Collection of plastic to-go containers filled with foods.

Article by: Brad Barnes, CMC

Over the years, all of us have struggled at one time or another with the idea of making our lunch, the kids’ lunches, camp snacks, or even a great picnic. The actual process of creating and producing a lunch on a daily basis that tastes great, looks good, holds well, and nourishes presents some challenges. Most of these challenges can be handled with good planning and organization. So here are some simple guidelines—based on systems I learned during my many years of running professional kitchens—that you can follow to get that next great meal ready to hit the road.

Plan Your Menus

  • Write down your menus when you are fresh and excited; find a time when you are feeling creative and a bit hungry.
  • As chefs, we write our menus several weeks in advance and rerun them on a cyclical basis; this system works just as well in your home kitchen.
  • Don’t create too much work for yourself. Combine ready-to-eat and fresh handmade items with homemade items you’ve previously prepared in a large batch.
  • Think of colors and shapes in each lunch. Hunger is triggered in part by visual stimulation. Colorful fruits, vegetables, legumes, and fresh herbs will make your lunches appetizing to the eye.
  • Pay attention to how easy it is to eat an item in a given situation or location. Remember, eating is an experience, and messy is not fun! (Ever pull a chip bag so hard it explodes?)
  • Involve your customers—ask the kids what they love to eat. If they have a hand in the design of the menus, they may eat more of what’s in their lunch and get the nourishment you plan for them.

Stock Your Storeroom

  • Create a stock list that you use to keep needed items on hand. There are apps for your smartphone or iPad that support really organized lists.
  • Stock your cabinets, freezer, and refrigerator, and buy in bulk when possible. Mayo, mustard, and ketchup are very efficiently purchased in bulk, usually at about half (or more than half) of the price of individual containers.
  • Rotate your stock, putting the new behind the old so your ingredients stay fresh. Chefs call this first in, first out—FIFO.
    When it’s time to grocery shop, look through your stock list, take an inventory of what you already have, and make a list of what you’re missing.

Prep Your Lunches—and their Ingredients

  • Large batch cooking can be a big help. For instance, most salad dressings have good shelf life, and soups and stews hold and travel well (or can be frozen for later use), so make plenty.
  • Build sandwiches the right way, in this order: bread, waterproof ingredients (like cheese and lettuce), meat and dressings in the middle, more waterproofing, and then bread again. This way, all the ingredients keep their integrity during travel.
  • When you have leftovers, use them up as part of your plan. Stale bread makes croutons for salad or dipping sticks for hummus. There’s always a bit left over from last night’s roast chicken, so turn it into roast chicken, olive, and artichoke salad.

Make the Most of Ready-To-Eat Items

  • Use ready-to-eat products to supplement your own handmade specialties. There are hundreds available in almost any good food store, from olives to nuts to dried fruits to dips.

Pack Wisely

  • Get packaging that supports your food best. There’s nothing like pickle juice soaking your lunchbox or mayo all over your apple! We don’t want to create more garbage, but your food must be kept fresh and sealed to promote cleanliness as well as food safety.
  • As much as possible, take advantage of reusable packaging. There are many great small containers that can be used and washed, so make them part of your lunch kit.

Make it Healthy

  • Provide a variety of grains, nuts, vegetables, fruits, and starches, watch added salt, and, of course, keep portion sizes appropriate for the meal.
  • Read product labels. Avoid or limit the use of products high in sodium or calories, and favor products that use good fats.
  • Explore global flavors. The world offers exciting spices, tropical fruits, cheeses, and more. All keep well, are healthful, and add variety to lunch life!

Make it Special

  • Little notes, like a riddle or a thought, to the person eating the meal will keep lunchtime special and heighten the senses.
  • Drawing funny faces on bananas with a water-based, nontoxic marker can be real fun!
  • When we make food for others, we are showing the most refined love there is. If you try and infuse that sentiment in everything you prepare, great things happen.

We all want to prepare great food, feel creative, and support our family’s wellness. The quality of food we buy and the way we choose our ingredients is really important. But the effort we go to in creating deliciousness “to go” is wasted if it is not fresh and well cared for during the time it sits in the locker, the drawer, or the cooler. There’s no substitute for good organization and planning when it comes to producing great food on the move.

Certified Master Chef Brad Barnes is director of food enthusiast programs for the CIA and is a 1987 graduate of the college.