Pack your Bags: Fresh and Healthy Ideas for Your Brown Bag
Remember what it feels like to get excited for lunch? You don’t need high-tech equipment or even finely tuned kitchen skills to build the midday meal of your dreams. In fact, with just a little strategic planning and a touch of creativity, your brown bag could be on its way to interoffice stardom. Here’s how to reclaim your afternoon break with spirit, substance, and super fresh ideas
LET’S START WITH THE BASICS. As a rule, if a meal doesn’t both mentally and physically satisfy you, you’re going to keep eating. (Cue ravenous vending machine raid circa 3 p.m.) Prevent this by stocking your lunches with the five core food groups: fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and dairy. Samantha Montgomery, registered dietitian at Giant Eagle, references MyPlate — the United States Department of Agriculture’s national nutrition guideline, which changed from a pyramid to a plate in 2010 — as an initial starting point to gauge exactly what and how much we should be eating. “If you can incorporate all five food groups at lunchtime, you’re going to be more satisfied overall and less hungry later on in the day,” she explains.
FIBER-PACKED FRUITS, VEGETABLES, AND GRAINS satisfy our need for physical fullness, but don’t have much staying power when eaten alone. Here’s the good news: simply adding a grab-and-go protein source —we’re partial to avocado, chickpeas, and Greek yogurt —can transform any snack into a balanced meal. Building your bowl from the grains up? Start with Market Street Grocery Executive Chef Michael LaMantia’s Bamboo Rice Salad, made with short grain white rice, sweet bamboo extract, cucumbers, peppadew peppers, snap peas, soy sauce, red wine vinegar, a Nonfat nd fresh strawberries.
THE ENDLESSLY VERSATILE AVOCADO boasts plenty of flavor in addition to mono- and polyunsaturated fats (the oily, good-for-you-in-moderation kinds) that “slow your digestion, keep food in your stomach longer, and keep you full until your next meal or snack,” says Montgomery. We especially love it tossed on a salad, used as a sandwich or cracker spread, or halved and drizzled with oil or vinegar. Here, we paired the easily adaptable fruit — yes, fruit — with Giant Eagle’s Balsamic Vinegar Glaze, which also doubles as a superb ice cream or fruit topping.
SMART SNACKING is not an oxymoron when paired with self-control and a basic understanding of nutrition facts panels. “Snacks don’t always have to be low-cal if you’re careful with portion sizes,” says Anna Ardine, clinical nutrition manager at Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC. Amp up that crunch factor with a handful of popcorn, unsalted nuts, or a whole grain rice cake. We’re particularly fond of these organic, dark chocolate-dipped versions for their guilt-free calorie count (60 per cake) and light-as-air texture.
SAVORY, ROASTED VEGETABLE MEDLEYS can turn your monotonous lunch ritual into a party, especially if you’re not a huge fan of raw veggies themselves. Best of all, roasting requires very minimal effort. East End Food Co-op grocery manager Maura Holliday likes to “take a whole head of cauliflower, rub it with a little olive oil, salt, pepper, and maybe some Parmesan cheese; and throw it in the oven for 45 minutes. It adds a whole new flavor.” Here, Chef LaMantia pairs roasted red and yellow peppers, artichoke hearts, marinated portabella mushrooms, and grape tomatoes with aged goat cheese, mesclun mix, and a tomato basil wrap. For a lighter, more carb-conscious option, we ditched the wrap and tossed the veggies with spring mix and protein-rich tuna.
TIP: STOCK YOUR CANTRY. Theoretically, your kitchen cupboards could contain four out of five food groups (protein, fruits, veggies, and grains) at any given time. Canned light tuna in water, fruit in light syrup and 100 percent juice, and vegetables and beans with less than 140 milligrams of sodium are your best ready-to-eat options for lunch, says Montgomery. Here’s a mind blow: rinsing and draining can contents reduces sodium by an extra 40 percent, even if the food was already low in sodium to start.
FRUIT-INFUSED WATER WITH MINT might be the single greatest thing to ever happen to our Mason jars. It’s also a much healthier alternative to sugar-loaded, “fruit-flavored” bottles of water and juice. Ardine inspired us to try a cool combo of Valencia orange and spearmint with our H2O — “mints of any kind enhance fruit flavors,” she says — but give yourself a blank slate to get creative with strawberries, mangos, and even cucumbers.
LEAN ANIMAL PROTEINS like tuna packed in water, skinless chicken breast, and turkey breast are pro picks for daytime munching due to their low fat content — less than three grams of total fat per serving to be exact. Our brains rely on protein for confirmation that we’ve eaten enough, so make an effort to incorporate these light bites onto a salad, in a wrap, or à la carte to avoid the post-lunch belly growl heard ‘round the conference room. Montgomery suggests storing nuts, seeds, beans, and light tuna packets in an “emergency” desk drawer to pep up a protein-shy lunch.
LEAFY GREEN SALADS WITH KILLER TOPPINGS are always a solid choice, particularly during the summer months. Three words: farmers market season. Load up that basket with your favorite homegrown goodies, then chop, grill, and customize until your heart’s content. We’re all about that spinach base for its high iron content and volume, but even chewier greens, like kale, can make for an interesting salad foundation if flash steamed. When it comes time to dress up, keep it simple. “If you use quality ingredients [in your salad], they can be appreciated without a whole lot of dressing,” says Ardine. In this case, just a dash of Hilary’s apple fennel mixture — made with dandelion root and free of gluten, dairy, soy, corn, egg, yeast, and nut — did the trick. Not much into store-bought brands? Make your own using fresh herbs and some good ‘ole vinegar and oil. Alternatively, add a citrusy pop to your leaves with a spritz of lemon juice.
TIP: GET OUTSIDE. In case you missed it, winter is over. Unless inclement weather prevents you from doing so, take this glorious opportunity to enjoy your break outdoors this summer. “Lunchtime is necessary not only to refuel, but to reenergize. Carving 15 minutes out of your day to get away from work is more beneficial than eating at your desk,” says Ardine. “That’s just good stress management!”
KOMBUCHA and other fermented tea drinks combine the fizz and flavor we expect from soda, but without all of the preservatives, calories, and sugar. KeVita’s “Master Brew” varieties are limited to just six ingredients, and contain probiotics that stabilize healthy gut bacteria levels.
GRAINS WITH AMPLE PROTEIN provide limitless opportunity for culinary creativity. When cooked plain, popular favorites like bulgur, farro, and quinoa can be fused with virtually anything. “What’s nice about quinoa in particular is that you can mix it with salad dressings, your favorite vegetables, seeds, or dried fruit,” notes Holliday. New to the quinoa scene? Proceed with caution: it’s severely addicting. Avoid a lunch rut by repurposing the hearty grain in salads, with beans, or atop a veggie-heavy sandwich.
CREATIVE VEGETARIAN DISHES are not just for vegetarians. Though they do require a bit of pre-planning, soy products like tofu and tempeh can be marinated, grilled, or baked. They also tend to be just as functional, if not more so, than most meat products. This zesty number with lemon- and pepper-seasoned baked tofu is a crowd favorite at the East End Food Coop. Recreate it at home using your own spices and produce, then pack it up, take it to work, and stack it all on a slice of sprouted grain (read: wheatless) bread. Your open-face original will stir up some major brown bag envy.
TIP: COOK NOW, EAT LATER. Montgomery calls this the “planned-over” — the more strategic cousin of the leftover. Preparing enough food in one night to last the week not only saves time, but makes lunchtime a breeze. Designate a prep day for peeling, chopping, and cooking, then freeze the rest. Last week’s saucy stir-fry could take on a brand new identity when wrapped in a whole grain tortilla or a giant leaf of romaine tomorrow.
East End Food Co-op, 7516 Meade
St., East End. 412.242.3598.
Giant Eagle Market District, marketdistrict.com.
Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC, 300 Halket St., Oakland.
Market Street Grocery, 435 Market St., Downtown. 412.281.3818. marketstreetgrocery.com.
Produced + Written By Lauren Wells / Photographed by Michael Fornataro / Styled by Samantha Casale