Meal prep is the key to mastering lunch, and in my new cookbook, Modern Lunch, I share exciting and inventive ways to take your packed or at-home lunches from uninspired to extraordinary. Here, I’m revealing a handful of my top meal prep tips, along with two recipes for a re-imagined version of the midday meal.
What is a modern lunch, anyways?
It’s a refreshed version of the midday meal full of colourful, delicious, healthy ingredients that are readily accessible and straightforward to put together.
A modern lunch saves you time in the long run by getting ahead in the kitchen (welcome to the world of meal prep!), money (have you seen how much your lunch delivery is costing you each week?) and supports a healthy lifestyle (fresh, homemade meals are always going to be better for you than that pricey takeout).
Think about your schedule for the week and what your workplace has to offer before diving into meal prep. If you don’t want to stand in a microwave line, choose no-heat lunches (the book is loaded with those exact recipes), or, if you can only make lunch for one day of the week, just make one recipe. There are no “rules” you need to follow because we all have different schedules and constraints. The idea is to start thinking about lunch in a new way: as part of your self-care routine.
Here are some of my favourite meal prep tips, tricks and recipes to make sure a #saddesklunch is a distant memory.
1. Mark Your Calendar
A homemade (but not sad) lunch won’t happen unless you carve out the time during the week. Many home cooks find an hour or two on Sunday to be the most doable. I love Sunday afternoons to do my meal prep. Bonus: it’s a great time to catch up on podcasts or audiobooks.
Here’s what your Sunday meal prep could look like:
Step 1: Pick your recipes and make a grocery list (15 to 20 minutes)
Step 2: Shop (1 hour)
Step 3: Cook and prep (2 hours)
Step 4: Store the food and/or pack lunches (15 to 20 minutes)
2. No Time To Plan Lunch and Grocery Shop? Do This Instead
Keep canned chickpeas and beans, quick-cooking grains, ready-cooked proteins (canned salmon, tuna and sardines), olive oil, your favourite vinegar, mustard and tamari in the pantry at all times to form the base of your meal prep lunches. You can make a grain “bowl” in a container with a delicious dressing in a flash. And sweet potatoes, smoked tofu and cabbage or kale keep fresh for a lot longer than many perishable items, so keep these on hand for a packed lunch in a moment’s notice (pick up a few extra every time you grocery shop to make this a reality).
3. Find Your Favourites
A barrier to making lunch that I hear over and over again is that lunch is boring. If you’re not inspired to make lunch, you won’t. Ask yourself what you love – is it broccoli? Spinach? Sweet potatoes? Brown rice? Chicken? – and pick one or two recipes with that ingredient as the star attraction.
4. This Simple Trick Instantly Avoids a Sad Desk Lunch
Keep a cheap ceramic plate and bowl at work to transfer your packed lunch to, and use real utensils when eating. This simple switch elevates a desk lunch and somehow makes it taste way better.
5. Take Your Pantry to Work
Keep hot sauce; flaky salt; and a little bottle of vinegar, olive oil and tamari at your desk or in your workplace kitchen to perk up a lunch that needs a boost. Keep a few whole lemons at your desk to add zip to your grain salad and never look back. If you have to have sriracha on everything, keep some handy. These small boosters take lunch from blah to beautiful.
6. Make it Beautiful
Garnishes can do wonders to add a pop of appetizing colour to not just your lunch, but every meal. In my opinion, they should taste really great and add another dimension of flavour and/or texture, too. Try topping a meal with refreshing pea shoots or watercress, crunchy toasted pumpkin seeds, dukkah (an Egyptian spice and nut/seed mix), torn tender herbs, pomegranate seeds, strips of lemon zest and more. Another way to give your lunch an artful twist is to layer it in large glass jars, like the recipes I’m sharing below.
I have so many more tips in Modern Lunch, along with more than 100 recipes for both those who are new to a homemade lunch and lunch pros who are in search of fresh ideas. Here are two recipes to get you started because life is too short to have a bad lunch!
Two Grab-and-Go Meal Prep Salads from Modern Lunch:
1. Chicken and Cucumber Ribbon Salad with Peanut Butter Vinaigrette
Total Time: 10 minutes
Peanut Butter Vinaigrette
2 Tbsp lime juice
2 Tbsp natural peanut butter or favourite nut butter
2 Tbsp tamari
1 Tbsp avocado oil or grapeseed oil
1 Tbsp maple syrup
1 Tbsp water
1 tsp fish sauce (optional)
¼ tsp red chili flakes
Chicken and Cucumber Ribbon Salad
2 (8 oz) poached chicken breasts, shredded
1 cup roughly chopped fresh mint
3 green onions, sliced
1 English cucumber, sliced into ribbons with a vegetable peeler or cut into thin coins, divided
2 heads butter lettuce or gem lettuce, leaves separated, torn, divided
1. For the vinaigrette, in a small bowl, whisk lime juice, peanut butter, tamari, oil, maple syrup, water, fish sauce and chili flakes until fully emulsified. If not using immediately, store in an airtight glass jar for up to 1 week; just shake well before using.
2. For the salad, in a large bowl, combine shredded chicken, mint, and green onions. Keep cucumber and lettuce separate for assembly.
3. To assemble, add dressing to the bottom of four large jars. Add chicken mixture on top of dressing, followed by cucumber and lettuce. Seal and refrigerate, or take to go immediately.
4. Keep chilled in the office refrigerator or tucked away with a cooler pack at your desk. To serve, shake and enjoy directly out of the jar or shake, transfer to a serving bowl, and eat.
Lunch Notes: Stretch Your Meals with Quinoa
To lend a subtle nutty flavour, pleasing chewiness a little extra sauce-soaking vehicle to this recipe, toss in 1 cup cooked quinoa into the prepared chicken mixture. It also adds another serving to the dish, so you can enjoy it the whole workweek.
2. 9-Layer Salad with Lemon Curry Dressing
Total Time: 10 minutes
Lemon Curry Dressing
½ cup lemon juice
½ cup unsweetened plain yogurt
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp mild curry powder
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp minced garlic
ground black pepper, to taste
1 cup fresh shelled or frozen green peas, divided
1 bulb fennel, cored, shaved or very thinly sliced, divided
1 head radicchio, cored, shredded, divided
2 carrots, shaved or grated, divided
½ cup fresh herbs of choice (basil, parsley, mint), divided
4 cups baby arugula, divided
1 cup shaved parmesan, divided
4 servings protein of choice, divided (see Lunch Notes)
lemon wedges, divided
1. For the dressing, in a small bowl, whisk all dressing ingredients until fully combined. Store airtight in refrigerator until ready to assemble salad jars.
2. To assemble the salad, add dressing to the bottom of four large jars. Top with salad ingredients in order listed. Seal and refrigerate or take to go immediately.
3. Keep your jar chilled in the office refrigerator, or with a cooler pack in your lunch bag. To serve, remove the lemon, shake up the jar, then squeeze the lemon over top, and enjoy. Or, toss the salad in a serving bowl, season with the lemon, then eat.
Lunch Notes: Pick Your Protein
Protein keeps you fuller for longer, making it a must-have addition. Chicken, salmon, tuna, hard-boiled eggs, or canned white beans are what I reach for to bulk up this salad.
Keep your lunch game strong all week long with this how-to guide for Sunday meal prep.
Recipe and photography credits:
Excerpted from Modern Lunch: +100 Recipes for Assembling the New Midday Meal by Allison Day. Copyright © 2019 Allison Day. Published by Appetite by Random House®, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.