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Need ideas for lunches-- no fridge, no microwave

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I'm in a situation where I'm going to be on a campus for 10-12 hour days for a while, with no access to a microwave or refrigerator. Eating out more than 1x week is out for financial and health reasons.

So, any suggestions on what to bring? I'm going to get sick of granola bars, trail mix, and peanut butter sandwiches really fast. I don't want stuff that will risk leaking all over my laptop, take up too much space in my bag, or be totally unhealthy (it might get me frowned upon! And I don't handle refined carbs super well, and will need some protein to power through). I can do a small cooler with an icepack, but that has it's limits. It doesn't need to be super-foody, but it would be nice to have something yummy to look forward to mid-day, that feels different from a snack.

All I can think of that's an actual "meal" is cold peanut noodles and quinoa salad. Anything else? Ideally, it would all be stuff that 1) could be made with ingredients that could be bought over the weekend and kept 5-6 days and 2) take no more than 10-15 minutes to throw together at night or else be made 3-5 days in advance. No dietary restrictions, if that helps. I don't eat a ton of meat, but only because I find it spoils or gets freezer burn before I cook it!

I know that's a tall order. Thanks v. much in advance.

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  1. I eat lunch at my desk, and this kind of stuff is easy to eat, and easy to clean up:

    Good cheese and crackers, with a sliced apple.
    Brie, jam and good bread, with a pear.
    Carrot and celery sticks in a baggie, with hummus in a little screw-top plastic container.
    Beef jerky!
    Pita bread with hummus, cucumber, feta and a little shredded lettuce.

    1 Reply
    1. re: jmcarthur8

      Great ideas. Along those lines, think of deconstructed sandwiches that you assemble on the spot. A bit of pate, sliced tomatoes, sliced red onions and a piece of baguette. turkey or ham with chutney and arugula on walnut bread.

    2. A good thermos will allow you to have soups, veggie stews, beans and grains.

      1 Reply
      1. re: magiesmom

        agree -- thermos is essential.

        i'd look at "picnic" threads, as they often deal with unrefrigerated food for room temp service.

        i always like cheese tortellini salad with pepperoni cubes and red bell pepper in an italian dressing.

      2. These are some of the building blocks I have available or prep on weekends to make a variety of meals: frozen vegetables (could roast instead), dried fruit, couscous, bulgar, hardboiled eggs, firm fried tofu, canned tuna/salmon/sardines, Morningstar black bean patties. Mix and match vegetables, grain and protein.

        1 Reply
        1. re: jadec

          Was just going to add "sardines, tuna or salmon...even kippers!" for good protein...beans are awesome protein too, lentils as well.

        2. Veggie wraps: Are you a fan of hummus? I make a big batch of it on the weekend (homemade is 100x better than store-bought) & make wraps with whole wheat tortillas to take to school during the week. They stay fresh for a long time, and have protein & complex carbs that keep me full.

          Bean & rice burritos: Doesn't get much cheaper than this. The trick to not getting bored is to vary
          the ingredients- use lots of different veggies, olives, condiments, seasonings, etc. Most cheeses would probably be fine too. I've heard that the French don't refrigerate their cheese.

          Veggie burger on a bagel: A nice treat, although admittedly better when warm.

          Pasta salad: Whole wheat will really keep you going, but again, it helps to switch up the ingredients & add some protein (beans, tofu, cheese, maybe cured meats).
          As you mentioned, quinoa or other grains also work very well as room-temperature foods (quinoa with curry, spaghetti squash, almonds & dried cranberries is my most recent obsession)

          Hard-boiled eggs: A good snack. Peel ahead of time, add salt & pepper, hot sauce, mustard, pickles, whatever you like. Or add them to a salad?

          Anything in a thermos: If you have a few minutes to heat up your food in the morning. I bring soups/stews or leftover rice & pasta dishes in a small, wide-mouthed thermos, along with some little extras, like crackers & fruit. Heck, I have even thrown a hot baked potato in there. The best trick for keeping things hot in a thermos (besides investing in a good one) is filling it with boiling water for a few minutes before you add your food.

          Note: I feel like this response may be kind of long and a bit too revealing of my weird taste in food, but I am going to post it anyway. Good luck & hopefully you will eventually find some things you really like!

          1. Most sandwiches will make it to lunchtime without needing refrigeration, unless you're in the hot sun. Freezing a small water bottle and putting it in your lunch bag also will act as a de facto refrigerator and provide a cold drink.

            I like legume based salads ... a lentil salad with crumbled goat cheese, cherry tomatoes, vinaigrette, chives, or a chickpea salad with tomatoes, scallions, feta. You could do a Nicoise, too -- just keep the dressing separate in a small jar until lunchtime. (Actually, that goes for any leafy salad -- have at it!) I brown bag a lot of leftovers, too, and I usually eat them cold.

            1. I grew up having a sandwich, cookies, fruit and maybe some chips for lunch every day--and I liked it. And I think there was a good reason why it was common--because it was easy and good. Now it would be whole grain bread not white, baked chips not fried, but with an ice pack you can bring any kind--mine would sit in a warm locker for 4 hours. Just my thought, I'd save a nice meal for dinner.

              1. I worked for decades as a mail carrier and carried my lunch in a mail truck that often exceeded 100 degrees if the ambient temp was over 85. A 6-pack sized Rubbermaid cooler and a frozen water bottle stood me in good stead. After lunch is done, you still have cold water to drink. I kept an extra in my freezer in case I ever forgot to refill/refreeze when I got home. I routinely took chef's salads (dressing separate), meat-based sandwiches, cold cuts with potato salad, fresh fruit, carrot sticks, etc.

                1. It IS nice to have a meal that feels like a meal. My lunch is generally rushed so I hear ya.

                  -- Tomato gazpacho (keep it simple: blend fresh tomatoes and cucumber, parsley or cilantro, pepper and salt, spices to taste). Cucumber and parsley gazpacho if to your taste.
                  -- I second jmacarthur's hummus/pita. Filling and feels like a real lunch. Slice green olives and add sprouts.
                  -- Falafel; bake rather than fry, on Sunday, and stuff into your hummus/pita. Stores and eats cold very well.
                  -- Tuna salad with shallot and apple. Pack bread separately, make sandwich at lunch whistle.
                  -- Cucumber/tomato/feta/herb salad. Parsley, basil, cilantro. Vinagrette. Takes ~8 minutes to make night before (does not age well for 4-5 days but easy night prep).
                  -- Peasant lunch: cheese slices, olives, salami/pepperoni slices, sliced veggies, bread or crackers. Best with hearty wine or brown beer lol, but still satisfying without.

                  Edited to add:
                  Would still suggest you use the small cooler with icepack for all of above, of course.

                  Does the campus have a cafeteria with microwave? Or are you stuck in one place? Otherwise, could add to your options.

                  1. Agree with Savour. A sandwich is safe, especially in one of those good thermal lunch bags that you see everywhere. When I do volunteering, I take my lunch in one of these along with a water bottle. I like a good quality lunchmeat rolled up with a reduced fat sandwich cheese. I also like fresh green peppers sliced in wedges, carrot and celery sticks, and sometimes zucchini sticks with seasoned salt. I always carry an apple and a lower carb snack bar as well.

                    You can pack a piece or two of cold baked or fried chicken. A small pot of hummus with veggies and/or crackers will also make a nice lunch.

                    1. These ideas are AMAZING! I knew there was stuff my poor, start-of-the-semester-fried brain wasn't thinking of.

                      Serious Thanks to all of you-- it's a small thing, but knowing that I've got some really good lunch options to look forward to makes everything seem a brighter. Grad school is freaking me out, and thinking about subsisting on trail mix made it seem that much more depressing and unbearable! Knowing a brie and pear sandwich/falafal/cold fried chicken/great olives in a nicoise await me at the end of three hours of patho is going to make this whole thing a lot more pleasant.

                      (Plus, I'm thinking one good meal (even if it IS fried chicken) is going to be a whole healthier than all the things I'd be munching on or "treating myself to" because nothing was satisfying. Funny how that works)

                      I'm off to buy a thermos and some freezable water bottles this weekend, and stock up. Please keep these ideas coming!!!!!

                      in response to Duchess: no, sadly, no fridge/microwave access for us ANYWHERE on campus. Undergrads can use their dorms or their cafeterias, but for grad students, we're either in our academic building with some funny code preventing them (they claim...), in the library, or in the hospital running around. We DO get lockers, though, so I can stash condiments and some emergency snacks.

                      also, I'd save it for dinner, too, but I'm thinking dinner is really going to be whatever I have pre-made and defrosted in the fridge when I get in at night. so, lunch is the biggie, and the time I'll need the boost most!

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: TrussedUp

                        You don't need to buy bottles. Use any plastic water or soda bottle, or freezer container. I wound up buying a six-pack of Fiji water because the bottle has square sides so it maximized space in my hard-sided lunch cooler.

                        1. re: TrussedUp

                          I can tell you from experience that I ALWAYS eat better when I take my own food. In fact, one thing I do every day is take a couple pieces of candy. Gummy worms, buckeye eyeballs (at Halloween), peppermint kisses (Christmas)--even though I try to eat healthily and not take in too much sugar, I have found that I feel almost childlike anticipation for those stupid two buckeyes at lunch! And big shocker--I don't go racing to the vending machines for a $1 snickers bar at 2 o'clock when I do that because I'm not deprived.

                          One hint--spend a little bit of time on your lunch. At least for me, it's made a huge difference. It's easy to get stressed and dreary if it's all work, work, work. Eating at your desk does not help this effect. What can help, though, is a brilliantly packed lunch with a piece of chocolate (or candy of choosing) and it really takes no more time at all!

                          1. re: bblonde

                            I'd like to second your recommendation to spend time on your lunch. I usually bring a "for fun" book, and use my lunch time as relaxation. It's so easy to get into the habit of working through lunch, especially if you're bringing your own.

                            Now if only I could get away with having a glass of wine with lunch. Alas, it's probably inappropriate.

                        2. After a Mexican dinner last winter, I took some leftover beans, rice, avocado, cheese, salsa, etc. and rolled them up tightly in a soft flour tortilla. I wrapped it cellophane and threw it in the freezer. The next day at school, I pulled it out of my bag at lunchtime and it was perfect and REALLY delicious!

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: sandylc

                            oh yes. I have done this too... leftovers from dinner the night before are best if you can make something that will taste OK at room temp. I also like moroccan couscous salads, or quinoa, which is one of my favorite foods (I know you've already mentioned quinoa).

                          2. I forgot a protein favorite: cold poached salmon (or baked/panfried/grilled: just make extra from your weekend meal). Serve with yogurt sauce with dill and lemon.

                            Also, if you roast a chicken (or use a store-bought rotisserie), pick the chicken and bring a baggie of torn bits. Nice cold with salt and Tabasco, great stuffed into pita with sliced tomatoes, or added atop a green salad.

                            1. some of my thoughts are make ahead...
                              Frittata
                              Salmon Croquettes - cooked onion, flaked skinless boneless salmon, egg, parsley, salt, pepper and almond meal... bake and freeze, reheat.
                              Skim Ricotta Cheese - sweetened or not (as a sub for yogurt) with fruit
                              Spring Rolls
                              Kebabs with a Tomato-Onion-Balsamic Salad (benefits from marinating)
                              Muffaletta (benefits from marinating)
                              Edamame with Ponzu
                              Lentil Pancakes

                              Thermos stuff:
                              Chili - turkey, beef, veggies, whatever
                              Polenta with a turkey or tofu or veggie ragu
                              Chicken or Eggplant Parm
                              Chicken Chow Mein with Fried Rice
                              Carrot Soup with Cumin-Scented Lentil Croutons

                              1. Lots of good ideas. When I make a green salad, I put the dressing in the bottom of the container (homemade vinaigrette), add sliced red onion and chopped broccoli, then some sliced grape tomatoes, topped with romaine lettuce. Romaine is a sturdy lettuce and holds up well. When I'm ready to eat, I just stir the salad up with my fork.

                                This week I made a super easy bean salad: 1 can, rinsed and drained, white kidney beans; leftover cooked green beans, 1/3 C sliced black olives (leftover from pizza making); sliced red onion; roasted red pepper, grape tomatoes (which I wouldn't have added if they hadn't needed to be used up soon). I made a balsamic vinaigrette. If you make your salad dressing up when you have time, it will be handy all week.

                                An apple and a piece of stick cheese is a great mid-morning snack. I have also taken frozen, cooked shrimp and they are defrosted by lunch time. Put dipping sauce in a different container.

                                Homemade soups would give you a wonderful variety during the week. My favorite source of soup recipes is the Moosewood Daily Special cook book.

                                1. anything that can go in a sandwich can go into a wrap and can have a salad/vege added without making a mess

                                  1. I'm in my mid-30s and have made bag lunches for myself since highschool. I still will make deli meat sandwiches, tuna salad sandwiches, egg salad sandwiches, and they get no refrigeration whatsoever - no frozen water bottles. You will be more than fine. Deli meats, cheeses, mayo, and everything else will be just fine sitting in a 70 degree office/classroom until lunch time. So if you don't want the extra weight/space of a frozen water bottle or don't have a waterproof pouch/bag to carry it in, then don't worry about it. Keeping it all refrigerated until the moment you eat it is a bit like only eating well-cooked eggs, so take my advice with a grain of salt.

                                    1. I love this thread since I'm always looking for new lunch ideas (although I'm fortunate to have microwave and fridge).

                                      One thing I've found is that having different little bits makes even a simple lunch more enjoyable. I'll have a piece or two of cheese a handful of crackers or a roll some raw or roasted veggies, some turkey or hummus or peanut butter, a few olives or nuts and some fruit. Not a lot of any one thing. Also, while I don't make fancy bento lunches, if it looks attractive it tastes better. Quinoa salads and leftovers like lasagna and enchiladas are always good - even at room temp. Finally, I second the thermos idea - and I have used it with rice and pasta dishes as well.

                                      1. Hello fellow graduate student! Luckily I have access to a microwave in my lab (do you know someone with an "illegal" lab microwave, or an undergrad lounge that isn't always locked? Ask around, maybe a senior grad student knows of a microwave you can use. I totally advocate sneaking in tiny slow cookers, rice cookers, and electric kettles, if you can get away with it). Anyway, I also bring my lunch at least 4 days a week, and I try to keep it healthy and inexpensive.

                                        I prep salad stuff on the weekend so that I can grab and go in the mornings. This week, I've got mixed greens with beets, red onions, and goat cheese, with red wine vinegar and olive oil. Last week I did garbanzo beans with tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion, and feta, with red wine vinegar and olive oil. Prosciutto, asparagus, and poached egg is also pretty delicious (although hard-boiled might be better if you don't have a fridge).

                                        Sandwiches are great. I like pate spread on bread with pickles (bonus, livers are insanely cheap). I'm also a big fan of minced meat bound with cream sauce and spread on bread. My favorite no-cook sandwich is pesto spread on bread, with fresh mozzarella and sun-dried tomatoes. All should be fine in an insulated bag with a cold pack in it.

                                        I like hummus with veggies, but that's not always enough for me. I prefer to add a bunch of hummus, carrots, celery, and feta inside of a pita. If I have extra lamb, I throw that in too.

                                        If you do find a microwave, I really love to make big batches of soups, stews, and chilis to bring in (sometimes with crusty bread and butter). I also usually make a double serving of food during dinner so that I can just bring leftovers.

                                        1. Along all these excellent suggestions, you can also bake a quiche or two on the weekends.

                                          1. I'd avoid rice, as unchilled it can get toxic quickly.
                                            Keep a stash of canned fish (in brine with ring-pulls for easy cleanup). Take cutlery, flour tortillas, , a box of washed sliced up seasoned veggies, a small pot of plain yogurt with a dash of your fave hot-sauce or dressing and it's picnic time!
                                            For nibbles take olives, toasted seasoned nori, oatcakes and for rare treats roasted nuts.

                                            4 Replies
                                            1. re: Peg

                                              really? rice can get toxic unchilled? This worries me as frozen brown rice is a staple of my lunches. However, I usually heat it when it's time to eat since I have a micro (but no fridge).

                                              1. re: IndyGirl

                                                i've read that about rice on a chow board recently and had 1, never heard of it and 2. never had any problem with rice in a pot overnight.

                                                1. re: alkapal

                                                  i routinely leave leftover rice in the rice cooker overnight and eat it for breakfast, lunch or dinner for a day or two

                                                2. re: IndyGirl

                                                  This is what the British National Health Service http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/Goodfood/P... have to say on the matter:

                                                  "There are a few precautions you should take when storing and reheating cooked rice and grains. This is because the spores of some food poisoning bugs can survive cooking.

                                                  If cooked rice or grains are left standing at room temperature, the spores can germinate. The bacteria multiply and produce toxins that can cause vomiting and diarrhoea. Reheating food won't get rid of the toxins.

                                                  Therefore, it's best to serve rice and grains when they've just been cooked. If this isn't possible, cool them within an hour after cooking and keep them refrigerated until reheating or using in a cold dish.

                                                  It's important to throw away any rice and grains that have been left at room temperature overnight.

                                                  If you aren't going to eat rice immediately, refrigerate it within one hour and eat within 24 hours. Don't reheat rice and grains more than once."

                                              2. Grad students unite! Unlike you, I have access to both a fridge and micro but was already in the groove of preparing bentos. Honestly, the more often you do it, the better you get at it. I like to look at happylittlebento.blogspot.com (and her blogroll)--a bit ambitious and "kawai" for my taste but gives you a good starting place. And lunchinabox.net which also tells you some of the ins and outs of bentos and keeping food safe temp. I don't even necessarily pack a bento, but I do like the attention to looks and textures, etc. My cohort is often very jealous...to the point that they question (accuse, really) "how do you have time for that?" But I notice them taking hour-long lunch breaks which costs time, money, and by the greasiness and general sub-par quality of the food, health.

                                                Even if you don't use bentos, I'd try to take advantage of ice boxes. I like to pack chicken meatballs (I love these Aidells I found at Sam's, or another is Al Fresco), and I make moroccan meatballs. Depending on how much time I have on the weekends I make salads (you may be able to keep these with no refrigeration)--my favorite deli carries this white bean, tomato, basil, red onion, balsamic vinegar salad. Another one they carry which I find nice and filling is a lentil salad with vinegar and oil. I also make a corn, black bean, red onion, cilantro, cumin, chili powder,, and lime juice salad.

                                                I like to sometimes take a bagel and cream cheese.

                                                Things I keep around:
                                                at least one of the salads above
                                                mini sweet bell peppers
                                                cheeses--string cheeses, babybel, brie, vermont white cheddar, sharp cheddar (less offensive-smelling ones for my office mates)
                                                jerky
                                                meatballs
                                                summer sausage
                                                soups (I usually keep indiv taco soup, beef stew, storebought butternut squash soup)
                                                baby carrots
                                                sugar snap peas
                                                radishes
                                                cuties clementines
                                                apples
                                                jif indiv peanut butters
                                                cocoa roasted almonds

                                                If you absolutely won't take ice boxes and don't want the risk then I think your best bet is things like cheese, nuts, nut butters, crudite, pickled vegetables, jerky, protein bars, fruits, etc. And good luck!

                                                1. A word about wide-mouth thermoses.... Originally I had one that was all-plastic so the liner was unbreakable, which is why I bought it. It did not retain heat well enough. I remember some soup with cabbage in it that went into the thermos piping hot. By lunchtime it was merely warm, and fermenting - fizzy and sputtering when I unscrewed the top. I replaced it with a glass-lined thermos that kept things hot and safe to eat. All-metal thermoses are equally good.

                                                  1 Reply
                                                  1. re: greygarious

                                                    yes, true.