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March 2007

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Brown Baggin’ It
The Renaissance of the Homemade Lunch
By Kirk Leins

Brown Baggin’ It - The Renaissance of the Homemade Lunch - By Kirk Leins

Let's face it. Given a choice, there aren't many kids who'd opt for bringing their lunch to school as opposed to ordering it from the lunch line. Most high school and college students seem to feel the same way. Come to think of it, you don't see many adults who pack a lunch for work, either.

What is it that makes a packed lunch so undesirable? Is it the work involved to prepare it? Maybe it's the way it tastes or the attention it draws from peers. Every time I bring my lunch to the office, co-workers seem to gather around like buzzards. "Watcha got there," they ask? Given my penchant for talking about all things food-related, it doesn't bother me in the slightest. Some of you, however, may not find such conversations as enjoyable.

Regardless of the reasons, the majority of us do not regularly bring our lunch to work or school. We choose instead to utilize an onsite cafeteria, order in, or visit an offsite establishment, usually of the fast-food nature. I, for one, find this practice strange. Not only is it expensive, it's potentially unhealthy, not to mention how inferior it is in the taste department. Don't get me wrong. I do see the fun in venturing out now and again; eating food you normally don't. I think the problem occurs when it becomes a daily practice.

In this article, I will attempt to tackle the issue of preparing lunch at home. I'll offer solutions to some of the pitfalls and, at the same time, provide you with ideas for delicious and easily prepared mid-day meals. I hereby call for a return of the "brown bag" and a renaissance of the homemade lunch!

Dealing with Prep Time
Probably the biggest complaint people have about bringing their lunch to work is the amount of time they spend preparing it. The first thing I'd ask in response is, what are you complaining about?

A great lunch can be made in five minutes. Even if you have three lunches to make, the entire process will only take up 15 minutes of your day. It's funny; when something is important in our lives, we somehow find the time to do it. And that's the key. We need to change our thinking a bit. We need to start placing value on preparing our own food and finding the "15 minutes" to do it.

No one says your 15 minutes have to be in the morning before work. I don't know about you, but mornings for me can be crazy. Between getting a 2-year old ready for his day and me ready for mine, preparing my own lunch can be a tall order. This is exactly why I often utilize the evening before. Whether it's making a sandwich or portioning leftovers into smaller storage containers, I like to deal with this process without a ticking clock.

Speaking of leftovers, here's a question I'm commonly asked by singles as well as couples who don't typically eat dinner together. "Do you have any recipes that feed just one person?" My response is always the same. "Sure, but do you really want to do that?"

Rarely do I ever make food for one. It makes no sense when I can make a nice dinner and set aside the leftovers for tomorrow's lunch. This process not only makes cooking at home very cost effective, it ensures a healthy lunch the next day.

Keeping it Practical
Nowadays, most work places have a refrigerator, microwave, toaster oven, or all three. Utilize this equipment to facilitate bringing your lunch to the office. An added perk is that you'll be eating your lunch much quicker than you would, had you ordered it or picked it up. This will leave you with more of your lunch hour to do other things. Run errands, take a walk, read a book – they all beat waiting in line at an overly-lit fast-food joint for a mediocre lunch.

For the sake of this article, I won't assume that students of any age will have access to the aforementioned appliances at school. That's fine because they don't necessarily need them.

When it comes to keeping things cool, one of my favorite tricks is to use a frozen juice box. The night before, you'll want to put one or two juice boxes in the freezer. Then, in the morning, you can wrap the frozen juice boxes in aluminum foil and stick them inside your child's lunch, keeping the remaining contents quite cool until noon. The beauty of this trick is that while the lunch stays cool, the juice melts and yields a most refreshing lunchtime drink.

When it comes to keeping food warm, I have two thoughts. The first involves the utilization of a thermos. As a kid, one of my favorite things to bring to school was a thermos full of soup, or even leftover stew. Trust me when I say I wasn't the only kid to feel this way. Both dishes are not only satisfying and nutritious, but the presence of soup in a school lunch has the ability to enhance any sandwich. The reason can be summed up with one word – dunk-ability.

My second thought is that some foods don't always have to be served warm. Fried chicken is great right out of the fridge. Leftover steak and chicken breast can both be utilized in either a sandwich or a salad. With the widespread availability of disposable plastic containers, making a great salad with homemade dressing a part of any lunch is a piece of cake.

Pasta is another food that can be served at room temperature. If you're making pasta the night before, reserve some (keeping it "un-sauced") for the next day. Once the pasta has cooled, toss with olive oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, and any veggies you would normally put into a pasta salad. Pack it into a plastic storage container, and you're set. A hearty pasta salad makes for a truly awesome lunch.

Sandwich Ideas
When it comes to packing a lunch at home, no food item is more practical or ubiquitous than the sandwich. Personally, I love a great sandwich and make it a part of my lunch at least 3 out of 5 workdays each week.

I could go on and on about my philosophy regarding proper sandwich-making techniques, but I'll leave that for another article. What I want to do here is give you a few new sandwich ideas. Stuff you may not have thought of before. If these ideas spawn other ideas or variations on your part, then I've done my job.

The Veggie (makes one sandwich)

  • 2 slices of sturdy bread (whole wheat, sourdough, baguette, etc.)
  • 4 Tbsp softened cream cheese
  • Thinly sliced veggies (cucumber, tomato, red onion, avocado, etc.)
  • 1/3 C shredded Romaine lettuce
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

    Slather equal amounts of cream cheese onto one side of each slice of bread. On one slice, layer the veggies on top of the cream cheese, making sure to season each layer. Top with shredded lettuce and the remaining slice of bread.

    You may be thinking, what's the big deal about a veggie sandwich? You're right. It's not a big deal at all, and that's the beauty. A veggie sandwich is a great way to use up veggies in your fridge while providing you a lunch that's slightly heartier than a salad.

    The cream cheese serves three purposes. First, it provides a perfect barrier between the bread and veggies. This keeps the bread from getting soggy. Second, its creamy richness is a beautiful complement to the crisp veggies. Third, its consistency anchors the sandwich together.

    Feel free to play around with the seasonings. Black pepper and kosher salt are the minimum. But the addition of Italian seasoning, or the substitution of celery salt for the kosher salt, is quite pleasing as well. You can also add or subtract any veggies you like. This sandwich can be as simple as cream cheese and sliced cucumber.

    Not-Your-Ordinary Tuna Sandwich (makes two sandwiches)

  • 4 slices of sturdy bread
  • 1 can albacore tuna (packed in water), drained and flaked with a fork
  • 1-2 heaping Tbsp real mayonnaise
  • Mild curry powder
  • 2 Tbsp minced red onion
  • 1/4 C peeled green apple, finely diced
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Chopped cilantro (optional)

    In a medium bowl, combine tuna, red onion, green apple and the desired amount of mayonnaise. Mix well and taste. Starting with small amounts, add curry powder, kosher salt, and pepper until tuna mixture is seasoned to your liking. Mix in cilantro and set aside. Lightly spread mayonnaise on to one side of each slice of bread. Equally divide tuna among two of the slices and top with remaining pieces of bread.

    Turkey Pesto Wraps

  • Lavosh (middle eastern flat bread) or large flour tortillas
  • Mesquite-smoked deli turkey meat
  • Sliced gouda or Swiss cheese
  • Thinly-sliced Roma tomato
  • Shredded Romaine lettuce
  • Real mayonnaise
  • Good-quality store-bought pesto sauce

    In a small bowl, combine equal portions of mayo and pesto. Feel free to adjust the proportions to your liking. Lightly spread mixture on to one side of lavosh or tortilla. Working from one end of the bread to the other, create individual rows of turkey, cheese, tomato, and lettuce, in that order. Moving in the same direction, roll flat bread until it somewhat resembles a burrito. Slice in half crosswise and individually wrap each piece.

    Lunch is served... well, almost. The ideas have been put forth, and now it's your job to execute them. You can do this; I know you can. Just think, you'll not only reclaim ownership of an important daily ritual – you'll have a great lunch to show for it.

    Kirk Leins has been cooking his entire life. No stranger to professional kitchens, he currently devotes most of his time to cooking instruction, food writing, and producing television. Kirk also provides his services as a personal chef in and around the Los Angeles area. He has made several TV appearances on both the national and local level, and is the Executive Chef for YOU Magazine. His free newsletter, The Everyday Gourmet, is available by contacting Kirk at

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