. I don’t generally eat much along the way of carbs after breakfast, and you might want to consider doing the same. That being said, a handful of minute rice plays very nicely with other foods in the steamer bags.

Choose your sauces carefully. Like salad dressing, a bad sauce selection can make your otherwise perfect meal nearly as unhealthy as fast food. If you’re not yet in the habit of looking at the nutrition facts on EVERYTHING you eat, it’s time to start. You’ll be glad you did.

rice

What about choosing fresh veggies over frozen?

Good idea! It’s definitely not a bad call to use never-been-frozen foods instead of their frozen counterparts, but here are some things you might want to keep in mind:

  • Fresh veggies are generally more expensive.
  • Fresh veggies will have a shorter shelf life. This can be alleviated by, of course, freezing the food, but all that will do is give you frozen vegetables. Unlike their purpose-manufactured counterparts, fresh veggies put on ice were not quick-frozen to help prevent freezer burn.
  • If the veggies you want to use this week are out of season, remember that the fresh stuff that’s currently at the market was grown in artificial, chemically induced conditions. Frozen veggies are usually frozen during peak season, which I consider favorable. My general rule is that IF IT’S IN SEASON, I will opt for the fresh veggies, if not, frozen work just fine for me.

Do I have to buy fully cooked meats?

Not really, but bear in mind that cooking raw meat of ANY variety in a microwave is NOT appropriate for work. When meat cooks, it creates odors that fill the whole floor, and there’s of course the risk of cross contamination. If you REALLY want to prepare and cook the meat you use in these steamer bag combos yourself, then cook it beforehand (Hey! What better excuse for a Sunday afternoon BBQ?!)

About

Ricardo E. Presas is a public speaking coach and educator who, when not workin' hard for The Man, is busy running his own freelance film and video production company in Texas. You can keep up with his most recent projects and ramblings by following him on twitter.com/ricardopresas.

 
  • Stanley

    Great read!

    Quick question: Is there a range of how long these meals should be in the microwave? I could see myself either having frozen frustrations or putting blisters on my tongue.

  • Chris

    Great article, I actually just started doing this for work! If you have a local Wegmans they carry their own store brand of steamable bags!

  • http://bestofmicah.com Micah Wangerin

    Thanks, Ricardo, for a great post! My wife loves the steamed veggies but I never would have thought about the mix-n-match create my own idea. I also appreciate the combo ideas you suggest.
    I’m looking forward to going to the grocery store tonight to look at the freezer section!

  • Ricardo

    Stanley,

    A great thing about these bags ia that they have heating timea and general prep instructions printed right on the bag! As always, some microwaves vary (I swear the one I have at work is powered by uranium), but the on-bag time suggestions are a great place to start.

    Thanks for reading!

  • Chadwick

    Great read! Well written and hit close to home.

    I do love me some jack-in-the-crack though.

  • Kelly M.

    If you want to increase the quality of the veggies you eat, and you have a little extra time on the weekends, it’s really easy to blanch and freeze your own organic produce (either bought from a CSA, co-op, or home-grown, whatever) and feel better about eating non-GMO, local produce. Conscious and cheap!

    Learn how here: http://southernfood.about.com/od/freezingfood/a/aa082101.htm

  • Derick T

    Glad to see an article on these bags!

    I have been using these for about 2-3 years now and they are the greatest invention ever! I actually incorporated them into my meal routine and not only drastically lost weight, but had very satisfying lunches and kept a higher energy level in the afternoon and avoided the lethargic post lunch “2:30″ feeling that I found was plaguing me without my even knowing. I have never thought of freezing though,. I have always used fresh to get the most nutritional bang for my buck. There are a few things I have learned over the years using these bags…

    No matter how you try, cooking fish in them in the office break room will never go over well, even though it tastes fantastic. Either pack a can of febreeze with your lunch or be prepared to get a call from HR

    Chicken breast steamed with freshly ground italian herb and spices tastes very much like thanksgiving turkey

    Steaming fresh vegetables solo, you can rinse and re-use the bags about three times before the integrity of the bag begins to decline.

    When cooking whole chicken breasts, depending on the size it can be difficult to completely cook the interior past pink without the thinner ends getting tough and over cooked. I have found that if you cook for the recommended time and let the bag sit for a minute or two after cooking, the center will finish out quite nicely.

  • Phil

    Get a whole rotis. chick from Costco for $5.00 and pull off the meat. Should be enough meat for 10-20 bags WINNING

  • http://www.gwjefferies.com Geoff

    Awesome! This is an informative and well written article that is really entertaining. I’ve been looking for a way to eat a great meal that is not only good for you but easy on the pocket book. I’m going to give those Ziploc Zip N’ Steam bags a try.

  • Ricardo

    Lots lf great ideas happening on this thread! Thanks
    Everyone for reading and thank you even more for conrributing!
    The rotisserie chicken idea is pure genius.

  • Doug

    I’ll have to add this to my lunch time rotation. In the past I’ve always made full size portions of recipes and merely brought the leftovers to work (my coworkers always seem to say my meals smell good) this will be a great way to add some more veggies in to my diet.

  • Jessy Diamond

    Not a bad idea! I usually just make a bigger dinner and bring the leftovers the next day, but I could make a few of those bags for quick dinners.

  • TJ

    I enjoy cooking and when I make dinner I usually make enough for my dinner as well as lunch the next day. For a single guy this works well, though I can understand how it might not work with those who have families to feed too. I think that this is actually a great idea for the most part, except the sauces part. You have to be careful with those premade sauces, as a lot of them are very high in sodium, sugar, and the like.

  • TJ

    and by “I think this is a great idea for the most part” I mean what the article mentions.

  • AMG

    Great idea im going to start doing this starting next week. I started working an earlier schedule and find trouble getting my meals ready in the morning or the night before. I often find myself spending a lot of money on food and very unhealthy to make it worse.

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  • Anon

    While this is generally a great article, you cannot include alfredo sauce if you want a healthy meal. It is the pasta sauce equivalent of ranch dressing.

  • Ricardo

    Anon,

    You are definitely right, as sauces can have an adverse effect on the nutritional content of a meal, as I mentioned.

    The great thing about this idea is that encourages portion control. Since I put together each meal, I can decide the amount of any given sauce I use. I generally only put a spoonful or two of sauce/seasoning in my meal. Even at it’s worst (and I always opt for lower fat/lower sodium versions), I doubt a spoonful of Alfredo dressing would ruin a diet.

  • Tom

    Ziploc actually has a whole section of recipes for these bags. Some are fairly pointless, but a good number look doable.

    They’re here: http://www.ziploc.com/Recipes/Pages/Default.aspx?recipes=1&viewBy=Zip'N%20Steam%20recipes

  • Steve

    Jim Gaffigan is funny.

  • Matt

    A great sauce to use is Ken’s Steakhouse brand lemon pepper sauce/marinade. It has ZERO sodium, fat, carbs, etc. Only 15 calories per serving. Great article!

  • Ron

    alright, i gave this a shot.
    In theory a very cool idea, but some issues in practice. some people are weird about microwaving plastic…i don’t really care, but important to note. second: its surprising hard to eat out of narrow plastic bag; this has gotten really messy, not to mention the bags were kinda pricey (like $3.70). glad i gave it a shot, but I doubt i’ll continue this after i finish these 10. may just do Tupperware or Pyrex

    • Dbdoubleu

      Yeah, you’re suppose to pour it into a bowl after you steam it.

  • Ewan

    Ron, use a bowl and reuse the bags? I think they will go round 2-3 times before being a bit worn out.

    Had great success with this idea, they have revolutionised my eating during the day. More veg eaten and no more bread!

    One minor thing, I find the portions as described WAY too small, I am a reasonably big eater (but not a big person) however even with the handful of rice I was pretty hungry still after my other lunch items. No biggie, more going in next time. Perhaps my hands are too small…

  • Ian

    just fyi, you need a LOT less sauce than you think. i tried this but i may have initially under-cooked the frozen Tyson Diced Chicken i used. will do 6 minutes next time instead of 5.

  • Matt

    This is amazing.

  • David

    I have been doing this for about a week now and it has been great! I found that the frost from the frozen vegetables will water sown any sauce you use, but it gives good flavor to the veg and meat.

    Hey Ricardo, would there be a big difference by using freezer-safe/microwave-safe plastic bowls with a vent? I would think that using plastic bowls would be less wasteful and give you the same result.

  • Ewan

    Would be fine however plastic bowls would take up more space in the freezer if you’re making 5+ at once.

    I seem to get about 3-4 uses our of the bags, so not too bad considering the timesaving imo.

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  • Daniel

    I hate to rain on everyone’s parade here, but microwaves should be avoided at all costs. They will literally boil the nutrition out of food. The steaming method discussed here is not the same as steaming over a stove using a pot and strainer (or one of those fancy steamers).

    Just bear that in mind.

  • http://twitter.com/jrebeclee Jaime

    I love this, I’ve been doing it for 3 weeks now. I minimized the chicken and used teriyaki sauce, and add Parmesan after heating. Very helpful and low calorie!

  • Mr.Paine

    This changes everything. Eating my first attempt at the desk as I type this… thank you Mr. Preasas.

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