Best tips to prep your weekday lunch ahead of time - plus a rant about kid's lunch.
My grocery shopping has changed a lot in the last five years.
When I go by myself, I take my time and follow a predictable route along the outskirts of the store. When my husband goes to the store by himself it’s a quick in & out job.
When Jake and I go together, we look like two people touring a museum.
We comment on post modern cereal boxes and impressionist pastas. And of course we always make a trip down the seasonal aisle ($4.95 for five gallon storage bins!). Yesterday we decided to make an impromptu trip to the grocery store together, ice cream may have been one reason (all of the reasons).
It was as we were leaving the seasonal aisle that I noticed the big cardboard school bus display at the front of the store.
Colorful cartoon children were pasted on the side and bold cursive lettering said “stock up on school lunch supplies”. The display took me totally by surprise. It must have been because I was in museum mode but the whole thing looked absurd.
Next to the plastic lunch boxes were neatly stacked boxes of chocolate chip granola bars, rice krispy treats, and the darling of the display, perfectly uniform cubes of crustless white bread. Yay sugar!
Had I seen each of these items in their normal aisles, I wouldn’t have batted an eye. Well, I probably would have eyed that crustless white bread with suspicion. (Jake thought they were discount sponges.) But what caught me off guard was the suggestion that people should buy those products to put in their child’s school lunch. Of all the food in that very large grocery store they suggest chocolate, marshmallows, and bargain-bin sponges to set your kid up for success.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t ever buy or eat those things, rice krispy treats are delicious, but I think we can all agree that none of those items are going to be winning any nutritional awards.
What really struck me about the display was how obviously it was geared toward making money without regard for nutrition.
Of course grocery stores need to make money to stay in business, but we as consumers need to remember that no one is looking out for our health but us. Of course, the companies that make highly processed foods don’t want us to die and stop buying their product. But they don’t care if we thrive either.
I really believe that everyone needs to make food choices for themselves.
The food that nourishes one person may cause problems for another. Our bodies aren’t closed systems. We don’t come with pre-programmed operating systems and input requirements. The best, and only, thing we can do is learn as much as we can and make choices that make our bodies feel good.
When we got home, I thought about doing a recipe round up with all kinds of recipes and ideas of healthy alternatives you can pack for lunch. As I started thinking about what kind of lunches I used to pack, I realized that the problem isn’t with coming up with recipe ideas.
The issue that stops people from packing real food lunches is that it takes a lot more time and effort than tossing a rice krispy treat in a lunchbox.
I totally know the feeling of being so busy all you can do is toss something in a lunchbox.
The trick is to plan ahead and do a little prep over the weekend so that whatever you toss into your purse or kid’s lunchbox during the week is actually food.
Strawberries are notoriously delicate fruits. They come from the grocery store packed together tightly in a container, but keeping them so close will absolutely increase their chance for molding or rotting. If you have the room, space out your strawberries so they aren’t pushing against each other. Strawberries can be washed in advance and stored in the fridge. Just be sure to dry them well, especially if you’re leaving the green tops on.
Watermelon is a great one to prep ahead of time. Just chop it up, cut into slices or cubes and store in an airtight container or baggie. Watermelons are so full of water, whatever container you use will inevitably fill with watermelon juice after sitting for a few days. Mix it in with a bottle of water and you’ve got a real treat. That stuff is delicious!
Grapes will last a long time in the fridge. The biggest issue they run into is possibly having a grape go bad at the bottom of the bag and ruining the bunch. I find that pulling the grapes off the branches, washing them, and storing them in airtight containers with a paper towel will ensure they stay mold free throughout the week. Grapes will look fresh for upward of 2-3 weeks when stored this way. But their sugar content will decrease over time so they will not be as delicious at the end of week three.
Peaches are tricky. They’re cold sensitive and will easily get mushy spots and lose their sugars when left in the fridge for a couple of days. This is one fruit that will need to be eaten as soon as possible. If you usually bring fruit to work, try getting a couple peaches for the first part of the week and a hardier fruit like green bananas or grapes for the second part of the week.
You can cut peaches ahead of time and sprinkle them with lemon juice to prevent them from browning. I personally find the lemon juice changes the flavor of the peaches but you’ll have to try it yourself to see how it works for you.
A couple months ago I tested the theory that wrapping a banana stem will keep it from going bad. You can read it here. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out. But I discovered that keeping bananas in the fridge will help them to last longer. The banana skin will eventually turn dark brown due to cold damage, but because the banana skin is so thick, the good stuff inside will remain yellow and delicious. If you have squirmy kids that don’t like brown banana peels, simply peel the banana and pop it in a baggie or container before tossing it in that backpack.
You can peel the skin off of whole oranges and keep them in the fridge in a baggie or container for a solid week.
Mango can be cut into little cubes or slices and stored in an airtight container. Because they are highly acidic, like pineapple, they don’t need to be coated in lemon juice to prevent browning. The trick for mangos is to cut them without leaving a lot of fruit on the pit or accidentally squishing the fruit into mush. This site details a great way to cut mangos. It gets easier the more you do it.
Cherries store very well in the fridge without much help. The biggest issue with cherries is when one piece gets moldy at the bottom of the bag and it ruins the whole bunch. When you bring your cherries home, dump them all out of the bag into a colander or bowl. Pull out any weird bits and sort the good cherries back into the bag. If your fridge tends to get humid (if you often find water condensation in your crisper bin) place a paper towel on the bottom of the bag before putting the good cherries back. It will absorb any moisture throughout the week and help prevent mold. Fresh cherries should last close to two weeks in the fridge.
I definitely suggest buying a whole pineapple instead of canned. You’ll get more fruit for your money with the whole version and way less sugar, syrup, and other stuff. Pineapple is highly acidic and easily takes on a metallic taste when canned.
Place your pineapple on its side on a cutting board. Cut off about ½ from the top and the bottom. Place the cut pineapple right side up again. Work your way around the pineapple by cutting 1 inch sections of skin. Discard or compost the skin. Looking down at the top of the pineapple you’ll be able to see the circular outline of the core. Cut off slices of pineapple around the core. The core of a pineapple is tough and inedible, however it still has a ton of juice and flavor. Chop it into chunks, pop it into a blender and use it to make a marinade.
After you’ve cut the pineapple into chunks, bag it up! Pineapple is highly acidic and will stay fresh for a solid week after being cut.
There are two great ways to store cut apples.
1. Cut into slices and sprinkle with salt, lemon juice, or pineapple juice depending on your taste. Keep in a baggie or container for 3-4 days maybe more.
2. Cut your apple into slices then carefully hold all of the slices together and secure with a rubber band. It should like just like an uncut apple with a rubber band around it. The slices won’t be exposed to air and will stay white. Keep your rubber band apple in a plastic baggie or wrap it in a damp paper towel to keep it from drying out.
Broccoli, green beans, corn on the cob, and asparagus.
These veggies can be cut into bite sized pieces and blanched ahead of time. Bring a pot of salted water to boil. Add the veggies and boil for 1-2 minutes for green beans and asparagus. Boil broccoli and corn on the cob for 2-3 minutes. Remove the veggies from the water and plunge into a bowl of ice water to stop cooking. Once the veggies have chilled a bit, remove from the ice water and drain in a colander or on a paper towel. Sprinkle with salt, spices, or herbs and store in an airtight container for 1 week.
Carrots, celery, bell peppers
These veggies tend to dehydrate quickly once they’ve been cut. Line a container with a damp paper towel or cloth. Cut the veggies into bite sized pieces and place them in the container. Wrap the damp cloth around the veggies and seal the container. The damp paper towel will greatly increase the humidity inside the container which will prevent the veggies from drying out. They’ll keep for 1-2 weeks. Bell peppers and celery will start to lose their flavor after 1 week.
Cauliflower and radishes
These veggies are usually eaten raw. Simply cut them into bite sized pieces and store in an airtight container.
Potatoes, sweet potatoes, parsnips, and brussels sprouts.
These veggies are best roasted. Cut them into pieces and place in a large bowl. Drizzle with olive oil, salt, pepper, and any spices or herbs you like. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and top with the veggies. Roast in the oven at 350 for 10-15 minutes. Test them with a fork for doneness. Let them cool at room temperature then store in an airtight container in the fridge for 3-4 days, maybe a week.
Cherry tomatoes will last for upwards of 2-3 weeks on the counter at room temperature. Granted, it’s summer right now so you’ll still want to keep them in the coolest part of your kitchen. You can wash your tomatoes ahead of time and dry them thoroughly for an easy grab and go snack throughout the week.
You know I loooooooove me some salad! A few months ago I wrote about two easy ways to store lettuce throughout the week. If you need a grab and go lunch, I highly recommend using the paper towel lined container method. Use a serving sized container and you’ve got a pre-portioned salad ready to go.
Some salad ingredients can go right in with the stored lettuce. Mushrooms, carrots, cucumbers, cooked grains, corn, and whole cherry tomatoes are dry enough to store with the lettuce. The more watery toppings like chopped tomatoes, beets, fruit, and meat need to be stored separately. I like to keep those ingredients in a small baggie right on top of the salad container in the fridge. A small container of homemade dressing along side will make for an easy grab and go meal that won't get soggy.
I teach people how to cook and eat real food with confidence so that you can have less stress, better health, and WAY more fun in the kitchen and in life.
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