eating · food · nutrition

Make-Ahead Lunch Meal Prep: Boxed Lunch

Continuing with the discussion of make-ahead meal preparations, today I thought I’d tackle lunch. Christine nudged me this way during my previous post on oatmeal, and I admit, I started with oatmeal because it was easier to describe and to write about! The trouble with lunch is all the pieces you need to have ready in advance in order to make the prep painless. Over the years, I’ve developed routines to make this pretty easy for me, but it took a while, and many Sundays spent too long in the kitchen, to develop the routine. However, I kept plugging away until it became habitual, and now I spend less than an hour prepping lunches for the week (sometimes a lot less), which works out to under 10 minutes per meal.

So, I am going to write this post with two parts, “Saturday” is going to be the prep that needs to happen before you want to make your meals for the week. This doesn’t have to be Saturday, of course, but at least a day before you need those ingredients. Judicious use of your freezer space can allow you to do this part weeks in advance, and as you develop a meal-prep routine, I strongly suggest you do it that way. “Sunday” is your meal-prep day. I always make enough to eat one of them that day, so then lunch planning is done.

A final note before I get to the recipes–you are going to have to experiment with how much variety you need in the week and from week to week. I do not require much variety to be satisfied with my breakfast and lunches. When I was single, I also ate the same dinner for four or five nights in a row. However, I know many people would be very disappointed in their meals to have so much sameness day to day. You will have to adjust these plans to meet your meal-variety needs, but be aware that the more variety you decide to require, the more time the preparations will take. Easy switches like a different serving of fruit or vegetable may be enough to give you a hit of variation without throwing off the whole week of preparations.

Saturday
Prep your protein. My go-to is boneless skinless chicken breasts and/or thighs cooked in the slow-cooker on low heat for many hours. You can also do these in a low oven 20-30 minutes on a baking pan. I usually fill my slow-cooker to the top and leave it on medium for the day. This gives me enough chicken to last a month or so. Whatever I don’t need this week will be chopped up, placed on a cookie sheet and frozen individually. Then, once it’s frozen, I put it in plastic zipper bags to be pulled out as needed for the next month. You could sub in cooked ground or roasted turkey easily enough. I do not eat red meat, but I’d guess you could do something similar with beef. If you want fish or seafoods, I would recommend you keep them frozen until a day before you want to eat them to avoid spoilage.

Photo description: A cookie sheet with diced, cooked chicken breasts. They have been frozen and are ready to use or store in the freezer.

Prep your grains/beans. Whenever I cook rice, barley, dried beans, lentils, quinoa, etc. for dinner, I make extra. Then I freeze the leftovers in convenient amounts (3 cups, if I’m going to add them to lunches.) Thaw just before you do your prep for the week. I often use canned beans to save time. Just drain and rinse in a colander before using. You can also find cooked grains and beans in the freezer section of the grocery store, and they work well, too.

Consider prepping vegetables. I “cheat” and buy frozen veggies these days, but when I had fewer financial resources and more time, I would buy fresh vegetables, chop and steam them to have ready for lunches all week.

Sunday
Basic “boxed” lunch
This is my go-to lunch. To make it interesting week in and week out, I change which variation of flavorings I use. This is the starting place.

  1. Put out 6 reusable 4 cup containers with good lids.
  2. In each container begin with:
    1 ½ cups chopped, cooked vegetables (I like broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, summer squash, and/or green beans, it’s ok if they’re still frozen)
    4 oz chopped chicken, turkey, or protein of your choice (also fine if frozen)
    ½ cup beans and/or brown rice, quinoa, or other cooked grain (more if you’re vegetarian)

Teriyaki boxed lunch variation
Add the following to each container of the the basic boxed lunch:
Use black beans or small, mild-flavored beans like azuki or black-eyed peas
⅓ 8oz can of sliced water chestnuts, drained (about ¼ cup)
2 Tbs prepared teriyaki sauce (I use Kikkoman Takumi collection original)
1 tsp toasted sesame oil
2-3 tbs cashews
Suggested fruit pairing: tangerines, oranges and/or pineapple

Tex-Mex boxed lunch variation
Use pinto and/or black beans and rice.
Either use a prepared salsa or make a spicy tomato sauce by stirring together:
2-3 cups tomato sauce
2 tsp cumin
2 tsp chili powder
hot pepper flakes to taste

Put ¼ to ½ cup sauce/salsa over the veggies.
Sprinkle with 1 tbs. pumpkin seeds.
Add 1 oz grated monterey jack or pepper jack cheese on top.
Suggested fruit pairing: diced melon and/or papaya (with a squeeze of lime!)

Italian boxed lunch variation
Use garbanzo or white beans.
Either use a prepared marinara sauce or make one by stirring together:
2-3 cups tomato sauce
2 tsp dried basil and oregano
1 tsp dried thyme
1 minced garlic clove

Put ¼ to ½ cup sauce over the veggies.
Sprinkle with 1 oz grated mozzarella cheese and 1-2 tbs. parmesan.
Suggested fruit pairing: grapes or an orange

For each of these, when you’re ready to eat, simply remove the lid and heat them up until hot, 3-4 minutes in the microwave. This is what I’m eating these days, although I’ve gone through periods when I was eating soups, stews or big salads instead. I’d be happy to share some of those recipes and ideas in future posts if folks are interested, so let me know and keep an eye out for them!

Photo description: What you can see in my refrigerator right now–containers of “teriyaki boxed lunch,” scrambled eggs, tangerines, and portions of greek yogurt with chopped apples.

Do you have a go-to lunch that you like to make ahead for the week? Please comment below, and do let me know if you try any of these and what you think!

Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found eating out of reusable containers, picking up heavy things, and putting them back down again in Portland, Oregon.

8 thoughts on “Make-Ahead Lunch Meal Prep: Boxed Lunch

    1. Yeah, my husband feels that way, too. He tops off at 3 days, but prefers only 2. I wonder if there’s a way to start with some kind of base meal on the weekends and then add the variety every few nights after work?

      The thing for me is if I don’t do it on Sunday, no way it happens after work. I get maybe 2 hours of unstructured time at the end of my day, before bedtime, and that includes dinner. I think it would only work for me to do it after work if it was basically boxing up dinner leftovers.

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  1. I’m currently a fan of making way more dinner than I need and packing leftovers for lunch! Usually all-in-one dishes (e.g. curry, stew, pasta, etc.) so that I don’t have to prepare a whole bunch of separate meal components. I don’t mind eating the same thing for several days in a row, but I do like to have 2-3 things I can eat at any given time (so that I don’t have to have the same thing for both lunch and dinner).

    It works a little bit better with my boyfriend around (when we share cooking and eating responsibilities, it’s less likely to take a whole week to finish one dish!), but I’ve done similar when I’m cooking for one.

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    1. A friend of mine does something similar to that–every night dinner leftovers are boxed up and stuck in the freezer. Then, when he needs lunch, he just grabs one of them to thaw by lunchtime. I think it’s a great option if you cook new dinners regularly!

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  2. thank you. I am going to try this. I love how you’ve put all the steps/instructions in it. I can eat the same thing for most of the week so it’s not a problem for me at all.

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