Work lunches: 20 great ideas in a box

Jill Dupleix
Being a grown-up means mum isn't going to pack us a cut lunch every day any more.
Being a grown-up means mum isn't going to pack us a cut lunch every day any more. Photo: Marina Oliphant

Best-selling author Michael Crichton would always eat the same thing for lunch when writing a book, arguing that the lack of choice aided his concentration. I think it would drive me batty with boredom, but I see where he is coming from.

We've made this whole office lunch thing too hard, by demanding that it be cost-efficient, convenient, healthy, different every day and absolutely delicious all at once. It's simply not achievable.

Yotam Ottolenghi has plenty of lunchbox ideas.
Yotam Ottolenghi has plenty of lunchbox ideas. Photo: New York Times

But being a grown-up means mum isn't going to pack us a cut lunch every day any more, and we actually have to sort it ourselves without making it an issue.

One alternative, of course, is to go and work for Google. Employees at Google Inc.'s massive Googleplex headquarters in California's Silicon Valley receive a free lunch every day, made with local, sustainably sourced food cooked to order on the premises. They also have a choice of 20 cafes ranging from Indian to wholefoods, and dozens of ''micro-kitchens'' that offer complimentary fresh fruit, edamame snacks, banana chips, dark chocolate, cold-pressed juice and espresso coffee.

Where does that leave us? At the desk, probably, googling ''plastic lunchboxes''. Here, then, are 10 good things for grown-ups to know, in order to self-cater our way to success at lunchtime.

Roast chicken is a great protein component.
Roast chicken is a great protein component. 

1. Save the over-achieving for work

No single meal is going to tick all the boxes for health, nutrition, budget, ease of handling, storage and so on. Trying to achieve this level of perfection would merely use up all that problem-solving talent and initiative that we should be saving for our working hours.

Time to get sensible, people. If we give it our best shot and end up with something cheap and simple one day, healthy the next and crazy, impulsive and so-not-good-for-us the day after, then we're still ahead.

2. Cook too much, order too much

Cook more than you need tonight for dinner and you're effectively cooking tomorrow's lunch at the same time. So Sunday's roast chicken becomes Monday's chicken nicoise salad, Tuesday's vegie stir-fry becomes Wednesday's rice noodle salad.


And those two skinny students in the Chinatown restaurant ordering enough for four are not just having a slap-up dinner, but taking home enough for a slap-up lunch tomorrow at no extra cost. Good things to over-order: Indian rice pilaf, tandoori chicken, Chinatown barbecued meat and white-cut chicken, pickles, dips such as tarama and hummus, Japanese soba noodles, terrines and pâtés, grain salads such as couscous; arancini rice balls (almost better cold than hot) and any form of meatball - lunchbox nirvana.

Recipe ideas:

Karen Martini's cold soba noodles with beansprouts, soy and ginger

Avoid the sog factor by taking your dressing in a small jar and adding it on the spot.
Avoid the sog factor by taking your dressing in a small jar and adding it on the spot. Photo: Jennifer Soo

Rare beef nicoise salad (or substitute chicken, tuna)

3. Deconstruct

Chefs do this all the time, by having their ''mise-en-place'' (prepared ingredients) ready to go, without actually assembling the final dish until it is ordered. So deconstruct your salad by taking the dressing in a small jar and adding it on the spot, to avoid the dreaded sog factor. Take all the elements you need for a do-it-yourself deli plate, or a ploughman's board of cheese, pickles, cold meats and bread. Just beware the ''weepers'' (tomatoes, cucumber, zucchini).

Recipe ideas:

Fold slices of leftover roast beef into small dinner rolls with hot mustard pickles.
Fold slices of leftover roast beef into small dinner rolls with hot mustard pickles. Photo: Marina Oliphant

Ploughman's lunch

Blue cheese and buttermilk dressing

Frank Camorra's honey mustard dressing

Chicken and noodle salad with spicy sesame dressing

4. Keep a survival kitchen at work

Do a whip-around at the office, or nicely ask the office manager for a budget for kitchen pantry essentials. Call it a human rights issue. Tomato sauce, sea salt, cracked pepper, soy sauce, chilli sauce, pickles, extra virgin olive oil and a good mustard will do wonders to perk up a lifeless lunchbox; and a sharp, serrated knife will make anything possible. Anyone got a lemon tree at home? Could you please bring a lemon in every now and then?

5. Cook anything from an Ottolenghi cookbook

Yotam Ottolenghi is a genius London-based Israeli chef with a real knack for luscious, mouth-watering, vegetable and grain-based salads. Try his cauliflower fritters, roast aubergine with saffron yoghurt, lentils with tomatoes and gorgonzola, chicken with spinach and sweet potato, stuffed vine leaves, pasta and zucchini salad or barley and pomegranate salad; they're all good. His three quite excellent cookbooks and website are stuffed full of lunchbox-friendly fare. Go to

Recipe idea:

Na'ama's fattoush salad

6. Eat what you love

If you hate sandwiches, even a great one is not going to make you happy. Write down 10 things you love to eat, then work out how to make them lunchbox-friendly. You're a grown-up, remember. You can do this.

Recipe ideas:

25 sophisticated sandwich fillings

7. Steal from your favourite cafe

Not the cutlery - the ideas. Like layering yoghurt, banana and passionfruit and granola in a lidded jar for breakfast on the run, or packing a bagel with corned beef and pickles, making meatball sandwiches, or whipping up a home-made green smoothie or a salted caramel milkshake. Take what you love from your favourite all-day breakfast cafe and turn it into a delicious lunch back at the office.

Recipe ideas:

Green smoothie

Breakfast trifle

Reuben jaffle

Meatball sandwich with beetroot and hummus

8. Add an egg

Everything tastes better with an egg. Soft-boiled, hard-boiled, poached, omeletted or scrambled, an egg is a great way to add instant fill-you-up protein without too many calories. It takes less than 10 minutes to boil an egg and one minute to make a silky little one-egg frittatine to fold into rolls or shred into salads, fried rice or nasi goreng.

Recipe ideas:

Tuna, brown rice, egg, sumac and green bean salad

Neil Perry's little zucchini fritattas

Soft rolls with omelet and prosciutto

9. Develop a knee-jerk base recipe

Having a go-to recipe that you can vary every day saves having to think too hard first thing in the morning; always a good thing. Mine is greens and grains, a basic recipe (see below) that uses whatever greens and whatever grains are around, as well as nuts, seeds, herbs and whatever is in the fridge, all brought together with a lemon-honey-cumin dressing.

10. Eat from a plate

Why eat from a bag or a plastic box? Take a cloth napkin and spread it over your knees. Set out a proper knife and fork and a glass of water. Take time to eat and enjoy your lunch; you deserve it. Eat slowly, chew well, stay off the computer; and your digestive system will thank you for it. Then treat yourself to a bag of cherries, a bunch of grapes, or a wedge of watermelon.The freshness and flavour of a great lunch will add immeasurably to your day.

Recipe ideas:

Melon and blueberry salad with lime ricotta

Fresh fruit with lime, lemongrass and mint

Potato chip tortilla with chermoula (pictured below)


10 tips for a grown-up lunchbox

● Toss red kidney beans, with diced tomato, avocado, feta cheese and shredded iceberg lettuce, then pile into crisp taco shells or soft tortilla wraps at lunchtime and top with store-bought Mexican chilli salsa.

● Toss cooked rice vermicelli noodles with rare roast beef, diced tomato and peanuts, basil and mint, and take a jar of sweet chilli sauce, soy and lime juice to dress it with.

● Combine cooked lentils with a mustardy dressing, lots of herbs, diced pickled beetroot and feta or goat cheese. A couple of cold pork sausages wouldn't go astray.

● Make a frittata or quiche with leftover roast potato or tubular pasta, pumpkin, spinach and peas, and serve with tomato chutney or onion jam. The best way of using up what you have is to make something you would want to eat in its own right.

● Pack yourself a colourful roast vegetable salad - kumara, halved onions, carrots and corn on the cob - with a peanut-butter-based satay sauce on the side. Roasting intensifies the flavours of each vegetable, and the spicy sauce adds lushness.

● Use iceberg lettuce leaves as cups for a bright, citrusy rice salad, or a toss of canned tuna, white beans, red onions, capers and black olives.

● Pack a Scandi lunch of smoked salmon or ham, boiled egg, marinated herring, gherkins or dill cucumbers, cottage cheese and dill, with fresh crispbreads on the side.

● Fold slices of roast beef into small dinner rolls with hot mustard pickles, caramelised onions and blue cheese.

● Cook some couscous, then toss with clumps of hot-smoked trout, cherry tomatoes, coriander, flaked almonds and a lemon-harissa vinaigrette.

● Make your own Vietnamese-style banh mi bread rolls, packing them with chicken liver pâté, pickled carrot, chilli sauce, mayo, shredded lettuce and coriander. (See video below)

Super salad

Everyday staple: greens and grains

A brilliant, sparkling, satisfying meal in a box. Start with cooked brown rice, pearl barley or your favourite grain or pulse. Add anything green - spinach, zucchini, cucumber, spring onions, mint. Then go to town with what's in the garden, the fridge and the cupboard: nuts and seeds, sprouts, dried fruits, red onion, goat's cheese or feta, shredded roast chicken or hot-smoked salmon. Don't skimp on the dressing - you really need it to give it all a zing.

1 tbsp sunflower seeds

1 tbsp pumpkin seeds

1 tbsp almonds, skin-on

1 tbsp pistachios, shelled

100g fresh mixed sprouts

100g brown rice, cooked for 40 mins

1 zucchini, some diced, some sliced

1 avocado, peeled and sliced

2 spring onions, chopped

handful of mint leaves


3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

2 tbsp lemon juice

1 tbsp local honey

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tbsp Dijon mustard

sea salt and pepper

Toast the sunflower, pumpkin seeds, almonds and pistachios in a hot dry pan for a minute or two. Wash the sprouts and shake dry. Combine the brown rice, zucchini, avocado, sprouts, spring onions, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, almonds, pistachios and mint, season generously with sea salt and pepper, then lightly toss. Keep the dressing ingredients in small lidded jar/s to shake and add on the spot.

Makes two lunches

What's your go-to lunchbox dish? Is it a sandwich, a salad or something else? Share your suggestions and recipes in the comments below.

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