Bag lunches for adults
All right, I think I need to crowd-source this for best results. I'm coming to the end of my pre-paid meal plan at the almost unbearably schlocky cafeteria at the university I work at. The cost per meal there, on a plan, is something like $7 at a minimum, and the food is just gross and unhealthy. Dietitians would faint at the sight of what they serve. I have hypertension, and I want to limit the amount of salt, sugar, and fat that I eat. I'm good at doing this in my own cooking, but of course that goes out the window fast when I buy prepared meals. I want to start packing my own lunches, so I eat better stuff for cheaper.
The trick here is temperature. I don't have access to a refrigerator: the department doesn't have one, and I certainly cannot afford to buy one for my office. (I'm not a long-term employee anyway.) My office is in a building kept heated to some awfully hot temperature — I'd estimate about 72 degrees. By the time that ends, the ambient temperature will probably be at least that warm. I'm guessing the food would be unrefrigerated for approximately five hours, on average.
What kinds of things can I take to work that won't start to spoil in warm and humid conditions, assuming I bring them in a tightly sealed reusable plastic container? I remember all the basic sandwiches that my parents made for me lo these many years ago, but I'd kind of like to eat a more varied diet than when I was seven. Will curried meat and vegetables over rice be okay? What about cold roast meats? Can I even think about fish and seafood, or is that too dodgy a proposition here?
I'd love to know what people have found to be trustworthy packed lunches under such conditions.
First of all, get yourself an insulated lunch bag and buy some reusable cold packs. No they won't keep your food completely out of the danger zone (under 40 F), but they will reduce the risk to you. I've sent lunches to school with my kids for years using these cold packs, and neither one has ever gotten food poisoning. The only thing I'd avoid is seafood, but you can certainly bring other meats and cheese. Your curried meat and veggies sounds ideal---that's just the type of thing my daughter brings.
Another thing you can bring is a thermos full of hot soup or stew. Heat the soup to boiling before you put it in the thermos, then wrap it in a dishtowel and put it in your lunch bag (without the cold pack, obviously.) Again, it won't keep the soup hot, but it won't kill you and it will stay warm enough to be tasty.
If you have a microwave you can use, get some microwavable plastic containers with tight lids, then transport your food cold in those. My kids' high school has three microwaves available for student use, and while there's always a line to use them, they still manage to get their food nuked and consumed in their allotted time.
You're probably not the only employee who wants to brown bag it for health or cost reasons, so maybe you can band together and suggest your department buy a microwave (you can get one for $80, which makes them a lot cheaper than even a dorm size refrigerator) if they don't already have one.
Thermoses lined in glass or stainless steel will indeed keep soups and stews hot. They are pricey and since the glass linings are fragile, the premium cost of steel-lined is worth it in the long run.
I never used cold packs - a waste of money, weight, and space. Instead, I froze plastic water/soda bottles filled with water or iced tea. They'd be half-thawed by lunch. I'd drink up, then leave the bottle out of the cooler so the rest would thaw. At the end of the day I toted home an empty bottle that cost and weighed next to nothing.