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Bagged lunch ideas- NO FRIDGE OR MICROWAVE!

Yes, you read correctly.

I am starting a new job where we have NO fridge or microwave. I absolutely refuse to pay to eat out lunch every day, so I'm searching for things other than sandwiches that can potentially be eaten as-is or not be disgusting if kept in a lunch-box type soft-sided cooler with a freezer pack. I feel like a gradeschooler (thermoses, anyone?)

I really sort of loathe most cold-cut style sandwiches, and I imagine cold pasta salads will get old real quick. I also don't trust a thermos of soup to stay warm longer than a few hours (I might be eating 5-6 hours into the day.)

Is this impossible?! If all else fails I'll go to my old college year throwback lunch of a bag of rold gold pretzels, but thats not exactly what I have in mind for daily sustenance when I'm on my feet for 8-9 hours at a time...

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  1. Do a web search for bento, it will open a world of possibilities for you.

    4 Replies
    1. re: Jeri L

      i actually looked into this, but a lot of this stuff looked like it should be somewhat temp controlled- do those bento containers actually insulate enough to keep stuff temperature appropriate?

      Do you have any specific bento box containers to suggest?

      1. re: CarmenR

        There are sites that discuss food safety, but with a cold pack, most things should be fine. There are plenty of things that won't make you sick if you leave them at room temp for a few hours. Another thought...the fish and chicken that comes in a no-drain pouch is a terrific lunch protein. You can use it in a salad, put it on crackers, make a sandwich or just eat it out of the bag.

      2. re: Jeri L

        This website is excellent for bento lunch ideas: http://justbento.com/
        They have tonnes of recipes, and meal planning tips.

        1. re: Jeri L

          I haven't tried them, but some bento supply sites sell these sheets that are supposed to keep food from spoiling. I think they have some sort of silver ion but I don't know how/if they work.

          I have a Thermos food container that has a little collapsable spoon in the lid that cost about $20. After three hours food is sometimes to hot to eat straight away. After 5 or 6 it is still at a decent temperature.

        2. I made a batch of couscous salad Sunday and divvied it up for Mon. and Tues. lunches. They were in the fridge in the a.m., sat on my desk until lunch time. Room temperature by then, perfect. I also used to take a can of oil packed tuna to work, drain it, flake it, mix in chopped tomatoes and avocado (i would chop them right there), salt, pepper, maybe a little Tapatio. Really refreshing. Maybe i'm off track tho... maybe you don't want cold things?

          11 Replies
          1. re: mariacarmen

            I think the tuna sounds great regardless of the setting.

            1. re: mariacarmen

              That sounds good, but please don't eat/prepare tuna in enclosed office spaces, like a tiny kitchen or cubicle. It reeks to those not eating it!

              1. re: ChristinaMason

                I think cooked fish reheated can do that but I don't find that to be an issue with cold.

                1. re: c oliver

                  No, canned tuna smells revolting to those who don't care for it, like me for example.

                  1. re: buttertart

                    Ah, there's a difference between "not eating it" and "don't care for it." Guess it needs to be lowest common denominator rules. I don't think good fish smells but I'll remember that for future reference.

                    1. re: c oliver

                      I like tuna fish but agree that I don't particularly care for the smell (particularly when it's not my lunch.) I definitely think tunafish, even good tunafish, does smell. Not opening a can of tuna in a small office setting seems like a pretty good rule to keep the most people happy.

                      1. re: c oliver

                        By lowest common denominator I'll read most consideration of others' sensibilities. I don't think good fish smells either, but canned tuna does have a distinctive smell unlike that of most good fish. (I'm there for sashimi, tartare, ceviche or rare seared, canned tuna is one of the very few things I don't eat.)

                        1. re: buttertart

                          I must be from another planet. I think tuna fish and fresh fish smell great. I also love garlic and onions being prepared. That's just from being around it so much, it's like perfume. But I do know there are some people that just can't tolererate it, my dh being one. And I can't stomach perfume or air freshner, even some candles just whack me out. I loke to cut up lemons or oranges, their aroma will freshen up a room lickety split. Why just yesterday I was cutting a large amount of onions, I cut lemons and rubbed my hands to help with the smell, and the room began to clear up....

                          1. re: chef chicklet

                            I'm with you regarding smells. I can't remember the smell of garlic ever bothering me, but I cannot stand to walk into, say, a Michael's arts and crafts store with all those scented candles and potpourri (sp?).

                  2. re: mariacarmen

                    That's exactly what I had for lunch today, although it was a water-packed tuna pouch, grape tomatoes that I halved at my desk, and a small avocado, plus salt and pepper. I probably eat this same lunch once a week or so...

                  3. If you pre-heat a decent wide mouth thermos with boiling water for a few minutes before putting in the hot food, it should easily stay hot for 5 or 6 hours, unless you leave the thermos in your car in Minnesota in January.

                    1. I take my lunch at least three days a week, as there really aren't any restaurants within walking distance of my work, (unless you count college dorms)...we have a fridge, but I rarely use it. Invest a few bucks in a very small cloth cooler (I bought mine at a local chocolate shop for $5 or so); it is about the size of a lunchbox, with a zippered cover. Then get a refreezable freezer pack, insert it with your food, and it will stay cool until lunch. (put the freezer pack back into the freezer every night).

                      Typically, I bring some type of canned drink, one or two pieces of fruit, and a tupperware container of leftovers. But then, I like leftovers....or at least my leftovers....

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: susancinsf

                        Must be a genetic thing...I use a very similar cloth cooler for my lunches several times a week, and also find the freezer pack works fine to keep stuff cool enough...even in the hot drive over there during the summer.

                        Not everything's the same, however: I rarely bring leftovers, as I don't like our office microwave. So I eat sandwhiches or boiled eggs for protein, along with fruit and cookies. Sometimes I bring cheese and crackers. I pass on the drink: I just fill my mug from the water cooler and/or have a cup of coffee with my lunch....

                        I'm not big into sandwhiches either, but make them more interesting by adding good tomatoes or other veggies (which I'll put into a separate baggie so to avoid making soggy bread). Or sometimes I take a small salad in tupperwear.....

                        1. re: janetofreno

                          the lines for our one office microwave can be annoyingly long so as often as not I don't reheat the leftovers. In the winter, this doesn't work with leftover stew and braises, but I find that in the summer and when the leftover is roasted chicken, or a pasta dish, that it is often just or almost as good cold. Helpful for OP to consider since she doesn't have a microwave.

                          I think the suggestion by another poster to consider it a picnic and look at the picnic threads for ideas is a very good one. Fried chicken, for example, makes a great lunch...

                      2. Bentos are neat but unless you have two. U have to decide whether everything is cold or hot.

                        Well, U could use a bento and a thermos. That would work.

                        As far as food, try to cook with leftovers in mind so U can take that for lunch then take Iced tea or water in your thermos. Another possibility is to take soup in your thermos and cold snacks in the bento like potato salad, pretzels, cheese and crackers.

                        U could always make a big batch of Mac and Cheese, take some of that every other day so u don't get burned out.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: tonka11_99

                          Are you sure about the all-hot or all-cold idea?

                          I don't use bento, but on reading about it some years ago, I thought I read that one of the attractions was that cold and hot could keep to themselves in different containers, all inside the bento box (which would mean, of course, that some or all of the containers would have to be insulated).

                        2. Really sort of depends on what your preferences are for cold foods.

                          Personally, I would include things like cold (e.g., day old) pizza, pita and hummus, savory tarts, quiches, and rice with stir-fried veggies/meat, as well as zaru udon noodles.

                          1. Soup will definitely stay warm 5-6 hours into the day in a good thermos. So will hotdogs if you add them to the thermos in boiling water.

                            One of my favorite lunches is a nice ripe avocado, with salt. Or sometimes I'll cut it, mush it up in the skin with a fork, then spread on some bread with salt, shredded carrots, sprouts. I'll pack a little container of salsa and/or a wedge of lime and some hot sauce if I'm feeling fancy.

                            A BLT will keep well (although can get a bit mushy if the tomato is very liquidy.

                            Yogurt will keep just fine in an insulated lunch bag with an ice pack.

                            Cheese and crackers make a great lunch and cheese is best when it's room temperature anyway.

                            If you don't want to feel like a grade school kid, check out some of the fancy thermoses here http://www.lunchboxes.com/food-soup-j... They also sell Bento lunch boxes, which are great.

                            1. It's the same at our office and it stinks! We moved in early September. During the winter I took a thermos. Now that it's getting warmer I take lettuce, a sliced up red pepper and a chunk of feta cheese. Every day I use a different herb or spice plus a dash of olive oil. It stays cool enough if I keep it in my bag and away from windows. The rest of the day I just eat loads of apples, bananas, etc. fruit that won't spoil. It's healthy though admittedly boring after awhile. Very curious for other suggestions!

                              1. How about a pressed sandwich? Leave off any mayo, and sub veggies or roasted veggies for cheese, and make it the night before, wrap tightly and put something heavy on it overnight int he fridge. Should last until lunch.

                                Have you ever thought to get a cooler type of lunch box? Even Walmart sells them, they're great for hiking and taking to beach. I also put a frozen juice pouch (you can use freezer packs) in my kids' lunches to keep them cold. By lunch they are already thawed out.

                                3 Replies
                                1. re: Phurstluv

                                  I love the idea about the frozen juice pouch. It probably also keeps the other things cold, too.


                                  1. re: The Dairy Queen

                                    Adding still frozen fruit (in our house usually blueberries) to plain yogurt and honey keeps the works cold til lunch time. I use a 1c. round ziploc container, actually looks pretty good layered, sometimes I pack some granola in a separate container to sprinkle on top.

                                    ETA: I third (fourth?) the suggestions to use a thermos, makes for a lot of interesting hot/cold meals. I sometimes pack a sandwich and bring a thermos of apple crisp for a treat. Mmmm comfort food :)

                                  2. re: Phurstluv

                                    I do the same thing with a frozen water bottle when my daughter goes on field trips where she has to have a completely disposable lunch -- it keeps the food cool and is melted by lunchtime (just have to double up the paper sack if you aren't using a real lunchbox).

                                    I am also not a big sandwich person -- when I bring lunch it's usually some kind of couscous or bean salad that I can throw whatever bits I have in the fridge into and I pack it in a "grown-up" lunchbox with a freezer pack. Yesterday was white bean, tuna, parsley, mint, scallions and lemon juice -- delicious and pretty healthy. Today a makeshift asian slaw with cabbage, broccoli slaw mix, chicken, scallions, cilantro and peanut dressing. Couscous is a great base for nearly anything you have on hand -- nuts, dried fruit, your favorite spices (I like a little ras el hanout), roasted peppers/zucchini, herbs, leftover chicken, citrus zest -- endless variations to try. I also do wraps as a great way to use up whatever bits are lying around -- some hummus/pesto/tapenade or whatever spread, fresh argula/spinach, chicken or prosciutto, roasted peppers, a bit of feta or gorgonzola, sometimes olives or herbs or bits of whatever jars inspire me from the fridge.

                                    Good luck with the new job and the lunches!

                                  3. Chunk of baguette, wedge of cheese, apple slices or grapes.
                                    Cold fried chicken, potato salad, melon.
                                    Leftover lasagna, chunk of baguette, frozen slices of Kerrygold Garlic & Herb butter (they'll thaw enough to spread by the time you need them).
                                    Sliced Braunschweiger, sharp cheddar cheese, stone ground wheat crackers, grapes or raisins.
                                    Leftover meatloaf, packets of Chinese mustard, duck sauce and soy sauce to make a custom dipping sauce, orange slices, celery sticks.

                                    1. I was in a similar situation once. I got a mini electric kettle (Bodum) and kept it at my desk. I made a lot of ramen and instant oatmeal.

                                      1. Another idea that surprisingly doesn't get soggy is to make a good old fashioned Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich and freeze it, take it out in the am and by lunchtime it is just the right temperature. You can make a bunch at once too if you are the kind of person that likes to prepare in bulk. I enjoy mine with a little side of granola!

                                        1. You could always get yourself one of those "Travel Immersion Water Heaters" so you could heat water or soup at your desk. Fairly inexpensive and I used to use them all the time when traveling. This would give you some extra options for lunch.

                                          1. I worked a job in inpatient drug treatment for a few years where there were literally no restaurants around for miles and I had to bring lunch to work everyday. Sometimes I'd "go the distance" and use ice packs so I could eat a rounded lunch but I really did feel like a child.

                                            So I fell back on bringing lunches that comprised all (or most) of the food groups but weren't actual meals. I think the big thing is getting foods in that aren't perishable but will give you protein and energy for the day.

                                            --Bags of mixed nuts
                                            --Peanut or almond butter with pita, whole wheat bread, or crackers
                                            --Bags of sunflower seeds (lots of protein for the portion size--like 15 grams in a small handful)
                                            --Chopped veggies (with or without some sort of dressing--carrots, celery, cherry tomatoes, sliced bell peppers, etc. to snack on)
                                            --Fruit (I always had at least two pieces with me per day); dried fruit is good too
                                            --I second the cans of tuna. Also meat jerky if you're into it
                                            --"Juice-box" type cartons of shelf-stable soy milk make cereal or granola an option. The soy milk that's shelf-stable tastes exactly the same, although it won't be cold at lunch. But you could keep it on ice, like in a ziploc bag or submerged in a larger cup of ice. It's good because it doesn't matter if it's cold enough for real milk to stay safe.

                                            I found that eating a handful of nuts with lots of fruit, veggies, and pretzels kept me going through the day. Peanut butter and jelly is good too; I never tire of it surprisingly. I kept small bags of dried cranberries around for snacking. I also kept big bags of chocolate-covered almond clusters from Sees around. Mostly almonds with thin layers of dark or milk chocolate--yummmmy. My clients used to love going through my drawer of goodies when they'd forgotten their lunches.

                                            I get sketched out about the food safety of bentos and tupperware, even with the ice packs. So I try to stick with shelf-stable type foods when possible. Maybe I'm not too adventurous, but it just makes dinner even more satisfying when I get home...

                                            1. I just finished a lunch while I read this thread.

                                              Romaine leaves, homemade blue cheese dressing and bacon bits. All brought from home. I have a tiny igloo cooler I carry things in, not one at all for lunch meat type sandwiches.

                                              1. I have 2 food thermoses for my 11-yr-old; one has a top that you put in the freezer for when I pack cold stuff for her (like large cooked shrimp for shrimp cocktail) and one for hot stuff (in the morning while I fixing her lunch, I prep it by putting hot water in it, then pour it out and wipe it down before filling it with [homemade] mac & cheese, or soup, or baked beans with hot dog slices.)
                                                ipsedixit has some good ideas, like hummus, and don't rule out the thousands of versions of pasta salads.
                                                You can also pack a tupperware container with romaine lettuce (leave room for tossing), and fill your cold food thermos with a salmon fillet in a vinaigrette (both straight out of the fridge) and include croutons or sesame seeds and sliced scallions in ziploc bags. Toss everything together at work. You can make many kinds of salads by packing the ingredients seperately.
                                                And dont' forget the "I love you. Have a good day!" note! (and the ziploc bag of the Dove Promises).

                                                1 Reply
                                                1. re: Michelly

                                                  When Michelley says "and don't rule out the thousands of versions of pasta salads" definitely consider expanding the definition of "pasta salads" to grain and/or legume salads. Quinoa, barley, wild rice, etc.

                                                  This was a terrific wild rice salad from Gourmet that is just lovely cold/room temp: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/7055...

                                                  Some grain salad threads:

                                                  Can you do small packets of smoked fish that you keep over ice then open up at lunch time?

                                                  Also, maybe think of your lunches as a picnic? Invest in one of those little lunch coolers?

                                                  Here's Bittman's 101 picnic ideas story:

                                                  Whole Foods has a "Portable and Picnic" recipe section with about 200 recipes:

                                                  Lots of picnic threads on chowhound!

                                                  Oh, and on the topic of thermos, a good thermos will definitely keep food hot for a half a day. I do a lot of winter outings here in the Upper Midwest for which I always pack two thermoses: one of coffee and another of soup. And those thermos sit in a cold car in freezing temps for several hours. Sometimes, if I forget to empty and rinse out my thermos when I get home, my coffee is still warm enough 24 hours later that I've almost been tempted to just drink it. Almost. (It's never piping hot 24 hours later.)

                                                  Remember to temper your thermos (before putting your food in it) by filling it with boiling water and letting it sit for 10 mins or so...


                                                2. i echo the rec to get a thermos. i didn't eat sandwiches as a kid (still don't), so mom packed a thermos for lunch.... lasagna, leftover chinese, mashed potatoes and chicken drumettes (from Gelson's), etc.

                                                  roasted veggies with bean or lentil salad and balsamic vinegarette

                                                  stuffed potato skins

                                                  make your own lunchables with higher quality ingredients, i.e. good cheese and crackers (with the cold pack or frozen juice), and a cookie

                                                  bring a pita, some fillings and dressing on the side to put together on the spot to prevent sogginess

                                                  leftover pasta - always good cold!

                                                  1. Hey, not a great suggestion, but poached eggs.

                                                    You can cook them the day before, and keep them in water, in a small plastic soup/yogurt container. If you can toast some english muffins (or toast at home, and keep form drying out), butter them, and put the poached egg on top. Its my favorite quick breakfast thing. Plus, it isn't "lunch pail" food. You're actually eating something nice, and it isn't idiot-proof, so you don't feel like you're six years old.

                                                    If you're really terrible at poaching, you can practice until you get some good ones and a good technique -- they keep for up to a couple days in water.

                                                    There's all kinds of ways you can supe it up too -- some chives, some precooked ham, paprika/salt/pepper/spices, fresh grated parmesn, spinach cooked in boiled thermos water, etc. In a brown bag you can fit your container of poached eggs, one or two eng muffins, whatever else, and a little paring knife. Prepare it on a plate, and eat a nice little meal like an adult, and not a kid picking over bagged food.

                                                    If you have the space, and your coworkers aren't obnoxious about it, maybe bring a small toaster over (store it in your desk even.) Toaster oven means you can warm a plate of spaghetti and crisp some garlic bread. It makes reheated work lunches so much less pathetic, trust me. If you store it in you desk, you can store spices, paring knife/cutlery, etc in a little box inside of it.

                                                    You can always pack hummus, pita, slice of tomato, avocado, feta, etc., and make a nice wrap. Five minutes of cutting, ingredients fit into leftover Chinese rest soup containers, ice pack is nice but unnecessary, really easy and fresh. If you can toast some falafel and the pita, all the better.

                                                    6 Replies
                                                    1. re: Russel Shank

                                                      I re-echo the suggestion that you get a good thermos. If you pour ice water or boiling water into it before adding your food, it will do a great job. Also, canned chicken is just as convenient as canned tuna, but without the smell. If you can steal some little packets of mayonnaise from somewhere, you can keep it as an emergency food at work with some crackers or something, in case you have a day where you're too busy to pack yourself a lunch.

                                                      I'll be doing the same thing this summer, and I'm leaning toward one-dish hot meals, like pasta with veggies and meat, soup, or chili. I figure I'll freeze it in individual portions and nuke it before I leave.

                                                      1. re: Russel Shank

                                                        I can't eat poached eggs that are COLD.

                                                        1. re: Phurstluv

                                                          that's why you put them in warm/hot water for a while, before eating.

                                                          1. re: Russel Shank

                                                            Ahhhh, okay, I get it now. Thanks. I still like them fresh, tho, since I like the yolk to be oozing around my salad.

                                                            1. re: Phurstluv

                                                              They'll be that way. You can poach an egg, and keep it in water for a couple days -- when you break it, it wont be any different than if it was just cooked. If you want it warmer, put it in warm water. Just not so hot that it cooks the egg more.. just enough to take on the temp of the water.

                                                      2. How about pierogi (the baked and filled ones)? With ground meat e.g., or small calzone style pizza, which can be filled with virtually anything as long as it is not too moist.

                                                        And for the hardcore meatlovers: cold skewers (grilled) with meat and veggies.

                                                        1. I use one of those bag gizmos often and it does keep things cold/cool. I think youd be surprised how many people take lunch to work that way. Maybeit depends what part of the country youre in. We even use them to take snacks for the ballgame and such.