When you think of fast and convenient meals, do you think of pre-packaged salads with lukewarm dressing packets? Greasy bags filled with fast-food deliciousness that will send you right into an after-meal slump that makes work impossible?
The truth is, meals for an on-the-go day can be just as delicious and healthy as a home-cooked delight.
I started working a few nights a week at my internship last year and now work nights full-time, which means packing a dinner is part of my daily routine. I still play around with fun recipes and different food combinations, but I have generally mastered the art of packing a yummy and nutritious meal I actually look forward to eating. These tips are all based on my experience packing dinners, but they could easily be applied to packing a lunch if you work a regular 9-5 or have a busy school day packed with classes.
It’s totally OK to treat yourself to some fast food every once in a while (no one can keep me from the waffle fries at Chik Fil A) or even splurge on something more decadent. But if you want something that’s easier on the wallet (shelling out even just $7 a day adds up), packing meals ahead of time is the way to go.
Make the most of leftovers.
First and foremost: Tupperware is terrific. When cooking a dinner or lunch, put your leftovers in a container and bam – you’ve got a meal for the next day. During one taco night at home, I cooked extra ground turkey and black beans, grated extra cheese, and prepared some extra veggies (avocado, spinach, pico de gallo). I threw it all on some mini corn tortillas (with the veggies in a separate container to avoid making the tacos soggy) and had a delicious and nutritious dinner to take to work the next evening. (Pasta is also a super easy dish to cook lots of; I like spinach tortellini or cheese ravioli for a fun twist on regular pasta.)
Frozen is your friend.
Fresh is best, but if you’re a bit challenged in the culinary department like I am, you can find all sorts of yummy dishes that just take a little bit of time in the oven to be hot and ready to eat. Trader Joe’s is awesome for this – that’s where I got this coconut shrimp. After about 15 minutes in the oven and a couple minutes to steam some frozen broccoli, I threw it all on brown rice left over from the aforementioned taco night. (We’re coming full circle here, folks.)
Put a fun dip in a disposable plastic container or small Tupperware container (I used coconut-flavored soy sauce – yum) to add some flavor. A combo of a protein, starch and veggie will make you feel like you’re eating a full-fledged home-cooked meal, even if you’re just enjoying it at your desk or in the break room.
Think outside the box.
If someone had told me a few years ago I would enjoy a meal based primarily on veggies, I would have told them they were crazy. (My point: Not only health nuts can enjoy this meal.) Meals don’t have to complicated; they don’t even have to involve any real cooking at all, in fact. I am a huge hummus fan, so I packed this meal when I realized I had a surplus of veggies and some pita bread that would be perfect with it. (If regular hummus isn’t your jam, try a flavor with a twist. My two favorites are garlic and roasted red pepper.) This is surprisingly filling and oh-so easy to prepare. It doesn’t even require a hunt for a microwave.
Get creative with side dishes.
One of my favorite easy meals is pizza. I’ll throw a frozen pizza in the oven and have meals for about three days. That usually feels like it’s lacking in nutrients though, so I’ll throw together an easy salad to have on the side. For this, I just threw some spinach, tomato, cucumber, bell peppers, and seasoning into a little cardboard box I had and it tasted no different than a $8 version you’d find at a restaurant.
My go-to dish.
Since you made it this far in the article, I’ll share with you my fool-proof, delicious, nutritious, easy-to-pack, go-to meal that takes about a half-hour of prep and will have you eating it for about a week. I call it Rainbow Pasta Salad (I actually just made this name up right now.) I cook an entire box of whole-wheat pasta, let it drain and cool, and prep the mix-ins.
You can really put anything you want in it, but my favorites are tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers, cheddar cheese and turkey or salami if I’m feeling wild. Once the pasta is dry (careful not to overcook it, because the moisture from the veggies will likely soften it anyway), toss it in a giant bowl. Let it chill in the fridge for at least a day before scooping up your desired portion. Yum!
Bonus recipe: Green With Envy dressing for Rainbow Pasta Salad (again, just made that name up right now). Into a blender, scoop one whole avocado (two if you’ve got LOTS of pasta to drizzle it on), a splash of your favorite milk (I like almond), one fresh-squeezed lemon or two limes, and whatever seasonings you fancy (I usually go for lemon garlic and classic salt and pepper). Use less milk for a thick texture (think Caesar or ranch) or more milk (or an additional splash of water) for a more liquid-y texture (think Italian or a vinaigrette). Keep it in a separate container so it doesn’t make the pasta salad soggy, and drizzle on when ready to eat. Bon appetit!