There are people out there who spend Sunday afternoons shopping for fresh vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins; cooking up big batches of healthy meals; and then portioning them out into containers to be taken to work for lunch. Doing that can go a long way toward living a healthier, more frugal life.
Not all of us have that kind of time or discipline, however. Many of us rely on packaged foods—frozen meals, cans of soup, etc.—to save us from the calories and expense of eating out every day.
But just because you’re being thrifty doesn’t mean you can’t upgrade your Lean Cuisine or Maruchan ramen into a more nutritious, delicious, and interesting lunch.
Here are some easy hacks to upgrade your packaged lunch:
Add fresh veggies: When you buy your lunch meals, also grab a package of prewashed greens, mini peppers, baby carrots, or other prepared veggies. Many packaged meals have a tremendously high amount of sodium, which can raise blood pressure, but adding a handful of prewashed baby spinach or serving some raw veggies on the side can provide a dose of potassium to counter that effect. Chop a few florets of broccoli or cauliflower and add them to a bowl of soup. Open your peanut butter and jelly sandwich and tuck in some celery sticks for extra crunch. Be creative! Got a mini frozen pizza for lunch? After heating, pile on some fresh raw greens and enjoy the contrast of the cool greens on the hot pizza.
Add frozen veggies: If your office has a freezer, lay in a supply of frozen peas, corn, or other veggies that you like. The nutritional quality of frozen vegetables is the same as fresh. Creamy frozen dishes like macaroni and cheese or pasta with Alfredo sauce cry out for a handful of frozen peas after cooking (the residual heat from microwaving will defrost and cook them). Bonus: the frozen veggies will cool down your food so you don’t burn your mouth on that first bite.
Drizzles and shakes: Keep small bottles of balsamic vinegar and olive oil at work. Balsamic adds a deep flavor to dishes without adding calories. And olive oil makes nearly anything taste better. Keep a collection of dried herbs and spice blends and shake some on to wake up flavors in packaged foods. A curry blend and a chile powder are good starters. Explore condiments such as miso, hot sauces, soy or tamari sauces, and curry pastes. A little dab of these can flavor a lot of food, so go easy at first until you find a good balance.
Add an egg: Stash a half dozen eggs in the office fridge at the beginning of the week and you’ll be set for the week. Eggs can add protein and richness to lots of dishes, especially soups. Ramen fans can crack an egg into the broth just as the hot noodles and broth come out of the microwave; the residual heat will cook the egg as the noodles sit and soften. Or try the egg-drop method—beat the egg with a fork and swirl it into hot soup, where it will cook nearly instantly.
Add fresh or frozen fruit: Got some instant oatmeal? Pump up the flavor and nutrition with a handful of frozen blueberries. Or slice a pear into a salad. Thin slices of apple can add an appealing sweetness and crunch to a turkey sandwich. Try some sliced grapes in a rice dish or a tuna salad.
Don’t settle for boring lunches—invent your own prepared food hacks and make your lunches healthier and more memorable.
Miriam Wolf is the editor of The FruitGuys Magazine newsletter.