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

The Fuel Bento box from Bento Buzz is great for organised people.
The Fuel Bento box from Bento Buzz is 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 

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.

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. Bring them to work and sort the rest out at lunch. 

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 veggies in the sandwich toaster (see below).
  • Good quality sea salt and pepper: essentials, obviously.
  • Togaroshi: This Japanese spice mix of (typically sesame seeds, seaweed and chilli) is readily available at supermarkets and totally delicious. Sprinkle on grilled veggies, 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 veggie and protein combo. Think brown rice + tuna or tofu + cucumber, with a shake of togaroshi for a deconstructed sushi bowl.
Sushi sandwiches from Adam Liaw's new cookbook The Zen Kitchen.

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

Turn into a flavour hoarder

You know all those little packs of wasabi, soy and ginger you get with your sushi? Keep them. 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, use ziplocks 

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 zip lock bags and froze them. Reheat or defrost a bag and whack into Greek salads, on panini bread 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 and go crazy. 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 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: 

  • Half a chorizo down the middle and grill till crisp. Chop and blanch a head of broccoli by micro-waving 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 grill. Warm some pita bread on the same grill, then fill with lamb, a spoonful of yoghurt and leafy greens. Fold and eat immediately. 
  • My colleague, Lee Tran Lam, loves to grill veggies - kale, broccolini, Brussels sprouts -  using this technique: Line toaster with alfoil, lightly coat veg with olive oil and salt, clamp down until everything is rendered crisp. This also works with tofu, if you add a slug of soy 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 (you keep that in your desk drawer, right?) to become delicious. Take a head of cos, leftover grilled chicken, some grilled bread and whatever else is in your freezer, whack a poached egg on it and you have a Caesar, of sorts. But how? It's easy. Take a shallow bowl, crack two eggs into it, and gently run water down the side of the bowl until just covered. Microwave on high for 90 seconds and you have poached eggs. Not cafe-perfect, mind, but good enough. For fried eggs, see above.

Neil Perry's roast duck rice paper rolls.

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

When you inevitably get over 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 in terms of effort (or cave, and go get a burrito). 

For the committed, take some rice paper wraps, dip them in water, and fashion your salad into a tasty roll, using your stashed-away dressing. 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,  or 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, squeeze of lemon and sea salt, is filling enough to stand as breakfast or lunch, or check out the article above for advanced tips.