How to nail work lunches every day (when you have no spare time)

Bento box-style lunchboxes are great for organised people.
Bento box-style lunchboxes are great for organised people. Photo: Supplied

All those Instagram pics of fridges bursting with a week's worth of #mealprep are well and good, but who really has time to do that, week after week?

Most people can do that for about three weeks in a row, before Sunday prep night turns into Sunday session at the pub or home-delivery, and you're left flailing on Monday to fork out $15 for a salad you don't really want to eat.

So, how do you – without a spare three hours and several hundreds of dollars worth of Tupperware – make do-able, tasty, cheap work lunches that require minimum fuss?

Here are a few tips and tricks that will see you through the week. We're not chasing top chef-quality lunches here. We're talking affordable, healthy-ish meals that will get you into the habit of bringing lunch to work.

A good salt makes any meal better.

A good salt makes any meal better. Photo: Supplied

Create a condiment stash

This is the most important step for staying organised with your lunch prep. You might not always have a perfect, ready-to-eat lunch, but you'll probably have one or two vegetables and a can of tuna, eggs or leftovers on hand. Bring them to work and sort the rest out at lunchtime.

Aww...this is almost as cute as it is unrealistic.
Aww...this is almost as cute as it is unrealistic.  Photo: Photo for The Washington Post by Ko Sasaki.

Here's a few non-perishables to keep on hand at work:

  • Good extra virgin olive oil: use this as a salad dressing, to pep up leftover meats that have dried out a bit, or to grill vegies in the sandwich toaster (see below).
  • Good quality sea salt and pepper: essentials, obviously.
  • Togarashi: this delicious Japanese mix of sesame seeds, seaweed and chilli readily available at supermarkets. Sprinkle on grilled vegies, rice or noodles, or even sushi for extra flavour.
  • Miso soup sachets: great for a snack, or as a seasoning for plain chicken, fish or vegies. Bring a bunch of bok choy or whatever green veg you have at home, chuck it in a bowl of miso and microwave for 30 seconds to cook. Also good with a poached egg (see below).
  • Hot sauce: because everything's better with hot sauce.
  • Microwave packs of brown rice: these are cheap and quick, and will instantly bulk out that vegie and protein combo. Think brown rice + tuna or tofu + cucumber, with a shake of togarashi for a deconstructed sushi bowl.
Sushi sandwiches from Adam Liaw's new cookbook The Zen Kitchen.

Sushi sandwiches from Adam Liaw's cookbook The Zen Kitchen. Photo: Supplied

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Turn into a flavour hoarder

You know all those little packs of wasabi, soy and ginger you get with your sushi? Keep them to apply wherever flavour is required. Finely chopped ginger through a green salad with chicken and sesame seeds is delicious. Leftover grilled beef wakes up with a hit of wasabi. Ditto little tubs of salad dressing, sachets of hot sauce, or Vietnamese dipping sauce from rice paper rolls. Extreme? Maybe. But it can be a lifesaver when you're down to a head of lettuce and a pack of tofu.

Think big, be thrifty

Even though I was only cooking for two, I snapped up a massive roast leg of lamb on sale for $15. I slow-roasted the whole thing, then portioned up the shredded meat into resealable plastic bags and froze them. Reheated or defrosted, it can be whacked into Greek salads, put in panini with spiced yoghurt or even on pita bread as a pizza of sorts. The whole leg gave me about 20 meals. The same applies to chicken, beef or whatever else you spy on sale.

Neil Perry's lamb kofta with muhammara - reheat in a sandwich toaster, in a pinch.

Neil Perry's lamb kofta with muhammara – reheat in a sandwich toaster, in a pinch. Photo: William Meppem

Reconsider the humble sandwich toaster

Got a sandwich toaster in your office? Think beyond bread-based lunches. A garden salad is 98 times more appealing with a crown of grilled haloumi (heat the grill and sandwich the haloumi with baking paper before cooking), and anything meaty will fare much better on a hot grill plate than a microwave. Koftas, chicken skewers, tofu or even chorizo are fair game (again, alfoil or baking paper is your friend) and will turn hot and crisp, rather than rubbery as microwaves tend to do.

Here are a few quick ideas:

  • Halve a chorizo down the middle and grill till crisp. Chop and blanch a head of broccoli by microwaving it in boiling water for one minute. Combine the lot with a pack of brown rice (see above), and season with olive oil and hot sauce.
  • Rub a raw chicken thigh with the paste from a miso soup sachet. Grill between alfoil. Chop and toss through a bag of salad greens. Sprinkle with togaroshi.
  • Reheat lamb (skewers, koftas, chops with bone removed) on a grill. Warm some pita bread on the same grill, then fill with lamb, a spoonful of yoghurt and leafy greens. Fold and eat immediately.
  • Let vegies – kale, broccolini, brussels sprouts – experience the thrill of the grill. Line a sandwich grill with foil, lightly coat the veg with olive oil and salt, clamp down until everything is crisp. This also works with tofu, if you add a slug of soy sauce for flavour.
A poached egg on avocado toast: totally possible in a work kitchen.

A poached egg on avocado toast: totally possible in a work kitchen. Photo: Sarah McInerney

Put an egg on it

The saddest meal can be perked up with the addition of an egg. Simple rice and beans need only an egg, half an avo and a glug of hot sauce to become delicious. Take a head of cos, leftover grilled chicken, some grilled bread and whatever else is in the freezer, whack a poached egg on it and you have a caesar, of sorts. Take a shallow bowl, crack two eggs into it, and gently run water down the side of the bowl until the egg is just covered. Prick the yolks, microwave on high for 90 seconds and you have poached eggs. Not cafe-perfect, mind, but good enough.

Neil Perry's roast duck rice paper rolls.

Neil Perry's roast duck rice paper rolls. Photo: William Meppem

Life after salads

There comes a time when you open your plastic container of carefully prepped salad and become overwhelmed by the desire to throw it against a wall. That's when you need to step up your level of effort (or cave, and get a burrito).

For the committed, take some rice paper wraps, dip them in water, and fashion your salad into a tasty roll, using dressing from your stash. Same works for nori if you are enthusiastic enough to take a bamboo rolling mat to work.

Dieters, also consider this: take whatever food you are craving and use the key flavours in a salad. Sliced beef or even little beef meatballs in a salad of butter leaf lettuce, shaved pecorino, sliced pickles, cherry tomatoes and a mustard-based dressing does a good impression of a cheeseburger, and adding a lick of yoghurt, warmed lamb and half a pita takes a Greek salad closer to kebab territory.

New outdoor dining: DIY smorrebrod.

New outdoor dining: DIY smorrebrod. Photo: William Meppem

The easiest lunch ever

An open sandwich. Surely you have bread at home or work somewhere near to a store that sells some? Two slices of sourdough, slathered with a whole avocado, a squeeze of lemon and sea salt is filling enough to stand as breakfast or lunch.