Every Student Should Know…how to pack a lunch!

This seems like an easy one. Most of us have been packing our lunches since those little brown bags in elementary school, which wielded great bargaining power as candies, sandwiches, and desirable fruits were bargained mercilessly. Before I was old enough to pack my own lunch with any sort of efficiency or health factor, my mom packed plenty of ingenious lunches. Leftovers heated up in a thermos was a particular favourite of mine, which included homemade beef stroganoff, spaghetti, fried rice, and baked chicken. My little brother was more into peanut butter and honey sandwiches, while my older brother was pretty fond of traditional meat-and-cheese sandwiches. The duties of lunch making were, as with most kids, assumed as soon as we were physically capable and we’ve been making them ever since. Now, some people take lunch very seriously, and others like to skim right over it. I decided that it was a necessary skill that deserves a post after watching a young university gentleman hack open a can of corn niblets with a pocket knife, and proceed to drink the contents, then finish it all off with a slice of processed cheese. Yeah, you would consider this an emergency post if you too had witnessed that.

One of the things about being in university, or any school for that matter, is that classes tend to follow right on the heels of each other, with stuffed backpacks bumping into each other as sloshes of coffee and blurry eyed students navigate the hallways. The thing about having classes in a very organized string, is sometimes it’s easier to pay attention at certain times than others, and it seems to pretty directly correlate with blood sugar levels (okay, and coffee). For example, I have a Friday schedule that quite efficiently has me in lectures from 9:30am to 5:30pm with no breaks. This means I get on my shuttle in the morning at 7:45, I get shuttled for 45-60 minutes (which involved mostly listening to CBC podcasts and keeping my eyes closed), I have a short amount of time to prepare for my first class (read notes), and then I am blinking hard and cradling my coffee mug for the first hour of the day. Not my most alert, but hey, I’ve been up for a few hours and still have breakfast and coffee on my side. I really hit my stride for my 10:30-11:30 class, which is good because it’s hour 1 of physics, and if you don’t have your eyes open those vectors really get mixed up. Hour 2 of physics is where it all starts to get blurry. Afraid of social alienation if I break out the garlic sausage or pesto chicken sandwich or strong squash curry, I start thing about food around 11:35. The rest of the day is a single blur until 5:30, which is when I chow down on my lunch as I wait for the 6:15 shuttle. What would be better than waiting all day to stuff my face right before I head home? Proper snacks. That is the key to a good lunch. We don’t always have time to sit down and have a big dish of leftovers, so I think it is key to a have a variety of little bites that all add up to a generous, filling lunch. Hey, you might even get a better grade because you can hear your prof, not just the growl of your stomach.

So, let’s summarize some great lunch ideas, list style:

1) Veggies and Dip. This one seems obvious, but is great because a) it’s easy to whip out in a class and snack quietly on (in that case, go easy on the carrots or save them for later) b) the dip makes it surprisingly filling and c) it’s an easy way to put more veggies in your diet. I like to go with classic dippers that travel well, such as carrots, celery, radishes, cucumber spears, zucchini spears, and thinly sliced yams. The dips I make ahead of time, like on my Sunday food prep day, and freeze in containers so I can just grab a container in the morning and have it defrosted by lunch. This makes sense for food safety, as some of the dips I love have dairy in them, plus they act as an edible ice pack for the rest of my lunch. The dips I favour are mostly bean-based, partly for economics but mostly for taste. I soak my beans overnight, then cook up a ton of them at one time, so I can freeze the leftovers. I’ve included a recipe for my favourite white-bean hummus below, but I also love traditional chickpea hummus, curried hummus, and tex-mex red kidney bean dip.

2) Yogurt and Granola. I love having go-to lunches that aren’t dependent on the contents, or lack there of, in my fridge so I can have just as good lunches on Friday as I have on Monday, even though the Saturday grocery shop hasn’t quite happened yet! Granola is super easy to make yourself, with an added bonus of being cheaper, personalized, and packaging free. I’m a big fan of cinnamon/cardamom/ginger type spices, so I’m working on a recipe to include in my next post! I simply pack a little baggy of granola (which I just wipe out and use the next day to cut down waste) and a well sealed container of yogurt. Check the seal on your containers by filling them with water, completely drying the outside, then turning them upside down. Does water come out? Reserve that container for sandwiches, and save yourself a backpack full of sticky yogurt.

3) Hardy Salads. By hardy salads, I’m not only referring to filling salads, but also salads that hold up well to storage over a period of time. Pre-making a green salad is tough, though doable, as you have to be very cognoscente of the fact that lettuce wilts like nobody’s business. If you love your green salads, I recommend putting all the “extras” (strawberry slices, carrots, cucumber, proteins, radish etc) on the bottom with the lettuce on top, then nestling a container of your dressing and a container of your “crunchies” (croutons, sunflower seeds, toasted almonds etc) so everything stays fresh and happy. Because the weather is cooling down and I like to have things ready ahead of time, lately I have been enjoying salads like green bean, potato, and root veggie slaw because I can make containers of it at the beginning of the week and grab it on my way out the door, without worrying about having a separate dressing or anything else I might forget. It saves time, and provides something filling and flavorful throughout the day. Another great salad, is this warm lentil salad, which is also great at room temperature: http://easypi.blogspot.com/2010/12/winter-welcome-back.html.

4) Strategic Leftovers. At the beginning of the week, I always think about items I can cook at dinner that you be great in lunch later. Roasting a whole chicken is fantastic, because you have enough leftovers to use as sandwich meat for at least half of the week (other great roasted meats are pork roast, roast beef, and baked ham). When I am putting away other leftovers, like pasta or casseroles, I take the extra couple of minutes to put it in containers the right size for my lunch, so I can just grab a stack of containers in the morning when I’m in a rush and can’t be bothered to spoon things from a larger container into a smaller container.

Okay, so now time for the white bean pesto! First of all, if you are going to use dried beans, you have to cook them. I do recommend using dry beans because not only are they super cheap, they have a superior texture to canned. You might trick yourself into thinking it is tough to prepare dried beans because of the time factor, but it’s the easiest thing in the world if you just have them simmering away on the stove while you get other tasks done (physics homework or laundry, for example). If you have the foresight to remember to soak the beans, they have the best texture if you soak them overnight, then rinse them right before you are going to use them. If you didn’t remember, no worries, I usually pour a kettle of boiling water over them and let them sit for as long as possible while I prep the other ingredients (usually an hour), then I rinse them and fill the pot up with fresh water. To cook the beans, you should fill the pot you are going to cook the beans in with the soaked (or just dry) beans, and fill it with water to cover the beans by a good two inches. Bring to a gentle boil over medium heat, then simmer the beans until tender, adding fresh water as needed if it gets low. The cooking time will vary with the freshness of beans, but expect them to take anywhere from 1-2 hours. Just pop over and check one to see if it is tender to bite.

If you are going to be cooking beans, I say you might as well cook more than you need because it doesn’t take any longer to cook 6 cups then it does 1/2 a cup if you have a nice big pot. I freeze any extras in little baggies, then add them to soups, salads, refried with lime juice and cumin, and rolled into a burrito with butternut squash. I fell in love with these little white beans the first time I prepared them, they are just a great creamy texture to add to so many foods!

White Bean Pesto

I like to triple this recipe and keep plenty in the freezer in 1 cup portions to bring to school. It is also a great dip for a party, easy, quick, and simple enough to appeal to everyone.

1 1/2 c dried cannellini beans or white navy beans (alternative: 1 can, drained)
1/2 c Greek yogurt
1/4 c fresh basil
3 Tbsp basil pesto (check out my almond pesto recipe!)
2 cloves garlic
2 Tbsp lemon juice
zest of 1 lemon
1/4 tsp salt
3 Tbsp olive oil

1) If you remember, soak your beans overnight. Regardless of soaking, cook beans by bringing them to a gentle boil, then reducing to a simmer for 1-2 hours until tender. Rinse and cool if you have a glass blender (don’t want any temperature shock smashing the glass!).
2) If you have a large blender, put all the ingredients into the blender except the oil and pulse to combine. Drizzle in oil through the top and blend until smooth. If you have a magic bullet, split all the ingredients between two cups and blend. Take breaks to shake vigorously so everything gets mixed.
3) Taste your dip, and adjust the flavour according to your preferences. Feel free to add more garlic, lemon, or pesto!
4) Use within 3-5 days of making, or freeze in small containers.

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