Food — Looking beyond the hot dog stand

Looking beyond the hot dog stand

By Amy Diaz

As with most things, DIY lunch is your cheapest, tastiest and healthiest bet


Lunch stinks.

It can be expensive, dissatisfying and time-consuming. And, if you’re lucky enough to work in an office with a break room, you know that the stinkiness of lunch is a literal as well as figurative statement, with the smell of reheated frozen meals wafting into other offices.

You need to refuel. But your options aren’t always pretty. It seems impossible to buy a sandwich (or salad wrap or other lunch-size portion of food) and a drink for less than about $7. There’s only so much frozen single-serving pizza one person can eat and last night’s leftovers don’t age so well during a night in the fridge and a morning spent in your desk drawer. Besides, if most of your lunches are spent hunched over a computer, there’s a limit to how elaborate you’ll want these meals to be.

Don’t worry, there is a way out of this peanut-butter-and-jelly quagmire.

It’s time to consider your resources, your lunchtime needs and your diet’s requirements and turn the day’s most-rushed meal into something that, at least, doesn’t cause you dread.

And you thought lunchtime would get easier after high school.

Lunch: the basics

It’s a sad but true fact that the cheapest, healthiest lunches are usually the ones you make yourself.

Sure, it can be easier and occasionally yummier to buy your midday meal but a $7 to $10 price tag (the notable exception: most hot dog vendors, who sell a full meal for about $3) can be tough to swallow more than one day a week. And dieters know that finding meals that meet their specific needs (low fat, high protein, no carbs, vegetarian, etc.) can make the meal even more costly and difficult to find. So as you consider how to change your lunchtime dining habits, start by asking yourself these questions:

• How does my diet affect my lunch needs? (Do you need to get in a specific number of vegetables or find a lunch that avoids bread products?)

• How important is price?

• What cooking tools do I have at my disposal? (Does your break room have a refrigerator, a microwave?)

• What else do I do when I’m eating lunch?

Diet can be one of the most restricting factors in how you pick your lunches. Bread, one of the handiest ways to package a lunch, is a no-no for many a low-carb diet. Most such programs, however, will allow for at least a little bread. Though you may like a good roll at dinner, you’ll probably also have the benefit of a plate so save the bread for lunch when — in a sandwich or wrap — it does double duty as packaging. Also, most supermarkets offer a wide variety of low-carb breads and very-low-carb tortillas or other flatbreads.

Low fat is an easier nut to crack because it usually just involves replacing fatty sauces, schmears and dressings with vinaigrettes or added vegetables and herbs. Keep in mind, however, that some vegetables do not keep well in a non-refrigerated environment. (This can also put a damper on some vegetarian lunches.)

Whatever your diet, try to save the travel-friendly bread, snack and nut allotments for lunch.

Cheap eats

Don’t want to rely on the hot dog man for every lunch?

Don’t worry, you can bring a cheap and delicious lunch with you. The cheapest possible lunches are the ones made in bulk (the remains of last night’s dinner or a large dish prepared specifically for at-work consumption). However, last night’s dinner is not always the safest bet. Assuming there is anything left at the end of the meal, you might be left with food such as some meats (specifically chicken, pork and thick cuts of beef) that will dry out or turn to rubber when microwaved. Also, some vegetables, which are al dente perfection the day they are made, turn to shriveled twigs after a night in the refrigerator. To ensure that a dish is as good at lunchtime as it was coming out of the oven, stick to casserole-style meals that layer pasta and meat (which can dry out) with moisture-holding sauce. When the dish gets out of the oven, let it cool off for about 20 or 30 minutes and then divide it into portions and  store in sealable, microwave-safe containers. (The disposable plasticware is remarkably cheap and, even after time in the microwave and dishwasher, very durable). To ensure freshness, you may want to refrigerate the meals you plan on eating in the next two days and then freeze the rest, especially if the meal will last more than five days. (Freezing can also help keep a meal fresh if you can’t keep it cool in a refrigerator during the day. The four or five hours between leaving home and eating lunch will allow it to defrost enough to make the food easier to warm up.)

When reviving, add a sprinkle of crushed pepper, salt, black pepper or steak seasoning (all of which can be stored discreetly in your desk) to freshen up the flavor.

Though this method does require you to eat the same meal for several days in a row, it will allow you to control the ingredients and get a filling meal for minimal cost.

One easy suggestion for a multiple-lunch dish is lasagna. You can vary the ingredients according to your dietary needs and preferences.

Vegetable Cheese Lasagna

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon margarine

3 cups thinly sliced mushrooms

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon olive oil

1 cup chopped onions

6 garlic cloves, minced

1 1/2 cups tomato sauce

1 cup canned Italian tomatoes (drain liquid and save)

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon each oregano and basil

1/2 teaspoon pepper

2 packages frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained

2 cups part-skim ricotta cheese

1 egg, beaten

8 ounces uncooked lasagna

11 ounces shredded Monterey Jack cheese

In 10-inch skillet heat margarine over medium heat until bubbly and hot; add mushrooms and sauté, stirring occasionally until mushrooms are lightly browned and cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside. In 3-quart saucepan heat oil over medium heat; add onions and garlic and sauté until onions are softened, 1 to 2 minutes. Add tomato sauce, tomatoes,  3/4 teaspoon salt, the oregano and basil, pepper. Mix well. Reduce heat to low, cover and let simmer stirring occasionally for 25 to 30 minutes. In medium mixing bowl combine spinach, ricotta cheese, egg, remaining salt, and pepper, mixing well.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In bottom of 13-inch by 9-inch by 2-inch baking dish, spread 1/2 cup tomato mixture. Arrange half of the lasagna macaroni lengthwise in dish, overlapping edges slightly. Spread half of the spinach mixture evenly over macaroni and top with half mushrooms. Spread 1/2 cup of tomato mixture over that and sprinkle with cheese. Arrange remaining macaroni crosswise in dish, cut slightly. Spread remaining spinach mixture over macaroni, top with remaining mushrooms, tomato mixture and Jack cheese. Bake until cooked through and cheese is lightly browned, about 40 to 50 minutes.

Break-room blues

Oh course, it’s harder to reheat your homemade lunch if the only thing generating warmth in your office is the overworked printer.

Not all offices have a break room. And of those that do, not all have both the refrigerator and microwave that make bringing a lunch easier. So what do you do if you’re lacking one of DIY lunch’s most necessary requirements?

• Microwave, no refrigerator: Refrigeration is important over the long haul but freezing the night before can make up for the effects of refrigeration over the four or five hours between morning and lunch. Casseroles, pasta, cooked vegetables and frozen foods will keep and reheat well without refrigeration. Stay away from anything with raw or lightly cooked vegetables (which will turn limp and soggy) or with large pieces of meat not cooked in sauce (which can try out).

• Refrigerator, no microwave: Without warmth, go for the salads. Keep dressings separate from lettuce to keep lettuce from wilting. Wraps, especially vegetable and cold-cut wraps, will taste fresh and delicious even after a several hours in the cold. Again, keep oily dressing separate. (For a low-fat and less soggy alternative, try a hummus spread instead of mayonnaise.)

• Neither: Lunch foods really need one or the other, heat or refrigeration. Breakfast foods, on the other hand are surprisingly easy to keep at room temperature. Why not switch up your schedule and eat a meat- or protein-heavy meal at breakfast (a time when you need your energy) and go for more grains and fruits at lunch? Strawberries, grapes, apples and most other fruits will stay crisp enough if stored dry and in a nice cool desk drawer. Do you need food that can be snacked on? Put a few servings of cereal in a bag. Want a more substantial snack? Breads and muffins are great at room temperature. Here’s a particularly low-sugar variety:

All-Bran Batter Rolls (from the All Bran box)

1 cup All Bran (or other bran cereal)

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons sugar

1 1/2 teaspoon salt

1 package dry yeast

1 cup milk

1/2 cup water

2 tablespoons butter

1 egg, slightly beaten

In large electric mixer bowl, mix together All-Bran cereal, 1 cup flour, sugar, salt and yeast. Set aside.

In small saucepan, heat milk, water and butter until warm. Add to cereal mixture, beating on low speed until combined. Add egg to cereal mixture. Beat 30 seconds at low speed of electric mixer, scraping bowl constantly. Beat 3 minutes at high speed.

By hand, stir in enough remaining flour to make stiff batter. Cover loosely. Let rise  in warm place until double in volume. Stir down batter. Portion batter evenly into pre-greased 16 muffin-pan cups. Brush tops of rolls with egg and sprinkle with poppy or sesame seeds or with brown sugar if desired.

Bake at 400 degrees for 18 minutes or until golden brown. Serve warm.

Lunch al computer

Ideally, you would enjoy lunch while sunning yourself in a city park, intermittently reading a book and people-watching.


Realistically, you spend your lunch frantically working to finish the work you’d hoped to finish hours earlier. This means packing a lunch that doesn’t drip or require two hands or a fork. The breakfast-as-lunch lunch also works well for the at-desk snacker.

A wrap or burrito with a square-folded bottom will usually keep all the ingredients inside. Also, sandwiches inside a pita will keep ingredients together, though dressings will tend to leak through.

Another make-it-on-Sunday lunch that is both easy to store and self-contained is empanadas. These meat (or cheese or vegetable)-filled pastries are easy to enjoy with little effort or mess. (For a recipe, see

- Amy Diaz 

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