Once upon a time, everyone had a lunch brought from home. Don’t quibble. You know what I mean. From kids with lunch pails to elegant Edwardian picnics in the park, from a pasty in a mineshaft to a packet of sandwiches on a train, food was there if you brought it. And bringing it involved your own kitchen.
When I was in junior high, I believe, I started making lunches for the four of us kids to take to school. It was a formulaic lunch, with a sandwich of some inexpensive lunchmeat or tuna, fruit, and the add-ons of chips or veggies or cookies or other dessert. We went to bread stores for good bread (which we froze to take any staleness out of it), cheap snack packs of potato or corn chips, and occasional junk food desserts. The cookies were homemade, of course, and rationed.
We were perhaps more than ambivalent about the lunches. The fact that we carried them to school marked us as different, poor probably, but definitely different. That was reinforced by the fact that we never, ever, got baloney in our sandwiches (although Vienna sausages from the can were a favorite. The can made four sandwiches, as I recall.) We always had wheat bread, too, except for sourdough or rye from time to time.
Lunch tables are one place where children learn social graces, it is said, and certainly it is a place that teaches pecking order. School lunch tables are as socially segregated as you can get, so I found myself with the other country kids more often than not. When I read Girl of the Limberlost in high school, I fell in love with the lunch kit in the story – a kit I could only imagine. And I knew even then that unpacking it at the high school I attended would result in even surer social banishment than the unobtrusive paper sack I carried.
As an adult, my efforts have ranged from throwing bread, cheese, and juice for a no-fuss picnic into a bag, to trying to create at home the ingredients for what I now consider a good lunch. Laurel’s Kitchen opened my eyes to the real possibilities of such a lunch, but I read it when I had small kids, and apparently digested it in small bits. In the book, one of the women is packing the lunch for her husband, full of small containers of wonderful things, tailored to help him put on the weight he needed and offering flavors he loved. It dawned on me (as with so many other dawns, this comes more than once in my lifetime) that I wasn’t just throwing things together to get people out of the house, I was actually feeding the people I love!!
So the lunch compromise has become one of having a limited time in the morning (usually) to do something wonderful and important. It results in my having a formula again (makes life easier if your recipient is one who can stand the same thing more than once a month…) and trying to fill each slot with things that originate in my kitchen, not a grocery bin: sandwich (preferably leftover meat or egg salad with greens), a quartered apple or grapes or other finger fruit, yogurt, crackers (compromise on chips – pita or tortilla chips made in the oven are great but you have to pack them in a large rigid container), and optional sweet. That’s the drill. Some days cherry tomatoes or carrot and celery sticks make it into the pail. The list of ingredients changes. The bread is the star when Steven has gone north to Marquette and brings us the Huron Mountain stuff. Sometimes I bake cookies or granola bars. Homemade yogurt is all we use any more (except for occasional decadent treats from that one good dairy whose name I forget!) so sometimes we’re between batches.
Steven appreciates the meanest lunch I make – on a day when I have to use store meat, store bread, and there’s no yogurt or dessert – more than a drive-through or “store” meal from town. As many people do, he likes the flavors of home, where I know he’d prefer yellow mustard to Dijon and spinach to lettuce on the sandwich, and where the spinach (being one of the crops most heavily impacted by pesticides) is organic because we intend to grow old together.
Having my formula ingredients on hand means no thought is necessary in the morning. (I do breakfast the same way: oatmeal, egg, oatmeal, egg, oatmeal, weekend.) It means I get to give the gift of pleasing my sweetie every day. It means one less bit of feedlot flop in a once-pristine feeder creek in Iowa, ten minutes less idling in a drive-through, and less of my ingredients thrown away because instead of using them we spent extra money in town for stuff we don’t like as well. It also means we can spend lunch hours in the park, watching herons, walking, or listening to the Tigers. (Homemade lunches are also less money for better quality, but that’s kind of a given.)
So I invite you to try this. If you’re not a bag lunch person, is it because you didn’t like the PBJ your folks made you haul on hikes? You’d rather have a hot meal? Special diet? No refrigerator at work? You know those issues are easily overcome in today’s modern and complex consumer society.
Start easy. Bring leftovers if you have a microwave in the break room. Once the rest of the staff smells them, it’s likely they’ll follow your example, at least sometimes. Leftover lasagna beats burger doodle. From there, you can move to the lighthearted picnic described above – bread, cheese, juice.
Or go to the Salad Plus plan and bring greens to mix with leftover meat and veggies, cheese, fruit, or whatever. Don’t stress, just do it. It’s much more likely to make a difference in your life than you think.
And when possible, eat it with someone you care for. That’s the secret sauce.