When I worked full time, I logged the occasional work-from-home day maybe once per week, starting my morning with coffee, emails, and a pot of stone-ground grits simmering on the stove.
Topped with a crispy fried egg, a shower of grated cheese, or last night’s roasted veggies, a big bowl of grits made for a great working brunch that would tie me over til quitting time, when I’d make dinner.
It was a nice respite from rushing out the door for work with a smoothie in one hand, and a Tupperware container full of leftovers in the other.
Now that I’ve been working the freelance hustle full time for a few months, I’ve realized how useful, if monotonous, the structure imposed by 9-to-5 employment could be for meals.
It forced me to plan ahead so that I’d have lunch to bring with me for the next day or two, and it was simple to make the end of my office workday a hard stop, with evenings free to prep favorite standbys or try new recipes.
As a freelancer, I’ve noticed my tendency to overcommit and prioritize deadlines before feeding myself well during the workday – but it doesn’t have to be like that.
I’ve found that when I’m working just down the hall from (or sometimes in) my own kitchen, I have to prep ingredients that will keep me from getting bogged down with making meals in the middle of my workday, when deadlines loom or meetings with clients require me to be somewhere in the outside world, arriving on time in something other than my pajamas.
Here are my top five essential components for pulling together healthy, speedy, and delicious work-from-home lunches that go beyond run-of-the-mill salads and sandwiches. For a full menu of ideas, check out our curated quick-but-healthy lunch round-up here.
In addition to the ingredients below, I recommend keeping your fave healthy snacks – nuts, whole grain crackers, fresh and dried fruit, homemade granola – and the makings of your favorite smoothies on hand to carry you through until dinner.
Of course, the omnivore’s most versatile food is at the top of this list. And there are so many different ways to prepare eggs.
I soft cook pasture-raised eggs a half-dozen at a time using a steaming method – an inch of water plus the eggs in the pot to start, bring to a boil, cover, and cook for five minutes. Then remove the eggs and plunge into cold water to stop the cooking. Peel under running water or while submerged.
I tend towards soft-boiled eggs with a runny yolk (or a creamy-but-not-liquid yolk if I don’t get the timing perfect – still delicious), but hard boiled or poached eggs can also be done in advance.
If you do have a few minutes to spend at the stove, I recommend a crispy-fried egg to top sandwiches, grain or salad bowls, leftovers, and more.
But for me, soft boiling is the best way to highlight pastured eggs’ deep golden yolks, and the liquid yolk can be used to dress a salad, smother toast, or dip blanched or crispy, oven-baked green beans – which leads me to…
Whether your produce comes from a CSA box, farmers market haul, or supermarket shopping trip, it pays to prep your plant foods in advance so they’re ready to do their duty on a busy workday or evening.
Wash and dry salad and hardy greens, then pack them into plastic storage bags or loosely closed plastic lidded containers with a paper towel liner. This way, they’ll stay fresh longer and are ready to toss, chop, blend, or cook when you need them.
If you are washing in advance, keep in mind that fresh greens will spoil more quickly – plan to use them up in a couple of days. Or, wait to wash until just before use to extend their life even more – a quick rinse followed by a run through the salad spinner shouldn’t interrupt your workday too much.
Consider which veg can be served raw (i.e. green beans, slim asparagus stalks, bell peppers, fennel, even kohlrabi raw for some juicy crunch, though it’s quick and delicious when fried too) and keep them in mind for salads and grain bowls that need a quick infusion of freshness and satisfying texture.
For cooked veggies, my preferred method is pan roasting (when it’s not too hot in my apartment), or steaming.
On that note: mushrooms are such an underutilized yet glorious ingredient. The next time you see them at the market, try maitakes, a.k.a. hen of the woods, for big, meaty flavor.
To roast your veg, toss with olive oil and salt, add spices if you wish, and bake at around 375°F, checking and stirring the pan every 10 minutes or so until the veggies are cooked to your liking.
Your vegetables are now ready to fill out a grain bowl, or add flavor and texture to a quesadilla sprinkled with…
A crumble of feta, a swirl of labneh or fromage blanc, or shavings of young Pecorino can transform a ho-hum dish into an inspiring midday meal.
I try to keep a hard or aged cheese, a soft cheese like Brie or creamy chevre, and a feta on hand.
Feta packed in brine will keep well as long as it’s submerged in the liquid in its container, so it’s a great choice to stock for crumbling on slaws, salads, bowls, and other dishes.
You’ll notice that I say very little about sandwiches in this piece. Mine is not a cold cuts household, and therefore I only ever make sandwiches of the grilled or panini variety at home.
Keeping a good variety of cheeses around allows you to keep your grilled cheeses fresh. Try mixing cheese types for an added boost of flavor.
The following spreads, add-ins, and veggie additions will also take your melt from so-so to spectacular:
- sliced cured meats
- fresh or roasted veggies
- leafy greens like spinach
- sprouts like sunflower shoots
Cheese can be cubed, shaved, or crumbled to add flavor, creaminess, and protein (and, if you’re using cheese made from 100% grass-fed milk, a good dose of omega-3s and CLAs, or conjugated linoleic acids) to all kinds of dishes, including…
Years ago, I worked at a bustling branch of Trader Joe’s – a place that I love deeply as a California-born woman, but where I rarely shop these days.
One of their convenience products that I would always scoff at is their frozen, microwave-ready rice. “Who doesn’t have time to cook rice?” I’d think. There’s even a set-it-and-forget-it machine that makes it perfectly for you!
While I won’t be paying a premium for par-cooked frozen bags of rice any time soon, I have come to love the convenience of frozen rice that just needs a minute or two stirred into a hot pot or in the microwave to be appropriately al dente and ready to eat.
To prepare your own lunch-ready bags at home, cook rice as you normally would (like I said, I definitely recommend a rice cooker). Fluff and let it cool, then spread in a thin layer on baking sheets to freeze until solid. Store in zip-top bags, label with the date, and stash in the freezer to use as needed, like for an easy meal of fried rice with sausage and veggies.
This method works especially well with brown rice as well as other cooked grains like wheat, rye, spelt, einkorn, and emmer (farro) berries, which retain their pleasantly chewy texture after freezing and reheating.
Pseudo-grains like quinoa (they’re actually seeds, but we eat them like grains!) can also be frozen this way.
Rice and grains like these – as well as the grits I mentioned above – provide the perfect canvas for an artfully composed lunch of proteins like meat, eggs, or fish and raw or cooked veggies, berries, seeds, nuts – you name it!
As an example, try our recipe for lemon chicken quinoa bowls to get a protein-rich fix of grains, chicken, and veggies.
But before you serve up your satisfying lunch, be sure to add a spoonful of…
5. Sauces, Dressings & Toppings
All those tasty ingredients are delicious, but sometimes it takes a little extra flavor to tie them together into a proper meal.
Aside from the usual condiments like whole-grain mustard, pickles, hot sauce, soy sauce, and kraut or kimchi (which I hope you keep on hand for just such a purpose), freshly made sauces and dressings can really elevate anything from freshly prepared panini and bowls to leftovers.
While pestos freeze well (try ice cube trays!), aioli – an emulsion of egg yolks, oil, and garlic that can be flavored a million ways – should be made fresh.
I like to use a flavor-infused vinegar – apple cider vinegar infused with sour cherry pits, or white vinegar tinted pink and given a savory onion flavor with the addition of chive blossoms. Homemade wine vinegars are also delicious in dressings.
Add a dash or two of molasses for an earthy flavor boost, and to keep the dressing uniform and emulsified.
A dollop of mayo will also serve this purpose for creamy dressings. As an alternative to shaking, you can also emulsify your dressing mixtures like a pro with a large balloon whisk.
Lunch is Served
Eating healthy meals at home is possible, even if you don’t have lots of time to prepare them. Just prep these ingredients at the beginning of the week, and think of your fridge as a staging area that holds the mise en place required to assemble a great lunch in a snap.
When the ingredients are already prepped and ready to go, you can combine them into whatever tasty combination strikes your fancy on a given day.
I hope these tips give you the inspiration to quickly and healthily fuel your freelance hustle. Don’t forget to share your favorite ways to feed yourself from your home office in the comments!
Photo credits: Shutterstock, unless otherwise noted.
About Alex Jones
Alex Jones is a local food consultant and writer based in Philadelphia. Evangelizing about local food is second nature to Alex, whether she’s working an artisan cheesemaker’s farmers market stand or developing growth strategies for her favorite small-scale artisans. Her favorite areas to work in currently are the artisan cheese and pastured meat supply chains. When she’s not working, Alex spends her time managing her usually-overstuffed fridge, growing vegetables, foraging for fruits around the city, playing tuba in a disco cover band, and hanging out with her partner Dr Thunder, Philadelphia’s karaoke superhero, and their two cats, Georgia and Li’l Mama. Alex’s favorite food is some kind of cheese on some kind of bread.