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.
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.
- 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?”
- 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.
- 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here’s what I do:
At the Grocery Store
- 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)
- 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)
- 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)
- 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.
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?!)