Brown-Bag Lunches

Working part-time is a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, you have so much other free time to fill. On the other hand, you don’t have any money to, for example, buy lunch near your work when you have those long days. Packing your lunch is the most economical thing to do even when you CAN afford to buy a panini from the cafe, though, so here’s my recipe for brown-bag bliss:

I’ve found that the best packed lunches are actually a variety of more snack-like items. Pick one or two from each list, and I guarantee you’ll have a complete lunch that will fill you up, for even less than Applebees’ $7.99 lunch combos.

Protein:
Ham and Cheese roll-ups–Thick-sliced deli ham, with a thin-sliced deli cheddar, colby-jack, or swiss. Two or three roll-ups should be plenty.
String Cheese–There’s plenty of interesting options out there now! Kraft has flavored string cheese, with things like Tomato-Basil Mozzarella and Cracked Black Pepper Mozzarella. String Cheese isn’t just for kids anymore!
Hard-boiled Eggs–One or two, with a dash of black pepper, or salsa, or whatever else you like your eggs with, pack perfectly! Peel them and put them in a small Tupperware container; they have some at my dollar store that are perfectly sized for two eggs.

Carbs:
Wheat Thins–A single serving size of wheat thins (or Triscuit, or any other whole-grain cracker) pairs well with sliced cheese (or the cheese sticks I mentioned!).
Cold pasta salad–Or hot, for that matter, if you want to throw it in the microwave. Watch your portion sizes, and make sure it’s a side-serving, not an entree, unless it’s more veggies than pasta. Creamy pasta salads should be accent foods.
Whole grain sandwich–My favorite has hummus, tomato, and cucumber on it, which possibly also qualifies it for the veggies portion of the lunch!
Leftover Rice–I make for myself the Zatarains Rice Pilaf for dinner some nights, but I obviously can’t eat a whole box in one sitting, so I portion the remainder out to take to work the next few days. It microwaves hot in a minute or so, and is very filling.

Fruits and Veggies:
Carrot sticks (Or celery, or cucumber, or bell pepper!)–Don’t bother with more expensive pre-cut baby carrots. It only takes a few minutes to cut a 3-lb bag of carrots into large matchsticks. Portion them out into snack baggies, and collect the snack baggies into the original carrots bag. Five minutes of prep-work gives you an excellent grab-and-go snack! Pair with ranch dressing or (my favorite) hummus.
Apples, oranges, bananas, or pears–All of these are easy to grab and eat on the run, if your break involves walking anywhere.
Tomatoes, olive oil and pepper–A little on the messier side of the spectrum, this is nevertheless a delicious, ‘gourmet’ addition to lunch. Pack it in a small Tupperware, since a baggie will be difficult to eat out of. If you want to add to it, they sell pearl-sized mozzarella balls that you can add a tablespoon or so of. Extra-Virgin Olive Oil and fresh-cracked black pepper is best, but you can make do in a pinch.

A little of everything is the best way to fill you up and get a balanced diet. The vitamins in fresh fruits and veggies, plus the energy from the combined carbs and protein, will keep you going for hours longer than a microwave ‘lean-cuisine’ meal, and it’s even cheaper than going to McDonalds!

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Tea time!

Tea. The magical beverage of wonder–You have it hot, or iced, or sweet, or bitter, with or without milk, with tapioca bubbles, over rice, mixed with alcohol, mixed with lemonade…! Tea is honestly my best friend, and with all the studies relating green tea to weight loss, there’s little reason not to drink tea.

I will admit, green tea is my favorite. It is the one with the most known health benefits, and there are so many varieties, it’s easy to find a kind you like. I have two green teas in my ‘Tea Shelf’ at the moment–one is Lipton’s Orange, Passion Fruit and Jasmine Green Tea, and the other is Bigelow’s Green Constant Comment. I love them both. Constant Comment comes in two varieties, green and black, and both are lovely for a morning tea in the fall and winter, where the warm, spicy tea works best to wake you up and get you ready for the day. The Lipton variety I have is a perfect afternoon cuppa, and it’s delicious iced with a little bit of agave nectar for extra sweetness.

My eighth birthday was a tea party. I invited the girls to get all dressed up, and we decorated lavender sachets, drank tea from my mom’s gorgeous teacup collection, and played board games in our delicate lace gloves. It was loads of fun. Additionally, in the five or six years when my best friends came over every Wednesday after school, my mom would always let us drink tea from the nice teacups before we did our homework.

In all that time, I’ve sort of ‘acquired’ some tea tips:

  • Black, mint, and herb teas are better sweetened with sugar, fruit teas are better sweetened with honey or agave. My favorite tea is Bigelow’s Plantation Mint, which is spearmint and black tea, and I’ve discovered that it just tastes better with real sugar. It brings out the mint better than honey does. Green teas, on the other hand, plus my Chamomile tea, are lovely with honey, which has a softer sweetness to it.
  • When heating water for tea, don’t use a whistling kettle. It completely boils the water before it whistles, and boiling water makes tea taste sort of dull. Maybe it cooks the tea before it steeps it or something, but it’s just not as flavorful. I use an old kettle that I remember using as a kid for years. When wisps of steam start to make their way up the spout, it’s ready. The water is steaming, it’s heated enough. You get–shock!–a steaming cup of tea, without it being boiling hot. How novel.
  • Steep your tea in a teapot, even if you only plan on drinking one cup. The stacking single-serve teapot/cup sets are lovely for this. It makes it easier to get another cup if you decide you want one (and I always want another, even if I don’t want to want another), instead of pouring more hot water in a mug with a mostly spent tea bag.

I could prattle on about tea for ages. I’ve got seven boxes of tea in my room at the moment, about evenly distributed across the spectrum of tea varieties. I might have to list and ‘review’ them one day soon. Fall is coming–it’s almost Tea Season!

Maybe, some day, Oatmeal and I will get along.

Yesterday, I mentioned a long-standing feud that I have with Oatmeal. I don’t like oatmeal. I have never liked oatmeal, but I have to eat it because it’s healthy.

For the longest time, the mere sight of cooked oatmeal was mildly nauseating. I could handle oatmeal baths, oatmeal raisin cookies, no-bake cookies… But a regular bowl of oatmeal? Perish the thought. I made it a point to try it every few years. Before this week, the last time I tried oatmeal was three years ago, sitting down for a bowl of oatmeal at Starbucks when the shop in my school had a morning sale on it for the winter. I put all of the provided nuts, fruits, and brown sugar into it, plus some more sugar, and a little milk. I think I was trying to make it into an oatmeal cookie.

But I failed, and only choked down three or four bites before I gave up and, hating myself for wasting food, threw it away. Unwilling to repeat the embarrassing mistake, I avoided oatmeal like the plague for a while yet. I only purchased the Oat Revolution packets on the condition that my roommate would, should I discover that I found it entirely unpalatable, eat the rest for me.

Fortunately, with the help of some Kashi cereal for texture, I managed to choke down the first bowl. It was horrible, mostly because I made it in too shallow of a bowl, so it got weirdly crusty and tough. Recognizing my mistake, I didn’t entirely give up, but it was a few days before I tried again, this time in a smaller bowl. I added a half cup of dried berry mix I had gotten at Wal-Mart for that very purpose, and managed to eat the entire bowl with slightly less gagging.

I doubt I will ever truly enjoy it, but since oatmeal is one of the healthiest, most filling hot breakfasts you can find, I will continue to seek out ways to make it edible for me. Here is a list of ways I’ve found so far:

  • Add dried fruit, like cherries, blueberries, cranberries, raisins, and such.
  • Add fresh fruit, like diced apples, which hold their crunch well enough in the mush.
  • Add granola or cereal to oatmeal after cooking, to add texture and give you something to bite into.
  • Blend it into a smoothie.

Okay, I haven’t tried the last one, but I’m considering it. I’ll let you know how that goes!

My Budget Shopping List Staples

I think everyone has their own list of ‘staple’ foods to keep in the house. It’s largely based on what you’re into, what you like to eat, and what you can afford. There probably is, somewhere, a staple list that includes “Bread and Milk”, and that’s the long and short of it. But what about those who are lactose intolerant? Gluten intolerant? People who are cutting out HFCS?

My “Pantry Staples” list is constantly evolving, especially since I’ve been trying to eat more healthily. Originally, a loaf of bread was on my list. Since I started looking more closely at food labels, though, I’ve had to cut that off. Bakery bread is too expensive, and the wonderbread you get on the shelf generally contains as much preservatives as wheat. I’ve had to find alternatives, and it’s difficult on a budget, but I won’t compromise my health for my wallet.

It IS possible to eat healthily on a budget. They key is moderation, and know where you can spend your money and where to cut back. My staples diet list right now includes the following items:

Pasta. I know that overindulgence in grains is bad for you, but  since this is one of the cheaper bulks you can get, I feel justified in merely watching my intake. I keep an eye on the sales, and when the Barilla Plus or the Ronzoni Smart Taste pastas go on sale, I snag two or three boxes. For years, my “serving” of pasta consisted of 1/3-1/2 of a box thrown in a huge pot of water, then mixed with whatever was on hand. It took a lot of self-control and time to get to the point where one actual serving-size of pasta satisfied me, but I manage it, largely by pairing it with plenty of vegetables.

Speaking of vegetables, the next thing on my list is bags of frozen veggies. As a  fairly loyal Meijer shopper, I can only speak to their selection, but they have a decent variety of store-brand frozen vegetable mixes that pair well with my pasta, or with chicken, potatoes, eggplant Parmesan, or whatever else strikes your fancy. I stay away from their broccoli cuts, because experience tells me they aren’t that good, but their “Mexican” and “Parisian” blends are tasty and versatile.

Fresh veggies are also essential. Tomatoes, cucumbers, and, if on sale, bell peppers of all colors. Tomato, I do many things with. I could post entirely about the wonders of my favorite fruit/veggie magician, but suffice to say for now that, with the help of the cucumber and some hummus, tomato sammiches are amazing. Bell peppers chop up and freeze well to go into stir-fry and other amazing dishes.

Cheese is another thing that makes person-specific appearances. I have to have a bag of fancy shredded cheddar, and a block of pepper jack in my fridge almost at all times. I put it on pasta, potatoes, nachoes, crackers, in dips, and so on. I used to douse everything in cheese, but I’ve since learned that the one-ounce serving size works just as well for flavoring and adding some nutrients to my food. I buy full-fat cheese, except for mozzarella, because it’s like a seasoning, and I will be darned if I deprive myself of its whole deliciousness.

There are obviously a lot more things to my pantry than these, but in a pinch, if I can’t afford anything else, I make sure that’s what I have, because those are the things I never tire of eating. I’ve learned that is the key to being able to hold out on a little money. You COULD survive on Ramen, but if you get sick of it,you really are just surviving, instead of living. Instead, find some things that are inexpensive, that you can sustain on for a long time, and you’re good.