I’m a busy person and even though I’m a food blogger, I completely understand the feeling of not wanting to spend your entire night in the kitchen preparing meals. However, I also believe that home-cooked and freshly prepared food is important enough for my health that I’m willing to dedicate some time and energy into preparing it. That’s where this post comes in.
Monday through Friday I work in a typical office setting. This means on Sunday night I can be found preparing my meals for the week. As my schedule, career, and life has gotten busier and busier, I’ve looked for ways to spend less time in the kitchen, but still get the same results of delicious and healthy food.
I’ve been packing my own lunches for over six years now and I’ve found that it’s far healthier than eating out, saves a ton of money, AND it’s honestly not as hard as you think. Today my goal is to show you how quick and easy it can be to make healthy lunches for the entire week — all in under 60 minutes!
My body responds best to a seasonal diet so now with the weather heating up, I’ve been relying on hearty salads for lunchtime meals. Let me tell you: it doesn’t get any easier or tastier than this. A lot of times when people hear that I eat salad for lunch they think it must be boring. Quite the contrary! Salads can be so flexible and versatile that I hardly ever feel like I’m eating the same meal.
To get this process started, we have to visit the farmers’ market and/or grocery store. Here’s what to buy:
1. One 16-oz package of pre-washed organic greens
Examples: spinach, mixed greens, baby kale, arugula, etc. (You can also buy heads of romaine lettuce and quickly wash and chop them.)
2. At least 3 – 4 different vegetables (bonus points if they’re seasonal, local, and/or organic)
If I’m having a really busy week, then I buy vegetables that can be eaten raw in salads. Examples: radishes, tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers, carrots, celery, etc.
If I have a few extra minutes to spare, I’ll buy a few vegetables that require roasting. Some of my favorites include leeks, sweet potatoes, beets, or squash.
3. Green onions or herbs (cilantro, basil, Italian parsley, etc) for a little extra flavor
This is completely optional and based on personal preference, but I find that adding some green onions or herbs drastically increases the flavor and variety I can create with my salads.
4. A protein source
If you eat legumes, I personally love adding beans and lentils to my salads to make them heartier. This is also a great way to bulk up salads if you’re vegetarian or vegan.
For folks who eat meat and seafood, I love adding grilled chicken, broiled salmon, or a simple tuna salad on top as a protein source. I typically try to prepare these items at home (the prep time on this can range from 10 – 30 minutes), but if I’m have a really crazy week, then I’ll treat myself and buy pre-grilled chicken or salmon from the deli case.
5. Oil and Vinegar
I like to keep it simple and toss my salads with a mix of balsamic vinegar and a small dash of olive oil. If you’d prefer, you can always pick up a bottle of dressing or making your own at home.
Alright, now let’s talk supplies. There are many different ways to transfer and consume your salad. Here’s my preferred method:
If you have access to a kitchen for lunch, I really like to pack all of my items in bulk and assemble/toss my salad just before I consume it. The way I do it is that I prep all of my salad components (details outlined further below) and take them to my office in glass snapware containers. You can also use plastic containers or plastic bags, but with all the concerns about BPA and trying to reduce waste, I avoid these and stick with glass.
If you’re going to be transporting your own lunches, I definitely think it’s worth it to invest in a good set of containers. I always recommend the snapware ones just because they actually seal shut so you don’t have to worry about leakage if you’re transporting anything liquidy.
When lunchtime comes, I grab a giant handful of my greens and toss it into my salad bowl, top with my prepared veggies and protein source, drizzle with a little vinegar/oil, and consume. Yum! (Note: At work I keep my salad bowl, fork, a small bottle of olive oil, bottle of vinegar, a paring knife, and cutting board just in case I need it.)
If you don’t have access to a kitchen for lunch, then pack each salad individually in a to-go container and pack a separate container for your dressing.
Come Sunday night, it’s time to get everything prepped!
Here’s how to do it:
- Wash all the vegetables for the week and chop them into bite-sized pieces. (About 10 – 30 minutes)
- If you purchased anything that needs to be cooked prior to eating, now is the time to do it. I recommend roasting the vegetables as it adds a lot of flavor and can be done quickly. Check out these recipes if you need some help: Roasted fennel and spring vegetable salad, Roasted vegetables with lentils
- Transfer your (raw or cooked) ready-to-eat veggies to a snapware container for easy transport.
- Wash and chop the green onions and herbs (if using). (About 2 minutes)
- Toss these in with the greens for the week so they’re ready to go.
- Prepare your protein! (About 10 – 30 minutes)
- If you opted for canned lentils or beans, open the cans, drain, and rinse the legumes. Transfer them to a snapware container for easy transport. If you want to take it a step further and bought raw legumes, cook and prepare them as you normally would and then transfer to your container. (If you need a little help with this, way back I made a tutorial for how to sprout and cook beans.)
- If you opted for meat or seafood for your salad, cook and prepare this as you normally would. If you need a little help with this, check out my recipe here for grilled chicken for salads or my recipe here for easy broiled curry salmon. Transfer them to the fridge to let them cool properly, and then put them in your container.
The last challenging piece of this is that we have to talk about spoilage.
Chopped veggies (raw or cooked) and cooked meat or seafood won’t last for the entire week (a good rule of thumb is about 3 days) so you have a couple of choices here. What I personally recommend doing is having two different prep nights. My first prep night is Sunday, which is when I prep for Monday – Wednesday’s lunch. Then, on Wednesday night, I prep for Thursday and Friday’s lunch. No spoilage and minimal prep time!
The other option is that you can prep your protein source all at once on Sunday (e.g. cooking a large batch of chicken or seafood) and then freeze half to use later in the week. Then you just have to deal with chopping veggies twice throughout the week. The choice is up to you.
Now let’s talk about the cost-savings of packing you own lunch…
The average grab-and-go vegetarian house salad is around $9 and the average average grab-and-go chicken or tuna salad is around $12 in Seattle. This means if you eat out for each lunch, you’d be spending somewhere between $45 – $60 per week just on lunch.
With my system, this is what it costs me per week:
Container of 1 pound organic pre-washed greens – $5
2 organic bell peppers – $2.99
1 package organic cherry tomatoes – $3.99
1 bunch organic green onions – $1.99
1 can organic kidney beans – $1.19
1 can organic white beans – $1.19
1 pound organic, free -range chicken – $6.99
Oil & Vinegar (from the pantry)
Lunch total = $23.34
5 SERVINGS = $4.67 PER SERVING
This means that over the course of a week, I’m saving over $35 just by packing a lunch. Multiply that by 52 weeks a year and you just saved yourself about $2,000 my friend. No joke.
Now it’s time to get started…
My advice is to try this out and see what works best for you. Every person is different and depending on what you like to eat and what works best for your schedule you might find that my system works perfectly for you or you might find that you need to adapt it to make it work better for you.
My hope in showing you how I do it is that you’ll have some new ideas for how quick and easy it can be to prepare healthy lunches for you and your family and you won’t be intimidated to try it out for yourself!
And I’d love to hear from you! What are you tips for how to pack healthy lunches for the week? Leave a comment below!