My first "real" job out of university was at a large engineering company, and the most annoying part (for me) was packing a lunch. I became convinced that mediocre brown bag lunches were just part of the deal of adulthood, but this was woefully incorrect. With just a few condiments and spices hidden in my drawer, I could have taken my sad little lunches from "woefully bland" to "hey, this is actually edible."
All Around Good Guys
When packing a lunch, it's easy to focus on the main course (find great options for those here), and forget about the details like salt and pepper, but seasoning shouldn't be an afterthought. Good seasoning can be the difference between an enjoyable lunch break and something you suffer through. The below items can help out any brown bag (or fancy lunch box) meal, and should always have a spot in your little work pantry.
- Salt: There are two types of people in this godforsaken world: fancy salt lovers and people who think that fancy salt lovers are silly, silly people. As you probably could have guessed, I am a fancy salt lover (haters line up to the left), and have been known to eat large flakes of pyramid salt straight from the jar. Little tins of "artisinal" sodium chloride are very much a thing. Pink Himalayan offerings are a favourite of mine, but lately I've found myself using a garlic salt grinder on everything.
- Pepper: Those stale little paper packets of "pepper" you find in so many cafeterias bring little to the table. The solution is simple: get a pepper grinder. You can find them at pretty much any grocery store.
- Crushed Red Pepper: Need to add some spicy pungent flavour to, well, anything? Look no further than crushed red pepper. Not only is it easy to store, it is cheap, and good on almost anything.
- Lemons and Limes: Citrus fruits are super versatile, and their acidic juice can help brighten everything from takeout tacos to afternoon tea. Plus, they don't need to be refrigerated, and stashing a few in your desk will make your whole cubicle smell divine. (You could also put them in a cute little bowl on your desk; a bowl of lemons can be as pretty as a vase of flowers.)
You could stop right here, and already you would be on your way to a much more delicious lunch hour. But keep going, there are more tasty upgrades to be had.
Dress Up Your Sandwiches
Sandwiches are perhaps the most ubiquitous brown bag lunch, and they can either be really excellent or really sad. A good sandwich is worth it's weight in truffles, and these are the things you should keep in your desk to spruce yours up.
- Mustard: Luckily, mustard is pretty stable at room temperature (unless it contains fruit or vegetables) so you can stash a jar away in a drawer and spread it on at the last moment, preventing soggy, mustard-soaked bread. I'm all about French's yellow, but consider getting something a little fancier for an extra special mid-day meal, like whole-grain or something with horseradish.
- Vinegar: I have been told that I'm a bit too enthusiastic when it comes to acetic acid in my food, but I can't imagine and Italian sub without a bit of vinegar. Red wine vinegar is a classic sandwich choice, but a good quality balsamic can perform double (or triple) duty. Not only is the sweet, fruity vinegar great on a sub, it works well as a salad dressing, or even drizzled over fresh fruit.
If you do happen to have access to a fridge, you can get really fancy. Mayo, pickles, and pepperoncinis are some of my favourite choice sandwich toppings.
Transform Your Takeout
You would think that grabbing something to-go would take care of all of your lunchtime needs, but takeout food often falls short when it comes to extras. While a restaurant may have a bottle of hot sauce at every table, it's doubtful that the same courtesy is extended to your to-go order. (Note: All of the below can also be used to add flavour and pizzazz to frozen meals, but the best way to deal with Lean Cuisine is to just avoid it entirely.)
- Utensils: Keeping a set of real flatware not only makes your meal feel a little more special, it also means you won't have to wrestle with flimsy, breakable forks (or sporks) while enjoying your Pad Thai or kale Caesar salad. You could get a cute little bamboo set if you wish, but I recommend just bringing a regular fork, knife, and spoon from home.
- Soy Sauce: Takeout Chinese food is a thing of wonder, but the little soy sauce packets that come with your meal can sometimes be a little too salty. A good soy sauce should be savoury, but salinity is only part of the flavour profile and a rich, umami-packed fermented goodness should accompany the sodium. Of course, there's no reason you can't stash a smallish bottle of your favourite brand in dark, cool desk drawer, as soy sauce will stay good for about a month out of the fridge.
- Hot Sauce: Hot sauce is a transformative condiment that can make even the blandest of dishes a joy to eat, and you should never be without it. The spicy stuff usually inspires fierce brand loyalty, and I would never tell you what brand to use. Tabasco, and you can always grab a refillable Sriracha2Go and take hipster ketchup with them wherever you go. (Nothing wrong with full-sized bottles, but the minis let you fit more into your drawer, which means variety, and variety is the spice of lunch.)
You don't need an entire pantry's worth of sauces, but a few small bottles won't take up much room, and will greatly increase your quality of lunch. If you have the option, out-of-drawer perishables you might want to consider include ponzu sauce, fish sauce, and sambal oelek (fresh chilli paste).
Spruce Up Your Salad
The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing me to buy pre-packaged salads. They lure you in by looking ok, but the lettuce is always flavourless and the toppings are usually uninspired. If you find yourself the victim of such a salad, do not panic. These flavorful add-ins may not be able to transform your iceberg into butter lettuce, but they can at least distract you from sub-par greens and turn this lapse in judgment into something edible.
- Olive Oil: Drop the off-brand packet of ranch and drizzle on some good stuff. Go for something extra-virgin and cold-pressed which, in this day and age, shouldn't be too hard to find in whatever grocery store you frequent. (If you need some direction, check out this taste test from Bon Appetit.) This liquid gold is great on salads (especially when paired with a little acid such as vinegar or lemons) but can also be drizzled over leftover veggies, or stirred into rice dishes, or smeared on sandwiches for extra richness.
- Nuts: When I had a 9 to 5, I was never without a tin of nuts. Almonds, walnuts, and pecans all make great snacks, but they also add texture, flavour, and nutrition to a bowl of otherwise uninspired greens. Want to really take it up a notch? Get something candied or spicy. (And never look back, my friend. Never look back.)
- Nutritional Yeast: It may not have a sexy name, but trust me when I say the a little nooch makes everything better. Though it's often marketed as a "cheese sub" for vegans, everyone should learn to love this yellow flake. It's nutty, savoury flavour gives an instant boost to whatever it touches, but it's particularly helpful with sad salads. (It also makes a great addition to your afternoon microwave popcorn.)
You don't need to go crazy and buy a Costco-sized jar of nuts or a barrel of olive oil; but bringing in an aliquot of your at-home EVOO supply can go a long way. (Your fridge friends on this are capers, pitted olives, and shredded parm. All pack a great savoury punch that will be greatly appreciated in a pre-packaged salad.)
Ah, the aftermath. It's all well and good to douse your midday meal with garlicky hot sauce, but a little after-lunch hygiene will help you in your corporate quest win friends and influence people. No one wants to be the guy with soup on their tie (or lady with sauce on her blouse) so keep a few wipes or a Tide Stain Pen around for damage control. Also, don't ignore your mouth. I always like to have some floss and small bottle of mouthwash on hand. (Don't forget mints. Nobody complains about the guy who always has mints.)
So those are my recommendations for your desk drawer (and a couple for the office fridge). Just a few choice items can take your lunch game from "bearable" to "enviable" and greatly improve the quality of your midday break, and -- considering most of your lunches are eaten at work -- you deserve it. In the words of Retta, Patron Saint of Self Care: Treat. Yo. Self.