When it comes to meal planning dinners, I’ve got it down pat. I’d say that I’m a pro, but seeing as how it still takes me eons to choose the recipes for the week (I’m working on it), let’s just say that I’m at the very least solid on the dinner-meal-planning front. I’m also fine with breakfast, because I always have a big tub of Wallaby’s Greek and a plethora of nuts, seeds, spices, and some combination of fresh-or-dried fruit to round it out. Sometimes I mix it up with cereal, milk…and nuts, seeds, spices, and fruit. I know. So anyway, breakfast and dinner? No problem.
It’s the middle of the day that gets me. Lunch used to be no big deal; I would just scrounge and come up with something, but lately, I’ve been really focusing on making sure I get a well-balanced diet. Apparently, that’s important, or something. Which means more thought out meals. Which means, odds and ends don’t really cut it. Which means, L and I have stood in the kitchen on numerous occasions as of late, staring at the hodge-podge of edible foodstufffs we had in, wondering how to turn it into a meal.
L’s been eating a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I keep trying to add my hemp protein powder into all of my meals. Truth time: it makes me feel like I’m eating grass. Powdered grass.
As it turns out, the most important thing to do when trying to “brown bag it” more frequently, is to figure out what food you want to brown bag to begin with…and then buy it. Crazy, right?
Yes, that means meal planning your lunch, too. It doesn’t have to be as structured as your meal plan for dinner, but you have to know what meals you need in order to make sure you have enough food for them. Here’s what I do (and by “what I do,” I mean, here’s what I did last week when I realized we were in desperate need of a plan, and it worked out pretty well):
- Make a list of all of the meals you will need. Some days, I’m at work for lunch and dinner, so I have to remember to have one extra portable meal for that day.
- Figure out how far your dinner leftovers will stretch. We almost always make full recipes, which generally yield at least 4 servings, which will give us each at least 1 meal of leftovers each. For this example, I knew that I would have leftovers from dinner on Sunday, Monday, and Wednesday, so I wrote “leftovers” in for meals needed on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. That left me to figure out lunch for Wednesday and Friday, and my extra late-night meal for Tuesday and Thursday.
Note: If you’re not a big leftovers person, then you’ll just skip this step — leftovers take some of the effort out of figuring out what to pack for lunch because they can be packaged up the night before as you clean up from dinner, but if it’s not your thing, it’s not your thing.
- Take stock of what you already have. Do you have lunch meat? Canned tuna? A frozen meal? A ton of vegetables? Can you make a meal out of any of this? I had a can of sardines — the lovely people at Wild Planet insisted that I take the plunge and try them (gulp!) — so, for example, I planned to put together a sardine sandwich that would make enough for 2 meals. Assuming I didn’t chicken out / hate it / get all squeemish and weird. Update: I didn’t die.
- Make a list of everything you need for the meals you’ve already planned, and see if you’ll have leftovers. Recipe call for 1/2 bell pepper? Slice up the other half and put it in a salad the next day for lunch. Already buying chicken? Buy a little extra and grill up some pieces for a sandwich. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy.
- Leave a little wiggle-room. Usually, when I’m meal planning – whether it’s dinner or, now, lunch as well – I like to leave a day toward the end of the week “up in the air.” That empty day might get filled in with extra leftovers that I hadn’t anticipated, or a sudden desire to get away from the “brown bag” and treat myself to a meal at a restaurant. It’s nice to know that I have the flexibility to “wing it” that day without worrying about letting good food go to waste. This week, I wound up with a ton of leftovers from Wednesday’s dinner, so I was able to use those to fill in the gaps.
So, there you have it! Meal planning, lunch edition. Oh, and while we’re on the subject, some lingering tips:
- Buy pretty things! If you’re going to be bringing your lunch on a regular basis, invest in a solid lunch bag that makes you happy when you look at it and stock up on really good containers. I recommend glass with snap-lock lids, but BPA-free plastic is ok (just please don’t microwave it or put it in the dishwasher, even if it says it’s safe). Also: sturdy reusable plastic utensils, nifty reusable sandwich and snack bags (I’m looking to replace mine after years of wear ‘n tear, and I’m eyeing these cuties from spbang)*, and an appropriately sized BPA-free water bottle that you can fill up at home and cart with you all day. Mine is named Bubba. Yes, really.
- Prep it the night before. Whether it’s packaging up leftovers, making a sandwich, throwing together overnight oats, or tossing together a salad (just consider leaving the dressing on the side), get it over with when you’re cleaning up from dinner. That way, you won’t have to dirty the kitchen twice and you can go to bed knowing that you won’t be scrambling to throw things together the next morning.
- Even better, see if you can prep at the beginning of the week! Clearly, a sandwich made on Sunday wouldn’t hold up for lunch on Thursday, but you can certainly do things like big batches of oatmeal, a salad-in-a-jar, homemade hummus, or even simply washed and sliced veggies.
I’m new to this put-an-ounce-of-thought-into-lunch-prep too, but it does make things much easier and less stressful to know that you have a set of go-to meals for the week.
*Disclaimer: this post is a response to the Around the Plate May challenge to write a post with tips for packing a lunch. By mentioning spbang, which I hadn’t heard of before the challenge but upon researching the product think it’s brimming with both adorableness and eco-friendly wonderfulness, I will be eligible to win a prize pack from them. Promise, I wouldn’t mention them if I thought they were a rotten company, even if it did mean free stuff. And yes, I really am considering their snack bags when my current ones officially bite the dust (re: when I stop being lazy).