Meal prep the way to an ideal lunch

Li Anlan
The COVID-19 outbreak has changed many people's routines, among them their eating habits.
Li Anlan

The COVID-19 situation has brought changes to people’s routines and lifestyles, and one of these changes is how it has encouraged more people to prepare their own meals and have packed lunches. Many of them had been used to eating in restaurants or order takeouts.

“I started to make my own lunches since we resumed working in the office in February. It’s time-consuming for sure but it’s the safe thing to do during this special time.

“I bought special lunch boxes and cutlery and I prepare my lunch for the next day in the evening after dinner and put it in the fridge. We have a microwave in the office to heat up the food, and eventually I grew accustomed to this new lifestyle and I’m feeling a lot better when eating cleaner, nutritionally balanced meals,” said Fiona Lu, an office worker in the city’s Jing’an District who used to have lunch in nearby restaurants before the pandemic.

Meal prep is a way to eat healthy and well-portioned meals by preparing everything in advance. It’s usually done at the weekend so every morning you only need to grab a box of prepared lunch from the freezer and simply heat it up for lunch during your break. It’s like making better freezer meals from scratch.

Meal prep the way to an ideal lunch

The COVID-19 outbreak has encouraged more people to bring lunch to work.

A jumpstart to meal prep

In China, packed lunches are typically prepared in the morning or the night before to preserve freshness, frozen meals are not as popular in Chinese culinary culture as in the West. To save time, people would portion out some food from dinner to pack as lunch the next day or have everything cut and ready before bed so a quick stir-fry can be made in minutes in the morning.

There are many benefits of preparing lunches: healthier food, better ingredients, safer in terms of hygiene, environmentally friendly (no disposable containers or cutlery) and of course, saving money.

An ideal lunch is made of three basic elements: grain, vegetable and protein, providing balanced nutrition and flavor while keeping the body full and satisfied on busy workdays.

Rice and similar cooked grains like quinoa are easy to make and pack, the textures of which wouldn’t change much after storing in airtight containers. Not all noodles are suitable to pack after cooking because the starch content would make them stick together and soggy. However, harder textured noodles like udon, soba and spaghetti can be used as cooked carbohydrates.

Steamed potatoes, taro and sweet potatoes are alternative staple options that can add more fiber to the meal.

You can also pack tortilla and pita bread separately in a resealable bag. When it’s time for lunch, simply heat up the vegetable and protein filling and make fresh wraps easily.

Meal prep the way to an ideal lunch

Packing homemade lunch is cheaper, safer and healthier.

Stir-fry is a simple, convenient way to cook vegetables and protein. The food is cooked through, seasoned well and can last longer as a packed lunch. But stir-fried green leafy vegetables may become too soft when they are sealed in containers and overcooked after heating up in the microwave. Ingredients such as broccoli, carrot, bamboo shoots and green beans are better to preserve shape and taste.

Stronger-flavored protein like certain types of seafood may develop an unpleasant fishy smell and taste after the cooked ingredients are cooled down and reheated.

A poke bowl is a great packed lunch idea. It’s layers of cooked grain (rice, quinoa and such), vegetables (like cucumber, tomato, carrot and onion) and protein stacked together and served chilled or at room temperature.

There is a tip about preparing a poke bowl as lunch in advance, it’s best to avoid raw fish, shrimp or scallops as the protein choice because they cannot be kept fresh for hours without refrigeration. Cooked chicken, beef, fish and tofu are safer to bring to work.

It’s also a good idea to pack some fruit, from grapes, oranges to watermelon cubes and pineapple slices.

The containers

Heatproof, leakproof glass containers are ideal for packed lunches. They are easy to clean, odor free and microwave safe.

Containers made of high-quality plastic are also popular, which often feature cute designs and chic colors to make packing lunch more enjoyable.

Sauces and dressings are best packed in separate, leakproof containers so that the food won’t become soggy over time.

New Zealand brand Sistema has a series of microwavable containers that can actually cook different foods accordingly, such as the egg cookers, steamers, soup mugs and more.

For people who don’t have access to a microwave in the office, there are portable, electronic lunch boxes that can heat up the food after plugging in the power. However, these compartmented lunch containers are larger and heavier, while the space for food is also limited.

Meal prep the way to an ideal lunch

Electronic lunch box can heat up the food by plugging in the outlet.

Small appliance brands such as Morphy Richards have some handy tools like a portable wireless blender that allows people to make fresh smoothies on the go by packing fresh fruit, milk, yoghurt and more.

A mason jar is a great container to pack lunches in when you are bringing a simpler meal like salad, a poke bowl and even noodle soup. They are light in weight and easy to clean, though not quite suitable to pack food that needs to be heated in microwave since the metal lid cannot go in there.

The best part of packing salad in a mason jar is that you can just add in the dressing, close the lid and shake it so it’s well-coated over the food, saving the trouble of mixing by hand.

Meal prep the way to an ideal lunch

Salad packed in mason jar.

You can make healthy instant noodle cups with heatproof mason jars that can be ready in minutes after pouring in hot water. The basic elements of mason jar instant noodles are soup base (miso paste, curry paste, or basic seasoning combination of soy sauce, garlic chili sauce or others), noodles, protein (like cooked chicken or egg) and some vegetables and herbs. Stacking the elements in the order of soup base, protein, vegetables, noodle and herb can keep things organized and in better shape.

For noodles that must be cooked in boiling water, cook them in advance (avoid overcooking though), mix in a little bit of oil to avoid sticking and pack in the jar. Noodles like vermicelli can be packed in the jar uncooked as they are ready to eat after adding the hot water.

There are also numerous mason jar dessert recipes, such as fruit parfait, oatmeal and strawberry cake.

Meal prep the way to an ideal lunch

Leakproof, heatproof mason jars are a handy, lightweight container option to pack salads, desserts and even rice or soup noodle dishes.

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