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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.

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  1. Have you considered using a container with a removable ice pack? You can find some of these products on Amazon.


    Take a look at their isolated bag/container with ice pack combos.


    2 Replies
    1. re: hala

      +1 That's how I bring lunch to work. We have a fridge, but it's so nasty I refuse to put anything in it.

      1. re: hala

        We use the fit-fresh containers. However, the ice packs included are very thin, so we supplement with those rectangular reusable cold packs in the lunch box. Those two things together keep the food reasonably cool.

      2. My immediate thought would be to search for bentos.

        1. 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.

          2 Replies
          1. re: Isolda

            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.

            1. re: greygarious

              These are all great ideas, and the frozen drink bottle is especially keen! Thanks, Grey, and everyone else as well! (For the threads as well as ideas in and of themselves.)

            1. An advanced search yields countless threads on this topic: http://www.chow.com/search?query=brow...

              1. I'm usually stuck in my car all day going client to client with no fridge, no microwave, and I don't want ice melting on me, so I go with non-dairy/meat grain salads a lot (brown rice or other whole grain, veggies, nuts or seeds, and oil/vinegar dressing, or soy/peanut dressing). The biggest tip I have though is to make sandwiches (if you make them) on frozen bread. I do this for both lunches during the day and plane trips - depending on the thickness of your slices (and if it's going to be an extra long day, use thicker bread), it takes about 3 hours for the bread to defrost completely, keeping the fillings cold the whole time. Then about an hour of sitting out, which isn't ideal but is usually within the bounds of acceptable=delicious sandwich for lunch.

                1. Cold pack and a thermal bag. I'd go with lentil salad - I like lentils, roasted beets, feta or goat cheese, wilted and chopped spinach dressed with a vinaigrette.

                  1. If you use a thermal container or hot or cold, temper it first with very hot or very cold water. That will go a long way toward keeping your food at the right temp.

                    1. Last week the NY Times had a healthy bag-lunch recipe every day: http://tinyurl.com/7dhl846

                      1. If you have a microwave, you might also freeze soups/stews in a tupperware at home. They'll stay pretty cold, especially in an insulated bag.

                        1. Although the cost of a full size fridge is costly, you might consider a small "cube" fridge usually intended for dorm rooms and such. I checked my local area craigslist and picked up a 24" tall fridge and a small microwave from a college student for $50. The end of the semester is best time to shop this bargain, it's easier to sell than to ship it where ever home is. I guess this is easier to find if you are in a college town.
                          Or - you should at least get a small soft sided lunch/picnic bag and reusable ice packs.