Just because the expense-account lunch is largely a thing of the past doesn't mean that you can't still enjoy the meal, even celebrate it. Instead of depending on the kindness of menus, use a little homespun imagination.
Thinking outside the lunch box is probably the best way of getting anything good inside it.
In the comfort of your own kitchen, you can compose a lunch that's tasty, well-constructed, a bit off the beaten PB&J track -- and, most important, portable. Imagine that you're packing a picnic.
Lunch is more fun if you think pragmatically. You don't have to have seen Monty Python's "The Meaning of Life" to know not to pack items that might pose a health risk. Avoid fragile things like delicate cookies and, yes, potato chips. Don't dress salads in advance -- carry a container of dressing separately -- and don't pre-cut fruits or vegetables that will brown or dry out -- pack them whole and include a paring knife.
Even if you use a Thermos, don't include items that need to be served very hot or very cold. And think about how the components of the meal work together over time: Very few dishes taste better when they're soggy.
One that does is a pan bagnat, a pressed baguette sandwich that actually gets better the longer it sits. Take a tip from bakers and South American street vendors and make a batch of empanadas, a tasty one-dish meal enclosed within whole-wheat pastry. Or use a Thermos and have hot soup for lunch.
For dessert, pack a piece of ripe fruit or a handful of grapes; add a bar of 70% chocolate or some biscotti. And to drink, instead of grabbing soda from a vending machine, decant some fizzy water into a reusable bottle and add a few slices of lime, blend a quick smoothie or even pack a small bottle of wine (when appropriate). A carton of milk, anyone?
A few tips to think about: Pack smart so that the contents of your lunch don't get squashed or leak. Use recyclable containers, or better, containers that you take home and reuse. Pick food that can withstand a few hours without refrigeration (or include an ice pack). And remember that aesthetics count: Both school kids and adults are more likely to eat and enjoy their lunch when it looks appealing, so packaging things well is worth a little extra time.
Finding a cool-looking lunchbox is worth it too. Score a retro lunchbox at a vintage shop, find an outdoorsy pack at a store like REI or L.L. Bean (they're often insulated and double as great camping gear), or surf the Web for something fun on EBay or www.lunchboxes.com. Although paper bags have an old-fashioned panache, they tend to tear easily and can break under the weight of heavy contents.
Here are some ideas for what to pack for lunch (sorry, no bologna or PB&J):
1. A pan bagnat sandwich, wrapped in plastic and parchment or waxed paper.
2. A dandelion greens and goat cheese empanada (or two).
3. Fill a small Thermos with black bean and chorizo soup, then add a small container of salsa verde and a bag of cumin toasts.
4. Pack your own charcuterie plate in a box by wrapping up slices of your favorite salumi: prosciutto, Spanish chorizo, maybe some jamón serrano or even lomo if you can find it. Then add a little container of cornichons, another of whole-grain mustard and some slices of baguette.
5. A crusty baguette, thinly sliced jambon de bayonne, some sweet butter and a little Maldon sea salt.
6. The night before, make a batch of calzones filled with burrata and tomatoes. Add a container of fresh pesto for dipping.
7. Make simple spring rolls by rolling up in rice paper romaine lettuce, julienned carrot and daikon, grilled tofu (or cooked shrimp if you have the option to refrigerate your lunch) and some fresh mint and basil. Pack a container of peanut sauce for dipping.
8. Even if you don't have a Thermos you can still have soup for lunch: Make some gazpacho, which is great at room temperature. Pack slices of avocado, some cilantro and a small container of sour cream or yogurt.
9. Pack a lunch with a Middle Eastern spin: Include small containers of hummus and baba ghanouj, pita toasted with a bit of cumin, a container of diced tomatoes and cucumbers, and some good marinated olives.
10. To go with a sliced bagel, include fillings packed separately so the bagel doesn't get soggy: a container of cream cheese (mix in some chopped chives, freshly ground black pepper, minced cilantro or capers), slices of red onion and cucumber and some lox or smoked salmon.
11. Make a big frittata (using chard and goat cheese) the night before -- with salad, a lovely dinner -- then pack a large slice of it for lunch the next day. Include a small container of diced tomatoes to sprinkle on top.
12. Chilled soba noodles, a container of dipping sauce, some minced nori and a handful of scallions.
13. Mix up a big batch of lentil salad the night before (it can last you throughout the week, as can many soups): Cook French green or beluga lentils, add some chopped parsley, crumbled feta cheese, sherry vinaigrette and black pepper to taste. Pack a handful of mâche or arugula separately and stir into the salad just before eating.
14. Breakfast for lunch: pack a Thermos of plain Greek yogurt, a container of granola, a little jar of honey, a bag of fresh berries and maybe a shaker of cinnamon.
15. Throw extra vegetables (sliced bell peppers, red onions, zucchini, eggplant) on the fire some night when you're grilling dinner, then make a pressed sandwich with the grilled vegetables, goat cheese mixed with fresh herbs, and a balsamic vinaigrette.
16. Make a batch of empanadas (No. 2), but add sliced ham and grated Gruyère to the filling instead of dandelion greens.
17. Compose a cheese plate in your lunchbox: Wrap a wedge of three of your favorite cheeses -- Manchego, a chevre, maybe smoked Gouda, probably not a blue considering the closed environment -- then add half a baguette, an apple or pear and a handful of Marcona almonds. Be sure to include a cheese knife.
18. For a retro lunch, fill a Thermos with tomato soup, wrap up a cheese panini or grilled cheese sandwich (thinly sliced country white bread; half Gruyère, half Fontina; a smear of whole grain mustard), add a Granny Smith apple and a spoon.
19. Try making onigiri, "the PB&J of Japan," for lunch: Form a ball of sushi rice around an umeboshi (pickled plum) or crab salad, then wrap with nori (seaweed). Or consider packing the nori separately and do the wrapping just before you eat, so the seaweed doesn't get soggy.
20. Vary No. 14 by mixing a cup of muesli with milk and, if it's not already in the muesli, some golden raisins and toasted almonds. Sprinkle sliced strawberries or a handful of blackberries on top. By lunchtime, the muesli will have absorbed the milk and be beautifully creamy in texture.
21. Pasta salad idea No. 1: farfalle pasta, halved cherry tomatoes, feta cheese, fresh parsley, torn basil and toasted pine nuts.
22. Cook up a stack of crepes the night before or even days ahead of time (they freeze nicely too, separated by wax paper). Wrap up three or four of them, and pack with a container of sautéed apples and a few slices of prosciutto.
23. For a tasty salad that won't wilt, pack a plastic bag of mixed greens, add separate containers of toasted walnuts and crumbled blue or goat cheese, a little jar of vinaigrette (walnut oil, sherry vinegar, a bit of mustard, salt and pepper). Then add a whole pear and a cutting knife; assemble at lunchtime.
24. Grill or roast salmon for dinner. Use leftovers (or make extra) and flake the cooked salmon into a container with cooked small potatoes, quartered cooked eggs, cooked beets, minced fresh dill and a mustard vinaigrette.
25. Pasta salad idea No. 2: penne, buffalo mozzarella, arugula-almond pesto, a handful of fresh arugula and toasted almonds.
26. Roast and peel whole bell peppers the night before (maybe while grilling). Stuff the peppers with a mixture of tuna, capers, red onion and parsley. Wrap in parchment for easier eating.
27. Make extra meatballs when you serve spaghetti and meatballs for dinner. Reheat the sauce the next morning, then pack four or five meatballs into a Thermos and cover with tomato sauce. Pack with a container of freshly grated Parmesan and a fork.
28. An apple, a container of almond butter to spread on the apple, raisins and spiced almonds.
29. Vary No. 23 by including with the bag of greens containers of feta cheese, diced tomatoes and cucumbers, Kalamata olives, and a red wine vinaigrette.
30. Make a big pot of white bean chili for dinner. The next morning, reheat some extra for the Thermos, pack with fresh cilantro, avocado and toasted croutons.
31. Make a pressed sandwich with cilantro-walnut pesto and buffalo mozzarella.
32. Pasta salad idea No. 3: orecchiette with sautéed mushrooms, cooked beans (borlotti, great Northern, or Christmas Lima if you have them) and minced sage. Pack a container of grated or shaved Parmesan.
33. Make extra wild rice on a night when you're having it for dinner, then mix the cooked rice with toasted hazelnuts or pine nuts, pomegranate seeds, fresh herbs and a little olive oil and sherry vinegar.
34. Stuff a whole-wheat pita with falafel. Add separate containers of finely chopped romaine, tomato and cucumbers, and tahini dressing to assemble at lunchtime.
35. Pack a few flatbreads with a container of white bean hummus, another of sautéed greens and a shaker of Aleppo or cayenne pepper. Either assemble into a sandwich at lunch, or just dip the bread into the hummus and eat the greens with a fork.
36. Make homemade veggie sushi with a bowlful of sushi rice, some sheets of nori and slices of carrots, cucumbers and tofu. Pack chopsticks and some soy sauce packets. Include wasabi and pickled ginger if you have any.
37. Pack some toasted baguette slices with a container of fava bean purée, another of Greek yogurt (add a little sea salt) and a plastic bag of fresh cilantro.
38. Make a pressed sandwich with fresh burrata, heirloom tomatoes and lots of fresh basil.
39. After dinner, take leftover bread, tear it into pieces and toast it in olive oil with garlic and a few minced chiles. The next morning, put the croutons in a plastic bag with chopped tomatoes, red onion and minced fresh herbs (the flavors will blend and the croutons will soften). In another bag, put salad greens. At lunch, mix the contents for panzanella(Italian bread salad).
40. Make a batch of roasted red pepper soup the night before. Pack (hot or chilled) into a Thermos with a container of Greek yogurt, a shaker of sumac or Aleppo pepper and a sprig of fresh mint.
And on some days -- if you've made a really good batch of empanadas, say, or a pot of soup you're particularly proud of -- maybe make enough for two and offer to share your lunch with a friend or co-worker. Turn on some music and unfold the napkins. Sometimes lunchboxes can fit a lot more than lunch inside.